The Secret Betrothal: A Pride and Prejudice Alternate Path, by Jan Hahn – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:   The Secret Betrothal by Jan Hahn (2014)

Marriage in Regency times was the rock that built Society’s foundation. Not only was it the most important step in a young woman’s life, the union could advance her family’s social standing and wealth. Throughout Jane Austen’s novels we are shown the maneuverings of families to obtain advantageous alliances for their children, so when we see the secret engagements in Emma and Sense and Sensibility, and their outcome, we know the risk and scandal that can ensue. With this in mind, I am both curious and uneasy by author Jan Hahn’s choice of The Secret Betrothal as a title of her new novel. Furthermore, in this reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, she has boldly chosen to explore what would happen if Elizabeth Bennet entered into one herself! Whatever would possess our favorite Austen heroine to take this risk—and what would Mr. Darcy do to save her from such a folly?

For reasons I shan’t give away here, Elizabeth must keep this betrothal a secret and when she was told she could tell no one, not even her beloved sister, Jane:

“…she felt a chill crawl up her back….Although he lacked fortune, it was due to no failing on his part, and he had the promise of an adequate future awaiting him. But the possibility of waiting two years provoked a sigh from deep within her. He had warned Elizabeth that they must avoid paying close attention to each other when in public so as not to raise talk among the gossips of Meryton. Being a sensible woman, Elizabeth knew that was necessary as talk of matches and mating was primary among Hertfordshire society. Still, it did not set well with her.”  (63)

A chance meeting at Rosings Park, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth re-new their acquaintance and he comes to find out soon after his unpropitious declaration of love that she is already engaged. Secretly engaged! But he cannot comprehend why such an intelligent and fine a creature as Elizabeth would allow herself to enter into such an agreement. (Me either. Why, Elizabeth? Why? But of course, that frustration is what we are designed to feel.) Through a comedy of errors, the two are thrown together once again to aid the inhabitants of both Hunsford Parsonage and Rosing Park who have all taken ill after partaking in Lady Catherine’s apothecary’s prescribed tonic, helping Elizabeth change her former prejudices against Darcy. Meanwhile, as the weeks pass and Elizabeth receives scant letters from her secret amour, but continues to hear troubling news regarding his behavior from her youngest sisters, Elizabeth further questions her predicament. Not long afterward, Darcy’s physician suggests Mrs. Charlotte Collins might best recover at the seaside, so off to Lady Catherine’s Brighton home they go. There at Waverly, the story really heats up with some very sweet, romantic scenes along the ocean’s edge.

“Why did I not recognize Mr. Darcy’s true character earlier, long before I pledged myself to the one man he could never forgive?” At that moment, Elizabeth realized she truly loved him. She loved Mr. Darcy, and it was too late.

She rose to her knees and leaned out the window, allowing the wind to softly drift through her nightgown, causing her hair to blow from her face. How she yearned to reach him, to tell him how greatly she regretted all that happened!

Unexpectedly, the figure on the beach ceased his pacing. Accented by the moon’s brightness, Elizabeth could see him turn to cast his gaze toward Waverly. She became aware that most likely he could see her outline, that the candle behind her must be illuminating her figure in the window. He did not move but stood absolutely still, staring at her. Neither of them moved until a sudden gust blew through the window and quenched the candle. Now there was darkness.

Elizabeth watched the figure walk out of the light, and although she kept her vigil at the window for some time, he did not return.” (215)

(I declare, I was most inelegantly chewing my nails at this point.)

In The Secret Betrothal, award winning author Jan Hahn explores the heights and depths of a secret engagement and takes us on a frustrating, breathless, sentient and oh, so satisfying ride. I love all Jan Hahn’s previous works and have been anticipating her latest offering for months. This was worth the wait! Originally published on-line as a shorter story called “The Engagement”, this published work has undergone a thorough concept edit, tightening the story and expanding where the on-line story lacked. As always, Hahn writes excellent romance, but I did not relish that Elizabeth and Darcy did not take the straightforward approach to solving their quandary. But then that would have been a totally different story, and a bit of angst in Austenesque fiction is most deliciously, tantalizing. The Secret Betrothal felt authentic enough to Austen & Regency times. I am a sucker for happily-ever-afters. Fans of Jan Hahn will surely inhale this book, and those new to her work should add this to their to-be-read list—sooner than later.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Secret Betrothal: A Pride and Prejudice Alternate Path, by Jan Hahn
Meryton Press (2014)
Trade paperback (324)
ISBN: 978-1936009329

Cover image courtesy of Meryton Press © 2014; text Christina Boyd © 2014, Austenprose.com

Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy: Austen Addicts Vol. 5, by Victoria Connelly – A Review

Happy Birthday Mr Darcy by Victoria Connelly 2013 x 200From the desk of Christina Boyd:

The Austen Addicts series has evolved through the years into a guilty pleasure for me. Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy is Victoria Connelly’s fifth installment in this contemporary romance series loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The novella reunites us with her original characters from the first in the series, Weekend with Mr. Darcy, and opens a week prior to when Warwick Lawton (Austenesque author who writes under the female nom de plume, Lorna Warwick) is to pledge his troth to his Austen scholar/fiancé, Katherine Roberts.

Katherine is enchanted with the Regency themed wedding plans, her antique Russian engagement ring, and her empire-styled gown. She had never seen anything so beautiful. Well, not since Matthew Macfadyen had strode across the dawn meadow in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She really didn’t feel worthy of such a dress and it felt like a terrible extravagance to have something so lovely for just one day. Though passionately in-love with her fiancé, not unlike many brides, doubts about the marriage state and how her life is to change loom overhead right up until the wedding hour.

A colorful cast of characters with nods to Austen’s own characters, including Warwick’s marriage-cynic of a sister and his handsome, jovial best man, add to the wedding festivities. Dame Pamela, a favorite from Weekend with Mr. Darcy, opens her manor home to host the wedding and quips these two Janeites are marrying the same year that Pride and Prejudice celebrates its two-hundredth birth. “Mr. Darcy is doing well for his age,” Dame Pamela said with a little chuckle. “Pleasing women for two centuries is no mean feat!”

It was autumn of 2011 when I first discovered Victoria Connelly. I was in high dudgeon as it was the weekend of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Fort Worth, Texas and I would be missing the festivities. Austenprose blog mistress Laurel Ann Nattress had left me with a copy of A Weekend with Mr. Darcy, the first in the Austen Addicts series, as some consolation; I could not help but commiserate with Kitty Bennet when her sister Lydia left her home at Longbourn for her adventure at Brighton! Although not the thrill of attending an AGM Regency ball, Connelly’s first in her Austen Addicts series was a balm to my battered spirits. Since then, the Austen Addicts’ series continued: Dreaming of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy Forever, and then the novella, Christmas with Mr. Darcy.

There are no big surprises in Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy. But I must agree with the sage Mr. Knightley from Emma: “Surprises are foolish things.” However, despite being a harmless bit of Austen pastiche, this little darling of a book was but a light, nibble of meringue that left me wanting more.

4 out of 5 Stars

Happy Birthday Mr. Darcy: Austen Addicts Vol. 5, by Victoria Connelly
Cuthland Press (2013)
Trade paperback (118) pages
ISBN: 978-0956986672

Cover image courtesy of Cuthland Press © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2014, Austenprose.com

Undressing Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos – A Review

The Pride Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge (2013)This is our twelfth and final selection for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013, our year-long blog event honoring Jane Austen’s second published novel. Please follow the link above to read all the details of this reading and viewing challenge. Sign up’s are now closed but you can read the reviews and comment through 31 December 2013.

From the desk of Christina Boyd: 

With a title like Undressing Mr. Darcy, author Karen Doornebos’ new release is sure to turn a few heads this holiday season. “Sex sells, even to smart, liberated women, and Mr. Darcy was the smart girl’s pinup boy.” p. 7 And like the novel’s heroine, a master PR rep who has turned tweeting into an #artform, Doornebos has carefully crafted another contemporary romance novel about an ambitious, highly energized, very modern woman who meets a charming Mr. Darcy re-enactor, sure to draw the attention of Janeites and romance readers alike.

When Vanessa Roberts, PR extraordinaire with the perpetually-present smartphone and ever-ready clever social media tweet or posting, takes on a pro-bono job as a favor for her elderly Jane Austen loving aunt, little does she expect promoting the English author of, My Year as Mr. Darcy, to turn her organized world topsy-turvy. When she finally meets Julian Chancellor, who has capitalized on his good looks “as he gives a little historical background on his Regency-era clothing as he proceeds to take it off –down to his drawers” at his book signings, she finds she too, like the throngs of Darcy fans in the audience, is caught by his artful allurements.

When she realizes his incentive for writing his book is to raise money to support the restoration of his ancestral home, coupled with his charm and gentlemen-like behavior, she can’t help herself but start to fantasize what a fling, nay relationship, with him might be like. As they all attend the Jane Austen Society North America (JASNA) Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Chicago, while surrounded by Austen lovers fully immersed in the hubbub, Vanessa is busy promoting her author, “Want to tie the knot with Mr. Darcy? He’s in Cravat Tying 101 right now.#JASNAagm #UndressingMrDarcy #OrDressingMrDarcy?” p. 71 Surprisingly amongst all the bonnets and lace, she discovers she might be open to the possibilities of something more to life than constantly being plugged in.

It felt as if some of his Austen quotes were speaking directly to her at times, and it occurred to her that it might be time that she gave the author another chance. Perhaps her aunt had been on to something all these years. Was there something beyond the happily ever after stories and the demure portrait of a woman in a white ruffled cap that popped in Vanessa’s head every time ‘Jane Austen’ was mentioned?” p. 36

Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos (2013)As Julian’s clothes come off, the heat turns up. But it’s not just his fine person that captivates her; his endearing friendship with her beloved aunt coupled with his affection and knowledge of all things Austen soon bewitch her body and soul. “‘The conversion has begun. It’s in your blood. Resistance is futile.’ He looked into her eyes and took a step backward. ‘You’re becoming an Austen fan.‘” p. 9

But like in life, ever dry spell has its flood. And for the lonesome, loveless Vanessa, soon after meeting Julian she meets a handsome, amiable pirate! Turns out HeroCon is happening simultaneously at the same Chicago hotel. Is Chase MacClane a rogue of the highest order or is he the hero in disguise?

Two Austen events later, Vanessa finds herself in England for the celebrated ten day Jane Austen Festival in Bath. As soon as the plane lands, the consummate media maven posts, “‘Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted.’ Could a girl ask for more? All sorts of sordid things happen in London.” p. 209 But all may not be how it appears. Later as she scampers about London and Bath on a wild, Austen-inspired scavenger hunt, she questions the authenticity of her relationship with Julian, her friendship with Chase, her aunt’s imminent Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and what she is going to do about any of it. “She laughed at her own folly. Folly? Had she ever used that word before? Why did she palpably feel Jane Austen’s presence across the room, near the trio, with folded arms and laughing at her?” p. 214 Doornebos’s storytelling had me biting my bottom lip until the very last, guessing who, if anyone, our fair heroine might choose!

Karen Doornebos, the author of Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, has certainly delivered me good tidings of comfort and joy this holiday season with this latest offering. Because of her concise research of Austen, in concert with the believable dialogue and madcap romantic antics, I am compelled to tweet: “@xtnaboyd Undressing Mr. Darcy is the #perfectstockingstuffer for Austen & Darcy lovers everywhere- regardless who are naughty or nice!”

5 out of 5 Stars 

Undressing Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos
Berkley Trade (2013)
Trade paperback (368) pages
ISBN: 978-0425261392

Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose.com

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding – A Review

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding (2013)From the desk of Christina Boyd:

We were first introduced to Bridget Jones’ Diary in 1997. Readers kept it on the New York Times bestseller list for over six months. We were utterly addicted to this new confessional literary genre author Helen Fielding had created—the unguarded, neurotic ramblings of a London singleton in search of love—and her obsession with Jane Austen’s romantic hero Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, (admittedly Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC/A&E mini-series). We devoured the sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason in 1999, and the subsequent movies with an all-star cast of Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant, and, yes, Colin Firth as dishy, love-interest Mark Darcy. Now 14 years later, Fielding has resurrected her most popular character …

STOP. If you haven’t heard about the big, gigantic, SPOILER in her new novel, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy—DO NOT PROCEED. This is your chance to bail now. Save yourself the trouble and time of ranting at me in some long-winded diatribe. You have been given due notice. But, please do come back here and let’s compare notes, once you have read the book, of course.

However, if you have heard the big news about this third book in the series, then carry on. My little review won’t ruin anything for you that has not already been broadcast worldwide. Also, a slight warning as to the sailor-like language sprinkled throughout that we have come to expect from Bridget and friends. (My apologies to sailors everywhere who do not swear or speak in a vulgar manner. Terrible, terrible stereotype. I know.) Though jarring, cringe-worthy really, if any of my American friends were to spew such vulgarity, coming from Bridget, any Brit really, this American reviewer tends to give a pass. Maybe it’s the charming British accent? Or the Renee Zellweger narrative I hear in my head?

Channeling my inner-Bridget’s up to the minute, daily diary-style format, the following is an account of my ponderings on Fielding’s latest offering:

SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT…SPOILER ALERT

Monday 30 September 2013 

Number of times I said “WHAT?” when The Today Show announced author Helen Fielding killed off Mark Darcy 20, number of negative thoughts 1000, number of Facebook posts and threads I mentioned this spoiler 9, hours it took me to overcome my shock of Mark’s death 26, days I had to wait after this bombshell until my advanced copy was released from the publisher 10, days I had to wait until my copy was forwarded on from Austenprose blogmistress 2, hours I had to wait to get a moment to myself from delivery of said book until I could crack it open 10, number of days it took me to actually finish because of the rude intrusions of real life 3.

7:17 a.m. Breaking news on The Today Show. “Hearts are breaking wide open around the world. Bridget Jones is back. Minus Mr. Darcy.” What? What?! No Mark Darcy! My dear husband tried to offer his condolences by pointing out the British are not afraid of killing off their favorites in their television programs, reminding me of the recent Downton Abbey debacle of doing in yummy male lead, and all-around good-guy, Matthew Crawley, and even many of my favorites from MI-5, aka in Great Britain as Spooks. (Not helpful.) Still, how can this be? Is this a prank? Pfffffft. What’s the point? Who wants to read about Bridget Jones if there’s no Mark Darcy?

7:27 a.m. Facebook, twitter, and blogs are all abuzz with devastating news. I knew the book had been embargoed to all advanced copies for reviews. Was this the reason? Maybe so, and yet, somehow a copy must have slipped out, and the publisher must have said, “Go ahead, leak the bloody spoiler,” says my wildly, active imagination. Amidst the U.S. economy being held hostage by its own government, earthquakes, typhoons, Iran’s nuclear program talks, Mark Darcy’s death has pushed aside Miley Cyrus’s “strategic hot mess.” Or, was so-called leak possibly part of cleverly choreographed marketing scheme? Hmmm…? On to reading the book…

Friday 11 October 2013

Number of times nits are mentioned 43 (plus or minus), number of times I scratched my own head after reading about nits 43 (plus or minus), number of times I scratched my head at the mention of some clearly British word or product like: spag bog and Fairy Liquid 2, number of barn owl sightings 2, number of times I cried at the end of barn owl scenes 2, number of times I wept over Bridget’s memories of Mark 3, number of times I laughed out loud 78, number of pages I giggled at the repeated mention of the f-word (and I mean fart) 3 ½, number of pages until the use of the other f-word is used (and I mean “fuckwit”) 12, number of times used thereafter 278 (plus or minus), number of Jane Austen references 2 (maybe 3), number of days since I finished reading it (yet am still mulling over the details) 5.

When last we read about Bridget Jones it was the year 2000, and at the close of The Edge of Reason Mark Darcy was arranging his case load in America and, or Thailand, with Bridget in tow. Over a decade later, the world has changed. Major life changes. 9-11. Technology. The Internet. Bridget and Mark now have two children.

Mad About the Boy opens with Bridget in a quandary about her friend’s 60th birthday party. Should she, or should she not, invite her boytoy Roxster, who happens to be celebrating his 30th birthday on the same night? Then it proceeds right into a calamitous episode of nits (head lice), vomit and diarrhea. She must handle it all alone, if we are to believe the spoilers, without Mark. For the next 20-odd pages all the usual Bridget chatter about her boytoy, and bumbling about as a single mother, without one mention of Mark. I quite think if I had not heard Fielding had killed off Mark prior to this reading, I would have been Googling to see if I had missed a Book 3 and was in fact reading Book 4. And then on page 26, there it was:

Mark Darcy 1956-2008

Told from Bridget’s perspective, with long chunks of her irreverent monologue, her often minute by minute running commentary, her texting conversations, and now with Twitter, her attempt to get current, she tweets:

Thursday 12 July 2012, 155 lbs, pounds lost 20, pages of screenplay written 10, Twitter followers 0. <@DalaiLama Just as a snake sheds its skin, so we must shed our past again and again.> 

“You see? The Dalai Lama and I are one cyber-mind. I am shedding my fat like a snake.” (p. 55)

So this is Bridget a decade and a half later. Widowed, 51-year-old, cheeky single mother of two small children, attempting to write a screenplay and still struggling with how she fits into the world—a tech savvy world. Forlorn, without her rock Mark Darcy. She is still friends with the bawdy cast we love and adore: Talitha, Jude, Tom and Magda, and as they are all now deeply entrenched in that other vulgar phrase “middle age,” are determined to get rid of Bridget’s lonely, “Born-Again Virgin” status. 

“I’ve had enough of this! What do you mean ‘middle-aged’? In Jane Austen’s day we’d all be dead by now.  We’re going to live to be a hundred. It’s not the middle of our lives. Oh. Yes. Well, actually it is the middle.” (p. 67) 

Yet, she is determined to find her new normal. Mark wouldn’t want her to be alone and miserable. 

And just like that, she decides to get back out there. After all, it has been four and a half  years since she has even kissed a man. But, like most times when you are trying something new, or rather something you have done before but not in a very, long time, and trying to be 30, when you are in fact 51, events do not always turn out as you hoped. 

“We all became crestfallen, our confidence collapsing like a house of cards. ‘Oh God. Do we just look like an ensemble of elderly transvestites?’ said Tom. 

‘It’s happened, just as I always feared,’ I said. ‘We’ve ended up as tragic old fools convincing ourselves the vicar is in love with us because he’s mentioned his organ.’ (p. 80)

However, Bridget does find love and affection via Twitter. This story-line is chock full of tender, LOL, randy moments, and amusing texting dialogue as she enjoys re-discovering her sensuality with her 30 year old boytoy, who really does fancy her. But Bridget is still Bridget—sure  to cock something up as she fumbles about and never showing herself to her best, especially in front of smug marrieds, potential career makers and her son’s chess/music/sports department teacher Mr. Wallaker. Bridget describes him as “fit, tall, slightly younger than me, crop-haired, rather like Daniel Craig in appearance.” (p. 5). Surely this must be Fielding’s nod to who should play the new teacher in the future movie? Yes, puleez.

At the moment when you think you can’t take one more self-destructive, idiotic, nitwit antic, Bridget takes a breath, adjusts her priorities and performs a few self-less acts—that end up turning things around. I think that’s what Bridget would call Karma. And what would a series be (that began with what Fielding confesses was stolen from the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice), without a romantic, happily ever after? Bridget-style, of course.

“He took a step closer. The air was heavy with jasmine, roses. I breathed unsteadily. It felt as though we were being drawn together by the moon. He reached out, like I was a child, or a Bambi or something, and touched my hair. ‘There aren’t any nits in here, are there?’ he said.” (p. 321-322)

And that’s not even with the loveable Daniel Cleaver, who, yes, is in this book as… wait for it… the children’s godfather!

Keep Calm and Carry On Without Mark Darcy

So, let me be the one to say, although I loved Bridget with Mark Darcy, (her grounded, stabilizing life-force, her Yin to his Yang), I do accept that horrible, tragic things do happen in real life. Fielding took a brave leap (others might say foolish) in killing this beloved character off. Believe me. Those first 26 hours after I learned of his death I was as dazed as Jones in a vodka induced stupor. Fielding could have played it safe. But where would she have gone with that? Every day real life women get up, face the day, and soldier on. If our Bridget can do it… you can too. Stay calm and carry on without Mark Darcy. Mad About the Boy is a delicious, boisterous, raucous triumph championing a re-awakening of life. Read the book. As in real life, you’d hate to miss out. <@Dalai Lama An open heart is an open mind.>

5 out of 5 Stars

P.S. I was going to knock off ½ a star for killing Mark, but then reminded self it would have been a predictable, pointless, fuckwit move.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding
Alfred A. Knopf (2013)
Hardcover (400) pages
ISBN: 978-0385350860

Cover image courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose.com

Finding Colin Firth: A Novel, by Mia March – A Review

Finding Colin Firth by Mia March (2013)From the desk of Christina Boyd:

What Janeite would not stop dead in her tracks when she spies “Colin Firth” in the title of a book? Mia March’s latest offering Finding Colin Firth: A Novel certainly set off all my bells and whistles. The smolderingly sexy British actor not only won our hearts when he emerged dripping wet from Pemberley pond as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, he has had an acclaimed career, winning the best actor Academy Award in 2011 for The King’s Speech. Who wouldn’t want to find Colin Firth? But no, dear friends, this is not a “How to” book sharing tips and advice on how to track and successfully have a Firth encounter. Eeesh! It’s a work of fiction about three women unknowingly bound together and whose lives intersect when the actor is slated to film a movie in a coastal Maine town. Daily rumors of Mr. Firth’s arrival fuels fantasy and stirs the excitement in their lives and aspirations. (Just imagining spotting Mr. Firth in my little town sets this fan-girl’s heart racing!)

A year after her mother’s death, (who incidentally was a Colin Firth fan), 22 year-old Bea Crane receives a mysterious letter from her deceased mother, confessing she adopted Bea as a newborn. “…Now that I feel myself going, I can’t bear to take this with me. But I can’t bear to tell you with my final breaths, either, I can’t do that to you. So I’ll wait on this, for both of us. But you should know the truth because it is the truth.” Shocked, Bea tracks down her birth mother to Boothbay Harbor, Maine and decides she must see this unknown woman for herself.

In Boothbay, Bea learns that 38-year-old Veronica Russo is an unmarried waitress-slash-magic pie baker-slash-Colin Firth fan who has only in the last year returned to her hometown. After years of failed relationships, her friends worry she will end up alone.  “…she’d started saying what felt light-hearted but true at the same time, that she was holding out for a man who felt like Colin Firth to her. Her friend Shelley from the diner had known exactly what she meant. ‘I realize he’s an actor playing roles, but I get it,’ Shelley had said. ‘Honest. Full of integrity. Conviction. Brimming with intelligence.  Loyal. You just want to believe everything he says with that British accent of his –and can trust it.’” Having failed to escape haunting memories of her youth, Veronica has come home to confront her past then “maybe her heart would start working the way it was supposed to. And maybe, maybe, maybe, the daughter she’d given up for adoption would contact her.” Now back to those magic pies by Veronica… She calls them elixir pies claiming to cast hope, love or banishment– or anything that conjures up a solution to one’s troubles. “For a heartbroken friend, Healing Pie. For a sick friend, Feel Better Pie. For a down-in –the dumps friend, Happiness Pie. For the lovelorn, Amore Pie.” And they seem to work! On everyone except Veronica. At least so far.

After seeing her birth mother at the diner, but not brave enough yet to approach her, Bea decides to take a tour of Hope Home, a home for unwed pregnant girls where she was born. There she meets a Manhattan journalist, Gemma Hendricks. Upon first coming to town, the recently fired Gemma thought she could curry favor with her old magazine by scooping a coveted human-interest story on Colin Firth. Instead she is offered a free-lance gig at the local newspaper to write a story on the 50th anniversary of Hope Home.  At a crossroads herself, Gemma has only just discovered she is pregnant but has yet to share the news with her devoted attorney husband. She loves living and working in the city but already knows her husband wants to move to the suburbs and start a family.  “How would she ever get back what she had at ‘New York Weekly’? Alexander would realize this in a hot minute and argue her into that Dobbs Ferry house before she new it.  He’d make his own case until she had no arguments of her own. And once she had the baby? He’d bombard her with articles about working mothers and bad nannies and reckless day cares.”

Although this is an intricate concoction, cooking up a potentially emotionally heated story, it would be a failing indeed were I not to mention the elephant in the room. A glaring error, in fact. And I mean GLARING—Red-light GLARING error—in the beginning of the book. Veronica is baking a pie while supposedly watching the mini-series Pride and Prejudice. The Colin Firth, 1995, A&E five-hour version. March writes, “Fitzwilliam Darcy’s face filled the TV screen. ‘If, however, your feelings have changed, I will have to tell you; you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you. I never wish to be parted from you from this day on…’” Although it’s not Austen’s prose, this Janeite loves that line and all it’s saccharine sweet sentiment. I know for a fact it’s what the Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy from the Joe Wright 2005 version of P&P says to Kiera Knightley’s Lizzy Bennet as they meet in a mist covered field at daybreak!  So, I went back and made sure I hadn’t missed something—something like, Veronica was watching the newer version. But no, she is supposed to be watching the Colin Firth version. Ugh! It is incredulous any author writing about the namesake of her book, or her editor, or the layers of people who read it before publication could let such an obvious blunder slip through unnoticed. From then on I had my doubts March was a fan of Colin Firth or P&P – and speculated maybe she wrote this bit of pastiche to take advantage of the current popularity and ready-made fan base of both. Prejudiced thereafter, I read any mention of Mr.Firth or his movies with a cynical eye, thinking this could be any popular actor and his movies dubbed in. Nevertheless, I soldiered on because honestly, I liked the premise—and was hopeful.

Did I enjoy the book? Hmmmmm… Yes, I did. It was an interesting story with strong plot lines. Although Finding Colin Firth: A Novel dealt with powerful issues regarding teenage pregnancy, adoption, marriage and relationship struggles with a happy ending for all, I must admit I never felt overly invested in any of the characters to really like them. There seemed no shortage of disjointed “telling” from the three main characters’ point of view but scant, soulful interaction. Given the themes, I thought there would have been more depth. Pity. In short, it’s a good book. Easy, breezy bit of chic-lit that I liked. Not loved.

Yes, there is a Colin Firth sighting, eventually, but then again, he’s not really the story. Just the bait.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Finding Colin Firth: A Novel, by Mia March
Gallery Books (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1476710204

Cover image courtesy of Simon & Schuster © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose.com

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues, by Linda Berdoll – A Review

The Pride Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge (2013)This is our ninth selection for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013, our year-long event honoring Jane Austen’s second published novel. Please follow the link above to read all the details of this reading and viewing challenge. Sign up’s are now closed for new participants, but you can join us in reading all the great reviews and comments until December 31, 2013. Since I am traveling in England on a Jane Austen Tour, Christina Boyd is pinch hitting for me in my absence and offers this great review of a classic Pride and Prejudice sequel.

From the desk of Christina Boyd:

Author Linda Berdoll’s first novel in her continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was originally self-published in 1999 as The Bar Sinister. This reviewer however, discovered her work in 2006, after Sourcebooks had re-published it under the new title (in 2004) Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife. Mind, I had only discovered the world of fan-fiction and life after Pride & Prejudice through the elegant writing of Pamela Aiden’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman… and had no idea what to expect from this madcap, puckish sequel that opens as Mr. & Mrs. Darcy embark on married life and harkens back to the impassioned moments reined in during their engagement. Nevertheless, not until after their ardent wedding night do they discover how truly well-matched they are for one another. However, it’s Berdoll’s explicit voyeurism into the Darcy’s enthusiastic and abundant love-making that many devoted Austen readers have taken offense to, thus, separating readers into two camps: those that fervently love Berdoll’s work and those that vehemently hate it. (Note: as I have stated previously in other Berdoll reviews here at Austenprose, I am clearly on Team Berdoll.)

Contrary to the gossips, there is more to this landmark work of fan-fiction than numerous amorous seductions and copious conjugal proclivities between two of the literary world’s most beloved couple. Several emotive subplots, almost straight from Austen’s masterpiece, whilst others entirely of Berdoll’s contrivance, create a believable verve after Pride & Prejudice. As the newly married Elizabeth Darcy establishes herself as mistress of Pemberley, she soon comprehends there is much to learn about her new role and the great estate she now holds dominion over, second only to her husband who she suspects might very well have an astonishing, yet furtive past. He had exposed this flaw to the very person whose admiration he most desired. Upon this internal revelation, his countenance reflected repentance. p. 115. As much as she did not relish the topic of his past prior to their marriage, she is determined to know it all, what with her suspicions of Darcy possibly fathering an illegitimate son. But some secrets might better be left undisturbed.

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, by Linda Berdoll (2004)As agreeable as her own marriage bed may be, her profusely fertile sister Jane still wonders what all the fuss is about and despite Elizabeth’s contradiction, believes obliging her husband “’tis a woman’s lot.” Notwithstanding Darcy and Elizabeth’s fervent dedication to the production of a Darcy heir, their efforts fail to yield. In addition, a ruthless servant becomes obsessed with having Elizabeth for himself; savagely stealing her away and only Darcy can rescue her. The roaring panic in Elizabeth’s head almost drowned out the sound of the door as it was kicked open and smashed against the wall.  But it startled Reed, who looked thither from attempting to pintle Mrs. Darcy, to be greeted by the unthinkable harrowing sight of Mr. Darcy himself. And he did not appear to be in a forgiving mood. p. 201

This 465 page Pride & Prejudice continuation, fraught with euphemisms of the burlesque, quick-witted dialogue of our Austen favorites as well as a cast of new characters surrounding those we know so well, was a pioneering fete in 1999, even 2004 for that matter, selling well over 350,000 copies as well as the subsequent offerings in Darcy & Elizabeth, Nights & Days at Pemberley, and The Ruling Passion, Pride & Prejudice Continues. Since then, many writers have plunged into the publishing waters of this Pride & Prejudice historical romance genre (more specifically of a pulsing, bodice-ripping nature) so I cannot but wonder if Berdoll’s work has become any less an abomination amongst the haters. She has even been included in the recently published Among the Janeites: A Journey Through The World of Jane Austen Fandom by Deborah Yaffe (of which I favorably refer to as “Who’s Who Among Janeites.”) Actually, Yaffe devotes an entire chapter to Linda Berdoll & Pamela Aiden’s pioneering efforts!

The happy couple made love at the drop of a bonnet—in a carriage clopping along the road to Pemberley, atop a Chippendale dining table, in a forested glad on the grounds of the estate. And Linda, whose research had uncovered a vast number of Regency euphemisms, entertained herself by using a different one (‘love torch,” “timbered appendage,’ “Larydoodle”) every time she needed to mention the male member. Her book wasn’t a joke—she cared about her characters’ experiences and relationships—but she had a sense of humor about the whole enterprise.” Deborah Yaffe, Among the Janeites (2013)

My own remembrances of the past upon first reading Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: my freshly minted Janeite eyes wide open, tentatively turning pages at first, then laughing heartily at Berdoll’s quirky word-choices, ribald descriptions, and later, breathless with anticipation as the authoress laid out her tale, and finally my thirst for more (Darcy) was satiated as the wholly pleasurable and poignant story unfolded. Albeit not as satisfied as Mrs. Darcy, of course. So naturally, I had to read the whole thing again!

Even during times like this, of self- publication and on-line fan fiction, when there is a plethora of Austen sequels, adaptations, re-imaginings, films both serious and campy, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife is still the incomparable! In my experience, one can never have too much Darcy & Elizabeth.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues, by Linda Berdoll
Sourcebooks Landmark (2004)
Trade paperback (476) pages
ISBN: 978-1402202735

Cover image courtesy of Sourcebooks Landmark © 2004; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose.com

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria: A Pink Carnation Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, by Lauren Willig (2013) From the desk of Christina Boyd

Acclaimed author Lauren Willig’s latest offering, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, is the tenth novel in her New York Times best selling Pink Carnation series. This historical romance series of Napoleonic era English spies, that fight for Britain and for love, is constructed within a modern day love story, told from the point of view of the American grad student Eloise Kelly who is writing her dissertation on the true identity of the Pink Carnation, the master British spy of the time.

In Purple Plumeria, (those of us who have been previously “Pinked,” often refer to the novels by the abbreviated Flower title…), the handsome Colonel William Reid, who we first encountered in Blood Lily (The Betrayal of the Blood Lily) has returned to his daughters in England from a lifelong military career in India only to discover his youngest has recently disappeared from boarding school with one of her classmates.  Soon we learn the other missing student is Agnes Wooliston, the sister of British spymaster, errr, ehm, spymistress, the Pink Carnation – generally known as Miss Jane Wooliston – recalling  her home from Paris to England. And where Miss Wooliston goes, so goes her caustically witty and straight-laced companion, and adroit, clever, parasol-wielding agent of the War Office, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows. While conducting an interview with the headmistress, they meet the aforementioned comely, charming Colonel.

Gwen didn’t like any of this. She didn’t like it one bit. All her instincts, well honed over years of midnight raids, were shouting “trouble.” How much of the trouble was coming from the situation and how much from a certain sun-bronzed colonel was a matter for debate. Bad enough that Agnes had gone missing; worse yet to have to deal with the parent of the other girl, poking his nose in—however attractive a nose it might be—and posing questions that might prove inconvenient for everyone. And by everyone, she meant the Pink Carnation.  p. 55

Finding they must work together if they have any hopes of finding the two young ladies, the Colonel discovers his partner to be quite a delightful, refreshing conundrum and not only because of her dexterity while under attack. The lines at the corners of Colonel Reid’s eyes crinkled. “Do you ever allow anyone else the last word, Miss Meadows?”  “Not if they haven’t wit enough to seize it,” said Gwen. “That,” said Colonel Reid, ‘sounds remarkably like a challenge.” p. 92 She on the other hand, never expected to be partnered with such a man and is surprised by the thoughts and emotions he inspires.  He looked at her quizzically. They were close enough that she could make out the faint hint of a scar beside his lip, close enough to kiss. Where had that ridiculous thought come from? p. 93 Could our uptight, upstanding, paragon of virtue, spinster-heroine have passion simmering beneath that starchy, purple plumed facade?

We last left our modern day Harvard grad student Eloise in book #9, The Garden Intrigue, the story telling the story, (or is it the story in the story? much like the chicken or the egg?), researching the Napoleonic Wars, specifically, the Pink Carnation, while living with her boyfriend, Colin Selwick at his country family estate, Selwick Hall. As it would happen, she fell into this love affair while researching his very ancestors – and with only 2 months left until she is expected to return to Harvard, the American one on the other side of the pond – she is as anxious about leaving him as she is about discovering her research has come to an unexpected standstill.

No matter where I looked, I couldn’t find any reference to Miss Jane Wooliston or Miss Gwendolyn Meadows in my sources post 1805. Edouard de Balcourt went on merrily living in the Hotel de Balcourt, toadying up to the Emperor (until the Restoration, at which point he abruptly remembered that his father had been decapitated during the Revolution and he’d never liked that upstart Corsican dictator anyway), but his cousin and chaperone had left the building. p. 72

And when the Selwick family legend of “the lost jewels of Behar” stirs up the skulking about of Colin’s loathsome douche of a cousin/step-father, Jeremy Selwick-Alderly, their family’s matriarch demands the two men work together to find the treasure, or else.  Guided by childhood familial stories, a three-lined riddle, and a 200 year old book entitled, The Convent of Orsino by A Lady, the trio, embark on their own intrigue, which fortuitously re-ignites Eloise’s dissertation.

In the cunningly written Reader’s Guide, interviewing both the authors of The Convent of Orsino and the author of Purple Plumeria, Willig admits no little intimidation in pursuing Miss Gwen’s story and even wrote her Edwardian era stand-alone novel The Ashford Affair as a means of deferment. As much as I loved reading the fruits of her willful, blatant procrastination of this next Pink book, I am thoroughly satisfied with her win-win stratagems. The Passion of the Purple Plumeria has all the trademark characteristics of Lauren Willig’s previous Pink Carnation books: clever players and Napoleonic spy intrigue united with heart pounding romance. My only complaint: this book is not offered in hardback. In the spirit of Miss Meadows this reader snaps, “Hmph! It mars the look of the rest of my collection! The wrong trim on the wrong bonnet!”  *Sniff!* But since that is not the author’s fault and falls clearly to the publisher, Lauren Willig’s latest is still a 5 star read! Be certain to add it to your summer reading list. Added bonuses: Discussion Questions perfect for your book club, as well as an excerpt for her next in this series, due Summer 2014.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria: A Pink Carnation Novel, by Lauren Willig
NAL Trade (2013)
Trade paperback (480) pages
ISBN: 978-0451414724

Cover image courtesy of the Penguin Group © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose.com.

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke – A Review

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke 2013From the desk of Christina Boyd

It you are a fan of Downton Abbey and are jonesing for a Grantham family-like fix until season four premieres next January on PBS, Elizabeth Cooke’s latest novel Rutherford Park might be just the ticket. Set during the Edwardian era at the eponymous estate in the Yorkshire countryside, the Cavendish family are as wealthy, titled, and drama-filled as the Grantham’s, yet we are privileged to be reading a book, as opposed to watching a screenplay, so the author’s historical detail, characterizations and compelling narrative make it even more intriguing

Rutherford Park is the seat of the Cavendish family who live their lavish lives by strict rules and obligation. Not surprisingly, the beautiful Lady Octavia Cavendish is lonely and bored, even somewhat envies the servants for their work. Her husband William, bound by the obligations of his title and his vows, unknowingly feels a similar discontent. “They saw him as some sort of fixed being, a symbol, a caricature. Octavia too, perhaps, in her great wool-and-velvet shawl with her pretty little straw-colored boots under a cream dress. They were both a sort of monument, he supposed: not real in the same way that the laborers were real…” p. 52. Later when Octavia suspects William of an affair with a longtime family acquaintance from Paris, the last remnants of a charmed world seemed to disappear.

The son and heir Harry, has his own dreams of flying aeroplanes but with the tragic death at Christmastime of a housemaid, those dreams might quickly disintegrate as well. With a house full of guests for the holidays, suspicions are evoked, while expectations and beliefs are shattered. “A sort of crazed idea rattled in his brain, pressed down on his tongue as if it were going to leap out of his mouth. He realized that he was shaking not from cold now, but from the sensation of standing on the edge of a precipice where everything hinged on his next reply.” p. 69. Within months all the family is in London, attempting to move on from the shocking events and discoveries at Rutherford. Louisa Cavendish, the innocent and naïve daughter, is preparing to make her Presentation and seems the most unlikely candidate to engage in a tryst with a mysterious stranger.  Wearied in spirits, Octavia escapes to the country to wallow in her own self-pity, leaving her daughters in the care of friends.

While secrets and fidelity remain in question, William departs for Paris to attend business and settle personal accounts, leaving the family adrift. Meanwhile John Gould, a handsome, rich American houseguest comes to study the history of the Cavendishes and becomes more than a distraction to Octavia. “He hadn’t come to England to fall in love with someone else’s wife. Especially not an unhappy wife. A carefree woman who yearned for a little affair – maybe… maybe he could have happily got himself embroiled for a few weeks, though carelessness with a woman was not his nature. But this. This bloody fever. This was what the English would call it: bloody. And it was.” p. 189

Fast on the heals of other Edwardian England series like T. J. Brown’s Summerset Abbey and Phillip Rock’s The Greville Family Saga, I was somewhat reluctant to read this latest by Elizabeth Cooke. As much as I enjoyed the aforementioned series, I was skeptical about reading another book seemingly riding the Downton Abbey wave of success. But my concerns were for naught—Rutherford Park: A Novel is an unreservedly, gripping drama. The strained relationship of Lord William and Lady Cavendish are put to the ultimate test while their children scramble to find how they too fit, and the staff and surrounding villages dependent on Rutherford Park toil away with their own struggles. Likening to the inevitability of the WWI rumblings in this epic tale, could this stand-alone novel be the start of a veritable series? My source tells me, yes! Elizabeth Cooke is currently working on a second Rutherford book. A must for your summer reading as Rutherfold Park is a regular stunner!

5 out of 5 Stars

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke
Berkely Trade (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-0425262580

Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose