The Monday Agenda 10/21/2013

MondayAgendaNot a lofty, ambitious to-be-read list consisting of 100+ book titles. Just a simple plan for the upcoming week — what I’m reading now, what I plan to read next, and what I’m hoping to squeeze in among the nooks and crannies.

How did I do with last week’s agenda?

What with one thing and another, it’s been a pretty slow (but fun) reading week:

Longbournbad housesincrementalists

Longbourn by Jo Baker: Done! I loved this inside-out look at the world of Pride and Prejudice, as told from the perspective of the Bennets’ servants. My review is here.

Bad Houses by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil: Done! A quick and engaging graphic novel. My preview of this upcoming new release is here.

The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White: Still reading — about 70 pages to go. A lot of the virtual reality stuff is going pretty much over my head, but it’s still interesting and puzzling enough for me to keep going and see if I can make it all make sense.

The Expeditioners by S. S. Taylor: My read-aloud book with my son — going great! I think we have another week or two to go.

Fresh Catch:

I’m still trying to be good and stick to the plan of finishing off all my current (and a teeny bit late) review books before digging into all the new books begging to be read. Meanwhile, two of my requests came in at the library this week:

The Rosie ProjectRASL

Two very different books, but I’m looking forward to both!

What’s on my reading agenda for the coming week?

Still sticking with my commitment to focus on review copies, this week I’ll be reading:

incrementalistsgood wife
Reality BoyParasite (Parasitology, #1)

First, I’ll be trying to finish up with The Incrementalists. And after that, I have a few more books lined up that I’m excited about:

  • How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman
  • Reality Boy by A. S. King
  • Parasite by Mira Grant

I realize that I’m being overly ambitious and probably completely unrealistic in thinking that I’ll make it through four books this week… but hey, a reader can dream, can’t she?

So many book, so little time…

That’s my agenda. What’s yours? Add your comments to share your bookish agenda for the week.


Book Review: Longbourn

Book Review: Longbourn by Jo Baker

longbournThose Bennet girls! What a delight to be around them! But do you think the servants found them all quite so lovely? In Longbourn, we find out.

Longbourn is Pride and Prejudice turned upside down… or rather, as viewed from below-stairs. I think every blurb I’ve seen about Longbourn so far has described it as “Downton Abbey meets Pride and Prejudice“, and that’s a fairly good place to start.

In Longbourn, maidservant Sarah is our main point-of-view character. Sarah has been in service to the Bennet family since she was a small girl, and while we readers of P&P all probably share a rather rosy view of the Bennet’s idyllic country life, it’s not quite as pretty when presented by Sarah. Through Sarah, we see what it really takes to run a household of that nature — laundry days, incessant scrubbing, tending to the girls’ bodily needs, turning pig fat into soap. Author Jo Baker doesn’t shy away from the nastier bits, and there are plenty.

It’s all very well to admire Elizabeth Bennet for her pluck and adventurous streak, but as Sarah ruminates:

If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.

In P&P, all is managed. Dirty clothes are taken care of. We never hear about chamber pots or dirty dishes, sweaty clothing or soiled sheets. In Longbourn, these are all the stuff of daily life. Through the effluvia of the Bennet household, the serving staff get to know the family intimately, and while it’s agreed that they are a decent sort to work for, it’s still shocking as a P&P fan to realize the utter cluelessness that the girls have regarding what a servant’s life is really like.

Even wonderful Elizabeth — so beloved by all of us! — comes across as unaware at best or insensitive at worst, as her interactions with Sarah make clear that Sarah’s life is of no concern. Not that Elizabeth has harsh feelings toward Sarah — just that it doesn’t really occur to her that Sarah has feelings or issues of her own to deal with.

Besides the household muck and mire, we see the country in quite different terms than in P&P as well. Yes, the important families and estates have their dinners and balls… but in the town, there are people going hungry, young men are enlisted to fight in pointlessly brutal foreign wars, and meanwhile the local garrison of the militia strut around like heroes while conducting their dirty business elsewhere. We may think of pretty BBC productions when we think of the Regency era, but in Longbourn, that pretty illusion is shattered. Make no mistake, this was not an easy time to live in without family money and connections, and the lives of the working class are not to be envied. Even for Mr. and Mrs. Hill, long established as head of the Longbourn staff and considered to hold a very desirable place in the household, it’s clear that this is not a comfortable or secure life.

The lives of the servants are harsh and yet full of vitality. They are not shielded by manners and customs from the realities of their world. Matters such as fashion and reputation and whispers and inheritances are of small matter to people whose future security rests entirely on the whims of those they serve, who can be turned out at any moment into a world in which decent work is scarce, and whose ability to even secure a position is completely dependent on the willingness of a former employer to provide a reference. Seen through the servants’ eyes, the possible tarnishing of a young lady’s reputation is small potatoes compared to the specter of starvation and homelessness.

Interestingly, for me Longbourn is at its strongest when it goes “off-book” entirely. The third section of Longbourn goes outside of the confines of the P&P world and explores the lives, secrets, and histories of the Longbourn characters in a way that’s completely unrelated to P&P. I loved this part of the book the most. The characters really feel alive to me here, and perhaps they need this extra freedom from the original story in order to become fully formed, with purposes and hidden desires of their own.

Jo Baker clearly knows P&P inside and out, and as she explains in the author’s note: “When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn. When the Bennet girls enter a ball in Austen’s novel, they leave the carriage waiting in this one.” It’s fascinating to page back through P&P at random and find all of these points of intersection — the meals, the guests arriving at the door, the gowns fetched and fluffed — and seeing the work involved on the part of the Longbourn servants to make all of these things happen.

The writing in Longbourn is simply splendid, both in passages exposing the darker side of the pretty pictures we’re used to from Austen’s world and in simple sentences that convey quite a bit about the Bennets and the servants alike:

Some of my favorites:

Jane and Elizabeth confided with each other in anxious virginal huddles, whispering over letters, scandalized by the gossip that was now leaking back to them.

And another:

Life was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everybody, eventually, failed.

And one more:

The house was all up and down and front and back, and nothing sideways to it at all.

Sarah is the main character, but we also read sections told from the perspectives of footman James, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and the small serving-girl Polly. Sarah is a strong, smart, determined, and utterly wonderful main character, and James too becomes completely fascinating as we get to know him better. Early on in the book, the shifting voices are a bit jarring, but as Longbourn progresses and we get to know each one on their own, the story is enhanced by allowing readers to see  unfolding events through different eyes — especially as each character often has access to a different piece of the puzzle, and so a fuller picture emerges as we witness multiple views of the people and actions involved.

Jo Baker is very faithful to the overall characterizations of the Bennets and their associates, although Mr. Bennet comes off in a less favorable light, and surprisingly, Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins are both much more sympathetic. In fact, I doubt that I’ll ever allow myself to feel my usual scorn for Mrs. Bennet, now that Jo Baker has given me a quite plausible (and sad) explanation for how she ended up the way she is.

Overall, I’d say that there’s a lot to love about Longbourn. P&P afficionados will be pleased by the respect shown by the author toward Austen’s original text — and yet she also doesn’t hesitate to pull back the curtains and show us what else might be going on in this familiar world.

Longbourn certainly stands on its own outside of the shadow of Pride and Prejudice. In fact, I could see the story of Sarah and the serving class making a fine novel without needing the framework of P&P — although undoubtedly the connection to P&P will help tremendously with the marketing and publicity for Longbourn.

While I enjoyed the brief glimpses of the Bennets (and even Mr. Darcy, who makes only fleeting appearances in this book), Longbourn‘s main characters are compelling and their struggles and challenges held me captive. I didn’t need to see Elizabeth and Jane and the Bingleys — I had Sarah and James, and they’re pretty spectacular.


The details:

Title: Longbourn
Author: Jo Baker
Publisher: Knopf
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Knopf via Edelweiss

Thursday Quotables: Longbourn


Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

This week’s Thursday Quotable:

It was one of those strange handicaps that afflicted gentlefolk, that they could not open a door for themselves, nor get in or out of a coach without someone to assist them.


Source: Longbourn
Author: Jo Baker
Knopf, 2013

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (, if you’d be so kind!
  • Click below (next to the cute froggy face) to link up your post! And be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables too.
  • Have a quote to share but not a blog post? Leave your quote in the comments.
  • Have fun!

The Monday Agenda 10/14/2013

MondayAgendaNot a lofty, ambitious to-be-read list consisting of 100+ book titles. Just a simple plan for the upcoming week — what I’m reading now, what I plan to read next, and what I’m hoping to squeeze in among the nooks and crannies.

How did I do with last week’s agenda?

It’s been a pretty fun and eclectic reading week:

Charming (Pax Arcana, #1)Before I Met YouWill in ScarletLongbourn

Charming by Elliott James: Done! A terrific first book in a new urban fantasy series. My review is here.

Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell: Done! Contemporary fiction meets historical fiction in a novel set in both the 1920s and 1990s. My review is here.

Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody: Done! An exciting middle grade book about Robin Hood and his Merry Men. My review is here.

Longbourn by Jo Baker: Just started over the weekend, and I’m currently about 25% of the way into this new look at the world of Pride and Prejudice… as viewed by the servants below-stairs.

And in kids’ books, my son and I are about 1/3 of the way into The Expeditioners by S. S. Taylor, and we’re really enjoying it. It’s a steampunk adventure story, filled with mysterious maps and clever kids. After a bit of a slow start, we’re hooked!

Fresh Catch:

In keeping with my new need to name everything, I’m calling this my Pile of Sadness:

book pile

Why? Because these four books are YA new releases that I bought for myself and can’t wait to read… but I’m trying to stick to a vow* that I made to get caught up on my NetGalley backlog before reading anything else. It’s the right thing to do, and it seems to be working… but then I look at my Pile of Sadness and feel all sorts of tearful longing building up inside…

Must. Be. Strong.

*So what’s this vow about? I wrote a post yesterday about, among other things, my mid-October reading resolutions. And whatever else came to mind. You can read it here.

What’s on my reading agenda for the coming week?

Sticking with my decision to catch up on review copies, I have this coming week’s reading all queued up:

Longbourn incrementalistsbad housesgood wife

First up, I’ll need to finish Longbourn by Jo Baker. Then onward with:

  • The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White
  • Bad Houses by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil
  • How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

I’m actually loving everything I’m reading these days… but that Pile of Sadness is so tempting… and I just got an email notification that I have some library requests ready for pick-up. Must. Be. Strong.

So many book, so little time…

That’s my agenda. What’s yours? Add your comments to share your bookish agenda for the week.