Jane Austen, Game Theorist, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe – A Review

Jane Austen Game Theroist Michael Chwe 2013 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

According to Wikipedia, game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent, rational decision-makers.” So, what the heck does that have to do with Jane Austen and her novels? A lot, as it turns out. In Jane Austen, Game Theorist, we explore how Austen’s works tie into contemporary theories about strategic decision-making nearly two hundred years before they came into fashion.

The book doesn’t presuppose any familiarity with game theory. This was a very good thing, as I knew next to nothing about this branch of the social sciences before picking up the book. Really, the simplest way to explain game theory is to say that it’s the study of how people make strategic decisions. Most people will make a decision based on what they would like to do. In other words, they make a personal choice. But, a good strategic thinker will also consider what others might do in turn. Basically, when choosing, you also consider how others will act.

Let’s look at an example from Pride and Prejudice to illustrate the point. Mr. Darcy agonizes over whether or not to marry Elizabeth Bennet, a woman who he is slowly falling in love with despite his best efforts to resist her charms and fine eyes. A choice like this can be represented visually through a decision tree. Mr. Darcy’s would look something like this:

Jane Austen Game Theorist image 1

As Mr. Darcy sees it, he must decide whether or not to marry Elizabeth. In the end, his objections can’t outweigh his love and he makes the choice to tell her how ardently he admires and loves her.

But, one of Mr. Darcy’s biggest mistakes is that he doesn’t seem to realize that the decision tree that will lead him from love to matrimony with Elizabeth actually looks something like this:

Jane Austen Game Theorist image 2

Mr. Darcy’s choice isn’t to marry or not marry Elizabeth. He can only choose to propose. He seems to forget that the lady also has the right of refusal. Or else he never really considers that a viable possibility. Elizabeth must be wishing and expecting his addresses, right? That’s why he lets her in on his honest feelings and struggles, which she considers highly insulting. Mr. Darcy has made his choice, but he has entirely forgotten about Elizabeth’s preferences. She would prefer not to marry an arrogant, prideful man who has insulted her along with her family all while trying to profess his undying love.

Luckily, Mr. Darcy’s strategic thinking improves throughout the course of the novel and he’s able to turn Elizabeth’s point-by-point refusal into a strategic plan for winning her heart. Or at least that’s what game theory would say.

The author goes through each of Austen’s six novels giving countless examples of both good and bad decisions, characters that excel in decision-making and those who don’t. Elizabeth Bennet may be a good strategic decision-maker, but she is also blinded by prejudice when it comes to Mr. Darcy. Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood come ready-made with good strategic skills. Catherine Morland and Fanny Price must learn to act strategically. Emma Woodhouse completely overestimates her own ability to guide others, read situations, and see eventual outcomes.

We not only dive into the ways in which Jane Austen’s work ties in with contemporary game theory, but the author explains how he believes Jane breaks new ground with her novels. Her characters use strategic thinking within themselves to control the interior picture they present to he world—think Anne Elliot or Elinor Dashwood. They also sometimes change their preferences (which is a very good thing for Mr. Darcy). In the end, Austen seems to be saying that the best spouse is someone who you can partner with to work strategically in the world. It’s more romantic than it seems.

One of the most interesting points the author makes about game theory is that good strategic thinking often develops naturally among people who find themselves in an “inferior” or “outsider” position in society. Austen writes as a female in a world where women are almost totally dependent on men. Her heroines don’t think strategically in order to win wars or navigate economic markets. They do it to survive and insure the best possible life for themselves in a system that’s stacked against them. Indeed, characters in positions of power—such as Lady Catherine, Sir Walter Elliot, and General Tilney—often have the biggest blind spots when it comes to making good decisions.

Since the book was written by a professor who teaches game theory and political science at UCLA, the language sometimes felt overly academic and scholarly. While he does a good job explaining complicated concepts to readers, the book isn’t aiming to simplify game theory or Austen for a mass audience. It’s no Freakanomics or The Tipping Point. It definitely doesn’t qualify as light reading, though it is extremely interesting. I tend to like academic writing, but I found some chapters very difficult to get through because the material was so dense.

One of the things that made the book so tough was that it seemed to lack balance throughout. In the beginning, the author spends quite a bit of time (helpfully) explaining game theory. But, he uses examples from other literary works such as Shakespeare or folk tales. It isn’t until Chapter Five that we start to get into Jane’s novels. At that point, the Austen examples became so dense and numerous that it began to feel like I was reading a laundry list of quotes that had been culled from her six novels. More Jane was needed in the beginning, and less, more illustrative example from her work would have helped the last part be much more clear and impactful.

I’d recommend the book if you have an interest in learning more about the science of game theory or if you’re already on your way to being an expert. Austen is a fun backdrop to that. The casual Janeite, though, may be overwhelmed with how dense and academic the language is throughout the book. I know I had my moments of confusion even though, overall, the subject and ideas were really engaging.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen, Game Theorist, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe
Princeton University Press (2014)
Trade paperback (296) pages
ISBN: 978-0691162447

Additional Reviews:

Cover image courtesy of Princeton University Press © 2014; text Lisa Galek, Austenprose.com

The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen’s Emma, by Victoria Grossack – A Review

The Highbury Murder 2013 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

Many fans of Jane Austen’s Emma have described it as one of the first mystery novels. A mystery novel with no major crimes or dead bodies. Well, The Highbury Murders seeks to change all that. The game is afoot!

The novel takes place about a year after the events of Emma. Mr. and Mrs. Knightley are happily married and living with Mr. Woodhouse and their infant son at Hartfield. Emma still socializes with her friends Mrs. Weston and the new Mrs. Martin, while Mr. and Mrs. Frank Churchill are staying in London. Austen’s original began with a marriage, but this story opens with a death. Mrs. Bates has passed away and the village of Highbury must get to work making arrangements for her funeral, comforting her daughter, and generally mourning her passing.

Even with all these new developments in Highbury, Emma still can’t help letting her active imagination run a little wild. Will the Churchills arrive in time for the funeral? Why do the Eltons seem so concerned about money all of a sudden? And who are the strangers that Harriet saw lurking outside her back door? When serious crimes begin occurring, Emma must use her wit and intelligence to help her husband get to the bottom of these dastardly deeds. Will Emma and Mr. Knightley be able to figure out whodunit before tragedy strikes again?

This story is a continuation of Emma and it really blends very seamlessly with the first book. The plot flowed perfectly from the original, so I could imagine all these things happening to the folks we know and love in Highbury. The author also writes very well. As soon as I started reading, I was impressed with the way she captured Jane Austen’s language, tone, and style. That’s no easy feat and it really helped me to get invested in the story.

The characters, too, are natural extensions of the original. Emma is just as witty and spirited as always, though marrying Mr. Knightley has helped to make her a little bit wiser. I really enjoyed reading the details about their married life together as they are one of my favorite Austen couples. Other minor characters have expanded and delightful roles. Mrs. Elton is as ill-mannered, obnoxious, and comical as ever. And poor Mr. Woodhouse! How can he even think about walking in his garden with murderers afoot?

The big draw of this story is the mystery that’s lurking in the background. Clues are regularly dropped throughout to give you the sense that something sinister is coming. The book is short, but, it’s not until nearly a third of the way through that a major crime truly hits Highbury. And we’re halfway in before the mystery starts to really pick up steam and get juicy. In my opinion, the story started to drag a bit after Mrs. Bates funeral and it took a while to get to the good detective work. But, it all turned out to be worth it once the criminals really came out.

In the end, the whole mystery wraps up rather nicely. We try to solve the crimes along with Emma and Mr. Knightley, but these dirty deeds aren’t so easily unraveled. There are many suspects (I know I had my suspicious about certain a vicar from the beginning), but the book finishes with a twist ending that I never saw coming. It was actually one that clearly tied back with the original and fit perfectly with everything that had come before.

Emma may indeed be a detective novel with marriage instead of murder as its focus. The Highbury Murders promises all the same mystery, intrigue, and fun of the original. Except with a whole lot more dead bodies.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen’s Emma, by Victoria Grossack
CreateSpace Independent Publishing (2013)
Trade paperback (162) pages
ISBN: 978-1482627459

Cover image courtesy CreateSpace Independent Publishing © 2013; Text Lisa Galek © 2014, Austenprose.com

When I’m With You (The Jane Austen Academy Series), by Cecilia Gray – A Review

When I'm with You, by Cecilia Gray (2013)From the desk of Lisa Galek:

I read a lot of young adult fiction and I notice that there’s often a tendency to feature a female main character who’s smart, sassy, and in-control. Of course, these self-confident heroines are important and lots of real-life girls can relate to them. But, some girls are a little less sure of themselves. A little more naïve and a little too trusting. In fact, that’s something that many women struggle with long after they leave high school. No one knew this better than Jane Austen. Her heroines fit into a huge range of personalities and life experiences. In When I’m With You, Cecilia Gray gives us an update on one of Jane’s most underutilized, yet relatable teenage characters, Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey

Kat Morley just knows that one day she’s gonna be a famous actress. She’s been the lead in five different productions at her high school, the Jane Austen Academy, so it can’t be long until her name is up in lights. When Kat’s classmate (aspiring actor, Josh Wickham) asks her to travel with him to the set of a movie he’s starring in over Christmas break, it’s practically her dream come true! Things get even better once Kat arrives and starts rubbing elbows with the stars. Izzy Engel is not only beautiful and famous but she’s also decided to befriend Kat! And Henry Trenton (son of Hollywood legend, Tom Trenton) has invited her out for hot cocoa! Swoon!

But, it isn’t long before Kat starts to see the dark side of being famous. Constantly being stalked by the paparazzi. Lack of privacy. Having to act and dress a certain way to maintain your image. When Kat is invited to stay at Henry’s home in Los Angeles, she also uncovers some secrets about his famous dad and starts to have some doubts about her new celebrity friends. Maybe being a star really isn’t as wonderful as Kat always imagined? 

When I’m With You is the third in Cecilia Gray’s Jane Austen Academy series. Each of Austen’s six main heroines gets her own story and a transplant to a modern-day boarding school in California. The girls – Lizzie, Ellie, Kat, Fanny, Emma, and Anne – befriend each other over the course of the six books and, of course, get involved with lots of cute boys. I think Jane would be amused.

Even though I wasn’t familiar with any of the other Jane Austen Academy books, reading this one out of order was no problem. I chose to start with this title because it’s based on one of my favorite novels – Northanger Abbey. You don’t see too many modern updates of it, probably because it’s one of Austen’s lesser-read and lesser-known works. That’s actually a shame. I always saw Northanger as particularly relevant to modern folks. Sure, the original book is poking fun at 18th-century gothic novels, but the idea of satirizing pop culture isn’t outdated at all. Here, the author riffs on our modern obsession with fame, Hollywood, and celebrity gossip. The parallels to Austen’s work and the critiques of the world we live in are spot on. And very funny.

Catherine Morland always seemed to me the perfect character to star in a modern young adult novel, too. Here you have a teenage girl away from home and forced to rely on her (still developing) wits to navigate the world around her. She’s naïve, imaginative, and a little too trusting at times. Kat Morley is a great modern parallel to Catherine. Kat wants to be a famous actress one day, but she really has no idea what being a celebrity is all about. She’s a little too awed by fame and filled with enough self-doubt to keep herself from realizing people’s true intentions and feelings. Whether it’s a friend she should be avoiding or a romance she should be pursuing, Kat just doesn’t quite know what to do.

This might make Kat sound a bit dull and indecisive, but she was actually a really fun character to spend an afternoon with. She’s driven and spunky, but filled with a lot of uncertainty in herself that I found very true to life and relatable. Her journey from dreams of stardom to a more realistic vision for her future was very well done, natural, and satisfying. Her friendship with the subtly devious Izzy was perfect and even takes an unexpected turn in the end. And her romance with the quirky and light-hearted Henry Trenton was fun and engaging without taking center stage. Sure, Kat might fall in love, but that never takes away from her growth and development in the story.

The book is very short and, at less than 150 pages, I was able to get through it in a few hours one afternoon. That means that the author cuts away a lot of side plots from the original to focus on Kat’s core journey. There’s no John Thorpe to pursue her. No Eleanor Tilney to befriend her. No James Morland to fall in love with Izzy and no Captain Tilney to lure her away. So, it’s true that the book isn’t as meticulously plotted as the original, and normally, I would miss these little bits and pieces. But, the main story is really juicy and engaging and still flows well. Even as the author trimmed, she was still able to dive deep and do justice to what was left.

Overall, When I’m With You is a short, fun, well-written update on a much neglected, but much loved story. What more could you ask for? I liked the book so much, that I plan on checking out the rest of the series. Amazon is also featuring the first book in the Jane Austen Academy series, Fall for You, (based on Pride and Prejudice) for free. Why not download a copy? I already did and am looking forward to reading more adventures featuring the young ladies of the Jane Austen Academy.

5 out of 5 Stars

When I’m With You (The Jane Austen Academy Series), by Cecilia Gray
Gray Life, LLC (2013)
Digital eBook (147) pages

Additional Reviews:

Cover image courtesy Gray Life, LLC © 2013; text Lisa Galek © 2014, Austenprose.com

Project Darcy, by Jane Odiwe – A Review

Project  Darcy, by Jane Odiwe (2013)From the desk of Lisa Galek:

There’s one thing that’s true about Janeites – we love a good romance. Whether it’s a couple exchanging glances nearly two hundred years ago or a modern guy and gal sharing their first kiss on the streets of London, there’s something so magical about experiencing the feeling of falling in love… even if we’re only reading about it. In her new novel, Project Darcy, Jane Odiwe combines love stories from the past and present to give us an interesting spin on the life of Jane Austen.

When Ellie Bentley agrees to volunteer for an archeological dig at the site of Jane Austen’s childhood home in Steventon Rectory, she’s looking forward to spending a nice summer with her four closest friends – Jess, Martha, Cara, and Liberty. But almost as soon as she arrives, Ellie starts to see strange things: a man who looks just like he could be the ghost of Mr. Darcy and visions of a romance that happened 200 years ago. As the days pass and Ellie learns more about the secrets of Steventon, she gets drawn deeper and deeper into the life and loves of Jane Austen.

Meanwhile, the five friends are finding that their lives are playing out just like one of Austen’s romances. A handsome Oxford student named Charlie Harden has his eye on Jess, while Ellie is convinced that his friend, Henry Dorsey, is the most arrogant man who ever lived. Cara and Liberty are busy flirting with anyone and everyone in their path – even Greg Whitely, a gorgeous TV star who might not be as charming as he seems. Could the visions that Ellie keeps seeing hold the key to figuring out all their modern-day romantic entanglements?

Project Darcy is a bit of a literary mash-up. It’s part modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice and part Austen-inspired magical realism. Not only is Ellie on a journey to find her own Mr. Darcy, but she also has the ability to see into important moments from Jane Austen’s past. While this idea is really interesting and has a lot of potential, in the end, the book sometimes struggled to bring the two stories together.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good contemporary update on Austen. It’s so fun to see her stories play out with modern couples. I also don’t take any issue with characters who randomly travel back in time and help us get to know Jane Austen a little bit better – there’s something delightful about letting our imaginations fill in the gaps in our favorite author’s personal story. But, combining these two is apparently a tricky business.

In this novel, we have a character from the present who randomly falls back into the past every so often. These transitions were always smooth and well-written, but they did sometimes interrupt the flow of the story. One moment we’re with Ellie as she’s about to confront Henry, the next, we’re at a ball in 1796 gazing across the room at Tom Lefroy. Sometimes, it was hard to figure out which love story to focus on. Just when you wanted more of one – poof! – it was gone.

There are lots of Austen-inspired novels that play with some kind of time travel. One of the things I’ve always noticed about these books is the main character will usually spend some time coming to terms with what’s happened. But, Ellie isn’t worried at all when she unexpectedly begins to see visions of the past. The author explains this by saying that Ellie always had a gift for seeing ghosts and such. But, these visions are so intense that they made me wish Ellie would have at least stopped to check in with her doctor and make sure everything was all right.

Aside from all this, the author does write well and the characters are well-developed and vibrant. The love stories, also, are passionate and sweet and will really draw you in. And the event that brings everyone together – the archeological dig at Steventon – really happened. The dialogue is fun and witty, but, at times, it got a little outdated. Occasionally, during the scenes that took place in the present, the characters just came off sounding a bit too formal to be 21st-century guys and girls.

Overall, the book gives us two intriguing romances. It just has a little trouble making them come together. At times, it felt like I was reading two excellent love stories, not one cohesive one. In the end, the author tries to tie everything together in an interesting and surprising way, but, sadly, I don’t think she’s completely able to wrap up all the loose ends.

4 out of 5 Stars

Project Darcy, by Jane Odiwe
Paintbox Publishing (2013)
Trade paperback (326) pages
ISBN: 978-0954572235

Cover image courtesy of Paintbox Publishing © 2013; text Lisa Galek © 2013, Austenprose.com

The Trouble with Flirting: A Novel, by Claire LaZebnik – A Review

The Trouble with Flirting, by Claire LaZebnik (2013) From the desk of Lisa Galek:

There are tons of ways to flirt… and just as many ways to break hearts in the process. A casual smile or a wink can lead to long-awaited romance or lots of unwanted attention. Claire LaZebnik explores all this and more in The Trouble with Flirting, her contemporary young adult update on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

This story is all about Franny Pearson, a high school student from Phoenix looking to get some real world experience for her college admissions essay. When Franny lands a summer internship as a costume designer with her Aunt Amelia, she ventures from home to work for the prestigious Mansfield College High School Theater Program. Even though her days are filled with sewing and sequins – Franny is determined to make some friends among the theater kids this summer.

Franny quickly runs into an old classmate – Alex Braverman, the dreamboat she’s had a crush on since eighth grade. Could this be the summer Alex finally notices her? Not if Harry Cartwright has anything to do with it. It’s bad enough that Harry’s constantly flirting with every girl in camp, but it really gets annoying when he sets his sights on Franny. Of course, she only has eyes for Alex and would never fall for a notorious flirt like Harry. Or would she?

Though this novel is based on Mansfield Park, it follows the original pretty loosely. Other young adult Austen updates like Prom and Prejudice or Clueless are almost scene for scene reimaginings. This story may have similar characters and the same basic premise as the original – poor girl mixes with rich kids and falls in love – but it’s not afraid to take us to different places.

Franny, for one, isn’t much like Fanny Price. This, of course, will make some people very happy. This Franny is much less passive and morally upright than her predecessor. She’s also a lot more like a typical seventeen-year-old girl. Sure, she isn’t as spoiled, self-involved, and boy crazy as the girls around her, but she also doesn’t shy away from meeting new people or ring her hands any time there’s rule-breaking going on. This Franny would love to be part of a lively production of Lover’s Vows.

Other characters start with Austen as their jumping off point and then move from there. Alex and Harry stay pretty true to their counterparts (Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford), but keep surprising us until the end. Naturally, Alex has his own Mary Crawford-esque temptress in the beautiful and talented Isabella. Fellow campers, Marie and Julia compete tirelessly for Harry’s attention with not-so-great results. Even Franny’s Aunt Amelia has a bit of Mrs. Norris in her.

It’s to the story’s credit that these characters always feel fresh and surprising. Though this is essentially a retelling, it doesn’t feel like it. By making new and interesting choices for her characters, the author keeps the spirit of the original, while still helping us stay invested and interested in what’s going to happen next.

In the end, this update asks a very interesting question – who really deserves to be with Franny? Is it the long-time crush and all-around-nice-guy who’s spent the whole book courting someone else? Or is it the self-absorbed flirt who’s willing to change his ways for the right girl? In the original, Mary Crawford asserts that if Fanny had only accepted her brother Henry “she would have fixed him.” The Trouble with Flirting makes us wonder if Mary wasn’t right after all.

I picked up the book one night just to start the first few chapters and just couldn’t put it down. I happen to love young adult fiction, but this one was especially good. The author nails the tone and dialogue. The flow of the story was perfect and, most important, believable. I could actually see high schoolers having these conversations, relationships, and dating dilemmas. This would be a great choice for any teenager who you want to introduce to Austen, or, really, anyone who can appreciate a fun and well-written high school romance.

4.5 out of 5 Stars

The Trouble with Flirting A Novel, by Claire LaZebnik
Harper Teen (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-0061921278

Cover image courtesy Harper Teen © 2013; text Lisa Galek © 2013, Austenprose.com

A Jane Austen Daydream, by Scott D. Southard – A Review

A Jane Austen Daydream by Scott D. Southard (2013)From the desk of Lisa Galek

A gentleman of my acquaintance once confidently assured me that the writings of Jane Austen were much too “girly.” By this, of course, he meant that they were beneath his notice as a man. Naturally, he’d never read a page of Austen or seen any of the movies based on her stories, but he firmly understood that men didn’t care about balls or romance or marriage. Gentlemen read better books.

But, novels like A Jane Austen Daydream confirm what we Janeites have known for years – Miss Austen counts many men among her admirers. Author Scott Southard spends the bulk of his story showing us just that – and dreaming about all the men who loved and admired Jane before him.

The novel is loosely based on Jane Austen’s life and follows her from roughly age 20 up until she’s around 35. We begin with a large ball and some shameless flirtation and slowly weave through some familiar events from Jane’s life. Lost love. The death of a future brother-in-law. A move to Bath. And even some marriage proposals to spice things up.

Throughout the story, Jane is challenged to live the kind of life she imagines for her characters. Only a husband she deeply loves and respects will do. And the author regularly throws potential suitors her way. Some are true to life – Tom Lefroy and Harris Bigg-Wither – and others are just part of the daydream.

This word – daydream – is a fitting addition to the title because that’s essentially what the book is. It’s a whimsical reimagining of the truth. Though the story is based on real events in Jane’s life, a good part of it is reworked or outright fictionalized to fit with the author’s version of Jane Austen.

The good news is Scott Southard’s Jane is a delightful creature. She is clever and witty and determined to do the best she can for herself, even when things take a turn for the worst. Jane’s dialogue is one of the bright spots in the novel and her thoughts and comments had me smiling (and even laughing) on more than one occasion.

Even a casual fan of Jane Austen will notice that the author has sprinkled in quotes and characters from her novels and letters. An arrogant clergyman becomes the inspiration for Mr. Collins. A silly, yet hilarious, family friend named Mrs. Catherine de Bourgh tells us:

I always wished to marry a lord, and to become a prim and proper lady myself. How I would sit and quietly give out stern but fair advice to all who asked for it and, dare I say, to those who did not ask as well!

She would certainly get her wish.

Though there’s no evidence that Austen pulled her plots and characters so closely from real life, I can forgive the author this bit of fun. In fact, that’s what this book is – a bit of fun. If you’re a stickler for the truth and nothing but the truth when it comes to Jane, you probably won’t enjoy this book much. Or maybe you will. I had a good time trying to spot some of the lesser known quotes and characters throughout the story.

The one big downside to the whole book is that it’s much too long. At over 400 pages, the story could stand to be edited down quite a bit. There were just some passages and scenes that dragged on much too long. I never thought I would get bored reading about Jane Austen, but apparently, it is possible.

I opened this review by describing this book as a work that embodies one man’s love for Jane Austen. I don’t say this because it’s amazing that a man would love Austen (indeed, every sensible person should), but, because, the author makes his point very literally by the end. By the time Jane finds her ideal (and fictional) man, it’s clear that the author who teasingly “swears he is not obsessed with Jane Austen” is in very, very deep.

For a segment of the population, Jane Austen’s books will only ever be one thing – chick lit. This is a term they mean as an insult, but fans of Austen understand the truth. Her books are about the lives of women, but they are also about the things that concern us all. Love. Marriage. Family. Class. Money. Life. A Jane Austen Daydream reminds us that love for Austen isn’t just a feminine virtue.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Jane Austen Daydream, by Scott D. Southard
Madison Street Publishing (2013)
Trade paperback (410) pages
ISBN: 978-0983671923

Cover image courtesy Madison Street Publishing © 2013; text Lisa Galek © 2013, Austenprose.com

Austensibly Ordinary, by Alyssa Goodnight – A Review

Austensibly Ordinary, by Alyssa Goodnight (2013)From the desk of Lisa Galek

What’s an average girl to do when she wants to add some excitement and romance to her life? Just ask Jane Austen, of course! Sure, she’s been dead for nearly 200 years, but there are ways around that little problem.

Cate Kendall spends her days teaching the classics like Emma to a group of quasi-bored high school students and her nights dreaming of doing something adventurous. The most excitement she’s got going on in her life is her weekly Scrabble games against her best friend, and fellow teacher, Ethan Chavez. When Cate receives an invitation to an Alfred Hitchcock-themed party in Austin, Texas, she realizes this is her chance to reinvent herself into the sexy woman of mystery she’s always dreamt of becoming.

But, as she’s preparing her transformation, Cate finds a centuries-old diary. It’s blank inside, but the inscription on the first page is a quote from none other than Jane Austen herself. Cate decides to use the diary to record her new adventures and plans. What she doesn’t expect is for the diary to start writing back. And that it actually has some pretty good advice… the kind of stuff that Jane herself might say.

Slowly, Cate realizes the truth about the diary. But will she take its advice and find the love she’s been waiting for – her own Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley? Or will she wind up unwittingly chasing Mr. Wickham as part of her daring new lifestyle?

Austensibly Ordinary is really a fun, light romp into the world of Jane Austen and romance. I loved how the story stays tethered to Austen, though she wasn’t the entire focus. Cate loves and teaches Austen novels and, obviously, the diary is tied to Jane, but otherwise, most of the other characters live normal, Jane Austen-free lives. Ethan doesn’t even like Mr. Darcy, and yet I still found him charming. Now that’s saying something.

I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to say that I loved the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between Cate and Ethan. From the very first chapter, when we see him playing Scrabble with Cate, the sparks are flying (though, of course, Cate doesn’t know it). The dialogue and banter between them was sharp, sexy, and fun. And when the details about Ethan’s secret background came out, it really heightened the tension between them.

The other characters were both funny and memorable. Cate’s recently divorced mother who is a bit of a cougar hunting for younger men, her sister, Gemma, a grad student, who moonlights as a sex phone operator, and Cate’s friends, especially the ghost-hunting Courtney, were all quirky, interesting, and all-around hilarious.

The book is also very, very sexy without getting graphic. The author is really skilled at the slow burn. She draws out every situation until you’re waiting with baited breath for the characters to just go ahead and kiss already. But, when a couple makes their way to the bedroom we don’t follow behind. For some readers that will be a relief, for others a disappointment. I thought it was really well done, but I’m not much into those Fifty Shades of Gray level sex scenes.

Overall, the writing is good. The dialogue especially jumps out and really gives the characters life. Though, during some of the quick exchanges, I found Cate’s constant stream of thoughts a bit intrusive. No one thinks that much. Especially not someone who is in the middle of some particularly snappy banter with the guy she has a crush on.

There were also a few situations that seemed a bit out of place. I didn’t really care for the ending where Cate finally gets the guy. Without giving away anything, I just thought it was a little off, though it didn’t completely ruin the story for me. There’s also a scene where the ghost of Jane Austen appears in a public bathroom. But, hey, once you accept that a magic, advice-giving journal is hanging around, I guess anything goes.

And, speaking of endings, until I got there, I didn’t realize that this book is actually a sequel of sorts to Alyssa Goodnight’s other novel, Austentatious. They both follow the same structure – single woman finds a mysterious Austen-inspired diary. Cate actually discovers the diary after the heroine from the first book drops it off at a random location in Austin.

For a fun, light, sexy romance, I’d definitely recommend Austensibly Ordinary. I was happy to see that, in the end, Cate also passed on the diary to some other unsuspecting future heroine. I know I’ll be putting both the first book and any others in this series on my reading list very soon.

4 out of 5 Stars

Austensibly Ordinary, by Alyssa Goodnight
Kensington (2013)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0758267450

© 2013 Lisa Galek, Austenprose  

Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen, by Sally Smith-O’Rourke – A Review

Yours Affectionatley Jane Austen by Sally Smith O'Rourke (2012)From the desk of Lisa Galek

In this sequel to The Man Who Loved Jane Austen, Sally Smith-O’Rourke takes us on a journey through time and across continents as we explore what happened to the characters and romances from her first novel.

Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen picks up moments after the previous book leaves off. The heroine, Eliza Knight, a contemporary New York artist, is staying at the home of Fitzwilliam Darcy, a handsome, southern gentleman and the owner of Pemberley Farms in Virginia. Previously, Eliza and Fitz were brought together by a pair of mysterious letters written by Jane Austen herself which suggested that she once had an affair with an American named Fitzwilliam Darcy. A man whom she later used as the basis of the hero of Pride and Prejudice.

Though the letters are valuable, Eliza decides to give them to Fitz (for reasons revealed in the previous book, which I won’t spoil). Eliza must now deal with the fallout from refusing to reveal the contents of the letters to the public, while navigating her blossoming love for Fitz and trying to understand his past as a time traveler. Yup, a time traveler.

Eliza’s story also intertwines with that of a 1813 Jane Austen. Fresh off the success of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Jane is planning to publish her newest novel, Mansfield Park. Jane writes and spends time with her family, though she cannot quite forget the handsome American whom suddenly fell into her life just three years before and disappeared just as quickly.

I may be at a disadvantage here because I’ve never read The Man Who Loved Jane Austen. If you’re in the same boat, you will probably be able to catch up very quickly as the author spends quite a bit of time recapping the events of the previous story. However, I would really recommend going back and reading the first installment if you plan to tackle this one.

The main reason for this is that I just couldn’t shake the feeling that The Man Who Loved Jane Austen was probably a much more interesting book than this one. Jane Austen? Mysterious letters? The truth about the real Fitzwilliam Darcy? Time travel? Budding romance? Sign me up. Once all of those questions are answered, there just doesn’t seem much left to do.

Almost nothing happens in this story until nearly 2/3 of the way through. Well, not nothing, but not the kind of things that one would want to spend an afternoon reading about. Eliza and Fitz’s growing relationship is really just a series of insignificant little tiffs and conversations that have almost no bearing on the story. There’s no spark or passion between them despite the fact that they met only two days ago and are starting to fall madly in love. Our time with Jane Austen, too, is surprisingly boring. Obviously, the author is taking liberties with the real Jane, her life, and family, but I couldn’t help wishing she had taken more. Jane’s life seemed to be nothing more than a quick succession of busy nothings. The whole story just needed more meat on its bones to get the reader interested.

Even another time travel subplot doesn’t do much to heighten the stakes. When one of the Austen family servants travels through time to contemporary England, Fitz worries quite a bit about creating a paradox in time and somehow ruining Jane Austen’s life. But, nothing really happens. I kept waiting for everyone’s copies of Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion to start slowly disappearing Back to the Future style, but alas.

I also noticed a few errors in my copy, which is always annoying. One especially caught my eye as a devoted Whovian:

“The program that’s coming on is one of my favorites. It’s called Dr. Who. It’s a science fiction show about time travel. This guy, Dr. Who, has a time machine that looks like a police box from way back in the 1960s, and it takes him everywhere and anywhere. It’s really cool.”

The show’s title, of course, is written out as Doctor Who (and should be italicized). The main character is also never called “Dr. Who,” but is just simply referred to as “the Doctor.” He’s also not really a “guy,” but an alien from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space, but now I’m just nit-picking.

Aside from all this, the writing is actually very good. The author has a talent for vivid description and paints a beautiful scene wherever she takes us. The characters of Eliza and Fitz were likeable and spunky at times. Even Jane Austen seemed like a perfectly lovely version of our beloved author. The dialogue is well done and even witty. Sadly, with all these good qualities, none of it seemed to go anywhere.

If you enjoyed The Man Who Loved Jane Austen and wondered what happened to Eliza, Fitz, and Jane when that story ended, then this book might be for you. However, I can’t help thinking that you might be better off letting your own imagination run wild.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Yours Affectionatley, Jane Austen, by Sally Smith-O’Rourke
Victorian Essence Press (2012)
Trade paperback (380) pages
ISBN: 978-1891437038

© 2013 Lisa Galek, Austenprose