Jane, Actually: or Jane Austen’s Book Tour, by Jennifer Petkus – A Review

Jane, Actually, by Jennifer Petkus © 2013 Mallard Sci-FiFrom the desk of Jeffrey Ward

What would YOU say to Jane Austen if it became possible to communicate with her personally after two centuries? Jennifer Petkus’ third novel, Jane, Actually explores that possibility with an endless array of “what-if’s:” Is there an afterlife? If so, in what form? If departed souls are immortal, will the living be able to communicate with them? Will one departed soul be able to contact another departed soul? How will departed souls legally verify their identities? Can a disembodied soul fall in love with another disembodied soul?

A little background is necessary. In her debut novel, Good Cop Dead Cop, the author establishes a discovery that enables departed souls to contact the living via a technological marvel known as the “afternet.” In her second novel My Particular Friend, Petkus mashes together Sherlock Holmes with Jane Austen’s Bath for a Regency romp that is impossible to pin a label on. With great warmth and humor the author ingeniously mashes together the “afternet” with the very-alive but disembodied soul of Jane Austen and you actually get Jane, Actually.

Jane’s identity has been legally verified by the afternet authentication committee and she has finished her incomplete novel Sanditon, she has acquired an agent and staunch promoter in Melody Kramer and a grand book tour is planned. Although Jane communicates easily over the afternet, she is invisible, so the search begins for a suitable avatar to be her visual embodiment. A young acting student coincidently named Mary Crawford is one of the finalists. She knows next to nothing about Jane Austen, not even the literary significance of her own name. However, Jane takes a liking to her and she is chosen over more qualified candidates. Getting Jane and Mary to “sync-up” using the afternet proves difficult and frustrating but they warm to each other nevertheless.

Everything appears to be progressing smoothly but there is trouble afoot for Jane in the person of Dr. Alice Davis, one of the world’s most foremost subject matter experts on Jane Austen. One of her English counterparts, fellow expert and journalist Courtney Blake, has discovered a never-before-seen letter that Sotheby’s London auction house has verified as written in Jane’s hand. Dr. Davis plans to spring this revelation on Miss Austen at the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) general meeting and prove this Jane Austen is a fraud if she is unable to define her own letter’s contents.

Her unlikely and unwitting accomplice is Stephen Abrams a doctoral candidate whom she advises. Stephen meets Jane’s avatar Mary and the beginnings of a romance ensue. Mary is utterly devoted to Jane but poor Stephen is unaware to what extent Dr. Davis plan is to discredit Jane’s identity.

Jane also has been communicating with an Albert Ridings for a decade via the afternet. Albert died during World War I and was from the same general region as Jane in Hampshire, England.  She has disguised her identity this entire time, not wishing him to get caught up in her celebrity.  Their relationship appears to have progressed to intimate fondness and even love for each other but her lack of forthrightness may jeopardize his trust and faith in her.

The author’s depiction of Jane Austen is chillingly authentic. She is intelligent and savvy, having eavesdropped on practically every development in the two centuries since her death. As this reviewer suspected, Jane is kind and loyal but does not suffer fools as she turns on those who wish to manipulate her with caustic wit. She shows mastery in most things except perhaps her own confused feelings about love. A precarious romantic moment is in the air for both couples as the invisible follow the visible through a country dance at the JASNA meeting:

“It was time for Stephen and Mary to progress through the line and Albert and Jane effortlessly followed them.‘But love requires hands to hold and lips to kiss,’ Jane said.  ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments as the man said.’ Albert said in response.” (A quote from Darcy in P & P)

As it was all but impossible to categorize My Particular Friend, Jane, Actually: or Jane Austen’s Book Tour defies literary labels as well! It is part science fiction, part fantasy/paranormal, part romance, part mystery/suspense and ALL Jane Austen.  Is it absurdly fantastic? Yes!  Is it compellingly entertaining? Double-yes!!

The author’s love for Jane Austen pours forth from her impressive research and footnotes. And, before you lose yourselves in Jane, Actually, be sure to read the introductory explanation on the complexities of the afternet v-e-r-y carefully. One wonders what Jennifer Petkus will come up with next when she comes back to earth. Her creative imagination, character development, and gifted writing skills apparently know no boundaries.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane, Actually: or Jane Austen’s Book Tour, by Jennifer Petkus
Mallard Sci-Fi (2013)
Trade paperback (406) pages
ISBN: 978-0615796710

Cover image courtesy Mallard Sci-Fi © 2013, text Jeffrey Ward © 2013, Austenprose

One Thread Pulled: The Dance with Mr. Darcy (Volume 1), By Diana J. Oaks – A Review

Image of the book cover of One Thread Pulled: A Dance with Mr Darcy (Volume 1), by Diana J. Oaks From the desk of Jeffrey Ward

How differently would Pride and Prejudice have proceeded if Miss Elizabeth Bennet had not overheard Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy’s insulting remarks during the Meryton assembly?  Differently? Yes, very-very differently according to this debut author’s totally diverting and brilliant re-imagining of Jane Austen’s timeless romance.

Starting at page one and continuing all the way to page 457 (rather lengthy for a work of this nature), it never falls off or fails to delight at any point or on any page. So, if you love Elizabeth and Darcy, please read on…..

Two years in the writing, and perhaps more in research, validate the author’s mastery of the Regency period, especially her intimate portrayals of Elizabeth and Darcy, clear down to the least significant character. I am astonished at how the author totally re-charts the course of Miss Austen’s most famous story, yet manages to respectfully maintain and indeed significantly expand upon the expected attributes of its most important personalities. Just about every Austen character makes an appearance and I love the way the author chooses to highlight Miss Anne de Bourgh, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, Miss Caroline Bingley, and Miss Georgiana Darcy. Just name ANY other character from P&P; they’re all in there in some capacity.

The story centers on Netherfield, Meryton, and Longbourne with a brief Sojourn to London. That would seem restrictive for a lengthy novel but this plot device allows the author to deftly focus on the complex and ever-evolving emotional relationship between the heroine and hero. With the “prejudice” portion removed, the encounters between Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy begin with initial wariness but grow gradually to respect, regard, affection, and ultimately love. The angst generated over this two-steps-forward-one-step-back romance is the foundation that makes this story so irresistibly seductive.

Putting aside my blathering plaudits, how better to recommend this book than to read samples of the author’s delicate wit? Darcy and Elizabeth meet by chance on their outings as they witness a beautiful sunrise. The incongruity is priceless as Miss Bennet admires nature but Mr. Darcy admires only her, yet cannot gain her regard.

“Look, Mr. Darcy.  Is the sight before you not a fair prospect?  I do not know how to bear it sometimes, to gaze upon such beauty and not be able to ever hold it, to be limited to just looking.  It seems a hardship.”  “Yes,” Mr. Darcy said, looking at Elizabeth, the sunlight glinting off her hair, and her face flushed from exertion.  “I believe I understand how you feel.” p. 145

Here is a rousing verbal joust between two strong personalities as Darcy’s insistence on teaching Elizabeth how to ride disguises enormous romantic implications:

“I taught Georgiana.” Darcy replied.  Elizabeth shook her head. “I do not feel safe on a horse.”  “you will be safe with me,” Darcy said.  “How many ways must I refuse before you relent?” Elizabeth laughed.  “How many times must I offer before you accept?” Darcy countered with a smile.  “It is not in me to back down, Miss Bennet.  Once I have set my course, I persist.  “Mr. Darcy, it is my course you are setting, not your own.” Elizabeth replied.” p. 221

I laughed over this classic regency eaves-dropping moment as Mr. Darcy leaves Elizabeth’s sick bed following a supposed private attempt to confess his love for her:

Darcy backed silently to the door where he would leave, his eyes never leaving the woman he hoped to make his wife.  Upon reaching the door, he opened it, only to find that Jane, Bingley, Anne and the colonel were all pressed up against it.  Only the colonel actually fell. p. 276

I must make mention of some threads not “pulled” but “woven in” by the author that may raise both curiosity and doubt: Mr. Collins attempting to compromise Elizabeth Bennet? Miss Caroline Bingley mentally unsound? Elizabeth Bennet collapsing in the middle of the Netherfield ball? Mr. Wickham extorting Mr. Darcy? Mr. Bennet’s almost impossible courtship demands on Darcy and Elizabeth? Mr. Bingley’s secret sister? Mr. Collins’s entail invalid? As I initially read these threads, I thought “That’s far-fetched.” No worries whatsoever, because the author neatly and plausibly explains each of them in a very convincing and satisfactory manner which makes the entire book breathlessly unpredictable.

The conclusion comes abruptly and would be a disappointment for most readers if a sequel was not forthcoming.  It is! This reviewer keeps top-five lists of his very favorite works from a variety of genres and this one has easily parked itself in my top 5 list for favorite regency romances which puts it in with some distinguished titles indeed. That upcoming sequel, Constant as the Sun, can’t get into my hands quickly enough!

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

One Thread pulled: The Dance with Mr. Darcy (Volume 1), By Diana J. Oaks
CreateSpace (2012)
Trade paperback (456) pages
ISBN: 978-1475149616

Cover image courtesy ©Diana J. Oaks 2012; text ©Jeffrey Ward 2013

Falling For Mr. Darcy, by KaraLynne Mackrory – A Review

Falling For Mr. Darcy, by KaraLynne Mackrory (2012 )From the desk of Jeffrey Ward

We know from the surviving canceled chapters of Persuasion that Jane Austen penned an alternative conclusion to her final novel with stunning results. Based on the now 200 year old masterpiece Pride and Prejudice, debut Author KaraLynne Mackrory has likewise crafted her own romantic detour. Let us find out, through the eyes of this old-school traditionalist reviewer if this spin-off embodies similar gratifying qualities.

The opening deviates immediately following the disastrous Meryton assembly with Mr. Darcy taking a morning horseback ride out from Netherfield, trying to calm his already intense attraction to Elizabeth and his mortification for insulting her. Miss Elizabeth Bennet simultaneously is taking her morning walk and pauses to rest in her favorite wooded copse. Darcy spots and admires her from afar. Suddenly, a gust of wind snaps a dead oak that Miss Bennet scrambles to avoid being struck by. Her ankle injured, Darcy comes to her rescue showing great concern. This chance meeting between hero and heroine fills many pages with absorbing and delicious detail which typifies the author’s unique style. As Darcy attempts to lift the injured Miss Bennet to his horse, as gentlemanly as possible, this charming dialogue ensues:

“Miss Bennet, I must help you to the horse, if you will give your consent again.” Mr. Darcy tried to sound as casual as possible even as his mind was screaming – yes, say yes! You belong in my arms Elizabeth! She laughed, and the hair on his neck stood up at the musical sound. “Mr. Darcy, I cannot see any other way I could get up there unless another gust of wind were to pick me up and place me atop your horse! You may assist me, thank you.” p. 21

The author’s route then heads straight from Longbourn to London, bypassing Pemberley. Things are proceeding much too smoothly between Darcy and Elizabeth when at about the half-way point his pride rears its ugly head, he comes to his senses, (loses his senses?) and affirms to himself that he can never marry a lady with poor connections and embarrassing family members.

The author, much to my satisfaction, also emphasizes the significance of Mr. Bennet as a major character who loves all of his daughters and has a hidden but joyous surprise for each daughter, should they marry for love instead of convenience. The odious Mr. Collins also makes an appearance and with the influence of Mr. Darcy be shocked at whom the clueless curate sets his eyes upon for matrimony!

Especially effective throughout is the mood of latent sexual desire between our heroine and hero without referring to any of the currently abused secondary sexual characteristics. Instead, the author delicately features the eyes, hair, facial expressions, garments, hands, posture, and the glimpse of a feminine ankle, much as it was two centuries ago. Combine this subtle sexual tension with the author’s dialogues, which faithfully stress the extremely polite civility between the sexes, and you are treated to page after page of crisply entertaining Regency conversations and situations.

A particularly savory moment is Elizabeth’s coincidental encounter with Georgiana Darcy in a fine London clothing shop where neither is aware of the other’s identity, yet they take an instant liking to each other as Elizabeth draws the shy Georgiana out:

“You will think me most silly, but I had teased my brother that I would shop for a wife for him today and choose a pair of slippers for her as well. He was so pleased to get out of coming in here with me that he laughed and went along with it.” Georgiana then frowned as she realized her silliness. Elizabeth laughed at the unusual declaration and said, as she glanced around the shop, “I did not see the ‘wife aisle’.” p. 183

My only minor criticisms? Somewhat departing from most of Jane Austen’s beloved characters who manifest both weaknesses as well as strengths, the author’s good characters are sometimes too-too good, the bad characters (Mr. Wickham) are too-too bad, and the ugly characters (Mr. Collins) are too-too ugly. This, at times, seemed to foster a cloying or schmaltzy atmosphere. We are also privy to the private thoughts of some of the characters (in italics) which are effective in some situations but perhaps reveal a little too much in others.

Nevertheless, I’m impressed by this debut novel and give praise for the author’s clever plot detour, character authenticity, genuine regency manners, and especially the tastefully rendered romantic eroticism between Elizabeth and Darcy which really drew me into the story right from the beginning.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Falling For Mr. Darcy, by KaraLynne Mackrory
Meryton Press (2013)
Trade paperback (264) pages
ISBN: 978-1936009206

© 2013 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose

Darcy’s Decision: Given Good Principles Volume 1, by Maria Grace

Darcy's Decision: Given Good Principles Volume 1, by Maria Grace (2011)From the desk of Jeffrey Ward

For 200 years, I suspect many enthralled readers of Pride and Prejudice have silently pondered the question “What would Darcy do?” Author Maria Grace endeavors to put her own spin on this with her debut prequel novella Darcy’s Decision, in her Given Good Principles trilogy.

Spanning a brief but significant moment in time, the main gist of the story deals with Darcy’s rival Mr. Wickham, his demands for a living, and his alleged compromising of Georgiana and how young Mr. Darcy finally deals with it.

It is six months following the death of his father and Fitzwilliam Darcy struggles with how to honorably and properly manage the vast holdings of Pemberley, care for his 15 year old rapidly-maturing teenage sister, and deal with the prickly problem of one Mr. Wickham –his boyhood friend who shows up to claim the curacy that was thought promised to him by Darcy’s father. A dinner at Pemberley with some cherished neighbors, the Bingleys, Georgiana, the newly-appointed curate John Bradley and Mr. Wickham reveals the complications Darcy is up against:  (Georgiana speaking of Wickham)

“You came to pay your respects?” Lackley dabbed his chin with his napkin. “No, he did not.” Everyone gasped, staring at Georgiana. “Stop it!” Rebecca hissed, reaching for Georgiana’s hand. “He was promised the living given to Mr. Bradley.” A hush fell over the table. Darcy’s pulse thudded in his temples as the blood drained from his face.

With admirable originality the author has created a morality drama with Biblical undertones stressing mercy, forgiveness, and what makes a man truly great. She showcases the familiar well-loved characters of Pride and Prejudice quite accurately: Darcy, Wickham, Richard Fitzwilliam, the Bingleys, Mrs. Reynolds, as well as introducing her own cast of loveable loyal neighbors and old family friends. Chief among these is John Bradley, the vital mentor to both Darcys – father and son. The wise old Clergyman counsels young Darcy and the dialogue is beautiful in its timeless truth:

“I am not like him.”Darcy grimaced and swallowed hard against the rising bile. “I lack his wisdom, his discernment.” But you were given good principles, the ones your father stood.” The wind whipped his coattails and scoured his face. “Are they enough?” “He found them so.” Bradley clapped his shoulder.

But as Darcy reads his father’s private journals, a shocking confession is uncovered which will test the young man’s mettle and may change forever his attitude towards his late father and young Darcy’s relationship with his immediate family.

No Elizabeth? Sorry, but I believe she makes her appearance in the author’s trilogy installment #2 – The Future Mrs. Darcy. Until then, the romantic interest in this tale features the obnoxious Caroline Bingley as she sets her cap at poor Fitzwilliam. The off-and-on banter between Darcy, Charles Bingley, and Richard Fitzwilliam regarding how and who they may find as wives is utterly charming and really sets the stage for #2 in the author’s trilogy.

At scarcely 120 pages, the author still manages to lavish her debut work with historical accuracy, helpful footnotes, and scintillating dialogues. The author’s unique voice is most apparent in her descriptions of facial expressions, posturing, gestures, and mannerisms. A scene where Wickham is bound up and is being interrogated by Darcy and his buddies is so vivid and comical that I was in raptures mentally visualizing the entire episode.

About the only minor criticism I can level against this work is the character of Georgiana who Jane Austen describes in chapters 44 and 45 of Pride and Prejudice as exceedingly shy and quiet. This author’s Georgiana, on the other hand, is quite the feisty outspoken teenage girl, but I suppose that can be excused off as the emotional frustration of no longer being a girl, but not quite a woman yet.

I found Darcy’s Decision richly entertaining with a very plausible variation on “what if?” If Darcy doesn’t wear the mantle of hero yet with you, dear readers, I predict he will once you finish this read. Next stop? The Future Mrs. Darcy, or course!

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Darcy’s Decision: Given Good Principles Volume 1, by Maria Grace
Good Principles Publishing (2011)
Trade paperback (154) pages
ISBN: 978-0615582771

© 2013 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose

Edmund Persuader: A Romance, by Stuart Shotwell – A Review

Edmund Persuader From the desk of Jeffrey Ward

Would Jane Austen love reading this book today? She admired Sir Walter Scott, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth but what about this epic regency romantic adventure encompassing some 1,500 pages? Within its sweeping span are familiar elements of the gothic in her Northanger Abbey, the ironic humor in Emma, overcoming class barriers in Pride and Prejudice, the romantic treacheries of Mansfield Park, the familial loyalty of Sense and Sensibility, and the steadfast endurance of love in Persuasion. Yes, dear Jane, I think you would!

The “persuader” is larger-than-life hero Edmund Percy who fits the description because he is aptly tall, strong, and handsome. But what elevates him to heroic status is his unique melding of courage, insightful intellect, persuasiveness, humility, and a loving generous heart. The youngest son of a landed gentleman, he has dedicated himself to the clergy.

It is 1810 and his father asks him to temporarily suspend his clerical studies and sail to Antigua to rescue his failing sugar plantation. There, he encounters exhaustive work and intolerable slavery conditions, but ultimately Janetta, the exotically beautiful mulatto daughter of a cruel neighboring slave master. Wild and unpredictable, the slaves fear her bewitching power. Edmund falls madly in love and a torrid erotic relationship ensues, but he is torn by guilt and lost virtue. The supernatural scene of Edmund being confronted by Janetta over a chilling vision only she can see but neither can understand is the story’s ultimate mystery:

“No,” she said bitterly. “I see this woman – I see this dark queen; and you will love her more than you ever loved me.” He laughed and tried to take her in his arms, but she would not let him; she evaded his embrace and slipped away from him. “You will love her more than me! “she said angrily. “Who is this woman? Janetta!” he said soothingly. “Do not be silly, I know no queen; nor is it likely I ever shall. You are the one I love…” p. 307

Only Janetta is aware of the hopelessness of their love and she accurately predicts their ultimate separation. At the loss of his first love, heart-broken Edmund returns to England. On that return voyage he becomes a notable English hero as he prevents an American privateer from boarding and capturing the ship he is on. This action proves pivotal to his future.

Edmund confesses his sins to his mentor and is still encouraged to take up the clergy. Seeking a living, he travels to Hampshire to visit Andromeda, his beloved aunt and mother-figure. She describes the most noble, wealthy, and powerful family in the area—the Esquith De Foyes—and strongly warns him to avoid at all costs their untouchable daughter Mariah and her companion, the lovely but enigmatic Elizabeth Brownton, who manifests an autism-spectrum syndrome. Yet, at a ball the inevitable happens as he meets the entire family. Mariah is regal, impossibly beautiful, and brilliant of mind, and like Edmund, gifted with a supremely compassionate heart. Edmund also meets Mariah’s brother and family heir Tarquin Esquith De Foye. Reckless, competitive, and fiercely protective, “Tark” and Edmund become closer than brothers. The family has learned of Edmund’s high-sea heroics and motions are put into place to award him a living as temporary rector in their village church.

Mariah’s compassion and Edmund’s exceptionally persuasive gifts improve the lives of everyone within their sphere of influence, and they become more than just a friendly partnership. Yet, in spite of their growing love for each other, Edmund cannot persuade Mariah to marry him and is unaware that she is none other than the prophesied “dark queen!” Her own deeply-hidden secret prevents her marriage and will eventually turn deadly enough to threaten her entire family if Edmund fails in his quest to uncover it.

With a half-million words to work with, all of the characters are so totally and fully fleshed out that I found myself weeping over their misfortunes, laughing with their moments of merriment, and hoping beyond hope for their happy future. Yes, there are places in the story that may plod for some readers, such as an entire chapter describing a fox hunt, the intricacies of chess games, and side-plots drawn out in the minutest detail. Yet, soaring above all and not-to-be-missed is what I consider to be the most magnificent unconsummated love story I’ve read since Jane Eyre. In attempting to compare the romantic grandeur and Gothic underpinnings of Edmund Persuader, only Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece comes to mind. Don’t be intimidated by its length. The determined reader will seldom encounter a more soul-satisfying reward for the effort.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Edmund Persuader: A Romance, by Stuart Shotwell
Mermaid Press of Maine (2009)
Trade paperback (1555) pages
ISBN: 978-0984103218

© 2012 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose