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

Unmarriageable: A Novel, by Soniah Kamal – A Review

unmarriageable kamal 2019 x 200It is a truth universally acknowledged that readers and writers are obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. Since Sybil G. Brinton’s 1913 Old Friends and New Fancies, the first original Jane Austen-inspired novel, there have been thousands of prequels, sequels, and variations penned by those who wish to never let the characters quietly rest in literary heaven. Next up for our praise or censure is Unmarriageable, a retelling set in Pakistan in 2000 by Soniah Kamal. Never one to suffer Austen renovators gladly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

Over the years I have read and reviewed many P&P inspired books containing a variety of themes including zombie bedlam, religious conversion, S&M and slash fiction. There have also been some retellings that I really enjoyed, yet I yearned for the full story retold in a fresh and reverent light. It’s the Holy Grail of Austen fandom. Could moving the story to Pakistan at the turn of the twenty-first century be the opportunity to explore southern Asian culture infused with Jane Austen’s story of reproof and redemption? If so, it would be catnip to Janeites!

Unmarriageable’s premise and opening chapters were immediately promising. Kamal had converted Austen’s characters into clever doppelgangers of her Regency equivalents: the Bennet family became the Binats with sisters Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia becoming Jenazba, Alysba, Marizba, Qittyara, and Lady respectively. After being introduced to the Bennet family, whose financial and social position had fallen subsequent to a scandal that destroyed their fortune, the anticipation of meeting Mr. Darcy, now transformed into Mr. Darsee (snort), was quenched by the modern interpretation exhibiting all of the noble mien of the original—rich, proud, and dishy. ZING! 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, the 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

Longbourn’s Songbird: A Novel, by Beau North – A Review

Longbourns Songbird Beau North 2015 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny Ryder:

Much of the Jane Austen Fan Fiction that I read usually falls into two categories: works that take place during the Regency Period and works that take place during contemporary times. Works that take place during times of war are fairly rare (Darcy Goes to War by Mary Lydon Simonsen being a notable exception) and works that take place in the South (Mary Jane Hathaway’s Jane Austen Takes the South series being the only other example I’ve read) are also unfamiliar to me. Enter Longbourn’s Songbird by debut author Beau North, a re-imagined version of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice taking place in 1940’s South Carolina.

It’s 1948, only three short years since the end of the Second World War. The setting is the small, sleepy town of Meryton, South Carolina in the American south. Will Darcy has come to visit Charles Bingley and conclude some business in the acquisition of Longbourn Farms. While there, he comes across Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who despite the painful events of her past finds that she can’t stop thinking about Mr. Darcy, who engages and challenges her enough to bring her out of the vanilla monotony that she has settled in to as of late to protect her emotionally. Not only do we get to experience the charged and engaging dynamic between Lizzie and Darcy, but we also have a host of other interactions that play out, including an interesting relationship between Bingley and Jane Bennet. Jane is terrified when she realizes that Charles fancies her and has recently purchased Netherfield Plantation because she is afflicted by diabetes, which she knows will limit her lifespan and may make Bingley rethink his choice. Continue reading

The Rose Girls, by Victoria Connelly – A Review

The Rose Girls, by Victoria Connelly (2015)From the desk of Katie Patchell: 

One crumbling manor house. Three estranged sisters. And a garden full of roses. All of these and more are ingredients in The Rose Girls, the latest novel by Victoria Connolly, author of the currently six-book Austen Addicts series. While not a book connected to Jane Austen’s novels or the Regency period, The Rose Girls is a story that shares timeless themes from Austen’s own masterpieces: the importance of family, forgiveness, healing, nature, and love.

After the news that her mother recently died of cancer, Celeste Hamilton is called back home to Little Eleigh Manor and Hamilton Roses, the family rose business, to support her two sisters. Still recovering from a divorce and memories of a painful childhood, Celeste plans only on spending a few weeks at her old home to sort through things and comfort her sisters, before escaping with her dog, Frinton, to somewhere much better and (hopefully) memory-free. On arriving back at her family home, Celeste realizes her responsibilities are much more than she bargained for. Little Eleigh Manor desperately needs repairs, and she’s the only sister willing to sell possessions to keep the house from (quite literally) falling down around them.

Supported by her sister Gertie, resented by her other sister Evie, and hearing the echoes of her mother’s past verbal abuse in her ears as she wanders Little Eleigh Manor’s halls, Celeste is surprisingly comforted by the forgotten beauty of the roses her family has grown and sold for years. With her beloved sisters distant and hiding their own secrets, and a friendly, perceptive, and surprisingly young art auctioneer interested in more than just family paintings, Celeste finds reasons to put off her escape for a few more weeks—and with her two sisters, a few roses, and a lot of love, forgive the past and change the future. Continue reading

Sun-kissed: Effusions of Summer, Edited by Christina Boyd – A Review

Sun-Kissed, edited by Christina Boyd (2015)From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

Today I have the distinct honor of reviewing Sun-kissed: Effusions of Summer, edited by none other than my fellow Austenprose contributor Christina Boyd. It comes along at the perfect time of year as many of us are packing our beach bags full of summer reads that provide companionship while lying on a beach towel or sitting in a chair with our toes in the sand. I’ve always been a big fan of short story anthologies because they offer fun and tantalizing stories that typically lead me to read more of the authors’ works, much like an appetizer before the entrée.  This particular collection of works has been chosen for its relevance to summer or other light and refreshing themes. Although I personally don’t have any plans for a trip to the beach soon, I sat down with this collection on my back porch and improvised, taking in the light and fun works that soon whisked me away.

Since there are several stories in the anthology, here are their plot summaries from Goodreads: 

“So each had a private little sun for her soul to bask in…” Thomas Hardy

If you desire a little heat, a summer flirtation, or an escape to bask in your own private sun…this whimsical collection of original short stories is inspired by all things summer. From some of Meryton Press’s most popular and award-winning authors, the anthology debuts other promising and emerging talent.

Continue reading

The Loner: (The Canyon Club Book 1), by Kate Moore – A Review

The Loner by Kate Moore 2014 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

I’ve always been a sucker for dark and brooding men in romance novels (hello Mr. Darcy!) One trait that seems to go along well with these types of characters is that they are loners in their own right. Yes, they may have friends and family around them, but their internal isolation is the first thing that they must overcome before they take on a new romantic interest. I find this struggle quite interesting and therefore was excited to read The Loner by Kate Moore, which stars a loner much in the same predicament.

Will Sloan is a loner with a tough upbringing, coming from nothing and making a name for himself. His mother was a waitress and his father was a rodeo cowboy, killed in a tragic accident in the ring. The former scholarship student is now a wealthy tech entrepreneur, with a net worth in the billion-dollar-plus range. By all conventional accounts, he shouldn’t have any shortage of friends, yet he still finds himself adrift amongst the party atmosphere of L.A., while his so-called friends urge him to get out and find Mrs. Right. He decides to attend his high school reunion on a whim in order to get out of this funk, and that’s when it happens: he sees Annie again. Continue reading

Aerendgast: The Lost History of Jane Austen, by Rachel Berman – A Review

Aerendgast The Lost History Rachel Berman 2015 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

There’s so much we don’t know about Jane Austen. Her sister, Cassandra, burned many of Jane’s letters when she died leaving many details of her life lost to time. Is it possible that the author of many of the world’s most memorable stories on love and marriage never married or had children of her own? In Aerendgast, Rachel Berman imagines a new history for our favorite author in a mystery adventure that’s one part Austen biography and one part The Da Vinci Code.

Violet Desmond doesn’t know much about her past. She was raised by her grandmother who never mentioned the truth about Violet’s parents or the tragic accident that left her an orphan. But, when Violet’s grandmother dies and leaves her a beautiful cameo necklace and a trunk filled with papers, Violet finally realizes she’s found the tools she needs to hunt down the truth… which also may have something to do with her favorite author, Jane Austen. Continue reading

The Muse: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Jessica Evans – A Review

The Muse by Jessica Evans 2014 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

When most people think of Jane Austen, they probably don’t think of ballet. I know I certainly didn’t. That was until I read The Muse. With her contemporary reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, Jessica Evans proves that the demanding and competitive world of a professional ballet company is exactly the place where you might find a modern Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

Elizabeth Bennet is a young dancer at the Ballet Theater of New York. While Elizabeth might not have her sister Jane’s perfect technique or ideal body, she still dreams of rising up the ranks to one day become a star. That’s why she’s thrilled when she finds out that she’s been cast in an upcoming ballet by former superstar dancer and legendary choreographer, William Darcy.

But, when Elizabeth finally meets Darcy, he’s not what she imagined at all. Sure, Darcy is immensely talented (and incredibly dreamy), but he’s also arrogant, abrasive, and dismissive in rehearsals. When Darcy asks Elizabeth for help as he choreographs, she grows to dislike him even more. What Elizabeth doesn’t realize is how much she’s inspiring Darcy as he creates. He’s finally found his muse. Continue reading

Persuasion, Captain Wentworth, and Cracklin’ Cornbread by Mary Jane Hathaway – A Review

Persuasion Captain Wentworth and Craklin' Cornbread x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

Mary Jane Hathaway’s Jane Austen Takes the South series has a new addition. Persuasion, Captain Wentworth, and Cracklin’ Cornbread was just released last month and follows Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits, and Emma, Mr. Knightley and Chili-Slaw Dogs. Readers should not worry if they haven’t read the other two novels in the series. Each book can be read as a stand-alone. The title was enough to pique my interest. I’m always a fan of Persuasion retellings (in my opinion, there aren’t enough of them.) So, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that I would quickly turn the pages of this read, and discover a new (to me) author.

Every community has some well-renowned and connected families that are integrated into the local history and fabric of the area. One of these families is the Crawfords, a wealthy, respected family from Brice’s Crossroads, Mississippi. One of the Crawford daughters, Lucy, has recently felt the respect of her family wane slightly as her mother’s death throws the family estate into disrepair and her father’s debts become public knowledge. Terrified that she may be forced to sell the family mansion in all its former beauty, Lucy is intrigued to learn from her Aunt Olympia that there may be a way to save the property. A local medical clinic has been looking for a larger space for their practice, and the Crawford mansion would be a perfect new home for the organization. The only problem, however, is that one of the clinic doctors is Lucy’s high school sweetheart and first love, Jeremiah Chevy. Jeremiah and Lucy had a tumultuous history due to Jeremiah’s family and upbringing, which led to their break-up despite her strong feelings for him. Ten years later, Jeremiah is again in Lucy’s life, now a charming doctor who is the envy of all the other ladies in town. Will she be able to get him to forgive her past actions and see if their old flame can be re-ignited? Continue reading