Margaret Dashwood’s Diary: Sense and Sensibility Mysteries, Book One, by Anna Elliott – A Review

Margaret Dashwoods Diary by Anna Elliot 2014 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

Margaret Dashwood is only rarely mentioned in Sense and Sensibility. She starts the story as a girl of thirteen who loses her father and her home and then sits back to watch her two older sisters fall in love and get married. But, what kind of adventures did Margaret have after Jane Austen’s classic was done? In Margaret Dashwood’s Diary, Anna Elliott explores the life and loves of the youngest Dashwood sister.

As the title indicates, this novel takes the form of a diary and we begin with a brand new entry. See, Margaret has just burned her old journal after breaking off an engagement to a very eligible and rich young bachelor. She means to start fresh and has gone to stay with her sister, Marianne Brandon, at Delaford House for a change of scenery.

Colonel Brandon is away hunting down some dangerous smugglers that are operating in the neighborhood, but Margaret still runs into all kinds of old favorites. Elinor and Edward pop up every now and then. Mrs. Jennings is still poking her nose into everyone’s business. And even Mr. and Mrs. Palmer are in town to add to the laughs. But, when John Willoughby and his wife rent a house in the neighborhood things start to get a bit awkward for everyone. Continue reading

Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels and Letters of Jane Austen, by Pen Vogler – A Review

Dinner with Mr. Darcy, by Pen Vogler (2013)Imagine eating white soup with Mr. Darcy, roast pork with Miss Bates, or scones with Mr. Collins! Just thinking of those dishes transports me back into the scenes in Jane Austen’s novels and makes me smile. In Dinner with Mr. Darcy, food historian Pen Vogler examines Austen’s use of food in her writing, researches ancient Georgian recipes, converting them for the modern cook.

Even though Austen is not known for her descriptive writing, food is an important theme in her stories, speaking for her if you know how to listen. Every time we dine with characters, or food is mentioned, it relays an important fact that Austen wants us to note: wealth and station, poverty and charity, and of course comedy. While poor Mr. Woodhouse frets over wedding cake in Emma, Mr. Bingley offers white soup to his guests at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice, and Aunt Norris lifts the supernumerary jellies after the ball in Mansfield Park, we are offered insights into their characters and their social station.

In Austen’s letter she writes to her sister Cassandra about many domestic matters: clothes, social gatherings and food. When she mentions orange wine, apple pie and sponge cake we know it is of importance to her. Continue reading

The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen, by Lindsay Ashford – A Review

The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen, by Lindsay Ashford (2013)I had the pleasure of reading this mystery novel in 2011 when it was published in the UK as The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. I was very happy to learn that it was being published for the North American market by Sourcebooks as The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen. After a recent second reading I can honestly state that “my affections and wishes are unchanged.”

The book opens with this shocking question. Did Jane Austen die of natural causes or was she murdered? The possibility sent shivers down the back of my neck. Like many Janeites I have read of the many theories (and much speculation) on the fatal illnesses that may have caused Jane Austen’s death at age forty-one in 1817. Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bovine tuberculosis, and recently Brill-Zinsser disease have all been suggested. We know that Jane Austen was a perceptive observer of people and events in her novels and in her own life. In 1817, when she had a brief remission in her fatal illness, she wrote a letter on March 23rd to her favorite niece Fanny Knight. In it she supplies us with some very important evidence of her physical condition and the appearance of her face:

“I certainly have not been very well for many weeks, and about a week ago I was very poorly, I have had a good deal of fever at times and indifferent nights, but am considerably better now and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour. I must not depend upon ever being blooming again.  Sickness is a dangerous indulgence at my time of life.”

These six words piqued Lindsay Ashford’s training in criminology from Queens’ College, Cambridge. Severe discoloring of the face are signs of arsenic poisoning. Coupled with the amazing discovery that arsenic testing had been conducted in the 1940’s on the sample of Jane Austen’s hair, she was compelled to write her novel – fiction yes, but based deeply upon fact.

Twenty-six years after Austen’s death, her dear friend Anne Sharp has learned of the new Marsh test that can be conducted on human hair to discover if arsenic poisoning might have killed its owner. Torn between departing with the memento and learning the truth, she sends it off to be analyzed. The results will inspire her to write down a memoir of her friend and all of the events that lay out her theories and why. A catharsis act to release all the years of pent up frustration and anger of her dear friends death, which she truly believes was not natural, but by design. And, by someone, who had both strong motive and means in Jane’s family circle.

The narrative encompasses almost a forty year span from 1805 when Anne and Jane are introduced at Godmersham Park, Kent and continues through 1843 with the result of the test that concludes her suspicions. What unfolds is a fascinating journey into the Austen family dynamics that will raise more than a few eyebrows. At times I was shocked, repulsed and appalled, but, I read on, and on, so mesmerized by the story that Miss Sharp reveals of her employer Edward Knight, his brothers James and Henry, their wives and their children. Like Catherine Morland obsessed with Gothic fiction I could not stop. However, unlike Northanger Abbey, The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is not a high burlesque parody. It is a serious mystery novel based on historical fact.

Ashford’s thought-provoking writing is both honest and intriguing. Bare to the bone with human folly of biblical proportions, I am purposely vague in my plot description for fear of revealing anything that would spoil the discovery and surprise for the reader. Ashford has captured the Jane Austen and her intimate family circle within my mind’s eye with sensitivity, perception and reproving guile. What unfolds is a gripping, page turning, toxic sugar plum unlike any other Austenesque novel I have ever read. Be brave. Be beguiled. Be uncertain. I dare you.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen, by Lindsay Ashford
Sourcebooks Landmark (2013)
Trade paperback (432) pages
ISBN: 978-1402282126

Cover image courtesy Sourcebooks © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2013, Austenprose.com

Loving Miss Darcy: The Brides of Pemberley (Volume 2), by Nancy Kelley – A Review

Image of the book cover of Loving Miss Darcy: by Nancy Kelley © 2013 Nancy KelleyFrom the desk of Katie P.

An innocent young lady with a secret past preparing for her first Season. Her guardian torn between chasing off suitors and becoming a suitor himself. His friends (who just so happen to be spies) preparing to do what they do best to fend off the rogues. All of this together with a dash of romance, a pinch of adventure, and a handful of espionage, and you have the Pride and Prejudice continuation, Loving Miss Darcy: The Brides of Pemberley.

Georgiana Darcy’s life is peaceful. Her new sister, Elizabeth Bennet Darcy has brought the family together as never before, and Georgiana has happily spent her days in the countryside doing what she loves best with those she loves best, particularly her older cousin and guardian, Col. Richard Fitzwilliam. Surrounded by her music and family, she quickly flourishes into a beautiful young woman of eighteen, with only one dark moment of her past to shade her happiness. But just as she finally manages to put her failed elopement with Mr. Wickham behind her, Georgie finds out that she must go to London for the Season to be thrown in amongst men who only desire her for her fortune, men who might turn out to be exactly like Wickham.

On the eve of Georgiana’s season, Richard rediscovers some old friends and his guardian problems are solved. After all, who better to watch Georgiana and chase off suitors who are not worthy of her (which oddly enough, happens to be all of them), than seasoned spies? And why is it that he seems so against her meeting, well, any eligible gentleman?

With her brother Fitzwilliam Darcy and cousin Richard Fitzwilliam to protect her, Georgiana feels she is safe from ever falling in love again, but what if love has been right in front of her all along? What can Richard and Georgie do when old secrets come to light, and specters from their past come back to haunt them? When her past and future collide, Georgiana must learn to rely on her family and trust the one who loves her, while Richard must begin a search to discover the traitor in their midst before it is too late.

I’ve always been wary about reading Jane Austen continuations, especially Pride and Prejudice ones. All of her characters are so special and beloved, that I’m afraid to come across one that distorts my own opinion and ideas of how they’d act or talk. So I am happy to say that Loving Miss Darcy is a refreshing continuation of Pride and Prejudice. I could easily imagine Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Kitty, Georgiana, Mrs. Bennet, and Richard in the drawing room discussing art (or attempting to, in the case of Mrs. Bennet) and exchanging witty banter. Nancy Kelley treats the characters with respect and opens them up in a natural way that holds steady to the aspects of their personalities, yet adds some new surprises. For example, sisters Kitty and Mary Bennet are both mature, and soon become Georgiana’s friends. I was pleasantly surprised to see Kitty and Georgiana’s friendship develop, as I had never thought about how Georgiana would interact with Elizabeth’s family. I also loved the new characters that were added. Richard’s family did not appear in more than a few chapters, but when they did, their scenes were so very special. Every family member, no matter how small a role, was entertaining and unique: Elaine (his nagging sister), John and Sally (his cute nephew and niece), Simon (his foppish and irritating brother), and Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam (his wise and loving parents). It was wonderful to read a book that not only had action and adventure, but also tender family scenes. More new characters included the spies: perceptive Sebastian, lovelorn Ashford, and good-natured Colin. They were all well developed, and I just have to sigh a girlish sigh over Richard’s spy friends (gotta love a mysterious and crafty secret agent).

One of the interesting things I learned more about from Loving Miss Darcy was the importance of the coming out Season. I had never thought about the details, or how frightening it would seem in a society where that was the one and only chance at an advantageous marriage—and all of us Jane Austen fans know that an advantageous marriage during the Regency was the highest aspiration for a well-bred female. Georgiana was afraid that she wouldn’t find a worthy man to marry, and Nancy Kelley did a good job portraying this so that the reader could understand the weight of her (and any Regency female’s) decision. Imagine choosing your spouse after knowing them only a short time, and only making your decision based not on character, but on the well-known facts of his or her family property and wealth! As Georgie says, “Flowery speeches have not stood me in good stead. I would much prefer an honest man who speaks from his heart.”

My only problem with this book was the flip-flopping of names. Fitzwilliam Darcy is sometimes called William, but other times called Fitzwilliam. Richard is also Mr. Darcy’s cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam (Richard’s parents) also go by the names of Lord and Lady Matlock. This wasn’t a huge problem when reading, but it was confusing at first.

I love three things in a book—adventure, banter, and romance. This book had all of them, and I cannot wait to read more from this author (and hopefully more about the characters)!

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Loving Miss Darcy: The Brides of Pemberley (Volume 2), by Nancy Kelley
CreateSpace (2013)
Trade paperback (244) pages
ISBN: 978-1481859172

Cover image courtesy © 2013 Nancy Kelley; text © 2013 Katie Patchell

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  

The Passing Bells: Book One of the Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock – A Review

The Passing Bells, by  Philip Rock (2012)I love a good mystery. I just didn’t know that I would be so personally engaged in one for over thirty years.

In 1980, a read a book about an aristocratic English family during WWI that I absolutely adored. I was so enthusiastic about it that I promptly loaned it to my best friend who never thought of it again until about a year later when I asked for it back. She had no idea where my copy was. I was devastated. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to write down the title or author. I could only remember that bell was in the title.

Decades passed and the book never left my list of “to find titles.” When Internet search engines and online used book stores became available to me I searched again to no avail. Last month I was perusing the new release table at Barnes & Noble and a book title jumped out at me. The Passing Bells sounded vaguely familiar so I read the back description and checked the copyright date. “Originally published in 1978.” I stood and stared at the cover in stunned silence. I had found it again. It was a book miracle.

I immediately download a copy to my NOOK and commenced reading. After a long and unyielding quest I wondered if time had romanticized my memory. Had The Passing Bells become my Holy Book Grail?

The summer of 1914 will mark the last days of a privileged way of life for many English aristocrats and the working class who served them. Political unrest is looming on the continent, but at Abingdon Pryory, the palatial grand manor house of the Greville family in Surrey, the pleasures of the ruling class continue as parties, dances and romances are in full swing. The lord of the manor, Anthony Greville, 9th earl of Stanmore rides his favorite hunter Jupiter through his vast estate while his wife Hanna Rilke Greville, Countess Stanmore, plans the debut season in London of their beautiful young daughter Alexandria and worries about her eldest son Charles, whose studies at Cambridge and determination to marry Lydia Foxe, a wealthy local girl with no family connections are foremost on her mind. Up for a weekend in the country are family friends Captain Fenton Wood-Lacy of the Coldstream Guards, hard up for cash and seeking a bride, and the eccentric wife of the Marquees of Dexford and her dowdy youngest daughter Winifred hoping to spark a romance with the heir. Interestingly, Hanna’s American nephew Martin Rilke, a young journalist from Chicago, arrives for a summer holiday and we see this truly English family from a new perspective.

Downstairs there is an army of servants maintaining the ancient estate and the lives of their upstairs employer in grand style. A new maid Ivy Thaxton is learning the ropes in the hierarchy of the servant class while chauffeur Jamie Ross tinkers with Rolls Royce engines and dreams of submitting patents of his designs.

The tug and pull of the family dynamics soon expands to a wider field with the outbreak of WWI. We travel to northern France with Captain Wood-Lacy with his battalion and Martin Rilke as a newspaper reporter and witness the chaotic beginnings of the war and the devastating losses at Ypres. At home, the Greville’s  neighbor, wealthy businessman Archie Foxe, uses his food empire and knowledge of distribution to aid the war effort becoming even wealthier. As all the young men are enlisted for King and Country, and the young women are employed in the cities, the staff at Abingdon Pryory dwindles down to a skeleton crew. The ladies do their part and daughter Alexandria and housemaid Ivy enlist in the women’s nursing units.

The narrative covers between 1914-1920, and we are witness to more warfare with the soldier Charles Greville and reporter Martin Rilke who witness the massive military blunders and tragic loss of thousands of lives at Gallipoli in Turkey and through the balance of the war. The effect on the home front by those who must bear the devastating personal losses and changes to a way of aristocratic life that will never be again is equally as compelling and heart wrenching. Even with all the destruction of life, family and country there is hope and romance for a few of the main characters.

Philip Rock is a fabulous writer. His screenwriting skills are wholly apparent on every page. He moves the story swiftly on with a directorial eye by including just enough fact and emotion to keep you glued to the page and engaged at every moment without looking back. Even though there are many characters and plot lines running concurrently I was able to keep up and enjoy all the great historical detail and the amazing characters that he developed. My favorites were Fenton and Martin; both men of honor and integrity who represented outsiders to the Greville family whose objective perspectives were similar to narrator Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

I am happy to say that my melancholy sentiments might have clouded my judgment just a tad while re-reading, but after 30 plus years, it was all that I remembered and more—a book to cherish and read again. Intriguing and intoxicating, The Passing Bells is a future American classic that I encourage anyone interested in historical fiction and first rate storytelling to read immediately. I am looking forward to the next two books in this trilogy: Circles of Time and A Future Arrived. I hope you will return here to read my next two reviews of the series on March 09 and April 06, 2013.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Passing Bells: Book One of The Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock
William Morrow (2012)
Trade paperback (544) pages
ISBN: 978-0062229311

© 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose