Mini-Reviews: Steal, Jane, Wicked

Cold StealJane Austen SocietySlightly Wicked

Alice Tilton, Cold Steal

Leonidas Witherall is returning home from a trip around the world, and he’s looking forward to some peace and relaxation. But of course, he’s immediately embroiled in a mystery when he witnesses suspicious activity on a train. Then he is kidnapped by one of his fellow travelers; and when he finally escapes, he discovers the dead body of a local woman in his house! This book, like the previous installments in the series, is pure farce and a lot of fun. But some scenes, where all the characters are talking at cross-purposes and no one is explaining anything, actually stressed me out a bit! The mystery is definitely secondary to the farce; barely any time is spent on actual detection. Still, I enjoy this series and will continue with it at some point. One quick note: I think it would be helpful to read at least book 2, The Cut Direct, before reading this one, as several of the characters are recurring.

Natalie Jenner, The Jane Austen Society

This book, set in 1950s Chawton, is about a group of very different people who are united by their love of Jane Austen and their desire to preserve her legacy. At this time, Chawton is much like any other English village; while some tourists do show up looking for the house where Austen lived, there’s no official effort to preserve her home or other items of historical value. So the self-appointed Jane Austen Society decides to lead this effort. In the meantime, of course, the various society members become entangled in Austen-esque stories of their own. I found this book a pleasant, enjoyable read, but I’m having trouble remembering a lot of the details. It definitely didn’t affect me emotionally in the way that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society did…perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, but the similar titles and time periods made a connection between the two books in my mind. Overall, though, I did like the book and think it’s a great escapist read for Austen fans!

Mary Balogh, Slightly Wicked

This second book in the Bedwyn series focuses on Judith Law, the daughter of an impoverished clergyman who is destined to live with her aunt as a “poor relation.” But Judith secretly yearns for adventure — and when a chance encounter with the dangerously attractive Rannulf Bedwyn gives her the opportunity to experience a sexual relationship, she takes it. After all, she’s unlikely ever to marry, and this may be her only chance. But when she arrives at her aunt’s home, she is dismayed to learn that Rannulf is in the area visiting his grandmother, and what was meant to be a one-night stand quickly becomes much more complicated. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as other Balogh novels that I’ve read. The premise didn’t do anything for me, and I didn’t particularly connect to Rannulf as a hero; other than his good looks and wealth, I couldn’t see what Judith saw in him. There’s also some cringeworthy dialogue, in the first love scene especially. I still liked the book enough to finish it in two days, but I’m definitely hoping the series improves with subsequent books.

Mini-reviews: Henrietta’s, Matrimonial, Austen

Henrietta's WarMatrimonial AdvertisementAusten Escape

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942

I greatly enjoyed this charming epistolary novel, which is both written and set during World War II. The titular Henrietta writes to her childhood friend Robert, who is off fighting somewhere in France, and describes daily life in her rural English village. Despite the constant presence of the war in the background, Henrietta mostly focuses on the mundane, humorous aspects of life. A pleasant and uplifting book.

Mimi Matthews, The Matrimonial Advertisement

Last year I read Matthews’s novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to seek out some of her full-length novels. This one, the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, is a “proper” Victorian romance (i.e., no explicit content) that centers around a marriage of convenience. Justin needs a wife to manage his remote, secluded estate, and Helena needs a safe place to hide from her past. The book definitely justified my high expectations, and I can’t wait to continue with the series!

Katherine Reay, The Austen Escape

I’ve read one other book by Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley, and I wasn’t a huge fan. But when I got this novel as a gift, I decided to give the author another chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book either — something about the writing style just grates on my nerves. I also found the heroine obnoxious and unsympathetic, and I have no idea what her love interest saw in her. I was frankly appalled by one major plot point: the heroine’s best friend, who has a history of mental health issues, starts to believe she’s living in Jane Austen’s time…and nobody seems to think this is something that needs immediate medical attention! So all in all, I wasn’t a fan, and I’m pretty sure I’m done with this author.

Review: Henry Tilney’s Diary

Henry Tilney's DiaryAmanda Grange, Henry Tilney’s Diary

This novel in diary format tells the story of Northanger Abbey from Henry Tilney’s point of view. It starts several years before the beginning of Austen’s novel, when Henry is 16. He and his sister Eleanor are extremely close, and they bond over their shared love of gothic novels. He is less close with his father, a rigid disciplinarian who is obsessed with finding rich and/or titled mates for his children. And while he loves his older brother, Frederick, the latter’s wild behavior and cynical view of women keep Henry at a distance. Henry is determined to become a true hero, and he dreams of one day meeting the perfect heroine. During a family trip to Bath, he meets the naïve and engaging Catherine Moreland, and the more time he spends with her, the more he believes that she could be the girl he’s searching for. Eleanor truly likes her also, and even his father treats her with a surprising warmth and distinction. But when his father’s opinion of Catherine suddenly changes, Henry is faced with a decision as dramatic as any he’s encountered within the pages of a novel.

Austen pastiches are so hard to get right. If you stray too far from the original source material, you risk offending the Janeites who probably comprise your target audience. But if you follow the original too slavishly, you come across as a weak imitation and compare unfavorably to the real thing. So Amanda Grange walks a thin tightrope here, I think with mixed success. The early chapters of the book were unexpectedly entertaining, and I loved learning more about the Tilney family’s backstory, especially how the three siblings related to each other growing up. I wanted more of Henry’s banter with Eleanor, more insight into Frederick, and more of Eleanor’s romance (which is briefly mentioned in Northanger Abbey and slightly expanded upon here). The second half of the book, when Henry meets Catherine Moreland, is a little less fun, mostly because Grange copies and pastes most of the dialogue directly from Austen’s novel. Again, I can understand why she did it that way, but I wanted a little more originality. Still, this is a fun read, and I’m always happy to see Northanger Abbey and Henry Tilney getting some love!

Review: Unmarriageable

UnmarriageableSoniah Kamal, Unmarriageable

This retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in contemporary Pakistan tells the story of the five Binat sisters, whose mother is desperate for them to marry well and thus raise their family’s social status. But the second sister, Alysba Binat, is a staunch feminist who would rather keep her career and independence than submit to a husband. When the entire family is invited to a lavish society wedding, Alys’s older sister Jena catches the eye of “Bungles” Bingla, a rich and handsome bachelor. But Bungles’s friend, the even richer and more handsome Valentine Darsee, is not so impressed with Alys. His dismissive behavior infuriates her, and she promptly writes him off as unmarriageable. But as Alys gets to know Darsee better, all while trying to balance familial and cultural expectations with her own desires, she slowly revises her first impression of him.

This novel is a very faithful and competent retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and I enjoyed experiencing the familiar story in a completely new-to-me setting. But I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to be taking away from this book. It occasionally touches on British colonialism and how it affected—and continues to affect—Pakistani culture; one character even talks explicitly about how English literature is still seen as superior to native literature; and yet this very novel puts Pakistani characters into an English narrative. And rather than subverting or critiquing that narrative, the novel follows the plot of P&P almost exactly. Maybe the point is that Austen’s novels address universal human concerns, which I’m certainly not going to argue with, but it makes the premise of this book a little less interesting, in my opinion. Also, I was annoyed that Alys is an English teacher, intimately familiar with the works of Jane Austen, yet she somehow doesn’t realize that she’s living out the plot of P&P. That said, I actually did enjoy this book, and I think it’s one of the better retellings out there. . . . I just wanted a little bit more from it.

Review: The Jane Austen Project

Jane Austen ProjectKathleen A. Flynn, The Jane Austen Project

Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane live in a near-future world where time travel is well established as a scientific research tool. Their first mission is to travel to 1815, where they will retrieve Jane Austen’s personal letters (many of which were destroyed after her death) and her manuscript of “The Watsons,” which, according to a recent discovery, she actually did complete. To achieve this goal, Rachel and Liam will pose as members of the gentry and try to become part of the Austens’ social circle. But the more they get to know Jane and her family, the more Rachel and Liam begin to have scruples about their actions. Additionally, they start to worry about the possibility of changing history and the even scarier possibility that they may not be able to leave 1815. And of course, the deepening of their relationship to each other may have far-reaching consequences in both 1815 and their own time.

I enjoyed this book overall, but I definitely think some parts were more successful than others. The premise is certainly an interesting one if you love Jane Austen, and overall I think the portrayal of Jane and her family was very well done. The book evokes the 1815 setting very well; it feels like the reader is also a time traveler, being immersed into this bygone era for the first time. I was particularly tickled by one scene where Jane catches Rachel looking through her private papers and accuses her of being a French spy! That said, the novel gives short shrift to the time travel element; it doesn’t explain how it works or what the “rules” are, and the future consequences of Rachel and Liam’s actions in 1815 are wrapped up very quickly. Finally, I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. While Rachel and Liam are both pleasant enough, I never really got a sense of what made them tick. Ultimately, I did like the book, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever need to reread.

Review: First Impressions

First ImpressionsCharlie Lovett, First Impressions

Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of A Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice—and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.

In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth—while choosing between two suitors—and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books. (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I should have known better than to pick this one up. My love of Jane Austen means that I’ve read a lot of the retellings, re-imaginings, and spinoffs of her novels, and most of them have ranged from “meh” to truly awful. So I should have known that I’d dislike this book, and indeed, the writing style had turned me off by the end of the first chapter. The author unwisely makes Jane Austen a character and tries to imitate her voice, with disastrous results.

Further, the entire “past” storyline had essentially no stakes, being nothing more than an account of the friendship between Austen and an elderly clergyman. In the “present” storyline, book lover Sophie Collingwood comes across said clergyman’s name in connection with Austen and investigates a possible plagiarism scandal. Because of course Austen lovers want to read books suggesting that she didn’t actually create her own work!

Anyway, Sophie is an utter ninny caught between a Darcy and a Wickham, although they’re pretty equally insufferable! The Wickham (whose name I can’t actually remember) is supposed to be skeevy, of course, but the Darcy also exhibits some major stalker vibes. Therefore, I didn’t buy the love triangle or enjoy the romance. So for me, the book failed on basically every front. Maybe I’m being too harsh; I’d read some positive reviews of the novel, and possibly my expectations were too high. But unfortunately, this book is in my “bottom 10” for the year.

Review: Jane Austen Cover to Cover

Jane Austen Cover to CoverMargaret C. Sullivan, Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Covers

This is a book that delivers exactly what it promises: AustenBlog editrix Margaret C. Sullivan has compiled a large (though not exhausitve) collection of covers of Jane Austen’s novels, from the earliest published editions of the Regency period to the movie tie-in editions of today. The covers are arranged chronologically, giving Sullivan the opportunity to discuss related topics such as the publishing industry in Austen’s day, the waxing and waning of Austen’s popularity in both the U.K. and the U.S., and the Janeite resurgence that began in the 1990s with the iconic image of a wet-shirted Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. The covers themselves are a delightful hodgepodge of different styles, from the somber scholarly editions to the far-out art of the 1970s. Overall, I enjoyed the book but found it rather insubstantial; it doesn’t really have anything to say about the broader cultural relevance (if any) of Austen cover art. Still, it would make a great gift for Janeites or for anyone who judges a book by its cover!

Review: Dear Mr. Knightley

Dear Mr. KnightleyKatherine Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley

Samantha Moore has been in and out of foster homes her whole life. Now, at age 23, she’s living at a group home called Grace House, but she’ll soon have to leave unless she can find a way to go back to school. One day she gets a surprising offer: if she can get into the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, an anonymous donor will pay her tuition and living expenses. The only condition is that she must write regular letters detailing her educational progress to the donor under the name Mr. Knightley. Samantha is reluctant at first, particularly because she feels much more connected to fiction than journalism. Indeed, her closest friends growing up were the classic novels that kept her company through dark times, and she frequently hides in the world of books when real life is confusing or difficult. Still, Sam agrees to the deal, and through her letters to “Mr. Knightley,” she is finally able to face her past — and her future.

Despite what the title might suggest, this book is not a Jane Austen spinoff; rather, it’s a contemporary reimagining of Jean Webster’s novel Daddy-Long-Legs. My overall opinion is that the original is far better, but I can’t get into more depth without SPOILERS for both books, so skip the rest of this review if you don’t want to know how they end! … OK, so if you’re still with me, what happens is that Samantha eventually falls in love with “Mr. Knightley,” who turns out to be the handsome mystery novelist who’s been keeping Sam company throughout the book. He knows everything about Samantha, whose letters to him have been more like a diary, yet he doesn’t confess his true identity until the very end of the book. There’s this huge power imbalance between him and Sam, and the book never really addresses it, and I just couldn’t buy it as a romantic or satisfying ending at all. For some reason I didn’t mind it as much in the original – maybe because of the time period in which it was written? So I had a huge issue with the core of the story, and I also didn’t like the author’s writing style. It’s a very readable book, and if you like Daddy-Long-Legs you may enjoy this one too, but I was disappointed.

Emma Approved!

I can’t believe I didn’t discover this sooner, but the folks who brought us the Lizzie Bennet Diaries have returned with a new web series based on Jane Austen’s Emma! It’s called Emma Approved, and it is pretty freakin’ adorable! Here’s Episode 1:

Yes, Emma’s self-confidence is grating and borderline crazy, but that’s part of her charm! Subsequent videos reveal that while she is incredibly determined and doesn’t take no for an answer, she also really cares about her friends and wants them to be happy. So far I’m really enjoying this adaptation, and I can’t wait to see what happens next! Videos are posted Mondays and Thursdays, and there’s still plenty of time to catch up! 🙂

Review: Spies and Prejudice

Spies and PrejudiceTalia Vance, Spies and Prejudice

Berry Fields isn’t exactly your typical teenage girl. Working as an assistant for her P.I. father, Berry is more likely to spend her weekend tailing a suspect than hanging out at the mall. She has also caught so many cheating boyfriends and husbands in the act that she doesn’t fully trust any of the guys she meets. So when drop-dead gorgeous Tanner and his stepbrother Ryan show up at her school, Berry is immediately suspicious and hostile — especially when she overhears Tanner dismiss her as “nothing amazing.” Meanwhile, Berry continues to grieve for her mother, who died eight years ago in a supposed accident. But Berry can’t help suspecting that there’s more to the story…and the more time she spends with Tanner, the more she’s convinced that he’s hiding something.

First off, this is definitely not a book you want to judge by its cover (which is pretty awful, am I right?). It has been described as a cross between Pride and Prejudice and “Veronica Mars,” and if that concept appeals to you, I think you’ll enjoy this book! I found Berry a very believable and interesting character, and her investigation into her mother’s death was a great way to propel the story forward. The romance between her and Tanner was well done, not too melodramatic or sappy, and the mystery balanced out the love story very well. I didn’t 100% understand the final solution to the mystery, but I was reading pretty quickly by that point, so I probably just missed a few background facts along the way. Finally, I really liked the way P&P was incorporated into the story; there’s enough for Austen fans to pick up on and appreciate, but it’s not an exact replica of the original plot. I like the fact that this book uses the P&P framework but incorporates its own spin. Definitely recommended to YA and Austen fans!