Mini-Reviews: Archangel, Shy, Ladies

Sharon Shinn, Archangel

Gabriel, an angel who intercedes with the god Jovah on behalf of the people of Samaria, needs a wife to sing the annual Gloria required by the god. But when he asks an oracle for the name and location of his fated bride, he is dismayed to learn that Jovah has chosen Rachel, a slave and the daughter of peasants. Rachel is equally angry at the news, thinking she will be going from one type of slavery to another. As Gabriel and Rachel unwillingly comply with the god’s will, they slowly inch closer together, but a power grab from an ambitious rival angel may tear them apart — and cause the destruction of the whole land of Samaria. I found the world of this novel jarring at first, as it borrows names and concepts from the Hebrew Bible but uses them in a very different context. But ultimately I did enjoy the story and the romance between Gabriel and Rachel (although her continued defiance gets a bit frustrating at times). Recommended if you like the author or you’re interested in the premise, but I don’t plan to continue with the series.

Sarah Hogle, Twice Shy

Maybell is down on her luck, stuck in an unfulfilling job and recently catfished by someone she thought was a friend. Things seem to improve when she inherits a huge old house and hundreds of acres of land from her great-aunt — until she discovers that Wesley, the taciturn groundskeeper, is an equal inheritor with his own plans for the property. As they work together to fix up the house and grounds, Maybell and Wesley grow closer, but their emotional baggage may keep them apart. I enjoyed this book overall, but I have some quibbles. The novel mentions serious issues like child neglect and severe anxiety/panic attacks, yet it never takes the time to really engage with them. Instead, the focus is on lighthearted renovation projects, treasure hunts, and romance — which I like in theory, but in this case they’re tonally jarring. Also, Maybell’s personality and narrative style are impossibly twee, which bothered me at times even though I have an above-average twee tolerance. All that said, though, I did like the book and would consider reading more by the author.

Lauren Edmondson, Ladies of the House

This modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility shifts the story to the DC political world. When Senator Gregory Richardson dies of a heart attack — in bed with his 20-something mistress — his wife Cricket and daughters Daisy and Wallis are left to deal with the scandal and the ensuing loss of their credibility and social standing. When more details of her father’s shady past come to light, Daisy must decide whether to speak up or keep silent. I’m of two minds about this book. It’s a successful retelling in that it realistically transposes most of the events of the original book to a modern setting; but at the same time, I think it totally misses the spirit of the original! Daisy is no Elinor Dashwood; instead of being the steadfast, unselfish character who keeps her family afloat, she spends most of the book wallowing and makes some shockingly unethical decisions. I also wasn’t a fan of the author’s dismissive attitude toward people who don’t agree with her politically. To be fair, I was never reluctant to pick up the book, and I found it a quick read, but overall I was disappointed with this one.

Mini-Reviews: Wickham, Memory, Business

Claudia Gray, The Murder of Mr. Wickham

This is a hard book to describe without spoiling all of Jane Austen’s novels, but I will do my best! It’s 1820, and most of Austen’s main characters are gathered together at a house party. When George Wickham shows up uninvited, it becomes clear that many of the characters have reasons (both financial and personal) to dislike him. So when Wickham is bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument, nearly everyone is a suspect, and two of the young guests (children of Austen’s characters) team up to solve the mystery. As an Austen superfan, I greatly enjoyed this! I think the author did a good job of portraying Austen’s characters and the problems they might face after years of marriage. I also loved the two young sleuths, especially the appealingly direct (and presumably neurodivergent) Jonathan. I was fine with the solution to the mystery, though it’s only revealed because the guilty party confesses. My only other complaint is that the romantic subplot isn’t resolved, and it makes me wonder whether there will be a sequel. If so, I’ll certainly check it out!

Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory

As is the case with many books in the series, Miles kicks off this one by doing something stupid — something that endangers both himself and all the Dendarii under his command. He then lies to Illyan about it, which gets him kicked out of the Barrayaran military. Now that Miles has torpedoed his career before turning 30, what will he do next? It sounds like I’m judging Miles harshly, but actually I relate to him in this book. He’s reached that point of adulthood where he’s realizing his life hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would, and he has to figure out how to move forward. There’s also some plot stuff (Miles investigates a possible attack on ImpSec), but the focus is really on developing Miles’s character and setting up a new direction for the series. I’m excited to see where things go next!

Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, Business as Usual

Twenty-something Hilary Fane is determined not to be idle while waiting to marry her doctor fiancé, so she decides to move to London for a year and get a job. She lands at Everyman’s Department Store, where she is bad at writing labels but surprisingly good at improving the store’s library system. She also gains a new empathy for working-class people as she experiences their hardships firsthand — and realizes that her fiancé may not be the best match for her. This is a pleasant slice-of-life epistolary novel set in the 1930s, and I enjoyed my glimpse into this particular world. Hilary is an engaging and humorous character, though not always aware of her privilege in being able to choose to work or not. But I mostly liked her, and I also liked both the setting and the romantic elements. Recommended if you enjoy this type of thing!

Mini-Reviews: Dragon, Austen, Venom

Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon

When naval captain Will Laurence captures a French ship with a coveted dragon egg aboard, his life is turned upside-down. He bonds with the baby dragon, Temeraire, which means he must give up his naval career to become an aviator — a way of life completely different from what Laurence is used to. But his newfound friendship with Temeraire carries him through, and the two of them will have an important role to play in England’s ongoing war with France. I’ve read several books in this series, but I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed them! The concept (Napoleonic Wars plus dragons) is right up my alley, and I adore both Laurence and Temeraire as characters. I can’t wait to read about their further adventures in subsequent books! 

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home

This biography is a breezy and entertaining look at Jane Austen’s life through the lens of the homes she lived in. It also explores how the concepts of home and domesticity informed her work. As an enthusiastic Janeite, I enjoyed this book, although if you’ve read other Austen biographies you don’t particularly need to read this one. It appears reasonably well cited; there are numbered endnotes, and Worsley quotes many primary sources. She speculates quite a bit about motives and emotions (as she herself admits in the introduction), and I occasionally found her interpretations farfetched. Overall, though, a good read, especially for those who haven’t read other books on Austen’s life and work.

Kristin Burchell, Court of Venom

Badriya never wanted to become the queen’s poisoner, but she has no choice. The malicious Queen Solena will kill her if she refuses, and the city is surrounded by a wasteland full of witches and demons, making it impossible for her to run away. But when a neighboring prince arrives as a potential suitor for the queen, Badriya may finally get the chance to pursue a different life. This novel reads like a standard YA fantasy (though it’s marketed as adult); the heroine is an outsider with special powers who eventually has to fight for justice. It’s entertaining enough, but not particularly unique. I didn’t like how the book kept jumping between past and present; I think it was supposed to generate suspense, but instead it just made the world-building confusing and hard to follow. Overall, while I certainly didn’t hate this book, I wouldn’t particularly recommend it either.

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!