Polite Society: A Novel, by Mahesh Rao–A Review

Image of the cover of Polite Society, by Mahesh Rao (2019)From the desk of Katie Patchell:

I have loved Jane Austen’s Emma for as long as I can remember. Yes—I mean that literally. When I was six, my first introduction to the Regency and the magnificent world of Jane Austen began with a battered VHS copy (Gwyneth Paltrow/Jeremy Northam version) and, well, has never ended.

In fact, my first classic ever read was a neon yellow copy of Emma gifted for Christmas at the age of ten. It is now battered and torn, but will forever hold a place on my shelves. To me, the heroine Emma has always gone beyond the place of a lovable but mistaken fictional friend; she’s been in some ways, a mirror of myself. Perhaps this quality is why people love to hate her – she reflects how we all would be if given enough time, money, and influence. And that is: Sure that our way is the best way. Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society shows a world and cast of characters where this idea is everything.

Retellings can always be tricky – there’s a whole host of questions we ask ourselves. Will the modern setting give or detract something from the original? How much do morals connect to ethics, and ethics to society’s rules, and society’s rules to good behavior? Etc. etc. etc. We as readers can forgive much, including creative license with the original, as long as we find some kind of spark. Of wit, or romance, or searing visions of who we are (when we didn’t even realize it)…any or all of these can grab us and not let go. Polite Society attempts all of this, and its success depends on the reader.

Self-styled by Rao, a lifelong fan of Jane Austen, as a book that “mines a much darker seam” than Crazy Rich Asians (a book it’s already being compared to), Polite Society definitely accomplishes this vision. Ania Khurana, the 21st-century version of Emma Woodhouse, and the elite in Delhi are terrible. Oh, I can make all kinds of beautifully polite parallels between the glittering sparkle of diamonds and Ania’s society, but at the core, their world is shallow and rotting. Rao has the eye and the heart of an anthropologist. He writes the elite with all their poison, all their attempts at climbing higher and higher on their social ladder, with a just pen. In the middle of the well-written nastiness, there are surprising moments of kindness (Dev/Mr. Knightley), true interest in others (Renu Khurana/Mrs. Weston), and self-realization (Colonel Rathore/Mr. Weston). Continue reading

Ayesha At Last: A Novel, by Uzma Jalaluddin— A Review

Ayesha At Last 200From the desk of Natalie Jenner

I am a firm believer that the love story at the heart of Pride and Prejudice is the best-constructed romance arc in all of literature. Author Julian Barnes once said of Darcy and Elizabeth that “the lovers are really made for each other—by their creator. They are constructed for each other: interlocked for wedlock.” The result for so many of us is the need for an occasional new hit of these two characters and their lust-versus-logic dynamic. So, when a promising debut author pens a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in my very own city of Toronto, Canada, I quickly find myself attending her local book signing and grabbing up several copies for the Austen lovers in my life.

In Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last, the setting is Scarborough, a suburban and diverse community in eastern Toronto full of townhouses and waterparks and strip malls. Our Darcy and Elizabeth are Khalid and Ayesha, two young Muslims who are both fatherless, both still living at home, and both experiencing the typical career angst of the millennial generation. After the meet-cute, not at a local assembly but rather an open-mike poetry slam night at a local bar, Khalid and Ayesha engage in a series of almost wilful misunderstandings as they both end up working on a Muslim youth event for the local community centre. Yet Khalid, in particular, is drawn to Ayesha and does not protest when he thinks that his mother has orchestrated an arranged marriage between him and the young teacher. But then events start to spiral comically out of control as Khalid’s mother intervenes in his life Caroline Bingley-style, one of Ayesha’s many young female cousins falls prey to a modern Wickham, and the community centre faces a financial and ethical crisis. As the two most level-headed, attractive and charismatic characters in the plot, Khalid and Ayesha must learn to work together for the sake of their families, their community, and their own romantic destiny. Continue reading

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors: A Novel, by Sonali Dev—A Review

Pride Prejudice and Other Flavors 2019 x 200Recently I pulled Pemberley, or Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Emma Tennant off my bookshelf. I was feeling nostalgic after looking at my “to be read” pile of new Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice retellings that have or will hit bookstores this year. It was one of the first P&P inspired novels that I read way back in 2002. Published in 1993, the author was forging virgin territory. At this point there were very few Austen-inspired books in print and readers did not know what to expect. It received a tepid reception from critics and the public. One recent Amazon reviewer called it “a real nightmare.” Ouch! You can read my detailed review of Pemberley from 2013, or read it and decide for yourself.

Since Tennant’s Austenesque-trek to boldly go where no author dared to go, there have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of Pride and Prejudice prequels, sequels, continuations, and inspired-by books. Recently we are in a retelling cycle—all presented with an ethnic twist. Last year we had Pride, by Ibi Zoboi, a contemporary retelling of Austen’s classic hate/love romance set in Brooklyn, NY featuring an all-black cast of characters. This year we have three new novels: Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal set in 2000 in Pakistan; Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin in which Darcy and Lizzy are transported to contemporary Canada featuring Muslim characters; and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, which after this long and winding introduction is the book I will discuss today.

Another contemporary retelling, PPAOF is set in the “bay area” of San Francisco, California. Loosely based on Jane Austen’s spikey romance where the roles of the rich, proud Fitzwilliam Darcy and the much-less-rich, prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet are reversed. Meet Dr. Trisha Raje, a brilliant thirty-something neurosurgeon specializing in cutting-edge microsurgery at a prominent hospital, who also happens to be an Indian Princess by default. Her father was the second son of the royal line of an Indian Principality which is no longer in power. When he immigrated to the US, his wealth and royal mien came with him. At the premature death of his older brother, he became HRM in name only. The family live like royalty in their Woodside estate with multiple servants and the exotic air of old-world nobility with all its privileges and baggage. Even though Trisha is a successful and highly prestigious doctor she is a disappointment to her parents, who cannot forgive her for a fifteen-year-old social faux pas against her brother, a rising Politician, and, the fact that she remains unmarried. Continue reading

Lost Roses: A Novel, by Martha Hall Kelly – A Review

Lost Roses 2019 x 200Are there any historical fiction readers out there who have not read the insanely popular Lilac Girls yet? Hello!

Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel was published in 2016 – and like all book fledglings was sent out into the world with high hopes. Early reviews were rather mixed, but it hit the NY Times bestseller list immediately, a phenomenon for a debut novel. It has become one of those rare books in publishing that has an enormous wingspan, remaining on the bestseller lists for years.

One cannot even imagine the pressure on Kelly’s shoulders to produce her second novel, Lost Roses, released last month by Ballantine Books. A prequel to Lilac Girls, many of her readers will have high expectations. If she was smart, she would stick to her winning formula: base the story on real-life women facing challenges during historical events; transport readers into their lives and times through first-person narratives that are impeccably researched; offer page turning-prose that keeps you up into the wee hours; and finally, develop characters that we can empathize and care about. A very tall order, indeed.

Again, the story features a tryptic of women struggling on the home front during a world war. Lilac Girls introduced us to Caroline Ferriday in the 1940’s WWII. Lost Roses begins a generation earlier in pre-WWI and features Caroline’s mother Eliza Ferriday, an American socialite and philanthropist, her friend Sofya Streshnayva, a Russian aristocrat, and Varinka Kozlov, a Russian peasant. Continue reading

Yuletide: A Jane Austen-Inspired Collection of Stories, edited by Christina Boyd – A Review

Yuletide Boyd 2018 x 200Now that my holiday décor, baking, and gift shopping are finished—reading time was in order! What better way to celebrate the season than tucking up with a cup of tea and a good holiday themed story? Fortunately for my Jane Austen obsession, a surprise anthology appeared like an irresistible kitten with a big red bow arriving on your doorstep on Christmas Eve.

Yuletide is a new short story collection edited by Christina Boyd. Inspired by Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, seven altruistic Austenesque authors donated their stories, along with others involved in the independent publishing process, to create a small collection of stories to benefit Chawton House, the manor house owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight near Alton, England. This seemed a win-win for me. My purchase would benefit a worthy cause and support the Austenesque genre.

I understand that the book was pulled together in a very short time frame, so we shall see what magic happens when authors, editors, and book designers’ mettle is tested. Here is a rundown of the seven stories in the anthology. Continue reading

What Kitty Did Next, by Carrie Kablean – A Review

What Kitty Did Next 2018 x 200We were very pleased when a novel inspired by Pride and Prejudice crossed our path. What Kitty Did Next is a continuation, as such, of one of the five Bennet sisters after the close of Jane Austen’s classic novel, whose heroine Elizabeth receives most of the praise from her family and marriage to Mr. Darcy of Pemberley in the end. Her younger sister Catherine on the other hand, or Kitty as she is called by her family, only earns put-downs and threats from her father after her involvement in her younger sister Lydia’s infamous elopement with Mr. Wickham. Accused of being silly and ignorant, what could Kitty do to regain her family’s trust, raise her self-esteem and make herself marriageable? From the title of the book, my expectations were high. How would Kablean turn the floundering duckling of Longbourn into a swan?

Much of the anticipation for the reader is generated by Kitty’s past behavior in Pride and Prejudice. For those who have not read the original, Kablean gives us ample background and character backstory.

Kitty, meanwhile, was just Kitty. A docile child, she had trailed after her adored eldest sisters but they, like many older siblings, had not delighted in her presence and had sent her off to play with the younger ones. Only sickness and prolonged periods of enforced rest had brought Jane, and occasionally Elizabeth, to her bedside, and when she had fully recovered her health Lydia had so far inserted herself as her mother’s favourite that it had seemed obvious that she should follow in her younger sister’s wake and share all the delights and comforts bestowed upon her. Neither commanding nor being the centre of attention, Kitty had become more adept at observing than doing and, until the events of the previous year, had not questioned this order of things. Chapter 6

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Mary B.: A Novel: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice, by Katherine J. Chen – A Review

Mary B Katherine Chen 2018 x 197 x 300Of the five Bennet sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mary is the most unlikely of heroines. Priggish, sanctimonious, and unattractive, her prospects for a happy life were bleak. In Mary B., debut novelist Katherine Chen chooses to give Mary her own story – delving into her young, awkward life with her family at Longbourn, her early attempts at romantic attachments, and ultimately her escape to her sister’s home at Pemberley where she discovers an unknown talent, and that men can be interested in women for more than their reputed beauty and handsome dowry.

In Part I of the novel, Chen has paralleled Jane Austen’s narrative in Pride and Prejudice with a glimpse of a prequel to the Bennet sisters’ childhood. We see young Mary, awkward and introverted in comparison to her older sisters Jane and Elizabeth, and the brunt of abuse by her two younger siblings Kitty and Lydia. As the reader we are as hurt and confused as our heroine and it is not an enjoyable experience. As the story continues, those who have read Pride and Prejudice will recognize the plot as it picks up at the beginning of Austen’s famous tale. Through Mary’s eyes we experience the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy in the Meryton neighborhood, the ball at Netherfield Park and the visit to the family home by the Bennet’s odious cousin Mr. Collins. Infatuated with the silly man, Mary throws herself at him and then watches as he chooses her sister Lizzy as the “companion of his future life.” Adding insult to injury, after her sister rejects his proposal of marriage Mr. Collins does not even think of her as an alternative, marrying their neighbor Charlotte Lucas instead. Continue reading

Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels & Revolutionaries, by Sue Wilkes – A Review

Regency Spies by Sue Wilkes 2016 x 200

From the desk of Stephanie Barron:

PARANOIA RUNS DEEP

From the moment I saw the title of Sue Wilkes’s latest book, Regency Spies (Pen & Sword Books, 2015), I was desperate to get my hot little hands on a copy. In a distant chapter of my life I was trained in espionage by the CIA, and I have a habit of inventing spies in my Jane Austen novels—most of them working nefariously on behalf of Bonaparte, but a few ready to die for King and Country. There’s a paucity of scholarly data on tradecraft, recruitment, and spy running during Jane Austen’s heydey, as Lauren Willig’s fictional Eloise discovers in the absorbing adventures of the Pink Carnation. A century ago, Baroness Orczy handed us the consuming history of the Scarlet Pimpernel and forever transformed our sense of the French Revolution. (Can there be any pleasure greater than tucking oneself up in bed with a soothing drink and a copy of one of these books on a stormy night?) Patrick O’Brian channeled the Secret Funds of the Admiralty’s Sir Joseph Banks into the hands of his irascible polymath Stephen Maturin, who collected intelligence wherever his voyages with Jack Aubrey took him; but O’Brian failed to detail his sources at the back of his marvelous novels.

Perhaps, like me, he had none.

So I was eager to discover what Ms. Wilkes had to share with the world.

I confess to a moment of dismay when I opened Regency Spies. As Georgette Heyer’s character Freddie Standen often observes, “I never knew a more complete take-in!” And as is so often the case with poor Freddie, the fault lay with me, not with Ms. Wilkes. I assumed that by Regency spies, she referred to dashing men in cravats and pantaloons, fencing the despicable minions of Napoleon on behalf of the Crown. In fact, Regency Spies is an impeccably researched and scholarly record of the informants recruited, generally by the British Home Office but also by local militias and constabularies, to report on the seditious conspiracies of their fellow Englishmen. Continue reading

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, by Curtis Sittenfeld – A Review

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield 2016 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Jane Austen is a tough act to follow and that is exactly what the Austen Project asks contemporary authors to do: reimagine one of Austen’s novels in the here and now. Curtis Sittenfeld, author of four novels including Prep and American Wife, was chosen to take on Austen’s best-known work, Pride and Prejudice. While P&P-inspired books and films such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bride and Prejudice demonstrate that the story and its themes have broad appeal, I wondered how Sittenfeld’s Eligible would handle the main plot points in a modern setting. Many of the issues that Austen’s characters grappled with are barely recognizable if they exist at all in modern daily life.

In Eligible, the tension between the original story and Sittenfeld’s inventions kept me turning pages. Brief, episodic chapters mirror the short attention span of a digital era audience. In contemporary Cincinnati, Mr. Bennet spends as much time as possible alone at his computer, while Mrs. Bennet’s life revolves around country club gossip and planning luncheons for the Women’s League. Jane and Liz have carved out careers in Manhattan: the eldest Miss Bennet teaches yoga while her sister writes features for a magazine. They return to Cincinnati when Mr. Bennet has a heart attack. Their practical assistance and support are needed because their younger sisters, while living at home, are little help to their parents. Socially awkward Mary is pursuing her third online master’s degree while Kitty and Lydia, as crass and self-absorbed as ever, are obsessed with working out at the gym and following trendy diets. Sittenfeld’s group portrait of the Bennet clan was one of my favorite parts of Eligible. It’s easy to picture Jane Austen smiling at this: Continue reading

Then Comes Winter, edited by Christina Boyd – A Review

Then Came Winter, edited by Christina Boyd 2015 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

When I was first asked to review Then Comes Winter edited by Christina Boyd, I felt that the fact that it was a short story compilation was perfect. In the midst of holiday planning, gift buying, and cookie baking, I had less than my normal appointed time for reading. So, having the ability to read these shorter, Austen-inspired stories let me fit them right in with my schedule and enjoy them that much more. Couple that with the fact that I now had a bunch of new authors to check out, and I was certainly excited to get started. Even more exciting, however, is the fact that my fellow Austenprose contributor Christina Boyd is the editor!

As I did with my last compilation review, Sun-kissed, I’m posting the Goodreads summary below as there are multiple stories and I cannot summarize them all here.

If you long for a toasty snuggle on a cold winter’s night, this compilation of original short stories inspired by the magic of the holiday season-and more than a nod to Jane Austen-is fancied as a sublime wintertime treat. On the heels of the summer anthology, Sun-kissed: Effusions of Summer, and in concert with some of Meryton Press’s most popular authors, this romantic anthology introduces several promising writers. With a robust mix of contemporary and Regency musings, Then Comes Winter rekindles passionate fires with equal wonder, wit, and admiration. Stories by: Lory Lilian, Linda Gonschior, Suzan Lauder, Beau North & Brooke West, Sophia Rose, Natalie Richards, Anngela Schroeder, Melanie Stanford, Denise Stout, Erin Lopez, and Maureen Lee.

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The Painter’s Daughter, by Julie Klassen – A Review

The Painters Daughter Julie Klassen 2015 x 200From the desk of Katie Patchell: 

Digital Cameras. Laptops. Word documents and Note Apps. In 2015, these and countless other electronic items are used to quickly capture memories and jot down thoughts. But in 1815, the primary means of recording moments and ideas was through paper, pen, and paintbrush. Novels, journals, and artwork show moderns what life was like in the early 1800s, bringing readers and viewers into the thoughts and events of two centuries ago. In The Painter’s Daughter, Julie Klassen’s latest Regency romance set against the backdrop of Devon’s towering cliffs, readers discover a story of secrets and danger, prophecies and hope. But unlike the portraits from the Regency period, “viewers” are not given a glimpse of 1815 through the paint on a canvas, but rather through the story of the painter herself.

March 1815: Captain Stephen Marshall Overtree has only a few short weeks left of shore leave before he returns to the Navy, and he has one last family duty to perform: Locating his wayward brother, Wesley. Stephen digs up his brother’s last address at a painter’s cottage and rides to the small seaside town, Lynmouth. His plan is simple—find Wesley, and return to his blissfully regimented life in the Navy. But his retrieval plan is ruined when on his arrival at the Devon seaside, all he finds is a locked cottage, crates of paintings, and a beautiful woman standing perilously close to a cliff’s edge. Continue reading

Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen, edited by Gabrielle Malcolm – A Review

Fan Phenomena Jane Austen 2015 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Jane Austen fans cannot be filed neatly into a single category any more than Austen’s works can be limited to one literary genre. How might an editor attempt to do justice to the multiplicity of Janeite fandom in a slim volume of essays and interviews? This question was uppermost in my mind as I began reading Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen. The Fan Phenomena series website explains that the goal of the series is to “look at particular examples of ‘fan culture’ and approach the subject in an accessible manner aimed at both fans and those interested in the cultural and social aspects of these fascinating–and often unusual–‘universes’.” 

What is the joy of Jane? What is it about her work that keeps readers, and viewers, coming back for more? Is it the Darcy effect? Is it the irony, the wit, the romance? Or is it a combination of all these factors? Many critics and authors have compiled works to analyse this vast and still growing phenomenon of fandom…This collection offers material about the fans, for the fans, by the fans, and offers a combination of the popular and the academic. (5)

Editor Gabrielle Malcom’s introduction provides a clear description of the purpose and scope of the collection. She acknowledges the differences between mainstream fan culture and the academic treatment of Austen. After setting Austen’s work in its historical context with a few concise and insightful paragraphs, she provides brief descriptions of the essays and interviews that follow. While Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen has the look of an academic journal, its design and use of color photographs creates a visually appealing experience for the reader, with the exception of the excessively small font size used for the text of the essays. Although I suspect that the text format is dictated by the Fan Phenomena series as a whole and not unique to this volume, the cramped appearance distracted me from the content at times. I found the format used in the Fan Appreciation interviews to be much more appropriate and reader-friendly. Continue reading

Miss Georgiana Darcy of Pemberley, by Shannon Winslow – A Review

Miss Georgiana of Pemberley, by Shannon Winslow (2015)From the desk of Lisa Galek:

Georgiana Darcy might be a minor character in Pride and Prejudice, but we know that she’ll go on to play a very important role in the lives of the future Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. As a resident of Pemberley, Georgiana’s daily life would have been intimately connected with the lives of her brother and sister-in-law. How would she have learned from them? How would she grow into a woman? Would she ever find her own true love? In Shannon Winslow’s book, Miss Georgiana Darcy of Pemberley, all those questions are answered and more.

Our story begins about a year after the events of Pride and Prejudice. Georgiana Darcy is about to turn eighteen years old and lives at Pemberley with her brother and new sister-in-law. She is profoundly happy there and never has to worry about being married off to some odious relative for financial reasons. Of course, that doesn’t mean Georgiana doesn’t want to get married… if the right man comes along. Right now, she has her heart set on her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is starting to look less like a guardian and more like husband material every day. Continue reading

Pride and Proposals: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Victoria Kincaid – A Review

Pride and Proposals by Victoria Kincaid 2015 x 200From the desk of Monica Perry:

Readers of Pride and Prejudice retellings know that sometimes it’s a great thing when Mr. Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth Bennet gets interrupted. It isn’t his best moment and perhaps if it’s averted, the universe will realign in his favor, giving him time to learn of her disdain for him and correct his behavior before she hands him his heart on a stick. In Victoria Kincaid’s Pride and Proposals, Darcy doesn’t get the chance to propose, yet he still has his heart broken, as he arrives at the parsonage just in time to learn his lady love just got engaged to his best friend and cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam. What can he do? Richard is kind and honorable, and they seem to be very happy. If Darcy can’t have her, she could do far worse in a spouse. Can he risk embarrassing himself and harming his relationship with Richard by admitting his feelings? Does she truly love Richard or is she marrying for convenience? Colonel Fitzwilliam is such a beloved personage in Pride and Prejudice stories; in a world without Mr. Darcy, he and Elizabeth could be quite well- suited for each other. I wanted to know if Ms. Kincaid could possibly get Darcy and Elizabeth to a happy ending without breaking Richard’s heart in the process. Continue reading