Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Book Review: The Late Mrs. Willoughby by Claudia Gray

The suspenseful sequel to The Murder of Mr. Wickham, which sees Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney reunited, and with another mystery to solve: the dreadful poisoning of the scoundrel Willoughby's new wife.

Catherine and Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey are not entirely pleased to be sending their eligible young daughter Juliet out into the world again: the last house party she attended, at the home of the Knightleys, involved a murder—which Juliet helped solve. Particularly concerning is that she intends to visit her new friend Marianne Brandon, who's returned home to Devonshire shrouded in fresh scandal—made more potent by the news that her former suitor, the rakish Mr. Willoughby, intends to take up residence at his local estate with his new bride.

Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley are thrilled that their eldest son, Jonathan—who, like his father, has not always been the most socially adept—has been invited to stay with his former schoolmate, John Willoughby. Jonathan himself is decidedly less taken with the notion of having to spend extended time under the roof of his old bully, but that all changes when he finds himself reunited with his fellow amateur sleuth, the radiant Miss Tilney. And when shortly thereafter, Willoughby's new wife—whom he married for her fortune—dies horribly at the party meant to welcome her to town.

With rumors flying and Marianne—known to be both unstable and previously jilted by the dead woman's newly made widower—under increased suspicion, Jonathan and Juliet must team up once more to uncover the murderer. But as they collect clues and close in on suspects, eerie incidents suggest that the killer may strike again, and that the pair are in far graver danger than they or their families could imagine.

A year ago the Austenesque community was given a delightful read in Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham. Within this cozy mystery many characters from the mind of Jane Austen were given new life, and original individuals were brought to the literary stage as well. The most notable of the fresh faces were drawn from Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. Juliet Tilney is the daughter of Northanger Abbey’s Henry and Catherine. She is joined by Jonathan Darcy, son of the Darcys of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. Both of these young people proved to be an effective team as the mystery of the death of George Wickham was worked out in The Murder of Mr. Wickham. In this sequel they have been reunited, and once again are witnesses to a suspicious death. The wife of Sense and Sensibility’s John Willoughby, Sophia Willoughby, suddenly dies of poisoning while in the presence of several witnesses and suspects. Jonathan and Juliet work diligently to determine the identity of those who might be at fault in the case. They are not only motivated by a sense of curiosity, but also by a desire to see justice done. Without their efforts, a blameless friend may be accused of the crime. 

Author Claudia Gray has again crafted a delightful mystery with beloved characters which are both fresh from her imagination and well-established from Austen. While the death of Sophia Willoughby is a dramatic one, the circumstances surrounding it are completely plausible. Mrs. Willoughby is presented as a distasteful woman, married to a man already known to be of questionable integrity. Any number of people could be enemies to the Willoughbys, and readers are kept guessing throughout the narrative. Claudia Gray offers quite a few red herrings, and while this reader was able to eliminate several suspects from the outset, I never truly saw who was to blame until the very end. The culprit(s) was/were completely unexpected, yet utterly believable as well. The finale held stunning and creative choices. The Late Mrs. Willoughby was familiar in tone, but never predictable. In this regard it was literary comfort food and a surprise dish, all in one. 

Although The Late Mrs. Willoughby is firmly a cozy mystery, I commend Claudia Gray for exploring ancillary issues as well. As was presented in the first novel, Jonathan Darcy is a neurodivergent personality. A modern diagnosis might reveal some type of sensory disorder, or perhaps autism-spectrum issues. He struggles to understand social cues, is highly intelligent and sometimes has trouble with particular sensory influences. These factors are all too real to many families in the 21st century, and it is interesting to see how Jonathan’s condition manifests within 19th century English society. I found his character to be utterly endearing, especially as I am a family member of persons with similar issues. Including this type of character within the novel is unique and appreciated.

Gray also explores other themes which are attached to the mystery. Marianne Brandon seems to be suffering from significant post-traumatic stress in the wake of the events seen in the previous novel. Edward Ferrars struggles with forgiveness and reconciliation within his extended family. Colonel Brandon’s ward, Beth Williams yearns to find her place in the world as an illegitimate daughter and unwed mother herself. While The Late Mrs. Willoughby is an enjoyable mystery, deeper issues are woven throughout and lend a measure of substance to it.

Because The Late Mrs. Willoughby is a sequel, there are quite a few references to the previous title, The Murder of Mr. Wickham. The second work could be read on its own, but the enjoyment would be diminished significantly if read in such a way. Wickham is also an enjoyable read, so it is certainly recommended that both are read in succession. Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney make a great sleuthing pair, and elements near the conclusion of this novel seem to indicate that their work together is not yet complete. At ages 21 and 17 (respectively), Jonathan and Juliet are quite young and could have many years ahead and scores of adventures together. This romantic also hopes that their friendship will continue to grow, and perhaps one day we will find them in the position that Austen often placed her main characters, standing before the altar to begin their Happily Ever After.


Claudia Gray is the pseudonym of Amy Vincent. She is the writer of multiple young adult novels, including the Evernight series, the Firebird trilogy, and the Constellation trilogy. In addition, she’s written several Star Wars novels, such as Lost Stars and Bloodline, and Jane Austen-inspired series, A Mr. Darcy & Miss Tilney Mysteries. She makes her home in New Orleans with her husband Paul and assorted small dogs. 



Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Book Review: Brother of the Bride by Jack Caldwell

A sequel to Pride and Prejudice and The Three Colonels.

In 1816, everyone thinks—with the Napoleonic wars over and done—that life in England will be peaceful. Not necessarily.

For four wonderful years, Fitzwilliam Darcy has joyfully lived at his beloved Pemberley with his adored wife, Elizabeth, precious young son, Bennet, and cherished sister, Georgiana, by his side. All this is about to change; Georgiana has fallen in love. In quick succession, the Darcys agree to take in the young and spirited daughter of the widowed Lydia Wickham and then learn that Elizabeth is expecting another child.

Now—with a wedding to plan, a baby on the way, interfering relations invading Pemberley, and a new ward turning the place upside down—the question becomes: How will Mr. Darcy maintain his sanity?

For many years I have enjoyed the work of Austenesque writer Jack Caldwell. His “Fighting Men” series began with The Three Colonels in 2012, and with Brother of the Bride's release, five titles are now available. All are sequels to novels originated by Jane Austen, with Pride and Prejudice being the dominant source material. In Caldwell’s world, the Darcy family interacts with characters throughout the Austen universe. For example, Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility is a dear friend to the Darcys, and several individuals from Emma are also a part of their lives. As strong men and women of their time, this unique cast of characters has encountered trials on the battlefield and open sea. Now in Brother of the Bride, Fitzwilliam Darcy and his associates must face challenges both familiar and untried: the birth of a child, the fostering of another, and the marriage of young Georgiana Darcy.

The audience of Brother of the Bride is most certainly a specific type. We are familiar with not only the works of Jane Austen, but of Caldwell’s series as well. This latest title does have an individual tone, but many details hinge upon what has come before, both in the original works and in the “Fighting Men” collection. While its narrative arc does not have the same scope as its siblings, Brother of the Bride is a treat for those of us who call ourselves “Janeites”. In the pages of this novel we are immersed in what would have been the everyday inner workings of the Darcy family and their associates. There is no Napoleon to vanquish or damsels to rescue from certain peril on the sea. Trials and tribulations emanate from domestic concerns which many of us must face at one time or another. 

When young Georgiana Darcy becomes engaged to be married, it creates a tangle of issues which the characters must unravel as they also face other variables. Elizabeth Darcy is pregnant again, and due to give birth near the time of Georgiana’s preferred wedding date. Lizzy’s flighty sister Lydia has entrusted the care of her daughter Chloe to the Darcy family. Chloe is a handful and makes life interesting within the Pemberley estate. And with the engagement of Georgiana, all manner of relatives and friends step forward to “assist” in planning the nuptials. Between Lizzy’s pregnancy, Chloe’s antics and issues surrounding the wedding, Fitzwilliam Darcy and his ilk are juggling challenges that would confound even the most talented battlefield warrior. It makes for an amusing read. 

As he has done in the past, author Jack Caldwell has deftly woven together the characters of the novels of Jane Austen. The material is very family friendly, with very little “adult” content of note. Romance is chaste, and all bedroom scenes are between married partners, with modest details given. The most “vexing” aspect of the story are the antics which ensue when elder stateswomen attempt to meddle with the wedding plans. Those of us who have arranged a wedding might have flashbacks to the stress involved in that endeavor, but the episodes in Brother of the Bride are quite amusing and meant to entertain. It was refreshing to see family members stand up to the austere Lady Catherine de Bourgh as she attempted to mistake her place in the order of things. Mrs. Bennet was as high-strung as ever and also had to be reined in from time to time. 

As a fan of these characters, I felt as if I was a mere observer to the realistic goings-on at Pemberley as life continued. Again, this was no expansive narrative. It was a delightful visit with and a character study of the personalities who have become permanent residents in the minds of those who love them. Through Brother of the Bride we see Fitzwilliam Darcy, his family and friends as they interact during a new period of their lives. This season brings with it relational tangles which must be unraveled, but it also brings much joy and celebration as well. Author Jack Calwell is to be applauded for this latest work in his Austenesque library. Brother of the Bride is a pleasure for those who cherish these beloved characters.

About the Author

Jack Caldwell, born and raised in the Bayou country of Louisiana, is an author, amateur historian, professional economic developer, playwright, and like many Cajuns, a darn good cook.

Jack is the author of twelve Jane Austen-themed historical romances. PEMBERLEY RANCH is a retelling of Pride & Prejudice set in Reconstruction Texas. MR. DARCY CAME TO DINNER and THE COMPANION OF HIS FUTURE LIFE are Pride & Prejudice-flavored farces. 

THE THREE COLONELS, the first of his JANE AUSTEN’S FIGHTING MEN SERIES, is a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The next two books in the series are companion novels: THE LAST ADVENTURE OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, a cross-over of Northanger Abbey with The Scarlet Pimpernel, and PERSUADED TO SAIL, a sequel to Persuasion. BROTHER OF THE BRIDE is a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and THE THREE COLONELS. ROSINGS PARK is the conclusion to the series.

In 2015, he released the first four of a series of historical novels about New Orleans, titled THE CRESCENT CITY SERIES. THE PLAINS OF CHALMETTE begins the series, commemorating the Bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. Jack marked the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with three modern novels: BOURBON STREET NIGHTS, ELYSIAN DREAMS, and RUIN AND RENEWAL.

When not writing or traveling with his wife, Barbara, Jack attempts to play golf. A devout convert to Roman Catholicism, Jack is married with three grown sons. Jack’s blog postings—The Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles—appear regularly at Austen Variations.

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Thursday, April 6, 2023

Review: The Jaipur Trilogy by Alka Joshi

I began reviewing books in 2009. For the first time in almost fourteen years I am offering an extended critique of three volumes in one post. The Jaipur Trilogy has garnered rave reviews within the literary community, and they are well deserved. Alka Joshi’s work is a treasure, and I am officially a fan. If you’d like an extended elaboration of this endorsement, settle in for a long read below.

The Henna Artist

Publisher Description:

Vivid and compelling in its portrait of one woman’s struggle for fulfillment in a society pivoting between the traditional and the modern, The Henna Artist opens a door into a world that is at once lush and fascinating, stark and cruel.

Escaping from an abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone to the vibrant 1950s pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the most highly requested henna artist—and confidante—to the wealthy women of the upper class. But trusted with the secrets of the wealthy, she can never reveal her own…

Known for her original designs and sage advice, Lakshmi must tread carefully to avoid the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood. As she pursues her dream of an independent life, she is startled one day when she is confronted by her husband, who has tracked her down these many years later with a high-spirited young girl in tow—a sister Lakshmi never knew she had. Suddenly the caution that she has carefully cultivated as protection is threatened. Still she perseveres, applying her talents and lifting up those that surround her as she does.

My Thoughts:

I was completely taken in by The Henna Artist. Indian culture is quite foreign to me, yet I find it fascinating. Alka Joshi’s writing not only made the setting accessible to this reader, but she elevated my understanding of the country and the era in which the story was placed. Her descriptions were lush without being overindulgent, and the character development caused me to truly care about the players within the novel. Main protagonist Lakshmi is an impressive woman, as she has had to fend for herself for many years within a culture that presented many obstacles to success. Through her talents and ability to relate to others, she maneuvers her way through society to find favor with the royal elite and powerful alike. Even when she encounters unexpected turns along her journey, she finds ways to persevere and make something of herself. Joshi’s narrative was thoroughly unpredictable, delightful, tragic and touching in so many ways. It was a pleasure to read.

While I found The Henna Artist to be a compelling treasure, there are moments that are difficult within Lakshmi Shastri’s story. Issues surrounding the topic of abortion are raised from time to time. As someone who does not support abortion and has experienced pregnancy loss, I found some events to be heartbreaking. That said, The Henna Artist shines a light on the plight that many women faced in the 1950s and most certainly face today. My views on abortion were not changed in reading about these women, but my perspective on the subject was deepened. This arena is a complex tangle of problems and tragedy. While I firmly value the sanctity of life from the point of conception, I also believe we need to have compassion for those who see no other choice than to end their pregnancies. 

In response to those who may be concerned about this difficult element in The Henna Artist, it can also be noted that the alternative of adoption is a strong theme in the narrative as well. In fact, one adoption in particular is what sustains the narrative arc of the entire trilogy until the conclusion in The Perfumist of Paris.

As the title indicates, Lakshmi is most known for her work as a henna artist, and this remains the primary focus of her career. Through her talents she is able to build a new life in Jaipur, and she also begins to fashion a new family as well. Themes of redemption, ingenuity and love are strong throughout her story, with moments of levity that shaped an unforgettable novel that I will cherish for years to come. The Henna Artist has been a rousing success for debut author Alka Joshi, and it is well deserved.

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur

Publisher Description:

In New York Times bestselling author Alka Joshi’s [The Secret Keeper of Jaipur], henna artist Lakshmi arranges for her protégé, Malik, to intern at the Jaipur Palace in this tale rich in character, atmosphere, and lavish storytelling.

It’s the spring of 1969, and Lakshmi, now married to Dr. Jay Kumar, directs the Healing Garden in Shimla. Malik has finished his private school education. At twenty, he has just met a young woman named Nimmi when he leaves to apprentice at the Facilities Office of the Jaipur Royal Palace. Their latest project: a state-of-the-art cinema.

Malik soon finds that not much has changed as he navigates the Pink City of his childhood. Power and money still move seamlessly among the wealthy class, and favors flow from Jaipur’s Royal Palace, but only if certain secrets remain buried. When the cinema’s balcony tragically collapses on opening night, blame is placed where it is convenient. But Malik suspects something far darker and sets out to uncover the truth. As a former street child, he always knew to keep his own counsel; it’s a lesson that will serve him as he untangles a web of lies.

My Thoughts:

While The Henna Artist centers on the life, ambitions and relationships of Lakshmi Shastri, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur has a different feel. The tone is almost like a political or corporate thriller, with elements of mystery and subterfuge within the circles of Jaipur’s high society and government. Much attention is given to Lakshmi’s dear friend Malik, whom readers meet in The Henna Artist as a boy who is struggling to survive on the streets. In this novel he is now a young man who is coming into his own as an apprentice with the Jaipur Palace Facilities Office. 

The narration alternates between Lakshmi, Malik, and a young widow named Nimmi who lives outside the city. Their lives are interconnected in different ways, each facing challenges as individuals and within their mutual relationships. Many characters from The Henna Artist make appearances, some of whom hold secrets which have dire consequences if they are revealed. Malik shows himself to be a young man of integrity, and not everyone is sympathetic to his views. This makes for riveting reading as he navigates the world of business, construction and politics. 

While The Secret Keeper of Jaipur has a slightly different tone than its predecessor, it remains a highly enjoyable novel. I appreciated the alternating viewpoints of the narrators, and Alka Joshi’s prose once again drew me into the world of 20th century India. Lakshmi’s role has shifted a bit, as she spends more time as a medical healer and helping with issues that arise with Malik and Nimmi. The significant adoption that occurs in The Henna Artist has its repercussions in Lakshmi’s life as well, and she has to manage developments stemming from that. The many threads of the narrative are woven in a way that is captivating, colorful and creative. Alka Joshi showed no evidence of a sophomore slump in this second part of her sweeping trilogy.

The Perfumist of Paris

For this third volume I am not offering the publisher’s description. There are some elements within that blurb that were unknown to me when I began to read The Perfumist of Paris, and that ignorance was to my benefit. Readers can easily go to other sources if they are eager for that content. As a general summary, I will offer a more basic description. As the title indicates, the setting for the novel is Paris, France. The year is 1974, and Lakshmi’s younger sister Radha is now a grown woman with a family of her own. Like many women of that era, she is juggling the demands of traditional marriage, motherhood and a career. She is also burdened by secrets from her past, which she has kept hidden from almost everyone. While on a business trip to India she not only finds the key to what she’s been searching for in a work assignment, but she discovers that her secrets will not be hidden for much longer. A time of reckoning has been thrust upon her, and decisions must be made. 

Although mostly set in Paris, this third title in the trilogy has a tone that is similar to The Henna Artist. The plot is very character-driven and follows the actualization of a young woman who is also trying to make her way in the world. There is less subterfuge than in The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, but Radha’s secrets have significant consequences in her life. Author Alka Joshi’s writing continues to be enthralling. Fans of the Netflix program Emily in Paris will find several elements in common with this novel, which is an asset. The individuals with whom Radha interacts are distinct and well-drawn. Her French as well as Indian relationships were contrasting in many ways, and I found them to be interesting and realistic. 

Although the time period is set many decades ago, I didn’t feel alienated from their issues. In some senses much has changed since the 1970s, but it remains true today that men and women alike struggle with the home-work life balance. It’s possible to “want it all” in the area of love, career and family, but there are limits to each arena. Radha pushes those limits, sometimes to their breaking points. The resolutions she finds are not always perfectly neat and tidy, but they are authentic to the character and the book series.

The Perfumist of Paris is an interesting examination of the life of a young Indian woman and the repercussions of her choices past and present. The narrative arc that began in The Henna Artist is brought to a satisfying conclusion in ways that were captivating and unpredictable. I read all three novels in short succession, picking up the second and third titles as soon as I finished the previous one. In effect, this trilogy was a single 1,100-page work for me. While my worldviews and values may differ with Joshi’s characters, nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. A Netflix series is in the works, and I am thrilled that it has been optioned for this. Alka Joshi’s work is a treasure, and I wish her continued success.


           Meeting Alka Joshi on April 1, 2023
One reason I was able to consume large volumes of text in a short amount of time was because of the audio productions of these novels. I would often be doing chores or running errands while listening to the fantastic vocal performances of these stories. The narrators chosen for these works were excellent, and provided the added benefit of demonstrating correct pronunciations. There are many Indian words and phrases included in The Henna Artist trilogy, and while the included glossaries are quite helpful, I also appreciated hearing unfamiliar terms pronounced by the talented voice actors. 

As an added blessing, I happened to be in Raleigh, NC on April 1st when Alka was making a local appearance at Quail Ridge Books. This also coincided with my 52nd birthday, so it was a special time indeed. I loved meeting Ms. Joshi, and she kindly listened to me as I discussed my worldviews with her. She was so approachable and generous, and it was a pleasure to be in attendance at her event. I expressed my hope for a fourth book in the series, as I envision she will be garnering a whole new audience when the Netflix show premieres. Countless others will be discovering Alka Joshi in the years to come, and I anticipate that they will clamor for more of her work. I will be among them, looking forward to experiencing her India once again.

About the Author

Born in India and raised in the U.S. since she was nine, Alka Joshi has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from California College of Arts. Joshi's debut novel, The Henna Artist,  immediately became a NYT bestseller, a Reese Witherspoon Bookclub pick, was Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, & is in development as a TV series. Her second novel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (2021), is followed by The Perfumist of Paris (2023). Find her online at www.alkajoshi.com.











Saturday, February 25, 2023

Book Review: The Maid of Ballymacool by Jennifer Deibel

Brianna Kelly was abandoned at Ballymacool House and Boarding School as an infant. She has worked there since she was a wee girl and will likely die there. Despite a sense that she was made for something more, Brianna feels powerless to change her situation, so she consoles herself by exploring the Ballymacool grounds, looking for hidden treasures to add to the secret trove beneath the floorboards of her room.

When Michael Wray, the son of local gentry, is sent to Ballymacool to deal with his unruly cousin, he finds himself drawn to Brianna, immediately and inescapably. There is something about her that feels so . . . familiar. When Brianna finds a piece of silver in the woods, she commits to learning its origins, with the help of Michael. What they discover may change everything.

Fan favorite Jennifer Deibel invites you back to the Emerald Isle in the 1930s for this fresh take on the Cinderella story, complete with a tantalizing mystery, a budding romance, and a chance at redemption.

In Jennifer Deibel’s The Maid of Ballymacool, readers will find elements of the classic Cinderella tale, along with many new components as well. Not the least of these is the simmering theme of Identity which is imbued throughout the narrative. Brianna Kelly inhabits the role of scullery maid in 1930s Ireland, slavishly toiling away in an estate where she is rarely shown any sort of compassion or love. Unlike the fairy tale, however, this story is a work of historical fiction, based partly on chronicled events and/or plausible incidents that are devoid of any kind of special magic. There are no transforming pumpkins or spontaneously-created ball gowns. That said, Brianna shares many common characteristics with Cinderella, as she creates ways to cope with her dire situation with grace and in God’s strength. She also struggles with an inner longing, as she yearns to be more than just an orphaned girl who labors up to twenty hours a day for her room and board. As a young twenty year-old, she makes discoveries about her identity that reach far beyond her wildest dreams. She begins to unearth clues to her clouded history, which include a mysterious connection to a handsome gentleman. This quest not only teaches her about her identity as a woman, but also about how her past will transform her outlook for the future.

The main element which drew this reader in to open the pages of The Maid of Ballymacool was the notion of a Cinderella retelling. This fairy tale/genre was my favorite as a girl, and as an adult I still appreciate the rags-to-riches theme, even if the “riches” are metaphorical. What held my interest as I read Jennifer Deibel’s novel was the quality of writing, character development, and plot execution. While not a riveting spy thriller, the story did maintain an even pace with a likable (and sometimes deliciously detestable) cast. I loved the “winks” to the source material, including lost shoes, an almost-fairy godmother-like character, a handsome gentleman of higher social rank, and a passing mention of “goin’ to a royal ball.”

The Maid of Ballymacool does fall under the umbrella of Christian fiction, as certain elements of that faith are mentioned. Some characters do utter short prayers, and the notion that one’s identity and self-worth can be found in God is raised from time to time. Brianna loves to fellowship with God in nature. Deibel makes her beliefs clear, but they are not shoehorned into the content. The story of Brianna Kelly, Michael Wray, Maureen Magee, and others carries the day. Some adult themes are mentioned, including adultery and some physical abuse endured by a few individuals. However, the details given are minimal and not gratuitous. Any coarse language on the printed page is safe for all ages. The romantic element of the narrative is certainly an important aspect, but the details are sweet and fairly chaste. 

Jennifer Deibel is a new author for this reader, and I very much enjoyed her latest work The Maid of Ballymacool. Lovers of Ireland, Cinderella, early 20th century historical fiction, and even Downton Abbey will find much to recommend in this novel. Much like Cinderella and Brianna Kelly, the search for significance is a common theme in the lives of many. Ultimately our identity will not be found in our job titles, but in who God says we are. As God’s creations we are all of value and worth, and to quote one line from the novel, "Yer purpose in this world has precious little to do with what job ya hold. It's to do wi' the way ya impact the people around ye." 

Read the first chapter of The Maid of Ballymacool here!

About the Author

Jennifer Deibel is the author of A Dance in Donegal (winner of the Kipp Award for Historical Romance) and The Lady of Galway Manor (a Parable Group bestseller). Her work has appeared on (in)courage, on The Better Mom, in Missions Mosaic magazine, and in other publications. With firsthand immersive experience abroad, Jennifer writes stories that help redefine home through the lens of culture, history, and family. After nearly a decade of living in Ireland and Austria, she now lives in Arizona with her husband and their three children. 


Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Book Review: Not in Want of a Wife by Amanda Kai

What if Darcy and Elizabeth pretended to court?

Mr. Darcy is not in want of a wife. At least, not one that only loves him for his money. Ever since he came of age, Darcy’s been an object of prey to fortune hunters– greedy ladies and their scheming mamas who would do anything to get their hands on his ten thousand a year and his luxurious estate. Tired of being the most eligible man in any room he walks into, Darcy decides the only way to stave off the fortune hunters is to make himself unavailable to them.

Elizabeth Bennet is convinced that only the deepest love could persuade her into matrimony, and since that has yet to appear, she would do anything rather than marry without affection. Unfortunately, all her mother's thoughts are bent on finding rich husbands for her and her sisters. With the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy causing a stir among all the mothers of Meryton, Elizabeth knows it is only a matter of time before her own mother pushes her to try to capture one of these rich gentlemen for herself at all costs.

Seeing themselves in virtually the same predicament, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth come up with a convenient arrangement: they will pretend to court while Mr. Darcy is staying at Netherfield. Mr. Darcy will get a reprieve from the relentless husband hunters, and Elizabeth can satisfy her mother with the notion that she has landed a suitor.

But when the time comes for their partnership to end, the feelings that were merely an act have started to become a reality. Will Darcy and Elizabeth find a way to express the feelings that are in their hearts, or will they part ways for good?

There is no shortage of Pride and Prejudice variations, much to the delight of many Janeites who enjoy the exploration of what Austen’s characters might have done if new life choices had been presented to them. Such is the case with Amanda Kai’s speculative work Not in Want of a Wife. In this adaptation, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet agree to a fabricated, temporary engagement for purposes that do not include a romantic attachment between each other. While this solves a few problems, it leads to complications due to unexpected developments within their circles of friends and family. Likewise, as is the case in many narratives of this type, the faux lovers are surprised to find a tender regard growing between themselves as well. This produces a collection of issues in need of resolution.

As those issues are addressed, Author Amanda Kai offers a realistic and entertaining tale in Not in Want of a Wife. She is undoubtedly an admirer and respecter of Jane Austen’s source material, as each character remains fairly consistent with the way Austen presented them. Direct and modified quotes from Pride and Prejudice are sprinkled throughout the text, which often brought a smile to this reader. Kai also interjects her own flavors, including material that incorporates none other than the work of William Shakespeare into the story. A Bardian “callback” near the conclusion of the novel was particularly sweet. The complications and resolutions offered are consistently Austenesque in tone, delicious, and very believable in light of the original text. The manner in which all of the plot threads were completed was deftly handled and satisfying. 

For my conservative readership, I can report that Not in Want of a Wife is consistent with the type of content that Austen herself presented. Adult issues are mentioned, but are not highly detailed or gratuitous in nature. Language on the printed page is conservative, with epithets not described directly. The romance level is very sweet and appropriate for all ages. There is one moment of violence, but its presentation is relatively minor and almost humorous. 

This critic has one general quibble with Not in Want of a Wife, and while it is singular, it will inhibit me from offering a rave review. Although Amanda Kai does mention in her Acknowledgements that beta readers assisted her in revising historical inaccuracies throughout the text, I felt that this area and other aspects of the writing sometimes were not very strong. On more than one occasion, 19th century English characters were uttering 20th century American idioms. Other issues of weak grammar were also very distracting. The story itself, its construction, and the nature of the characters were very well done. However, the writing technique left this reader wanting on more than one occasion.

That one criticism may not be a concern for many readers. In fact, some may not even notice the issues I have indicated. The novel is an enjoyable read, with many moments of humor, suspense, and romance. Amanda Kai has written a sweet Austenesque tale that highly respects the source material. At the same time, she has forged her own path in a way that is creative yet honors the world that Austen fashioned. As she continues to hone her skills, I look forward to what this talented author has for her audience next.

About the Author

Amanda Kai’s love of period dramas and classic literature inspires her historical romances and other romances.  She is the author of several stories inspired by Jane Austen, including Not In Want of a Wife, Elizabeth’s Secret Admirer, and Marriage and Ministry.  Prior to becoming an author, Amanda enjoyed a successful career as a professional harpist, and danced ballet for twenty years. When she’s not diving into the realm of her imagination, Amanda lives out her own happily ever after in Texas with her husband and three children. 

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Monday, January 16, 2023

Book Review: The Rose and the Thistle by Laura Frantz

In 1715, Lady Blythe Hedley's father is declared an enemy of the British crown because of his Jacobite sympathies, forcing her to flee her home in northern England. Secreted to the tower of Wedderburn Castle in Scotland, Lady Blythe awaits who will ultimately be crowned king. But in a house with seven sons and numerous servants, her presence soon becomes known.

No sooner has Everard Hume lost his father, Lord Wedderburn, than Lady Hedley arrives with the clothes on her back and her mistress in tow. He has his own problems--a volatile brother with dangerous political leanings, an estate to manage, and a very young brother in need of comfort and direction in the wake of losing his father. It would be best for everyone if he could send this misfit heiress on her way as soon as possible.

Drawn into a whirlwind of intrigue, shifting alliances, and ambitions, Lady Blythe must be careful whom she trusts. Her fortune, her future, and her very life are at stake. Those who appear to be adversaries may turn out to be allies--and those who pretend friendship may be enemies.

Imagine the tumult of grieving the loss of a father, balancing loyalties in a country enduring political turmoil, and welcoming a stranger into your home as she seeks protection within that same political storm? Such is the challenge facing Everard Hume, the newly established eleventh Earl of Wedderburn in Laura Frantz’s The Rose and the Thistle. It is the year 1715 in Scotland. Jacobite and anti-Papist tensions are high, and the nobility is forced to choose sides as forces build to an eventual conflict. As Everard takes on the mantle previously held by his father, many challenges are faced both within and without. Likewise, his “guest” Lady Blythe Hedley has narrowly escaped an anti-papist mob, is worried about the safety of her Jacobite father, and feels less than welcome as a fleeing Catholic in the Protestant Hume household. Much is at stake for both individuals during this factious moment in British history.

The Rose and the Thistle is not only an educational read for those interested in 18th-century Scotland, but it is also an entertaining novel by a talented author. Laura Frantz, a descendant of the Humes of Wedderburn Castle has thoroughly researched her ancestors and culture, mixing healthy amounts of realism and fact with fictionalized narrative. The result is a novel that easily held my attention and captivated my imagination. Each character is fully sketched and unique, and I came to care for the protagonists easily. Likewise, a few antagonists in particular drew me into the story, as they provided conflict which made the plot all the more interesting. 

While political intrigue is a strong theme of The Rose and the Thistle, the dominant focus is ultimately a romance between Everard and Blythe. As a Christian author, Laura Frantz keeps the content between her lovers very sweet, without gratuitous details or overly steamy scenes. Passionate moments are clear, but readers are left to read between the lines on many occasions. While Everard and Blythe come from two schools of thought in regard to faith, they share belief in a common Savior and find ways to bridge the gap between their variant traditions. As a Catholic, Blythe does use Rosary beads in her prayer times, but within the pages of The Rose and the Thistle her thoughts are directed more to Christ than in a Papist saint. That said, the novel is not overly evangelistic in tone and could easily be enjoyed by those of varying religious persuasions. 

Although I am half German, I am also part Scottish, a descendant of the line of Robert the Bruce. For almost a decade I have also been a strong follower of the works of Diana Gabaldon and her Scottish-based Outlander series. My husband and I also hope to travel to this beautiful country sometime in the near future, and have enjoyed learning more about the culture. The Rose and the Thistle is rife with Scottish vocabulary, social trends and historic moments. Frantz was right to put a glossary at the beginning of the text, as I needed to refer to it often. At times I found some of the dialogue a little hard to follow with the Scottish accent of some of the characters, but that added to the verisimilitude of the story. I very much felt like I had been dropped into 18th century Scotland.  

Laura Frantz is a new author for this reader, and I highly enjoyed The Rose and the Thistle. The romance was delicious, the political intrigue exciting, and the spirituality encouraging. For all I have learned about Scotland in recent years, my knowledge took a leap forward after enjoying this title. Frantz has done her ancestors a great service in sharing this chapter of their history, and she has given her readers a fine gift in this captivating novel.

About the Author

Christy Award-winning author, Laura Frantz, is passionate about all things historical, particularly the 18th-century, and writes her manuscripts in longhand first. Her stories often incorporate Scottish themes that reflect her family heritage. She is a direct descendant of George Hume, Wedderburn Castle, Berwickshire, Scotland, who was exiled to the American colonies for his role in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, settled in Virginia, and is credited with teaching George Washington surveying in the years 1748-1750. Proud of her heritage, she is also a Daughter of the American Revolution. When not at home in Kentucky, she and her husband live in Washington State.


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Review: Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen's England

Jane Austen transports us to a world of elegance and upheaval. The Church of England, at the heart of her life and her world, is key to understanding her stories. Readers may wonder:

  • Why could Mr. Collins, a rector, afford to marry a poor woman, while Mr. Elton, a vicar, could not? 
  • What conflicting religious duties led Elizabeth Bennet to turn down two marriage proposals?
  • Why did Mansfield Park’s early readers (unlike most today) love Fanny Price?
  • What part did people of color, like Miss Lambe of Sanditon, play in English society?
  • How did Austen’s church impact people’s lives and the world?

Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England by Brenda S. Cox answers these questions and many more. It explores:

  • Austen’s Church of England, as we see it in her novels
  • Challenges the church was facing, reflected in her stories
  • Ways the church in Austen’s England transformed England and the world

Comprehensive, yet affordable and easy to read, Fashionable Goodness will help you see Austen’s beloved novels and characters in richer and deeper ways. 

     Printed biographies and filmed documentaries of the life of Jane Austen are plentiful. Her station in life as the daughter of a country clergyman is routinely mentioned within these productions, and men of the cloth appear frequently within her novels. These two aspects alone seem to indicate that the Christian faith played a prominent role in the life of this beloved author. However, many who lived within the culture of the time practiced what was called a “fashionable goodness” or a reserved level of religious observance which was exhibited by those in “proper society.” It would be reasonable to assume that Jane might have been fashionably good and nothing more. Author and researcher Brenda S. Cox shows in copious detail that this was not the case. Within Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England, Cox not only reveals the vibrant, sincere faith of Jane Austen, but she also elucidates church culture at the time and its effects in England and in literature. The late 18th and early 19th century was a time of tremendous change in England. Christianity was often a part of that, and it can be seen in the life and works of Jane Austen. Fashionable Goodness has brought together a large amount of related information in this regard. 

   Brenda Cox begins the first third of her work with an overview of Austen’s Church of England. Readers are given insight into the faith of Miss Austen herself, as well as Christian culture of the time. English terms which are still used today have also shifted in their meaning, and Cox explains how such words as “Evangelical”, “serious”, “duty”, and “manners” were utilized differently in that era. As a Christian I also appreciated her examination of Austen’s epitaph (seen in the photo at right). The words penned by Austen’s brother James have concerned me for some time. Near the conclusion of the heartfelt message, there seems to be an implication that it was Jane’s “charity, devotion, faith and purity” which made her “acceptable” to God. Cox clarifies this inscription by stating, “Were they saying that her good works saved her? That’s one interpretation. However, faith is on the list, and her ‘Redeemer’ is given prominence, meaning Christ who died for her sins. . . . [T]he epitaph more likely means that her charity, devotion, and purity showed the reality of her faith. Jane Austen’s family, her writings, and her life affirm that she was a serious, deeply committed Christian.” (p.16) Cox’s evaluation not only makes sense from a biblical standpoint, but as she outlines in Fashionable Goodness, this point of view also aligns with the culture of the time.

     The second third of this volume focuses upon cultural and religious challenges in Austen’s world. The life of clergymen is given much examination, and specific topics such as female preachers, rented pews and race relations are also discussed. While some congregations may still debate the role of women in ministry today, it hardly seems fathomable that the working poor could not always freely enter churches and sit in any pew they chose. The abolitionist movement is also mentioned with regularity within Fashionable Goodness, highlighting Christianity’s role in working to remove slavery from polite society. Cox discusses the subject and how it finds its way into Austen’s work, such as in Emma and Mansfield Park. The concluding chapter of Cox’s Part Two is particularly of interest for this reader, as I have been working on my master’s degree in Christian Apologetics. The topic of reason vs. feeling is raised often in the world of apologetics, and as Cox discusses, this was also an issue in Austen’s time.

     The final third of Fashionable Goodness is a treasure trove of tables, appendices, notes and other resources. Cox also offers more content on her website, BrendaSCox.wordpress.com. This portion of the volume would be of interest to any strong Janeite, but would certainly be invaluable for other researchers or writers of Austenesque fiction. 

     Fashionable Goodness is a remarkable work, and a labor of love from Brenda S. Cox. Even if the reader does not share Austen’s Christian faith, this resource will be a great asset in coming to understand not only Jane Austen herself, but the time in which she lived. Cox shows her readership that Christianity has historically included those of the “fashionably good” set, but there is so much more to this faith than mere religion. As we see in the life of Jane Austen, Christianity is a vibrant relationship with the Creator, a part of a saving faith that is given by God’s grace. Through that grace we can be made “good” through Christ and affect the world in a positive way, much like Austen herself did.

About the Author

Brenda S. Cox has loved Jane Austen since she came across a copy of Emma as a young adult; she went out and bought a whole set of the novels as soon as she finished it! She has spent years researching the church in Austen’s England, visiting English churches and reading hundreds of books and articles, including many written by Austen’s contemporaries. She speaks at Jane Austen Society of North America meetings (incuding three AGMs) and writes for Persuasions On-Line (JASNA journal) and the websites Jane Austen’s World and Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen.

Where to Buy:

Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England is now available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Book Review: Rosings Park by Jack Caldwell

A decade ago, groundbreaking novel The Three Colonels began the epic Jane Austen’s Fighting Men series and transformed Austenesque literature with its blend of Regency romance and historical fiction. Rosings Park is its long-awaited conclusion!

The Napoleonic Wars are finally over, and Britain seeks to rebuild after a generation of war. Gone is the “green and pleasant land” of the early Regency. In its place, a natural disaster on the other side of the world exacerbates the country’s woes: economic depression, widespread hunger, industrialization, and civil unrest. Great Britain faces ruin and revolution.

Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy agree to take in the young and spirited daughter of Lydia Wickham, and all the while, their beloved Pemberley is being endangered by riotous Luddites. Colonel Sir Richard Fitzwilliam marries Anne de Bourgh but finds the management of Rosings Park no easy matter, especially with Lady Catherine de Bourgh ready and eager to offer advice. Haunted by despair and gravely wounded in body and spirit, a bitter Colonel Sir John Buford returns to England to be nursed by his wife, the former Caroline Bingley.

Then, an evil out of the past returns to wreak vengeance on Rosings Park, and the Darcys, Fitzwilliams, Bufords, and their friends face a devastating truth: HAPPILY EVER AFTER MUST BE EARNED. 

As mentioned in the description above, Jack Caldwell’s “Fighting Men” series began in 2012 with The Three Colonels, which I had the pleasure of reading. I also read and reviewed the subsequent volumes The Last Adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel (2016) and Persuaded to Sail (2020). The next title released was Rosings Park. Once again Caldwell has brought together several beloved characters from the world of Jane Austen, plus a few of his own creation. Although I found Persuaded to Sail to be a bit of a misstep for this talented author, he has produced a fine work in Rosings Park. As a Janeite I thoroughly enjoyed inhabiting the world of the likes of the Darcys, the Fitzwilliams and others. Readers are given a thorough glimpse inside the inner workings of the Rosings estate, as well as inside the lives of those who are within and affected by this grand residence. 

A large portion of the novel focuses on the relationships of the characters, developing friendships and loves that Austen either set in motion in her original works, or certainly would have approved of in Caldwell’s vision for their narratives. The fate of the daughter of Lydia Bennet Wickham was particularly compelling. A spunky, sweet young lady who deserved much better parents, Chloe Wickham is sometimes shunned for her heritage. Light in spirit, she manages to win over several surly adults who initially discount her as merely the spawn of less-than-desirable folk. 

The development of other Austenesque characters was also interesting, as readers find the former Caroline Bingley growing into a woman of compassion and esteem. Anne de Bourgh Fitzwilliam matures as a woman, gaining greater health physically, but also learning how to be the lady of a grand estate (which includes managing her mother as well). Her husband, Colonel Fitzwilliam has struggles of his own too, as he must be the master of Rosings with a formidable mother-in-law.

Calwell also introduces into the lives of these characters some elements that bring about no small amount of drama, particularly near the close of the novel. I found the final chapters to be especially riveting, with dastardly deeds faced on multiple fronts by the men and women of Rosings. It was also refreshing to have high drama without copious amounts of graphic material. On occasion the men would spout off colorful language, but it was reasonable (if not lighter) than one would expect from military men in that era, facing matters of life and death. 

Jack Caldwell’s “Fighting Men” series has continued with a fine fourth volume in the collection. Rosings Park is a delicious return to the world of Jane Austen’s characters. The development of relationships was compelling and realistic, and the drama was page-turning. Within the end pages of the book readers are given the tease that a fifth book will one day arrive, entitled Brother of the Bride. I had previously assumed that Rosings Park was the concluding title, but it seems this is not the case. I’m glad that the saga has not completely retired. Jack Caldwell’s portrayal of his and Austen’s characters was worth another visit in Rosings Park, and will most certainly be once again in Brother of the Bride.

About the Author

Jack Caldwell, born and raised in the Bayou County of Louisiana, is an author, amateur historian, professional economic development consultant, playwright, and like many Cajuns, a darn good cook. His nickname – The Cajun Cheesehead – came from his devotion to his two favorite NFL teams: the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers. When not writing or traveling with his wife, Barbara, Jack attempts to play golf. A devout convert to Roman Catholicism, Jack is married with three grown sons. 

Always a history buff, Jack found and fell in love with Jane Austen in his twenties, struck by her innate understanding of the human condition. Jack uses his work to share his knowledge of history. Through his characters, he hopes the reader gains a better understanding of what went on before, developing an appreciation for our ancestors' trials and tribulations.

Jack’s novels include Pemberley Ranch, Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner, The Companion of his Future Life, the Jane Austen’s Fighting Men series and the Crescent City series.

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