The Lady and the Highwayman (Proper Romance Victorian), by Sarah M. Eden—A Review

The Lady and the Highwayman by Sarah M Eden 2019From the desk of Katie Patchell:  

Pop Quiz: Which of the following is a penny dreadful — a) the title of a recent TV series, b) a term for a gory but thrilling story or c) a serialized novel from the 1800s?

If you answered any of the three, you would be correct! Besides being the name of a 2014 TV show, penny dreadfuls were serialized stories during the 19th century. They’re most famously known for their affordable price and plots filled with all kinds of thrills, such as hauntings and kidnappings. Sarah M. Eden, an author previously reviewed by Austenprose, visits this colorful world of penny dreadfuls in this, one of her latest novels, The Lady and the Highwayman. 

“Rumor had it, Fletcher Walker wasn’t born but had simply appeared one day, swaggering down the streets of London.” (Chapter 1) 

It is London, 1865, and Fletcher Walker is a man on top of the world. From pickpocket to the author of wildly popular penny dreadfuls – and leader of a philanthropic secret society –  he has created something unshakable. Or so he thinks. His confidence in himself and his mission to change the world is threatened when a new “king” of penny dreadfuls arrives on the scene. And this king, Mr. King, is none other than:

Elizabeth Black — headmistress of Thurloe Collegiate School, a respected member of society, and secret author. As the male writer King, Elizabeth enjoys growing fame, especially for her serial, The Lady and the Highwayman. Yet she soon discovers that she has at least one enemy intent on destroying King’s career. When Fletcher enlists her aid to help him track down King, little does he know that he’s gone to the very last person in the world to wish him success.

As Elizabeth becomes more involved with Fletcher, she struggles to prevent him from finding out her secret identity, while at the same time, trying to further her goal in discovering the truth about the shadowy Dread Penny Society and Fletcher’s involvement. Will she reveal her secret identity so he can reign as the penny dreadful king again, as he wants? Or can she find a different way to help the people of London as Mr. King, while staying true to her desires?

If anyone finds the premise of The Lady and the Highwayman intriguing, I can promise you that this brief synopsis is only a flavor. This novel is brimming with romance and delightful double-dealing. In addition to both, there’s also the added element of the mysterious Dread Penny Society. Their admirable motto is: “For the poor and infirm, the hopeless and voiceless, we do not relent. We do not forget. We are the Dread Penny Society.” (Chapter 1) The members’ quest to save the hurting and abused adds another layer to this novel that gives it extra heart and depth.

Elizabeth is a fascinating heroine. As an author of (well-written) penny dreadfuls who choose to write under a pseudonym, she is naturally at odds with Fletcher and his intimidatingly thorough hunt for answers. I loved the fact that they were working together throughout, yet also at cross-purposes. It makes for a thrilling and often hilarious read. A genius twist by Sarah M. Eden was to add excerpts from Fletcher’s and Mr. King’s (Elizabeth’s) serials, The Vampire’s Tower and The Lady and the Highwayman, respectively. From there, readers can see what each lead is preoccupied with, both for good and for mischief. One of my favorite examples happens after Fletcher’s cold behavior to Elizabeth causes her to plot revenge:

“There was nothing to be done but write him into the next installment of The Lady and the Highwayman and make certain something miserable happened to him. One did not treat an author poorly without consequences.” (Chapter 9)

Unlike with the likable heroine, Fletcher got on my nerves. If you’re looking for a hero in the vein of Georgette Heyer or Jane Austen, you’ll be disappointed in him. On the other hand, if you love Dickensian heroes then you’ll be rooting for him from page one. Dickens’ exaggeratedly precocious characters — despite his skilled prose — make me want to forcibly transplant them to Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm or Emma Woodhouse’s household to gain some sense and humility. Fletcher needed a good dose of this too. From his cocky attitude (he sat on a throne in Dread Penny meetings, folks – an actual throne) and constant street slang, to his pompous goal to wreck a fellow author’s career to keep money flowing for his mission, he was a character I couldn’t stand, despite his good deeds. A hero in a romantic novel is supposed to make the heroine fall in love with him, and perhaps more important, the reader. The Lady and the Highwayman’s hero failed for me. Since every reader is attracted to something different, however, you might just fall madly in love with Fletcher Walker.

Despite my negative response to the hero, I still recommend The Lady and the Highwayman for your next historical romance read. Its heroine is delightfully brave and smart, and the cat-and-mouse nature of the plot is sure to keep you turning pages until you arrive at its perfect conclusion.

4 out of 5 Stars 

The Lady and the Highwayman (Proper Romance Victorian), by Sarah M. Eden
Shadow Mountain (September 3, 2019)
Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (384) pages
ISBN: 978-1629726052

AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORY | INDIEBOUND | DESERET BOOK | GOODREADS | BOOKBUB 

Cover image courtesy of Shadow Mountain Publishing © 2019; text Katie Patchell © 2020, Austenprose.com

A Very Austen Romance: Austen Anthologies (Book 3), by Robin Helm, Laura Hile, Wendi Sotis, Barbara Cornthwaite, Chautona Havig, Mandy H. Cook—A Review

A Very Austen Romance Anthology 2020From the desk of Katie Jackson:

Dear readers, we are living in a golden age, filled to brimming with a wealth of Jane Austen-inspired tales that creatively explore the endless possibilities of her beloved characters. We are rich, indeed, my friends, and A Very Austen Romance: Austen Anthologies Book 3 is a fine addition to our Austenesque universe. Comprised of six novellas crafted by skilled authors, we are treated to a wide variety of alternatives.

“The King of Hearts” by Robin Helm is a Pride and Prejudice continuation centered on the oft-ignored Kitty Bennet. At the age of 20, she is Elizabeth Darcy’s only unmarried sister. “I am very nearly on the shelf. She sighed. I must be extremely unattractive. Or foolish. Or dull.” (134) As the guest of honor at a ball hosted by the Darcys in London, Kitty soon has suitors sprouting from the woodwork while some surprising intrigue simmers in the background.

“You’ve Got to Kiss the Girl” by Laura Hile is a Pride and Prejudice variation that includes Lady Catherine’s point-of-view alternating with Mr. Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s. “For the past decade, she had hinted, suggested, nagged, cajoled—even commanded him. But did Darcy propose to Anne? No.” (1231) Desperate, Lady Catherine gets a devious idea from a “rubbishy novel left lying about” (1262) to take matters into her own hands, with unexpected consequences.

“A Step Too Far” by Wendi Sotis is a Pride and Prejudice variation wherein Darcy and Elizabeth meet unexpectedly when he witnesses her fall and comes to her rescue soon after his arrival at Netherfield and several weeks before the Meryton assembly. Without all of the misunderstanding from that original event and the interference from Wickham soon after, they are free to form an acquaintance based solely on their first impressions of each other. Darcy learns early on about Elizabeth’s familial links to trade and her father’s small estate and is determined to resist his feelings for her, to honor his family duty. “Love-matches were just not done. Darcy was forced to pay attention to the rules of society.” (3509) As Elizabeth recuperates at Netherfield, however, their mutual admiration only grows stronger.

“John Knightley Wins a Wife” by Barbara Cornthwaite is an Emma prequel from the point-of-view of George Knightley’s younger brother John, who is infatuated with the darling of the London season, “a heartless little flirt,” (4123) according to George. In an attempt to gain the permanent affections of said flirt, John agrees to bring her wild younger brother to Donwell Abbey with him for a few weeks of quiet activities in the countryside. John soon discovers that his guest is still a rakish prankster even in mild Highbury. When childhood friend Isabella Woodhouse becomes involved, John’s eyes begin to open to other possibilities. “Sometimes searching earnestly for something seems to keep you from finding it, and at other times you find exactly what is needed when you were not looking for it at all.” (4792) Continue reading

Say Yes to the Duke: The Wildes of Lindow Castle (Book 5), by Eloisa James—A Review

Say Yes to the Duke by Eloisa James 2020From the desk of Pamela Mingle:  

The Wildes of Lindow Castle is a Georgian romance series penned by the elegant writer, Eloisa James. Say Yes to the Duke, the fifth entry in the series features Viola Astley, whose mother is married to the Duke of Lindow. By her own reckoning, Viola is “…the opposite of a Wilde…timid, tongue-tied, and fairly useless.”

At her first ball, an apprehensive Viola retreats to a corridor used mainly by servants. She accidentally comes upon a couple having a liaison. When the man realizes he and his lover are no longer alone, he accuses the woman of arranging for a witness so he’ll be forced to marry her. He speaks cruelly, and long after the incident Viola continues to feel “…a wave of horror at the memory of the man’s scathing voice and his brutal strength.” From then on, she’s petrified of social situations and avoids them.

The brute in question turns out to be the Duke of Wynter, Devin Lucas Augustus Elstan, the hero of the story. Living mainly in the country, he shuns society and declines to attend parliamentary sessions. Raised in isolation by parents who despised each other, the duke was educated at home. His father was known for challenging nearly every man he came in contact with to a duel. At first, this seems merely quaint, but we later find out that he was abusive to Devin.

When Viola comes of age, her parents insist she have a debut season along with her beautiful and flamboyant stepsister Joan. She’s dreading the ball that will mark her first official appearance in Society. Across town, Devin tells his cousin Otis that he intends to find a bride during the Season. Devin knows of the Wildes, and Otis enlightens him further. Continue reading

A Timely Elopement: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Joana Starnes—A Review

From the desk of Katie Jackson:

For a Pride and Prejudice enthusiast, there is nothing quite like an unusually talkative and passionate Mr. Darcy to pique one’s interest. And it becomes particularly intriguing when the story is told almost exclusively from his perspective. Ironically, it is perhaps his most blundering speech that is mercifully interrupted in this variation, A Timely Elopement, from master storyteller Joana Starnes.

The tale begins in the parlor at Hunsford Parsonage near Rosings Park in Kent with the only two occupants; a visibly agitated Mr. Darcy and a startled and wary Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy has been at Rosings with his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam to visit their aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh and their cousin Anne, while Elizabeth visits her friend Charlotte Lucas, newly married to Elizabeth’s cousin and one-time suitor, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine’s parson.

Darcy’s unexpected and ardent marriage proposal to Elizabeth is fortunately interrupted just before he manages to insult her with his ungentlemanlike manner, although she cannot forget that morning’s revelation from an unwitting Colonel Fitzwilliam that Darcy’s intervention had ruined her sister Jane’s chances for happiness with his friend Charles Bingley. Colonel Fitzwilliam barges in at that fortuitous moment to announce, “We have reason to fear that Anne has eloped. To own the truth, with Wickham.” (Kindle 82) Shock settles over the group as they consider the dire situation of Anne de Bourgh, known only as a sickly but wealthy heiress, possibly eloping with George Wickham. Lady Catherine later exclaims, “All saints preserve us! A steward’s son! What was the girl thinking?” (Kindle 496) Unbeknownst to her, he was the same fiend who had attempted to elope with Darcy’s sister Georgiana, also a wealthy heiress, from Ramsgate the previous summer. Thus, Darcy ceases his proposal just after confessing his love for Elizabeth. He briefly apprises her of the previous situation between his sister and Wickham before hurrying off to search for Anne, unaware that his aunt is about to summon his ladylove to accompany her to London for the same purpose. Continue reading

A Murderous Relation (A Veronica Speedwell Mystery Book 5), by Deanna Raybourn—A Review

A Murderous Relation by Deanna Raybourn 2020From the desk of Melissa Makarewicz:

With a mystery so scandalous the very balance of the British monarchy is threatened, Veronica Speedwell, a butterfly collecting amateur detective, and her natural historian colleague Mr. Revelstoke Temple-ton-Vane, have been called on to help. In Deanna Raybourn’s A Murderous Relation, readers are taken on a quirky ride through dangerous perils and nail-biting adventure. As Veronica and Stoker are trying to solve the case, they are also trying to solve the complexity of their emotions. The idea of mystery and intrigue tied up with slow-burning romance just waiting to bubble over ticked all the must-read boxes for me.

It’s the year 1888, and the horrifying figure of Jack the Ripper is stalking the streets. While London is in a heightened frenzy held entranced by the mysterious murders, the Lady Willingtonia Beauclerk has called Veronica and Stoker to a meeting. The meeting is attended by a close group who are privileged to the intimate knowledge of Veronica’s paternity. Lady Wellie, the princess, Inspector Archibond are also in attendance. Though the group is small, the secrets that threaten the monarchy are large.

Normally one to jump at the chance for adventure, this one hits a bit too close to home for Veronica and she adamantly refuses to help. Lady Wellie attempts to share a tangled web of theories to the two detectors in order to change their minds. Suddenly, she is struck with a medical emergency so severe that Stocker must act quickly to save her life.

“Lady Wellie clasped her walking stick more tightly, ‘It is the very worst time for any sort of scandal to break.’ She paused, and I saw her faze sharpen as she looked from me to Stoker and back again, Suddenly I understood that feeling of taut expectation.” (9)

Continue reading

Two More Days at Netherfield, by Heather Moll—A Review

Two More Days at Netherfield by Heather Moll 2020From the desk of Debbie Brown:

Everybody familiar with the classic story of Pride and Prejudice knows that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy don’t communicate to each other with total honestly until their meeting at Hunsford during his (horrible) marriage proposal, which he continues in his letter the following day. But what if circumstances lead them to do so much earlier in their relationship? That’s the premise for Two More Days at Netherfield, a Pride and Prejudice variation by Heather Moll.

While Jane Bennet is ill at Netherfield and Elizabeth is there to nurse her, early changes lay the foundation for those extra two days. First, Elizabeth learns Darcy actually admires her. Then, Darcy discovers Elizabeth overheard his insult at the Meryton assembly. His initial apology is half-hearted at best, and Elizabeth calls him on it, adding, “[Y]ou have been disagreeable and conceited from the moment of your arrival in Hertfordshire!” Interestingly, the conversation does not deteriorate. Darcy, recognizing he’s in the wrong, offers a more sincere apology.

“[N]ow that Mr Darcy had offered an acceptable apology, she could tolerate his company a little better.” Ergo, Elizabeth isn’t as disturbed when her mother refuses to send the Bennet carriage, and the sisters remain there two more days rather than borrowing Mr. Bingley’s and returning to Longbourn.

Events over these two days lead to a lot of self-examination by both Darcy and Elizabeth. He comes to recognizes that his behavior IS haughty and unmannerly, while she realizes that she forms judgments too quickly and harshly. Continue reading

The House at the End of the Moor, by Michelle Griep—A Review

he House at the End of the Moor by Michelle Griep 2020From the desk of Katie Patchell: 

In Michelle Griep’s latest novel, readers are transported to 19th-century Devon, England to follow a hero and heroine accused of crimes they never committed. In pursuit of justice, the story flows from the gray depths of Dartmoor Prison and its forgotten inmates, to the heights of high society’s glittering concert halls. One word resounds, its echo landing on each page and in both heroes’ hearts: Justice.

Haunted by accusations of her past, Margaret lives out her self-imposed banishment at Morden Hall, surrounded by the shifting skies above an endless moor. Her only companions are her mute maid, grizzled manservant, and loyal dog. Far from the glamour and fame of her past, she is happy with her companions, books, and audience of none as she sings on the open moor.

Everything changes when a man who was there on the day she fell from society’s grace appears unconscious and bleeding outside her home. Margaret is torn: Should she help the man escape the brutish prison guard chasing him, risking her anonymity in the process? Or should she stay hidden, abandoning the “stranger” to his own fate? 

“Death prowled the cellblock like a dark animal seeking prey–especially the weakest. But Oliver Ward would be hanged if he’d let the beast devour the man in the cell besides him. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.” (Line 1, Chapter 1)

Continue reading

The Jane Austen Dating Agency: An Uplifting Romantic Comedy, by Fiona Woodifield—A Review

From the desk of Sophia Rose:

Can a Jane Austen-themed dating agency do anything about a floundering career woman’s life- ahem love life? With trepidation and not just a few sharp pokes in the back from her friend, Sophie Johnson, long-time Jane Austen lover, and dreamer of finding her own Mr. Darcy is about to find out.

Sophie Johnson dreams of a grand career in the editing office of a posh magazine, a chic lifestyle, and a dashing rich handsome guy to lavish anything her heart desires on her because he is utterly devoted to her happiness. Of course, in real life, she’s stuck in a low-level sales job at that posh magazine, a shabby chic lifestyle, and not the fashionable kind, and a pathetic serial texter who won’t believe she called it quits. She does nothing but work her dead-end job and go home to her small shared flat for a book or a favorite rom-com movie. Something has to give and fashion writer friend Mark, finds it, a dating agency right up Sophie’s alley.

Sophie loves Jane Austen and the thought of experiencing dates while engaging in themed balls, card parties, picnics, and lectures at various Jane Austen real life and movie sites makes it worth her jitters over putting herself out there to be matched. On her way out of her interview, Sophie spots a picture on the wall of gorgeous and obviously wealthy Darcy Drummond’s whose company is backing the agency and wonders what it would be liked to be matched with him.

Sophie encounters the man in real life and is unimpressed with his arrogant rich boy attitude when Darcy vocalizes his disapproval of her and others like her. After that, she bristles just being in the same room with his high and mighty, but soon she finds herself engaged in the new circle of people who have also joined the lower tier of the agency. Continue reading

Duke Darcy’s Castle: A Dare to Defy Novel (Book 3), by Syrie James—A Review

Duke Darcy Castle by Syrie James 2020From the desk of Pamela Mingle:

A castle in Cornwall overlooking the sea. A dashing, though reluctant, duke who’s just taken over the dukedom. And a heroine who desperately wants to have a career as an architect rather than a love affair. Taken together, a perfect catalyst for a romance that has more than its share of obstacles. Syrie James’s latest novel, Duke Darcy’s Castle, is the third entry in the “Dare to Defy” series set in the Victorian period.

From the moment they meet, an irresistible attraction ignites between the tenth Duke of Darcy, Lance Granville, and Kathryn Atherton, New York heiress. When she arrives at St. Gabriel’s Mount with a proposal to redesign the castle, Lance mistakes her for the village school teacher, and she puzzles over why a duke would answer his own door. They stare at one another, each mesmerized by the other. After a moment, Lance comes to his senses and invites her in.

Kathryn is desperate to show what she can achieve as an architect, a profession exclusively the domain of men during the Victorian period. When a skeptical Lance is about to turn her away, she tries one more time to persuade him to give her a chance. Having learned of his background as a captain in the Royal Navy, Kathryn awes Lance with a drawing of her vision for his study, replacing the “cluttered, gilded look” with a nautical theme. He’s amazed that after such a short time, she knows exactly what would please him. Lance agrees to Kathryn taking on the job, at least for a trial.

Lance insists that financing the castle renovation is no problem. But the truth is, he is deeply in debt, and the notes are due in a few months. He has no idea where he’ll find the money. His late brother’s fiscal management was a disaster for the duchy. For her part, Kathryn is also less than honest. She doesn’t tell him she’s an heiress. Both of her sisters are countesses, having married English earls a while back, but Kathryn doesn’t want to follow in their footsteps. She’s delighted to hear that Lance is well off. Continue reading

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly—A Review

Jane Austen Secret Radical 2018From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Was Jane Austen a radical? Was she sympathetic to the “radical reforms” of Charles James Fox and others that included universal male suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and women’s rights? Few would readily place her in the company of Thomas Paine, William Godwin, or Mary Wollstonecraft, but perhaps that is because she kept her dangerous views so well hidden that most of her contemporaries, as well as later generations, have missed them. While I began reading Jane Austen, The Secret Radical with an open but somewhat skeptical mind, I was curious to see what evidence Helena Kelly would provide. In Chapter 1, she throws down the gauntlet: 

We’re perfectly willing to accept that writers like [William] Wordsworth were fully engaged with everything that was happening and to find the references in their work, even when they’re veiled or allusive. But we haven’t been willing to do it with Jane’s work. We know Jane; we know that however delicate her touch she’s essentially writing variations of the same plot, a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in any romantic comedy of the last two centuries.  

We know wrong. (4%)

Kelly cites a number of reasons for what she calls the misreading of Austen, including a lack of reliable biographical information about Austen, the destruction of most of her letters by her sister Cassandra, and a concerted effort by surviving family members to reframe Jane’s life and creative endeavors along more conventional and non-threatening lines. Delays in the publication of her early works obscured themes that were rooted in the upheavals of the French Revolution and the literary phenomenon of the Gothic novel. Add to these the many film adaptations and biopics that have nearly overtaken the original novels in the consciousness of the current age:

When it comes to Jane, so many images have been danced before us, so rich, so vivid, so prettily presented. They’ve been seared onto our retinas in the sweaty darkness of a cinema, and the aftereffect remains, a shadow on top of everything we look at subsequently. (10%) Continue reading