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.

The maid’s demise is a precursor to several other deaths among Diana’s socialite friends that occur throughout the book. None are apparent murders, but Louisa and Guy Sullivan (a British police inspector) gradually come to suspect there may be a killer at work. A maid, Rose Morgan, has gone missing and may be able to shed light on the mystery if only she can be found.

When Diana marries Bryan Guinness, Louisa becomes her lady’s maid. She and Luke Meyer hang on the fringes of Diana’s social set – usually tolerated but not really part of the inner circle themselves. In Mr. Meyer’s case, his entrée is due to family connections, primarily Lady Boyd, his aunt. He’s not independently wealthy like the others and supports himself as a “diarist,” or provider of gossip for the London society columns. Observations by Louisa and Luke provide the reader with both clues and red herrings as various members of the group meander through Europe (Paris and Vienna) and back to England. Guy’s investigation turns up additional clues that point to murder.

Louisa and Guy, whose fictional collaborative efforts solved crimes in the previous two books of this series, once again share information to get to the bottom of things here. Louisa is devastated that the police won’t hire her, although she’s pleased that being part of Diana’s entourage at least allows her to see more of the world. Her romantic hopes rise when she and Guy reconnect. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know he is engaged to an Irish girl, Sinéad Barry.

The book blends history with fiction convincingly. Bryan Guinness and Diana Mitford are not the only historical figures portrayed. Others include her siblings—Nancy, Pam, and Tom. Sir Oswald Mosley really was a charismatic political leader, an early proponent of fascism, and a notorious philanderer. The story includes incidents from the lives (and deaths) of Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, members of the famous Bloomsbury Group. Many occurrences depicted did actually happen.

We see the contrast between the older generation’s adherents of strict Victorian and Edwardian moral values versus the looser cultural standards embraced after World War I. There’s mention of the strides women are making. “In the newspapers there were constant stories of women who had earned impressive degrees at university, who were making great scientific discoveries, exploring new territories and flying aeroplanes.” Additionally, the reader can spot early warning signs that the ideology of Hitler and Mussolini are seeping into society.

This is historical fiction with a confounding mystery and a hint of romance. That’s a lot to pack into one book, and it’s mostly successful. I’m impressed with the author’s ability to take actual people and events and weave a fictional story around them. It’s surely a winner for readers who love well-written historical fiction.

I found its biggest problem to be the inherent UN-likability of so many characters. The pages are filled with shallow, spoiled, irresponsible people and, like Louisa, my interest in spending time with them waned. Without caring much about those who died, I was less interested in seeing the culprit discovered and punished.

The villain, once revealed, proves to be both obvious and largely invisible. The biggest clue? As Pam Mitford says, ““It’s extraordinary how people so often don’t see what is right in front of their own eyes.”

4 out of 5 Stars

The Mitford Scandal: A Mitford Murders Mystery Book 3, by Jessica Fellowes
Minotaur Books (January 21, 2020)
Hardcover, eBook, # audiobook (384) pages
ISBN: 978-1250316806

ADDITIONAL REVIEWS:

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

Cover image courtesy of Minotaur Books © 2020; text Debbie Brown © 2020, Austenprose.com

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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Kitty Did Next, by Carrie Kablean – A Review

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

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

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

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

Regency Spies by Sue Wilkes 2016 x 200

From the desk of Stephanie Barron:

PARANOIA RUNS DEEP

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

Perhaps, like me, he had none.

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

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

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

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

Jane Austen is a tough act to follow and that is exactly what the Austen Project asks contemporary authors to do: reimagine one of Austen’s novels in the here and now. Curtis Sittenfeld, 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

Then Comes Winter, edited by Christina Boyd – A Review

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

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

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

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

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