Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match, by Marilyn Brant – A Review

Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match Marilyn Brant (2013)From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder

In reading a large variety of Pride and Prejudice variations, I’ve come to expect works of all shapes and sizes. What I didn’t expect, however, was a work that centers on an online dating site.  Such is the premise of Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match by Marilyn Brant. Sure, we’ve seen modern adaptations on the beloved original, yet this is a new twist that adds another dimension to the story between the Lizzy and Darcy that we all cherish. How would this timeless love story survive in a world governed by digital matchmaking?

The last thing that Beth Ann Bennet wants to do is end up on a dating site, but much to her chagrin, here she is. As a social worker studying sex-based stereotypes, she signs on to Lady Catherine’s Love Match Website under a pseudonym in order to get a firsthand account of said stereotypes. She is surprised, however, when she meets Dr. William Darcy through the site. He has his own secrets, however, as he too is signed up for the dating service under false pretenses. In order to settle a bet and win funding for a new clinic he is building, Darcy agrees to sign on to the site and find a match. Now that they have met, both agree that it would be in their best interests to stay apart, yet there seems to be an invisible force that draws them to each other, making that original promise much harder to keep. Although they both assume that the site will give them a superficial and fleeting glance at a relationship, what they actually encounter is something much deeper and more personal. What will happen once they come to find that this meeting is not what they originally intended, but something much more involved indeed?

At first blush, I found the idea behind this story to be intriguing and fresh. Always up for a new take on the P&P variation genre, I was excited to see what Brant had in store. I was surprised to find that the storyline between Darcy and Elizabeth seemed to be swapped somewhat with the plot between Jane and Bingley, but this didn’t seem to detract from the flow of the work at all. In fact, it made me read faster. After a while, the old Darcy and Elizabeth I’ve come to know and love made their appearance, as the story made a course correction and we came back into familiar territory. When this was coupled with references to Roman Holiday and high tea, I began to feel like I was reading a book that was a greatest hits of all the things I love in life. Brant couldn’t have done a better job at pulling me into the story and keeping me hooked until the end. I loved how her work was different enough that I felt really out of my element at first, but then brought back to the themes of compassion, forgiveness, and love that really hold Darcy and Elizabeth together. This was an amazingly smart move that left me more than satisfied at the end of this work. In fact, I liked this book so much that I delayed watching the season 3 premiere of Downton Abbey!! (This is a huge deal) In all, if you’re up for a new and exciting change in the P&P variation world, I strongly suggest that you give this a try. Who doesn’t love a fresh look at our Darcy and Elizabeth?

5 out of 5 Stars

Pride, Prejudice, and the Perfect Match, by Marilyn Brant
White Soup Press (2013)
eBook (167) pages
Nook: BN ID: 2940016076669
Kindle: ASIN: B00AYLN5TI

© 2013 Kimberly Denny-Ryder, Austenprose

All My Tomorrows, by Colette Saucier – A Review

All My Tomorrows, by Colette Saucier (2012)From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder 

As most Austenprose readers will know by now, I’m a big fan of Pride and Prejudice variations, what-if’s, and retellings.  In fact, if you look at the scope of Jane Austen fan fiction that I read it’s almost entirely comprised of Pride and Prejudice inspired novels.  A recent addition to this group that I adored was Colette Saucier’s Pulse and Prejudice (review is here).  After reading this I couldn’t wait to see what else she had in store, and I was excited to find she’d written another P&P influenced novel entitled All My Tomorrows which promptly was added to my to-read list.  I’m also a huge sucker for the melodramatic romance novel, so when I read further into All My Tomorrows’ plot and discovered it was about a soap opera AND a melodramatic romance novel….well my heart did a little flutter of excitement.

The head writer at a storied and long-running soap opera entitled “All My Tomorrows”, Alice McGillicutty has enjoyed steady success until the show’s ratings have recently begun to plummet.  Desperate for a way to save the soap from inevitable cancellation if ratings do not improve, Alice begins frantically searching for inspiration, even reading the old and crazy melodrama “The Edge of Darkness” in the hopes that it will spark new ideas.  Meanwhile, fate intervenes when controversial Hollywood star Peter Walsingham comes to Alice’s studio.  He signs on to “All My Tomorrows” due to contractual obligations after his character is killed off in his previous project.  Unfortunately for Alice, however, Peter’s ego seems to be larger than the studio can hold, and the two butt heads immediately.  In this tale of Peter’s pride meeting Alice’s prejudice, can the two manage to work together to save the show or are they destined for cancellation?

One of the great things that Saucier has accomplished with this work is how she managed to modernize the story and include so many of my guilty pleasures as well!  I was so impressed by the way that Saucier created a book (“The Edge of Darkness”) within All My Tomorrows.  It was a wonderful, melodramatic addition to the work, and goodness, do I love a melodramatic novel.  It’s something about the way in which these works weave an over-the-top love story with a great plot that makes me want to keep turning the pages.  Returning to the book at hand, All My Tomorrows, it was evident that the more serious tone of this main work was meant to balance the melodrama of “The Edge of Darkness”.  It did this perfectly.  All My Tomorrows has solidified the thoughts I had after reading Pulse and Prejudice, in that Saucier is a master storyteller.  Her ability to keep the reader engaged throughout both works, even though they are contained within the same novel, is fantastic.  Additionally, the character development was phenomenal, Peter (Darcy) is throughout the shining example here.  His total transformation from pretentious jerk to kindhearted, thoughtful, selfless man is not only believable, but an honest portrayal of Austen’s true vision.  The subsequent supporting characters were all visions of genius as well.  This, combined with the excellent storytelling, engaging plot, and melodramatic addition made for a read I won’t soon forget.

5 out of 5 Stars

All My Tomorrows, by Colette Saucier
Southern Girl Press (2012)
Trade paperback (248) pages
ISBN: 978-0615657387

© 2012 Kimberly Denny-Ryder, Austenprose

The Beresfords, by Christina Dudley – A Review

The Beresfords, by Christina Dudley (2012)From the desk of Lisa Galek

If you are one of those Austen fans who think it’s a shame that Mansfield Park is so rarely adapted for modern audiences, then The Beresfords will be a welcome addition to your reading list.

When six-year-old Frannie Price is removed from the care of her drug-addicted mother and sent to live in a foster home, her mother’s sister, Marie, and her husband, Paul, sweep in (at the instance of Paul’s overbearing sister, Terri) and bring the girl to live with them in California. There, Frannie grows up in a large, luxurious home with her four older cousins (step cousins, really. They’re her uncle’s children from his previous marriage).

The oldest, Tom, is clearly the troublemaker of the bunch. The two younger sisters, Rachel and Julie, spend most of their time either arguing or ignoring Frannie. Only Jonathan, a devout Christian who is determined to one day become a pastor, shows Frannie any kindness. He soon becomes her closest friend, confidant, and, in Frannie’s heart, so much more.

In the summer of 1985, when the shy, introverted Frannie turns fourteen, Tom brings the Grant twins home from college for a visit. Frannie is instantly repulsed by Eric Grant, who flirts openly with both Rachel and Julie, playing the two sisters against each other. But the beautiful and graceful Caroline Grant, who rarely takes anything seriously and is bored by religion, easily captures Jonathan’s attention. The story plays out over the course of the next seven years, in which Frannie’s admiration and love for Jonathan are tested, her bonds with her family are strained, and she is tempted by the very person she despised all those years ago.

Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s works that’s hardly ever given a contemporary spin. Pride and Prejudice is a much more popular choice, probably because the witty, determined, Elizabeth Bennet transitions so seamlessly into a present-day heroine. The same is true of Emma Woodhouse and Marianne Dashwood. There’s something so modern and appealing about their style that it’s easy to imagine them walking around in our world.

But not every young woman sparkles with wit, charm, and confidence. That’s why the bookstore needs characters like Fanny Price. Though she’s often written off as an uptight prig, Fanny is also a dazzlingly complex character.

The Beresfords achieves the near impossible feat of staying true to Austen’s creation, while bringing her convincingly into the 20th century. The author does this by making her Frannie a very religious girl who quotes the Bible and lives by a strict Christian moral code (which she learned mainly from her beloved cousin, Jonathan). Here, Frannie is pious without being insufferable. Her reliance on scripture, her concern and love for others, and her continual striving for goodness seem natural and consistent. Like many shy girls before her, Frannie struggles to follow her convictions but, eventually, grows in self-esteem and confidence in her own choices.

Austen’s other characters are all convincingly updated and (dare I say it) even improved at times. Jonathan is as admirable and yet, at times, clueless as Edmund ever was. The other Beresford children and their parents are equally well done. Mrs. Norris becomes the micro-managing Aunt Terri, who is forever going around picking on Frannie and telling everyone how much things cost. She’s delightful and terrible at the same time.

The plot adheres very closely to Mansfield Park, but every moment feels fresh and new. The stakes are heightened to give modern readers the jolt they need. For example, Eric Grant can no longer just flirt with Rachel Beresford in front of her boyfriend, he has to seduce her into surrendering her virginity. The ending, which is expanded from Austen’s original, actually made my heart pound and tears run down my face.

My one quarrel with the book was the dialogue. Teenagers growing up in California in the 1980’s just didn’t talk like this:

“You aren’t going inside, are you, Frannie?” [Caroline asked] “That was so helpful of you to explain Greg’s point of view. I would’ve had no idea he was the religious type… I bet you think it was mean of Eric, what he did to Greg.”

I nodded once. She might act like we were having a private conversation, but she didn’t lower her voice any.

“It was,” Caroline agreed. “You’re right. And you know what, even if that kind of stuff happens all the time in college – and I’m afraid it does – that didn’t make it less mean, does it?”

“I don’t think so,” I said in a low voice.

“I know so,” said Caroline. “You’ve convinced me. Eric must apologize to Greg. And Greg must forgive Eric. If he doesn’t I’ll set you on him, Frannie, and you can tell him exactly what you told us – that it’s his religious duty.” She smiled at me. “We’re going to see a lot of each other this summer you know, your family and mine. We can’t have anyone mad at anyone. I dub thee Frannie the Peacemaker.”

However, overall, the writing is very good quality.

I would rank The Beresfords with some of the best Austen updates I’ve ever read or seen. The author clearly knows and loves Mansfield Park and has taken her characters on wonderful journey. That’s what every Austenesque author hopes to write and every Janeite hopes to read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

4.5 out of 5 Stars

The Beresfords, by Christina Dudley
Bellavita Press (2012)
Trade paperback (402) pages
ISBN: 978-0983072126

© 2012 Lisa Galek, Austenprose

Turning Pages, by Tristi Pinkston – A Review

Turning Pages, by Tristi Pinkston (2012)From the desk of Lisa Galek. 

I really love a good Jane Austen contemporary update, especially one geared at teens. There’s something so refreshing and lovely about the idea that, 200 years later, young readers are still eating up the drama between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

When college student and aspiring librarian, Addie Preston, meets Blake Hansen, they clash immediately over everything. They have different tastes in books, different ideas about love… and Blake just so happens to have stolen the job that Addie had been hoping for – Assistant Librarian. Not only is this guy insufferable (and pretty well filled with pride), but he’s now also Addie’s new boss.

But, this isn’t the only reason Addie has to be upset. She’s been through a lot in the last year. Her father died just a few months ago and her family is being forced to move from their home. Soon, she suffers another blow – her beloved library is closing. Cutbacks in staff and the need to move quickly into a new location force Blake and Addie to work together. Addie slowly realizes that Blake isn’t the uptight (if well-read) jerk she thought he was. Now, just one final thing stands in the way of their love – Blake’s fiancée.

Since most of Addie’s life revolves around the library, this setting really takes center stage in the novel and becomes kind of like a character in its own right. There are some really humorous scenes of Addie’s misguided attempts to protest the library’s closing (like when she accidentally assaults the mayor with a placard). But, otherwise, there’s almost too much going on in the library with no real purpose. We get information on cataloging books, screwing in shelves, discarding worn out titles, which (as much as I love a library) sort of detracts from the romance.

No sparks really fly between Addie and Blake until the very end of the novel, so there’s not a lot of the will-they-won’t-they drama that makes Pride and Prejudice so fantastic. This is mostly owing to the introduction of Blake’s fiancée, the Caroline Bingley-esque, Tara. Though she’s completely wrong for him, Blake is far too good of a guy to even consider ditching or cheating on Tara. (Darcy never would have gotten mixed up with her in the first place). For a while it looks like Blake is about to take a large Edward Ferrars-shaped bullet in the name of Love and Honor and Wedding China.

The author does have a really good ear for dialogue and the characters are always cracking jokes or having fun swooning over their favorite books. Just about every single person in the story is well-drawn and relatable and you’re truly rooting for it all to turn out right in the end. It was also nice to read a young adult novel featuring college-aged character, too (which is, surpsingly rare). It makes more sense, for this story at least, to have older characters contemplating life and love without worrying if they’re going to make it to fifth period geometry on time.

Overall, Turning Pages is a bit of fun for anyone who loves a sweet romance or a well-stocked library. Its ties to Austen’s original are slight — there’s some boy-and-girl-don’t-initially-get-along tension and a tiny Wickham-esque subplot – but the novel has enough other good traits to recommend it on its own.

4 out of 5 Stars

Turning Pages, by Tristi Pinkston
Walnut Springs Press (2012)
Trade paperback (240) pages
ISBN: 978-0983829362
 

© Lisa Galek, Austenprose

Find Wonder in All Things, by Karen M. Cox – A Review

Find Wonder in All Things, by Karen M. Cox (2012)From the desk of Christina Boyd.

Jane Austen’s most serious and compelling work, Persuasion, is all about retribution, forgiveness and second chances.  Her masterpiece begins seven years after the broken engagement between the young heiress, Anne Elliot, and a junior naval officer, Frederick Wentworth—when he is thrown back into her sphere and both must face the pain from their past.  Karen M. Cox’s award winning novel, Find Wonder In All Things is a modern day homage to this Austen classic.  The tale begins with a lakeside friendship in the Appalachian foothills of Kentucky between Laurel Elliott and James Marshall.  As the two grow, childhood friendship turns to summer romance and halfway through Laurel’s first semester at the local college, James decides to move to Nashville to pursue his music dream.  He assumes she will drop everything to join him.  But at just eighteen and with a generous art scholarship, weighted by family expectations as well, who would fault her for refusing him and staying on the college track?

Eight years later, James, now rich and famous, returns to the lake to visit his sister, while Laurel has turned into a reclusive, starving artist.  Ok, not quite starving but by no means a financial success story.  And most definitely alone.  “Unbidden, he came to mind:  handsome, dashing and determined.  The eight years of separation had softened any flaws she ever saw in him, and now he was almost larger than life to her.  He had been right to believe in himself and in his ability to make his mark on the world.  He had made it, too – perhaps not in the way he intended but still successful beyond his wildest dreams.” p.115.  Captain Wentworth, I mean, James is determined to play it cool and aloof towards Anne.  I mean Laurel!  And Laurel’s regrets are freshly re-visited as she is keenly aware of her depraved status and jealously towards the younger woman James now bestows his attentions.  But Laurel’s generous, self-assured spirit unearths old feelings he thought long buried and a companionable friendship blossoms.  When a water skiing accident throws the two together, emotions come to the surface.  “And he had whispered her name and called her beautiful and sweet.  She could hear the words, and then ‘want…want…’  It had made her roar to life inside her lower belly.  Yes, she thought, I want too.’ But then he left.” p 177.  Maybe too much time and hurt had passed between them…

If you are looking for the cookie cutter formula of a Persuasion adaptation, this may not be it.  For example, you might be surprised that Austen’s pretentious, preening Sir Walter Elliot has been transformed into a struggling but kind hearted marina owner.  And Anne Elliot’s selfish, self-absorbed elder sister Elizabeth has morphed into an affectionate, married, and doting mother named Virginia.  Although many of Austen’s key characters have also been re-named and undergone a modern makeover, they remain comfortably familiar to the Austen fan.  I admit, some of my appreciation was in recognizing the subtle parallels. (Please note that although the prologue opens with Laurel and James as children, their tender love scenes later in years most assuredly rates this an adult read.) However, one need not have read Persuasion beforehand to enjoy this novel.  Find Wonder In All Things stands on its own and no wonder at all, why it was awarded the GOLD MEDAL in the Romance category at the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards.  Congratulations, Karen Cox on another lovely read!

4.5 out of 5 Stars

Find Wonder in All Things, by Karen M. Cox
Meryton Press (2012)
Trade paperback (254) pages
ISBN: 9781936009176

© 2012 Christina Boyd, Austenprose

Hidden Paradise, by Janet Mullany – A Review

Hidden Paradise, by Janet Mullany (2012)From the desk of Christina Boyd.

Austenesque and romance writer Janet Mullany dives headfirst into erotica genre in her latest release, Hidden Paradise.

Warning:  Dear readers, please avert your eyes if your genteel sensibilities are offended by a romance novel that might be classified in the same arena as Fifty Shades of Gray.

Disturbingly, the book opens in the throes of a ribald sex scene – without even a “how do you do” – only to be awoken by a phone call from a friend in England! Thusly, we are finally introduced to the recently widowed Louisa Connelly, Jane Austen expert, who is to be the honored guest at Paradise Hall, an English resort and spa, catering to the Austen enthusiast.  Hmmmmmm? Sound vaguely reminiscent of Shannon Hale’s bestseller, Austenland?  However, dressing up in authentic Regency-style clothing and experiencing everything Austen in a real Georgian country manor – similarities end there.  For one, Paradise Hall is no secret, exclusive get-away as the proprietors are most assuredly determined in getting the word out to potential guests… Enter Mac Salazar, handsome, lusty journalist whose middle name just happens to be Darcy!

Although, it has only been a few months into her mourning, Lou escapes her Montana ranch, and accepts to give a trial run of the place and give her Jane Austen stamp of “authenticity” for her friends and proprietors, Peter and Chris. Moreover, she hopes to encounter her late husband’s shade in the very place they had once planned to visit together.  But almost within the first few hours of being on the property, she realizes that this experience might be a bit more eye opening than she first expected when she secrets upon a couple coitus a la vache.  And she stays to watch! Later when she is formally introduced, it doesn’t take Einstein to surmise Mac Darcy Salazar is the resident lothario, noting that his historically accurate britches betray his virile reflex constitutionally inclined to passion.  “‘It’s an interesting concept, time travel with no chance of getting stuck in the past, or treading on a bug and changing the course of history.’  ‘It’s a very sexy period.’  She was halfway down another glass now and the room was beginning to take on a subtle, mellow glow that was half sunset, half alcohol. ‘Mainly because in popular culture, of course.  People say there’s no sex in Austen.  They’re wrong.  Her books are full of sex, but it’s all subsex.  Subtext.’ ‘That’s the champagne talking.’” p. 40.   Lou, willing Paradise Hall as all fantasy and nothing more, is determined what better place to satiate her own pangs of lust. And loneliness. It just so happens that Mac happens to be charming.  Smart.  And unbeknownst to the world around him, in search of something more substantial than romp after romp.

And what would a Georgian country manor be without a handsome footman, or three?  The story is full of romance: guests with other guests, guests with employees, employees with employees – all of accommodating morals; the occasional menage et trois; and an abundance of modern sense and sensuality.  “Look, Lou, was that it? A quick snog?”  “You know where my room is.”  The worlds tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop herself.  It all seemed so uncomplicated, all of the sudden – she liked him, she desired him, and in a week or so she’d go back to the States and he’d go to Cambridge at the end of the summer.” p. 99.  The “Upstairs Downstairs” style narration, told from the different characters’ points of view, flows seamlessly and keeps you turning pages.

Just as I thought that this was your basic run of the mill, decadent Harlequin fluff, Mullany would throw a story twist or two, derailing my predictions and re-igniting my interest.  Under the floorboards of this ancient house, amidst centuries of dust, Lou unearths the words “Passion” and “Inconstancy” – two words written in Austen’s own hand that are certain to rock the literary world and change everything we know or have surmised about our dear Jane.  And another discovery, that just as poignantly changes all she has known and loved!

Hidden Paradise is a well-developed story from beginning to end with lots of steam for the wanton reader. My feminine sensibilities were not despoiled in any way by the reading of this lascivious romance.  However, some of you who choose to yield to this amusing, amorous tale might prefer to either cover the book with a plain brown wrapper or simply turn back the cover. I however just told my loved ones, “Avert your eyes…  Nothing to see here.”  Blush-blush. I think if you enjoyed Linda Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife, then I am confident you can manage the adult content in Hidden Paradise – perfect fireside indulgence for these brisk, autumnal days.

4.5 out of 5 Steamy Stars

Hidden Paradise, by Janet Mullany
Harlequin (2012)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0373777198

© 2012 Christina Boyd, Austenprose

Murder Most Austen: A Mystery, by Tracy Kiely – A Review

Murder Most Austen, by Tracy Kiely (2012)From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder

Everyone loves a good murder mystery.  The classic scene where a butler is found dead after the lights suddenly flicker is one that everyone can picture. The thrill of the hunt for the killer is just as exciting as the disappearance of the characters in the plot.  As a big fan of Agatha Christie’s mysteries it is no surprise, then, that I was thrilled to read the fourth novel in Tracy Kiely’s Elizabeth Parker mystery series, Murder Most Austen.

Set in present day, Murder Most Austen introduces us to a Miss Elizabeth Parker, an Austen fanatic (aren’t we all!) that is traveling with her Aunt Winnie to an annual Jane Austen conference in Bath, England.  On the way to the conference, they meet Professor Richard Baines, a pretentious man who is under the impression that he is the world’s utmost authority on anything Austen related.  Spouting rather odd “facts” about Austen and her work, especially a crazy theory as to the actual cause of her death, Baines manages to irritate and annoy not only Elizabeth and her aunt, but almost everyone at the conference as well.  Therefore, it is surprising, although not entirely unwelcome, that Mr. Baines is found murdered during the middle of the convention!

Rumors abound as to who is to blame for this murder most foul, and the actual list of suspects is quite large, until poor Aunt Winnie’s friend becomes one of the prime suspects by unfortunate coincidence.  Aunt Winnie begs Elizabeth to help her find the actual killer before her friend is framed.  Elizabeth, who was hoping to get away from personal problems of her own by attending this trip, finds herself with a whole new set as she tries to find out who really killed odd Professor Baines.

From page one it was evident that I was in for a real treat, as Kiely’s tongue-in-cheek humor made me laugh.  The characters that she created were so numerous and full of life that it was easy to picture myself amongst them.  I loved Elizabeth’s character, as her strong will and determination in the face of certain adversity (sound like another Elizabeth we know?) made her a joy to read.  Additionally, Kiely’s development of the murder plot itself and subsequent hunt for the real killer was executed perfectly, with multiple layers unfolding at a quick pace that left me wanting to turn the pages as fast as possible.

Finally, I think one of the best things about this novel is the fact that although this is the fourth novel in Kiely’s series, it wasn’t imperative that I read the other three prior to this one.  This allowed me to jump into the series and get a feel for her writing all the while not being tied to a larger work.  I can definitely say that this has made me want to read the rest of series anyway though! Filled with fun, mischief, and mayhem, Murder Most Austen is definitely one to read!

4 out of 5 Stars

Murder Most Austen: A Mystery (Elizabeth Parker Mysteries #4), by Tracy Kiely
Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books (2012)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-1250007421

Kimberly Denny-Ryder is the owner/moderator of Reflections of a Book Addict, a book blog dedicated to following her journey of reading 100 books a year, while attempting to keep a life! When not reading, Kim can be found volunteering as the co-chair of a 24hr cancer awareness event, as well as an active member of Quinnipiac University’s alumni association.  When not reading or volunteering, Kim can be found at her full-time job working in vehicle funding. She lives with her husband Todd and two cats, Belle and Sebastian, in Connecticut.

© 2012 Kimberly Denny-Ryder, Austenprose

Imperfect Bliss, by Susan Fales-Hill – A Review

Imperfect Bliss, by Susan Fales-Hill (2012)From the desk of Lucy Warriner

How could Pride and Prejudice be adapted to reflect the reality realevision craze? Those intrigued by this question may consult Imperfect Bliss, a comedic examination of class and celebrity by Susan Fales-Hill. The escapades of the Harcourt family of Maryland will keep readers turning the pages.

To her chagrin, recent divorcee Bliss Harcourt is once again living with her parents. She cares for her young daughter Bella, pursues her doctorate at Georgetown University, and laments the antics of her mother and two younger sisters. Harcourt matriarch Forsythia is obsessed with emulating British royalty and suppressing her Jamaican heritage. Second-youngest daughter Diana is starring in The Virgin, a reality show chronicling her quest for a husband. Upset because she is not featured on the program, youngest child Charlotte is living for attention from the opposite sex. In comparison with these three, Bliss’s father and eldest sister are paragons of sanity. Harold, an English transplant, buries himself in scholarly pursuits and tolerates no one except Bliss, his favorite child, and Victoria, his firstborn. Celebrated for her beauty and composure, Victoria hides deep concern over her inability to love the men she dates.

The Virgin disgusts Bliss, as does its womanizing creator Dario Fuentes. But while Bliss berates Dario, Bella takes to him immediately. For a “bodybuilder-boardwalk Romeo,” Dario is surprisingly sensitive to the child’s diplegia, a condition that hinders her walking (30). Bliss and Dario clash repeatedly, first over his familiarity with Bella and then over Bliss’s certainty that he is a chauvinist opportunist. What will Bliss do if she learns there is more to Dario than meets the eye? Meanwhile, Diana settles on the three suitors who can offer her the most fortune and notoriety. But how can any of them please her when she always wants more? At the same time, a video of one of Charlotte’s trysts comes to light. Will it give her her long-desired taste of fame? Finally, pressured by Forsythia, Victoria agrees to marry a wealthy ex-boyfriend she doesn’t love. Miserable, she seeks support from Bliss and from an old school friend who is disillusioned with men in general. Will Victoria muster the courage to find her own happiness?

Fales-Hill’s depiction of Bella is a bright spot in Imperfect Bliss.Bella is a charmingly regular little girl. Readers first glimpse her in her mother’s room, surrounded by pictures of civil rights advocates but completely focused on her Cinderella gown. Though she doesn’t resist Bliss’s lessons about women’s strength and independence, Bella remains enthralled with Barbie dolls and Disney characters. That said, she is also what her mother calls a “little toughie” (3). Bella’s diplegia doesn’t discourage her. She picks herself up when she falls and is unafraid to try dancing and ice skating. Satisfyingly, Bella’s sense of wonder and trusting nature sometimes wear off on Bliss, who can be cynical and judgmental. While in Vienna, the two spend time enjoying sugary treats, marveling at the snowfall, and taking a carriage ride with Dario.

Fales-Hill also deserves credit for adding nuance to Forsythia, who often veers toward caricature. One the one hand, Forsythia is a woman who, to gain prestige, named all her children after English princesses and queens. She is devotee of wigs, false eyelashes with rhinestones, and anything else that will help her daughters attract wealthy men. On the other hand, Forsythia is a hardened survivor of years of racial prejudice. She grew up in British-ruled Jamaica, where she was called “Chocolate drop, black bird, [and] tar baby” and was likely familiar with poverty and violence (250). Living in America with her white husband, she was mistaken for her family’s hired help. To prove her worth to herself and the world, Forsythia courts wealth and social status. By pressuring her daughters to marry for money and prominence, Forsythia tries in her misguided way to shield them from the deprivations and humiliations she suffered. She is trying to be a good mother.

The underdeveloped characters in Imperfect Bliss are the novel’s chief shortcoming. Dario plays a crucial role in Bliss’s and Bella’s personal growth, but readers learn only a few details about his history and mindset. Diana’s excesses pervade the book. But the only glimpse into her mind is her assertion that no one will discount her as Harold discounts Forsythia. As the last child, Charlotte is also the most overlooked one. But she never discusses her feelings about her parents, whose disregard drives her into the arms of unsuitable men. Finally, there is little indication of the inner turmoil that changes Harold’s disinterest in his youngest children’s misbehavior into self-reproach for not preventing it. Fewer plotlines in the book (there are four, one for each sister) might have a fuller treatment of these characters. But all the narratives grab readers’ attention, and Fales-Hill provides plenty of insight into Bliss, the book’s heroine.

Imperfect Bliss is suitable for fans of lighthearted, fast-paced Pride and Prejudice variations. Fales-Hill’s spoof of the reality television phenomenon also touches on the more serious subjects of history and race. The result is a different, humorous, and occasionally thought-provoking Austen reimagining, one that is a suitable companion for readers enjoying the last days of summer.

4 out of 5 Stars

Imperfect Bliss, by Susan Fales-Hill
Atria Books (2012)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-1451623826

Lucy Warriner is a North Carolina animal lover and dance enthusiast. She is also an ardent admirer of Jane Austen.

© Lucy Warriner, Austenprose

The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, by Kim Izzo – A Review

The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, by Kim Izzo (2012)Review by Jeffrey Ward

Is it a truth universally acknowledged that a woman of forty, with nothing left to lose, could commit random acts of desperation against her normal sensibilities?  Meet Kate, the heroine of Kim Izzo’s debut novel, who is considering marriage for money and is charged to write a feature magazine article on just that:

“Let me get this straight.  I’m to write about finding a rich husband, at forty, as a guide for women, as though nothing’s changed since Pride and Prejudice was published?” p. 28

In The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, Kate Shaw is savvy, stylish, and seductively attractive at forty.  She has everything going for her, but wait….In short order, she loses her glam job at a fashion magazine, her life savings to an unscrupulous ex-boyfriend, her beloved grandmother to cancer, and her home to her pathetic mother’s gambling addiction.

To cheer her up on her fortieth birthday, her best friends buy her a gag gift of a square foot of land on a noble Scottish estate and a trumped-up title to go with it: Lady Katherine Billington Shaw.  Kate’s magazine editor and close friend Marianne asks her to write an exit feature on how to land a rich husband.  Thus, the idea Kate perpetrates with her phony title and article assignment becomes her foot in the door.

Kate’s quest begins in London where she reunites with her dear English friend Emma and husband Clive.  At a night club, Kate is introduced to romantic interest #1, Griffith Saunderson, the manager of an upscale bed and breakfast.  A handsome Englishman, Griff is thoroughly ridiculed by a drunken Kate.  Little does she know yet that Griff gets even by turning up throughout Kate’s adventures and turning her on at the most awkward moments.

Next stop is a posh Palm Beach resort where she meets Fawn Chamberlain, a ditzy former beauty queen, who is filthy rich by way of two ex-husbands.  Fawn gushes over who she thinks is titled nobility in “Lady Kate” and tutors her on the “in-crowd.”  At a polo match she meets romantic interest #2, dashing billionaire financier Scott Madewell.

Then Kate’s off to glitzy St. Moritz where she encounters romantic interest #3, Vladimir Mihailov, a wealthy Russian developer.  But who should also be there but Fawn, Scott, and Griff to stir the pot.

From there it’s back to London with the same cast of characters and the relationships between Kate and romantic interests #1 and #2 develop more serious undertones.  Desperately poor at this point, she must decide between following her heart or her purse as it seems each may be equally attainable.

I found Kate to be a very un-Austen-like heroine: deceptive, profane, promiscuous, and heavy on the Pinot Grigio.  However, the story triumphs largely on the author’s wicked sense of comedic timing which carries the dialogues, sight gags, and precarious romancing.  The situational antics Lady Kate gets into and her mental gyrations to protect her true identity, purpose, and poverty are just rolling-in-the-aisle hilarious.  Here’s Lady Kate at a polo match in Palm Beach as she endures an up-close encounter with a horse:

“I was just within reach, my heart pounding, trying to steady my hand to stroke him, when he suddenly shook his head like a wet dog, sending sweat flying everywhere, followed by a huge roaring sneeze that sounded like an elephant.  I felt the spray hit my face, my chest, and arms.  If you think horse sweat is bad, you haven’t seen the amount of snot that comes out of a horse’s nostrils.  I couldn’t help it.  I screamed and leapt backward, but instead of hitting solid ground my heel slipped in and I fell toward the moist, soft earth that wasn’t earth, but manure.” p. 96

Alas, right up until the very end, I was still disconnected from naughty Kate and often had difficulty fathoming what the men saw in her at times.  And, what of the outcome of romantic interest # 1 and #2?  Sorry, I spoileth not!

Just because her name is in the title, does The Jane Austen Marriage Manual pass muster as Jane Austen Fan-fiction?  I suppose, but I found the references to Jane Austen a bit contrived, forced, or tacked on.  Still, the author’s creative wit is evident in the chapter headings which are cleverly named and are replete with appropriate Jane Austen literary quotes.

Ultimately, what does it matter since a great read is still a great read, regardless of its genre?  I found Kim Izzo’s debut novel slow-starting but accelerating with dramatic intensity.  Whether you’re expecting a full-pull of “Austen Prose” or not, this is a worthy adventure, full of outrageous humor, endearing relationships, and breathless romantic suspense.

3.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, by Kim Izzo
St. Martin’s Press (2012)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1250003454

Jeffrey Ward, 65, native San Franciscan living near Atlanta, married 40 years, two adult children, six grandchildren, Vietnam Veteran, degree in Communications from the University of Washington, and presently a Facilitator/designer for the world’s largest regional airline.  His love affair with Miss Austen began about 3 years ago when, out of boredom, he picked up his daughter’s dusty college copy of Emma and he was “off to the races.”

© 2007 – 2012 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose