Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review: My Dear Charlotte by Hazel Holt

Hey kids, do you like the Jane Austen? Then you will like this book. I'm not gonna say "love," although you might... I kind of did.

Hazel Holt is a British mystery writer who wanted to try something different, so she penned this novel in letters, with the assistance of Jane Austen's actual letters (small tidbits here and there). A young woman in Lyme writes to her sister (the Charlotte of the title), who has gone to Bath and London for several months with an aunt and uncle. An old woman in the neighborhood who is not well-liked by anyone passes away, apparently of a heart attack. But a doctor relation is suspicious of her death and believes she may have been murdered. Our letter writer, Elinor, assists the local magistrate in his investigations, and keeps her sister apprised of the goings-on in numerous letters. Her voice is engaging and there is a very satisfactory ending to enjoy. And it's fun to play "spot the Austen" as you read, looking for which bits of Austen's letters show up as bits of Elinor's letters.

I have this thing for books written as a series of letters. Or even emails. Or instant messages. (I'm talking about you, Meg Cabot.) I really like them. Always have. The format brings a reader inside the head of a character almost thoroughly; there are no awkward "She thought..." passages in the midst of action. And it's a fun challenge to see how the writer handles exposition. A less skilled writer might blow it, but Hazel Holt is genius at it in this book. There was only one spot where I felt like there was too much exposition, and it was two sentences near the end of the book, so I can't really hold that up as a fault.

Since this is a new book, the author wasn't bound by the same behavioral strictures as, say, Jane Austen, so she was able to inject a bit more intentional humor while still maintaining a believable early-19th Century voice. There's an ongoing very subtle funny bit about how the family's cooking isn't always quite what they'd want to expose guests to. And I can't help it -- I really love the bits where Elinor talks about her clothes. Clothes she wore, or clothes she's going to make, or what kind of material she has... it's girl-heaven.

I received this book as a birthday gift after adding it to my "list" on the recommendation of AustenBlog. I no longer trust all of their recommendations owing to an unfortunate experience (reading Mr Darcy Ruined My Life), but this one was spot on. I've finally had a chance to begin the other AustenBlog-recommended book in that same pile of birthday books, Bellfield Hall. It's another mystery set in the Regency period by another writer inspired by Jane Austen, so hopefully I'll finish it this weekend and review it soon.

Of course, I just read four more of those damn Inspector Lynley mysteries in the past two weeks. I feel like if I just finish them all, then I can move on to other things. Like the Inspector Wexford mysteries...