Tag Archives: retellings

The Bad Penny

In this modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, tragedy forces newly divorced chef Molly Price to reconnect with her troubled parents and she must step in to save her five-year-old sister. Molly soon learns that, though her sauces never break, the same can’t be said for her heart.

An excerpt from chapter one of Knife Skills


Fricassee, a stew of poultry or other white meat with a white sauce . . . Molly Price repositioned herself under the shower so that the stinging hot water hit the tense spot between her shoulder blades while she recited the five liquids chefs use in making white sauces. She’d gotten through veal, chicken, and fish stock when there was a knock on the bathroom door. Not now. “…Vegetable stock. Milk.”

Her roommate Lynne poked her head in. “Your cell phone is ringing.”

It was half-past six in the morning. Who’d be calling her? “Just let it go to voicemail.”

Molly didn’t need the distraction. Closing her eyes, she let the shower spray course over her back and down her legs and continued to review for her big exam until the water ran cold. Wrapping herself in a towel, she ran across the cluttered living room to the curtained alcove that served as her bedroom in the tiny 400-square-foot apartment. Her cell phone rang. Grabbing it off the window sill she used as a nightstand, she read the flashing blue screen. Antonio. What the hell does he want? Molly took a step back and stumbled onto her twin bed. The phone continued to screech. As usual there was no ignoring Antonio.

“What do you want?” Molly asked.

“Molly, hey. Where have you been? I must’ve called twenty times.”

“Two times. I’m busy. I have to get ready for school.”

“That’s right. You’re gonna be the next Julia Child.”

Oh, this is going to be bad. “Antonio, what do you want?”

“It’s not me, Mollita.” Pause. “It’s that hijo de puta at E-Z Storage. He’s out for our blood.”

Our blood? She’d signed the divorce papers six months ago. “How much this time?”

Molly could barely think straight she was so angry. By the time she finished dealing with Antonio, she had only enough time to throw on some clothes and run her fingers through her damp red curls. Now they’d probably dry frizzy. Well, one Little Orphan Annie comment from any of the cracked-voiced jerks in her class and she’d fillet him nose to nuts. She was just in the mood for it.

In the kitchen, Lynne munched on toast smeared with peanut butter. “It’s a little early to look so pissed off.”

“I’m never going to be free of Antonio. Am I?” Molly retrieved two bottles of cabernet from the wine rack on top of the refrigerator and wrapped them in newspaper. Bedford Brothers 2007 Reserve. She’d trekked all the way out to Mattituck, to her aunt and uncle’s vineyard, to get them, a last-minute inspiration that just might give her an edge in today’s exam. Long Island wine country. Every time she visited, she wondered why she’d ever left. People wrote magazine articles about it. They scrimped to pay for honeymoons there. But Molly couldn’t wait to get away, out on her own to live a real life. Only the life she’d found hadn’t worked out that well.

Lynne leaned against the sink. “What’s he up to now? Trying to make another date for coffee and recriminations?”

Molly winced. She knew Lynne didn’t intend to be cruel. It hurt, though. The marriage had been bad enough. Now she had to put up with post-mortem evaluations by friends and family. Everyone, it seemed, had spotted Antonio del Castillo for what he was, though none of them had seen fit to mention anything to her before the wedding. Almost none of them. Ned, Molly’s best friend, had been more than generous with his warnings. But he’d never liked any of her boyfriends, so she didn’t take as much notice as she should have.

“Well?” Lynne asked, still waiting for an answer to her question.

“No coffee or recriminations.” Molly tucked the wine bottles into her backpack. “Just money.”

With Antonio, it always came down to money.

Despite being behind schedule, Molly and Lynne made good time on the Long Island Expressway. That changed as soon as they left the highway for route 110. Cars seemed to appear out of nowhere. The one in front of them slowed to turn into an office complex. Molly waited and then urged her aging Toyota forward, picking up speed as the road descended toward downtown Huntington. She registered a movement to her left but didn’t dwell on it. She had right of way. Such technicalities didn’t appear to matter to the driver of the battered white pickup that turned in front of her. Molly’s brakes screamed as car and truck collided. She flew forward in her seat, her safety belt digging into her chest and ribs. She looked over at Lynne, who sat in the passenger seat with her eyes squeezed shut and her arm braced against the dashboard. “You okay?”

Lynne nodded. “I think I peed myself.”

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A modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic about a young woman whose arrogant interference in her friends’ romantic relationships nearly ruins her own.

Emma: A Modern Retelling (The Austen Project, #3)

Emma: A Modern Retelling

This is the third entry in the Austen Project, where each of Jane Austen’s classics is tackled by a modern author. So far the results have been mixed. Joanna Trollope’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY was a disaster in my opinion. On the other hand, Val McDermid did an amazing job with NORTHANGER ABBEY. I like her retelling better than the original. With EMMA, Alexander McCall Smith falls somewhere in between. There’s nothing here to send an Austen fanatic into hysterics, but it doesn’t quite shine as brightly as it could, either.

EMMA–A MODERN RETELLING is a witty book full of gorgeous writing and fascinating characters. Austen’s plot is basically a story of a young woman’s emotional and moral maturity wrapped in the gloss of comedy. Smith gets this. His version is funny and offers Emma a clear path of growth as she learns the difference between charity and kindness, sympathy and condescension. Smith also successfully translates the social/economic world of the original into the 21st century. This was probably the biggest failing of Trollope’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY.

The problem I have with this book is that it starts too early and by doing so throws itself entirely off balance. The first 58 pages have little to do with Emma at all. We barely see her until her college days (around page 70). Instead, we get a detailed history of the relationship between Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor. On the one hand, Emma’s father is one of best parts of the book. I love how Smith makes him an integral part of the overall plot. But Miss Taylor dominates the first several chapters then pretty much vanishes until the end. Smith repeats this strange authorial decision with John Knightly, brother to the novel’s (kind of) hero. We get this long, detailed courtship of how John and Isabella meet, marry, and breed then they’re largely absent forever after.

These early missteps lead to larger difficulties. We meet Emma herself so late, we don’t have much time to bond with her. This makes her pushy and high-handed behavior seem due to nastiness rather than to a failure of understanding. Further, her growth arc is rushed, the lessons and the epiphanies they lead to are too close together and too close to the end. Sure, along the way we’re treated to some wonderful additional characters with fun histories, but that’s all beside the point. This is Emma’s story. Her journey is the one that counts most.

A secondary problem caused by the extended initial back story is that it leaves no room for the the serious discussions of morality, of what is right and what is wrong, of what it means to care for others as much as or more than the self, that McCall gives us toward the end. These longish sections of exposition would be a challenge to a plot’s forward momentum under the best of circumstances. In this case, they stop the plot dead just at the time when it should be, if not speeding, at least trotting briskly toward its resolution.

Despite these issues, EMMA–A MODERN RETELLING is entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. I enjoyed it enough to add it to my “keeper shelf” of books I plan to reread. I just wish it gave us more EMMA.

Travels in Fiction: Long Island Wine Country–Pt 2

During my wanderings on Long Island back in 2005, I had the chance to explore the region’s wine country and get a behind-the-scenes peek at the action at various vineyards and wineries.

Vineyards fit in beautifully with the rural landscape of eastern Long Island.

Vineyards fit in beautifully with the rural landscape of eastern Long Island.

This inside look allowed me to inject needed realism into my novel Knife Skills, which re-tells Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

Wine grapes are grown on wire trellises set in wide rows.

Wine grapes are grown on wire trellises set in wide rows.

The secret works behind the winery...vats for first ferment.

The secret works behind the winery…vats for first ferment.

Translating a story set in Regency England to America in the 21st century wasn’t always easy. We don’t have many grand historic estates here or even the remnants of the class and social system that shaped Austen’s original work.

Oak barrels for aging.

Oak barrels for aging.

Tasting rooms are where the vineyard introduces the public to their vintages.

Tasting rooms are where the vineyard introduces the public to their vintages.

Long Island is a wonderful place to set a book. It’s an island of contrasts…the glittering Hamptons and older, working class towns…beautiful beaches and some of the most productive agricultural acreage in the country.

For visitors, tasting rooms provide a fun chance to sample new wines.

For visitors, tasting rooms provide a fun chance to sample new wines.

Using a LI vineyard–one experiencing a time of transition, the opening of a new restaurant–gave me both the physical locales and the scope of activity I needed for Chef Molly Price’s new version of Austen’s tale of love, family and self-discovery.Knife_Skills_Cover_for_Kindle (1)


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It’s all burners on high for Chef Molly Price, about to start her first restaurant job on her aunt and uncle’s Long Island vineyard. They took Molly in as a child, and she’s determined not to let them down. 

But it’s hard to focus on the perfect bread pudding with a no-good ex who won’t leave her alone and a best guy friend who’s as cranky as he is kissable. 

Love, family, and career all come to a boil when tragedy forces Molly to reconnect with her troubled parents and she must step in to save her five-year-old sister. Molly soon learns that, though her sauces never break, the same can’t be said for her heart.

Fresh, Funny Latter-Day Take on Two Austen Classics: Reveiws of Rebecca H. Jamison’s EMMA and PERSUASION

While I am not a member of the LDS church, I am an Austen fan and an omnivorous reader. So the religious slant of this book did not bother me in any way. I actually enjoyed getting an inside view of life in an LDS community and learning how Mormons really aren’t so different from other people.

Emma: A Latter-Day Tale

Emma: A Latter-Day Tale

As a re-telling of EMMA, this book stays true to the original in a very natural way. There’s no sense that the author is manipulating or forcing her plot in an effort to provide Austen lovers with a recognizable version of their favorite scenes. Unlike Austen’s haughty heroine, Jamison’s Emma is a bit of a lost soul in terms of her personal and professional life. She knows she doesn’t want to be a dental receptionist forever, but she isn’t quite sure how to get herself on track to her dream goal–to be a life coach. She tries to help her friends, but her efforts tend to make things worse until she learns that she needs to work on herself before she can guide other people. There are no real villains in the piece, but Emma and Justin are probably the most honest and genuinely selfless of the bunch. Their scenes together are the best ones in the book.

All of the characters are done well and made complex enough to carry a story that can’t make use of the kind of plot points that drive more mainstream fiction. There’s no sex or violence. Just a cast of real people trying to find happiness and tripping over their own good intentions.

Persuasion: A Latter-day Tale

Persuasion: A Latter-day Tale

This modern re-telling of the Jane Austen classic is set in an LDS(Mormon)community in Northern Virginia. Anne is a successful stockbroker. Neil Wentworth, now a Baltimore police officer, is the man she let get away when she was young and insecure. Fate throws them together when Neil’s brother buys Anne’s childhood home. Is it too late for Anne and Neil to right past mistakes and find happiness together?

Though faithful to the overall plot of the beloved original, Rebecca H. Jamison manages to provide us with a thoroughly modern and likable cast of characters embroiled in fresh, creative situations. At the same time, she provides the non-LDS reader like myself a fascinating insight into the culture of this often misunderstood faith. Most of the novels I’ve read by LDS authors share the basic qualities reflecting the religion–the content is “clean” and the focus is on acting responsibly–but they don’t necessarily show characters “being” Mormons. Jamison takes us right into ward life. She also goes a step further in that Anne and her sisters converted to the faith, but their parents have not. So there’s an added layer of conflict and tension as Anne struggles to come to terms with a mother and father she loves deeply but cannot wholly connect with.

Jane Austen’s novels translate nicely to the LDS world, where family is important and there exist very close social ties with neighbors and the community. I enjoyed the book enough to seek out Jamison’s other Austen re-telling…EMMA. Her SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is due out this year, and I’m looking forward to it.

Carrie’s Classics: LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott

I must have been eight or nine when I fell in love with Little Women. This cozy read follows the four March sisters as they grow up in Concord, Massachusetts during and after the American Civil War. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are as different as sisters can be. Jo is the fierce and argumentative tomboy who wants to be an author. Meg, the responsible oldest sister, is embarrassed enough by her family’s reduced circumstances without having to worry about what “society” will make of wild girl Jo. Beth, lovable but dogged by ill health, is the musical third sister. Finally, there’s spoiled, artistic Amy, who knows exactly what she wants out of life even as a little girl…and it’s not to live in penury, even if her parents are so much in love.

Little Women (Little Women, #1)

Little Women

As a child, it was the girls’ adventures which captured my attention. Jo outwitting her grumpy Aunt March, who forces her to read dry religious tracts rather than the novels the young writer craves. The wild theatricals that she writes and produces with her sisters. Her ongoing battles with bratty Amy, who tries to horn in on Jo’s friendship with the Lawrence boy, who lives next door. Throughout the entire first part of the book, Jo and Laurie seemed destined for each other, even if she steadfastly denies any interest in romance and canoodling. I don’t know about other readers, but I never believed her. My mistake. Josephine March meant what she said–at least as far as poor Laurie was concerned.

Little Women was the first book I read where a main character–a young girl like me–actually DIED. I can remember my utter shock the first time I read of Beth’s final illness. I cried until I could barely breathe. Death. It didn’t seem real. And then again, it seemed all too real. I recall sprawling on my bed, eyes closed, as I imagined what dead felt like. But how can you “feel” nothing?

As I grew older, I re-read the novel once every couple of years. Strange, the sense of spending time with old friends, yet at the same time, enjoying a completely new experience. Scenes that didn’t register before suddenly stood out. The questions I asked myself changed. They had less to do with Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy and more to do with life under difficult circumstances. Or being female at a time when girls–even grown up ones–had limited options and very narrow influence. I asked myself how the March girls’ lives might have been different had they been born only a generation or two later. Then Jo might have, in some small way, been able to fulfill her wish to do something that mattered.

The Ways of Mud and Bone

The Ways of Mud and Bone

Eventually my questions grew so large that they had to be explored in some meaningful way. I decided to write a book about people a lot like the March sisters, only my girls would have wider choices. In The Ways of Mud and Bone, the Great War descends on a small town not unlike Concord. Meryl Goodson, 19, has the chance to serve in an overseas relief unit. Her sister Claire and cousin Nora stay home. What difference would these decisions make to their experience of tragic times? Would my girls be crushed? Or would they rise to meet challenges head on? The answers surprised me and demonstrated once again how character and circumstance mold one another, which is kind of what Louisa May Alcott
expressed so beautifully in her timeless classic.

Even now, in early middle-age, I love re-reading Little Women. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are still some of my best friends. I can’t wait to see where they take me next.