Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor — A Review

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor (2000)From the desk of Pamela Mingle:

When I was a young girl, I found a copy of Forever Amber on my aunt’s bookcase. I’d heard about its scandalous reputation and asked if I could borrow it. Written by Kathleen Winsor and published in 1944, the book became famous for its racy and bawdy storyline. It was banned in Massachusetts and subsequently in several other states. Preachers railed against it from their pulpits. Despite all that, Forever Amber was the bestselling book of the 1940s, and by 1947 the movie, a very condensed version of the book, starring Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde, was released.

As a teenager, the frenetic passion between the two main characters, Amber St. Clare and Bruce, Lord Carlton, was all I cared about. The heady feeling of experiencing a great romance through a literary character stuck with me through the years. Although explicit sex is kept behind closed doors, the underlying desire between Amber and Bruce is always there, simmering beneath the surface.

The setting for the book is the Restoration (1660-1688), which begins with the return of Charles II to the English throne after the collapse of the Commonwealth. Winsor, an American, read over 350 books about the period while writing Forever Amber, which was published when she was only twenty-four. Continue reading

The Mitford Scandal: A Mitford Murders Mystery (Book 3), by Jessica Fellowes—A Review

The Mitford Scandal by Jessica Fellowes 2020From the desk of Debbie Brown:

From 1928 to 1932, the British middle and upper class still experienced a bright time. The Roaring Twenties are dimming, yet the fun and frolic continue for those “Bright Young Things” who still have plenty of money. “They drink too much and they’re careless. They’re rich and young and they believe themselves to be invincible.” The descent into decadence plays a major role in The Mitford Scandal, a complex mystery, by Jessica Fellowes.

Foremost among them, Diana Mitford (an actual British socialite of the era) is presented as the embodiment of Daisy Buchanan, the heroine of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus The Great Gatsby.  She believes “One should live life to the absolute fullest, not doing anything dreary but surrounding oneself with love and beauty.” Sadly, the reader comes to understand that “life to the fullest” includes infidelity, adultery, and opium addiction among Diana’s social set.

The book begins with a series of behind-the-scenes views at a high society party in 1928, mostly seen through the eyes of Louisa Cannon, who’s employed as a temporary servant for the evening. Chapter One ends shockingly: a maid falls through a skylight into the middle of the partygoers in the ballroom, dead. While it seems obvious that this was an accident (she had been peeking at the party from a floor up above through the glass dome but fell into it, shattering the glass), evidence years later suggests the cause may have been something more sinister. Continue reading

All the Ways We Said Goodbye, by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, & Karen White — A Review

All The Ways We Said Goodbye, by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White (2020)From the desk of Katie Patchell:  

Three Women. Three Decades. Two Wars. 

In All the Ways We Said Goodbye, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, & Karen White take readers across two continents and through two World Wars to uncover spies and secrets. Each of the three heroines, Aurelie, Daisy, and Babs, fight to bring freedom of heart and country in this tale that spans fifty years. The drumbeat of war reaches to stately mansions and across war-ravaged fields, calling each of the unique heroines to right the wrong in their corners of the world. Despite their seemingly unconnected lives, the same glittering Ritz holds the answers to what they search for: Courage, love, and a final goodbye. So reader: welcome to Paris — welcome to the Ritz — welcome to All the Ways We Said Goodbye.

If there was one word to describe this novel, it would be “secrets.” Aurelie, Daisy, and Babs have many secrets that they hide from even those closest to them, and it’s the job of the reader to sniff them out. I cannot give a detailed description of the plot because of the twists and revelations that happen to start in the very first pages. What I can do without spoilers is to give a brief introduction to each of the heroines:

  • Aurelie – 1914. Aurelie lives in Paris and is the daughter of a French aristocrat and an American heiress. Her ancestors fought with Joan of Arc, and this hero inspires Aurelie to go off on her own daring quest to save lives as a second “Maid of Orleans.” Rebelling against the German soldiers comes naturally, as they’re the invaders of her country and home. But when she meets an old flame now dressed in the garb of a German officer, the clear lines between “Who is my enemy?” and “Who is my friend?” vanish.
  • Daisy – 1942. Another resident of Paris, Daisy struggles against life under Nazi occupation. Her grandmother, a wealthy American expatriate, encourages Daisy to join her spy ring. For Daisy, the cost is great–if caught, her two young children and beloved grandmother are put in terrible danger. With the aid of a mysterious English spy and his worn copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Daisy embarks on a path she never would have planned in order to protect her family and people.
  • Babs – 1964. Babs was always content in her role as wife, mother, and leader in her area of Devonshire, England. When her childhood sweetheart-turned-husband dies after World War II, she sinks under the loneliness of an empty home and heart. But when Babs finds out that her husband may have lied about everything — even his love for her — she starts out on a transformative journey to Paris that takes her through old letters and long-buried stories at the Hotel Ritz.

Continue reading

Sanditon: A Novelization of Andrew Davies’ TV Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Unfinished Novel, by Kate Riordan

Sanditon, by Jane Austen and Kate Riordan PBS (2019)A new Jane Austen adaptation/continuation written by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice 1995) debuted last night in the US on Masterpiece PBS. Inspired by an unfinished novel that Austen began shortly before her death in 1817, Sanditon, the original novel, the television series, and the novelization by Kate Riordan, all share the same title. A tie-in novel based on a screenplay based on an uncompleted novel. That is six degrees of separation that is a challenge to get my mind around. Today we are reviewing the novelization!

The story unfolds from the perspective of Charlotte Heywood, a young lady experiencing her first trip away from her family as a guest of the Parkers of Sanditon, an emerging seaside village on the Sussex coast. Mr. Parker and his business partner Lady Denham are the two entrepreneurs behind its redevelopment from a fishing village into a fashionable watering-place offering the therapeutic and curative benefits of sea-bathing. Mr. Parker has three siblings: Arthur and Diana, a comical pair who are obsessed with their health, and the mysterious Sidney, whose handsome portrait greeted Charlotte when she entered the Parker home. Lady Denham is a widow twice over whose heirs are circling in anticipation of her “ shuffle of this mortal coil,”: Sir Edward Denham and his sister Esther, and Clara Brereton, all young and eager to please their aunt to win her approval, and her fortune.

Every experience in Sanditon is a new adventure for Charlotte—seeing the ocean for the first time and meeting new people. Her first day after her arrival is spent sea-bathing, a bracing experience from the cold temperature of the ocean, and by the view of naked men bathing from an adjoining stretch of the beach. Later, while walking with Mrs. Parker to visit Lady Denham at Sanditon House, she sees Sir Edward and Clara together in the park engaging in an intimate activity that she is uncomfortable with. Inside, Charlotte is in awe of the splendor of the grand manor house. Everything about Sanditon and its residents is so different than her life as the daughter of a gentleman farmer. Continue reading

A Good Name: A Modern Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Sarah Courtney — A Review

A Good Name, by Sarah Courtney (2019)From the desk of Debbie Brown:

This is one of those books that completely took me by surprise. I’m still gobsmacked by it. Do NOT be put off by the fact that the first part of the story — well, actually, the whole book — is centered squarely on George Wickham. Please trust me. It works.

The book’s Prologue tugs at your heartstrings, introducing George at age ten. His mother is a neglectful drug addict and he doesn’t even know who his father is; Rebecca Wickham has had several boyfriends, and Mark, the guy she’s currently living with, is better than most only because he doesn’t beat them. George has just one set of clothes, and he’s always hungry. He gets bullied at school. He can read, but not very well. With such a start in life, there doesn’t seem to be much of a future ahead for him.

But little eight-year-old Lizzy Bennet approaches him on a playground bench, offers him a sandwich, and unconsciously introduces him to the perfect escape from his miserable life by reading aloud a Harry Potter book. “[H]e wished she didn’t have to go. It was like coming out of a dream somehow, to close the book and go back to real life. He felt let down. Going home, going to bed, lying there hungry… how could he go back to that now that he had been on a train to magic school?” It’s a game-changer for George.

The story continues. The two friends are separated, but George’s situation improves thanks to Mr. Darcy (senior). Fitzwilliam Darcy eventually turns up in the book a couple of years later. His entrance is an inspired twist, and I hope other reviewers are kind enough not to spoil the surprise.

More time passes, with Will becoming COO of his father’s company, AirVA, which is a national air ventilation system corporation based in Virginia. Anyway, when Will’s father and mother are in a car crash, Mr. Darcy’s injuries and subsequent rehab require Will to step up as CEO years before originally planned. It’s a difficult transition for an introverted, insecure young man. Everyone seems to want a piece of him — both in business and in his social life.

The plot gets into recognizable Pride and Prejudice territory with Will reluctantly attending Charles Bingley’s engagement party, hugging the periphery, and resisting his friend’s suggestion that he enter into the spirit of things. When Charles offers to introduce Will to Jane Gardiner’s sister Elizabeth, we just know what’s coming. As expected, Elizabeth overhears him say, “Charlie, leave off. I have no interest in dancing with whatever floozy you’re trying to throw at me this time.” …aaand we’re off! Continue reading

Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance, by Jennieke Cohen — A Review 

Dangerous Alliance, by Jennieke Cohen (2019)From the desk of Debbie Brown:

Set in 1817 Regency England, Dangerous Alliance has a teen-aged heroine who is a devotee of Jane Austen’s first published novels. As her childhood playmate Tom Sherborne observes: “She was still very much like the girl he remembered who’d believed in fairy stories, except now she believed in the novels of some Miss Austen. … Did she have any idea how fanciful she sounded? How naive? How would she ever survive in the cruel world with such notions?

In the first chapter, Vicky is attacked by a masked assailant who’s prevented from delivering a killing blow by Tom’s fortuitous arrival. (More about Tom later.) “Just because sensational events happen in novels, that doesn’t mean they cannot happen. And just because ordinary events occur during the majority of one’s life, that doesn’t stop the unexpected from happening at a moment’s notice.” Rather than leaving all the heroics to Tom, Vicky takes off on her horse in pursuit of the villain. Indeed, whenever Vicky’s life is at risk, she’s an active participant in saving herself.

Vicky’s independent spirit becomes an issue when a family crisis necessitates that she marry as soon as possible. (More about the “family crisis” later, too.) She’s not enthusiastic and for good reason. “Most of the gentlemen she’d met were decidedly narrow-minded when it came to females interfering in what they considered the male sphere.” Very reluctantly, Vicky agrees to put herself forward in the London marriage mart and settle for a suitable husband rather than waiting to fall in love. Before long, both Mr. Silby and Mr. Carmichael are frequent callers.

Tom Sherborne is the book’s other protagonist, with the story told alternately from his point of view and Vicky’s. A year ago, his father died and Tom reluctantly returned to his childhood home after having been banished for the last years of Lord Halworth’s life. Aside from the neighboring Astons, Tom has only miserable remembrances about his family estate. Until their dramatic encounter, he and Vicky hadn’t seen each other since his return, and things are awkward between them. Continue reading

Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things, by Jacqueline Firkins — A Review

Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things, by Firkins (2019)From the desk of Katie Patchell 

For all its stylistic elegance and its iron-backboned heroine, Mansfield Park is the black sheep of the Jane Austen canon. It’s the book most likely to be placed at the bottom of “Which is your favorite Austen novel?” polls. Public opinion hovers somewhere between “That’s a book by Jane Austen?” and “Gross…cousins marrying.” For many readers, it’s the heroine that’s frustrating. Fanny Price is usually seen as duller than dishwater – her moral compass providing a guide for the plot, but no passion. Even though I’m a staunch fan of Mansfield Park and Fanny’s quiet strength, I can understand why not everyone enjoys it to the level I do. However, the novel’s understated beauty, full cast of characters who are neither fully good or fully bad and Jane Austen’s characteristic humor is all too good to miss. It is this magnetic, complex blend that I eagerly searched for in Jacqueline Firkins’ new Mansfield Park adaptation, Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things.

The book opens with Edie, the heroine (based off of Fanny Price), en route to live with her kind but absent uncle and his unkind and controlling wife (switched around a bit and based off of Mrs. Norris). Edie doesn’t fit in with her two very rich cousins, Maria and Julia, and not just in the financial category. They only care about fashion and kissing hot boys in the neighborhood, while Edie cares about writing music, reading classics, and avoiding romantic entanglements at all costs. Without her mom or best friend by her side, all she has left is her guitar without strings and memories of better times…including one blissful summer spent playing with the adventurous boy next door. Once she arrives at her new home, life becomes way more complicated than she imagined. For starters, that boy next door, Sebastian, is now a (secretly) aspiring author…and still magnetic to Edie. The only problem? He’s already dating someone way out of her league. Henry Crawford, the local handsome but slimy flirt, seems to think he can take turns trying out each of the Price cousins, including Edie. With college application deadlines looming and a mess of drama to contend with, what’s a level-headed, heartsore girl to do?

What I loved about this book is a long list! Chief among them is the writing. I felt connected to Edie every step of the way, more than I’ve felt for a heroine in a while. Her pain over her mom’s death, she struggles to fit in and yet not conform….these things were deftly and beautifully written. Readers expecting this adaptation to be written in the style of Jane Austen will be disappointed, although some characters do occasionally use long, 18th century words. In my opinion, however, because Firkins didn’t aim for replicating the style of Jane Austen’s original (a near-impossible task), she was able to consistently capture its heart. Twists and turns – some like the original, some uniquely different – weave a story that still centers around the main question: Can discovering and staying true to your values help you weather any storm and bring lasting happiness? Continue reading

The Lost Books of Jane Austen, by Janine Barchas — A Review

The Lost Books of Jane Austen, by Janine Barcas (2019)Today is #JaneAustenDay, marking the online celebration of her birthday. Born on a stormy night in 1775, she was the seventh child of Rev. George Austen and his lady Cassandra of Steventon, Hampshire. Her modest beginning stands in strong contrast to her international fame today. In observance, I am participating in a blog tour organized by TLC Blog Tours for a new Austen book worthy of your consideration, The Lost Books of Jane Austen.

Scholar Janine Barchas and I share a passion for Jane Austen and book collecting. In the early 1990s, I started my search for illustrated editions of Jane Austen’s novels, while she was hunting for the early inexpensive editions of Austen’s works that were marketed to Britain’s working-class folk. At the time I was actively collecting I was unaware of this niche of Austen’s novels, and until I read the description of this book, I did not know that they existed. However, Barchas presents the important story of these forgotten books in The Lost Books of Jane Austen, a heavily illustrated and informative new book for Jane Austen fans, book collectors, graphic artists, and Anglophiles.

Chronicling the print history of a classic author through the nineteenth century could be a very dry enterprise and more scholarly than the general reader could fathom. I am happy to share that there is much to celebrate and enjoy for all levels of readers in The Lost Books of Jane Austen. Barchas knows her audience, and like a skilled playwright, screenwriter, or novelist she starts off her exploration with a snappy opening line. ”Cheap books make authors canonical.” Zing! Continue reading

The Bridge to Belle Island, by Julie Klassen — A Review

The Bridge to Belle Island by Julie Klassen (2019)From the desk of Sophia Rose:

First, Julie Klassen pulled me into her writing with a haunting, gothic romantic suspense, The Secret of Pembrooke Park, and most recently delighted me with the world of a quaint English village and its occupants in her series, The Tales of Ivy Hill. In her latest release, Klassen wrote a romantic suspense that is slightly darker, splitting the setting of an island estate on the Thames and London. I love a good murder mystery, and setting it in the Regency period had me taking up The Bridge to Belle Island prepared for a reading treat.

Young lawyer, Benjamin Booker, has just experienced a humiliating loss in court when the client he thought innocent had charmed him into risking all to defend her and it turned out she had utterly lied. He feels that he has disappointed his mentor at the firm and took a hard hit to his confidence in reading people and situations. However, he soon has the opportunity to prove himself to his mentor, Mr. Hardy, when Mr. Hardy wants justice for the death of his former colleague at the firm who lately held the position of trustee for the Wilder family and was murdered in their London Town House.

Living retired from the rest of the world on Belle Island, Isabelle Wilder has seen a great deal of tragic death in her family and it has left her with an extreme fear that won’t allow her to leave her island family home for years now. She is sorry to miss her niece’s engagement party in London because of her own weakness. The night of the party, Isabelle has a terrible dream that their skinflint trustee was murdered. She is dismayed when Mr. Booker, a skeptical lawyer from the family firm, shows up both to sort their legal matters brought on by the death of her trustee, but also to investigate the death with her as the chief suspect. It was a dream when she saw vivid images of the death, right? She has nothing to hide, she hopes, so welcomes Mr. Booker to Belle Island and invites him into her life there where he starts to mellow toward her until disturbing facts start to come to light leading right to her door. Continue reading

The Clergyman’s Wife: A Pride & Prejudice Novel, by Molly Greeley — A Review

The Clergyman's Wife, by Molly Greeley (2019)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Readers of Pride and Prejudice often compare Charlotte Lucas unfavorably with Elizabeth Bennet who bravely resists financial and familial pressure to accept a proposal from the comically inept Mr. Collins, the man who stands to inherit Longbourn upon her father’s death. While nothing but the deepest love will induce her into matrimony, her closest friend Charlotte decides that she does not have the luxury of waiting for love and quickly catches Mr. Collins on the rebound. Lizzy’s bold refusal stirs our hearts; Charlotte’s pragmatic and calculated choice elicits feelings of resignation and dismay. But I’ve often thought that Charlotte is unfairly maligned by readers, who seem to expect her to possess courage equal to that of Jane Austen’s daring heroine. Could a P&P-inspired novel offer Charlotte something other than a loveless marriage of convenience?

Molly Greeley’s debut novel The Clergyman’s Wife explores Charlotte’s married life in the village of Hunsford. The main storyline takes place three years after Charlotte becomes Mrs. Collins. Her life is quiet, comfortable, and secure, though she must endure visits to Rosings Park from time to time. Housekeeping, parish duties, and raising her infant daughter, Louisa, keep Charlotte busy. While this is the life Charlotte chose, the opening pages of Chapter 1 hint at her well-concealed malaise:

“Behind me on my writing desk, a fresh piece of paper sits ready. The salutation at the top—Dear Elizabeth—has been dry for some time. I never feel the quiet uniformity of my life as fully as when I am trying to compose a letter to my friend…There is always the menu to plan, the accounts to balance, the kitchen garden to tend. I embroider a great deal more than I used to, and my designs have improved, I think. But descriptions of embroidery do not an amusing letter make.” (8)

Continue reading

Matters of the Heart, by Fiona Palmer — A Review

Matters of the Heart, by Fiona Palmer (2019)From the desk of Sophia Rose:

One of the brilliant things about modern retellings is the amusement in discovering the similarities in the characters and scenes to the original while still getting a unique flavor to the story by seeing them in a new setting. Fiona Palmer’s, Matters of the Heart, a modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice set in rural Western Australia strikes a happy balance between complete correspondence to the original and wise alterations to suit the times and keeps it fresh for the readers. The draw of an Australian author and setting for Austen’s classic could not be missed.

The book opens with an introduction to the main character, feisty Lizzy Bennet, her family, and her small town, Coodardy. Lizzy pursues her deep-seated fulfillment in farming and bravely forges ahead using new methods in agriculture and animal husbandry to save the family farm following a few tough years and her dad’s indifference. Lizzy is not immune to other people’s doubts that a mere woman can be a farmer let alone save her family farm which causes her to stick out her chin and resent a certain rich, successful, and handsome farmer’s officious remark. So much for being excited about having the farm next door purchased and new people arriving in the neighborhood, she thinks. Charles might be nice enough and fun to converse with about farm methods, but his sister and best friend are as welcome as a bank foreclosure in Lizzy’s mind.

Matters of the Heart was very much in tune with Austen’s story. That said, it was freshened due to the Australian farm setting, Australian customs, and dialogue with new characters for the reader to engage with whether brand new to Austen or an old fan.

This version of Elizabeth Bennet, the jewel of the story for me, is a woman succeeding in a non-traditional career and is a bright non-conformist like the original. Continue reading