Published: November 2011
Jane Lake, disillusioned with her career as a jazz singer and frustrated in love, returns home from London to a small town in the English Lake District. Reacquainting herself with her circle of women-friends: Ruth, Sarah and Margaret, it becomes apparent that their lives of rural isolation are not as tranquil as they first appear: Sarah's long-term partner, Philip, is in amorous pursuit of Margaret's adolescent daughter, Stella.
Jane intends her stay in the family home to be short. Her rehabilitation, however, becomes protracted and she discovers that those around her -including her mother- are embroiled in the town's romantic bohemian scene. Her sense of dejection intensifying as she realises that most of the men she's interested in prefer her younger brother, Jane increasingly relies upon the bottle in order to maintain a rational view of things.
Long-standing friendships cannot be maintained without rivalry and resentment playing their part. As the plot thickens involving the various key players in Jane's life, she herself teeters between personal jeopardy and a burgeoning self-knowledge that might just permit the prospect of love…
The Beacon Singer is about Jane Lake, a feisty jazz singer who finds herself home again to mend the pieces of her life, and figure out exactly what the heck she’s going to do with it. Mingled throughout this book are the stories of those around her, Philip and his strange connection with young Stella, Ruth and her awkward longing for Simon, to Margaret and her here-then gone husband, Jane’s parents, and Jane’s love/hate relationship with her brother, David.
By the synopsis I had expected the book to mostly be about Jane, but it’s far more than that. There’s an abundance of plot here, much like watching a mini-series; you were slipped into not only Jane’s life, but also of all the ones around her in the English Lake District. You’re not very far into the book before you’re met with the scandalicious ways of small town life. Chapman nailed that aspect, how life in these towns can be smiles up front, yet burning your ears with the buzz of gossip.
Chapman did a very nice job describing London and the peaceful life of Jane’s quaint hometown, so much so that I felt as if she plucked me right out of America and set me down in this beautiful, exquisite land I have never seen with my own eye. She’s left me with the urge to take a vacation I cannot afford to indulge in the beauty of that land.
I did however have a hard time really connecting with the characters. Their struggles and emotions were on the tips of my fingers, but I just couldn’t quite feel them for a good portion of the book. But that’s not to say others would have this problem. Connections felt with characters can vary greatly from reader to reader. Where I felt this slight barrier between me and the characters, another reader may relate with them on the deepest of levels. That being said, I did end up bridging the gap with them better toward the middle of the book, and felt I knew them well by the end.
The ending for me was tied up nicely, Chapman did well in addressing any loose ends. And I would have to say the ending seemed fitting for the characters and their journey, I probably would have been disappointed had it ended any other way.
Overall this was a decent read! Chapman is a very fine writer, she has wonderful talent with description, a keen eye for plot twists and pace, and I also loved that she kept her chapters short. This makes reading for busy people like me so much easier. I could dive into the story, yet always had a decent place to stop and not feel as if I was leaving in the middle of a great scene. I hate when I have to do that. Chapman, clearly, put a lot of thought and heart into this book, and I applaud her for that. I do wish that I could have connected on a deeper level with the characters earlier on, but a connection was established, leaving my inner reader satisfied in the end!
A copy was provided by the author for review.
Guest post by Catherine E. Chapman
The Acceptable Face of Romance?
Over Christmas I watched a documentary about a recently-discovered portrait that's reputedly of Jane Austen (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/05/jane-austen-lost-portrait). Its owner is convinced it's a genuine image of the author and scientific analysis supports the view that it dates from her lifetime. However, a revered Austen scholar is unwilling to entertain the notion that it's a portrait of Jane. She favours the established image of the writer (shown here), which was commissioned by Austen's family half a century after her death. This image presents Austen as a pretty, doting maiden aunt, given to the occasional bit of scribbling. The new image, in stark contrast, depicts a singular, determined-looking woman, with a strikingly long nose and the demeanour of a professional writer. This new face, it would seem, is not considered acceptable to head the global Austen industry - it's not frivolous enough.
As an indie writer of fiction that is -or is possibly not- best described as romance, I'm interested in the debate surrounding the portrait; not just because I'm a fan of Jane Austen but also because it relates to dilemmas I face myself about the use of the term 'romance' to describe and promote my writing. Jane Austen was a great writer -a great social observer- but the fact that her books are essentially viewed as romances -and are marketed as such in these days of the reign of chick lit- means that her face has to fit this genre - it has to be pretty and it can't be too serious. And, in the same way that our image of Jane Austen is constrained by her identity as a romantic writer, I believe our perception of novels is limited by their being described as romances. This is why my use of the label in relation to my own writing is rather tentative, although in the end I seem to revert to it for want of a better one.
I've written some short fiction in the genre of historical romance. My longer fiction, however, is contemporary and, whilst undeniably romantic in many respects, seems to fly in the face of the conventions of the romance genre to an extent that leaves me uncertain as to whether I should describe it as romance at all.
I took part in a workshop with a celebrated British romance writer, during which she told of her early attempts to adhere to the submission guidelines for Harlequin Mills and Boon (she gave up in the end, did her own thing and became successful). She explained that HMB's need for an intense relationship between the hero and heroine excludes any other meaningful relationships within the plot. She felt that this absence of family and friends was contrary to the way real women behave and that her fiction couldn't be realistic without the heroine having other significant -non-romantic- relationships in her life. I have problems with the requirements of the romance genre along similar lines and I shy away from the label because generic romance seems to have so many limitations. One of the conditions I've seen in the guidelines for HMB is that once the hero and heroine meet, they shouldn't have sex with anybody else. I can see why 'romantically' this is a necessary condition, but in my writing I can't resist a 'realist' urge to create complications such as this within plots. Furthermore, some of my characters have different sexual orientations -as in real life- and I fear this may be outside of the comfort zone of the archetypal romance reader. So, for these and other reasons, if I present my books as Romance, I feel wary that I may be misleading readers.
The romance writer whose workshop I attended maintained that if a book is principally about relationships it is probably best described as romance. My books do centre upon relationships between characters and love seems to be a key motivation for much of the action. So maybe they are romances … but I still come back to the problem of the stereotyping that goes with the territory of romance…
I'm eager to know the views of readers and other writers on this issue. As a reader, does the label of 'Romance' on a book attract or repel you? I suspect that labelling a book as romance draws the attention of many female readers but there's a risk that, if it doesn't adhere to the established norms of the genre, they may feel deceived. A male readership may also be excluded from a book by its being promoted as romance - not to mention female readers who avoid the genre. Do other writers grapple with this problem? (Is it just me?)
About the author:
Catherine E. Chapman is an indie writer of fiction that is possibly (and possibly not!) best described as romance. She writes longer-length fiction that is realist and contemporary. Whilst principally concerned with relationships that are often amorous, it also has strong elements of social observation and humor. She also writes short fiction that adheres to some of the conventions of historical romance – although some readers have complained there is not enough snogging!
Find out more about Catherine E. Chapman and how to connect with her on her website.