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all the appearance of goodness

Source: Review copy from author
Rating: ★★★★☆

“Did you enjoy your share of my father’s raspberries, sir?” she asked softly, eyes on her sisters.

“Of what do you accuse me, Miss Elizabeth?”  He glanced at her.  One corner of his lips drew up.

“The last time I saw you, you sported drops of berry juice on your fingers and on your chin.  I fear you are a most ineffective thief.”  She arched an eyebrow.

(from All the Appearance of Goodness, page 38)

All the Appearance of Goodness is Volume III in Maria Grace’s Given Good Principles series of Pride and Prejudice variations.  The series began with Darcy’s Decision, in which a young Fitzwilliam Darcy comes to terms with his responsibilities as master of Pemberley, and The Future Mrs. Darcy, in which Elizabeth Bennet must take control of the household and rein in her foolish little sister Lydia before she ruins the Bennet family’s reputation.  In this installment, Darcy and Elizabeth finally cross paths, as he accompanies Mr. Bingley to Netherfield Park.

With his vicar and trusted advisor Mr. Bradley at his side, Darcy hopes his time in the country will allow him to practice his social skills, but he is caught off guard when he gets lost on the Bennet’s property and encounters a lively Elizabeth.  It’s not long before the Bennet sisters have befriended Darcy, Bingley, and Bingley’s sister Louisa, and Jane Bennet immediately catches the eye of Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam.  But things become chaotic as the Bennets begin to plan Mary’s wedding, Caroline Bingley arrives with an arrogance and outspokenness that would give Lady Catherine a run for her money, and Mr. Collins comes to check out the estate he will one day inherit and immediately sets his sights on Elizabeth.

Mr. Collins has good looks and good manners, and Darcy soon realizes he has some competition in his quest to win Elizabeth’s affections.  It soon becomes apparent that Mr. Collins may not be what he seems, but Darcy’s inability to express his thoughts and feelings doesn’t do much to help his cause either.  A confused Elizabeth is forced to determine which man has all the goodness and which only has the appearance of it.

All the Appearance of Goodness was so different and so exciting that after two cups of tea, I was already more than halfway through the book, and I dismissed my plans for the rest of the day because I just had to see how it all played out.  Watching Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins try to outdo one another was amusing at first, but I was surprised (and delighted, of course) when the story took a more sinister turn.  I loved that Louisa Bingley was so likeable and Caroline Bingley much more despicable in this variation, and their confrontation is an absolute must-read.  I found it a little odd that Bingley, as amiable as ever, was relegated to the background and spent most of his time with Kitty and Lydia, but it worked here.  But mostly I enjoyed having no idea how the expected happily ever after would be achieved.

Maria Grace has a knack for shaking things up in her variations, as evidenced by her latest novel, Remember the Past (which I loved).  I don’t know why it took me so long to continue this series, but I’m so glad I did.  There is a lot that happens in the first two volumes that shape Grace’s versions of Darcy and Elizabeth, so readers will want to read them before picking up All the Appearance of Goodness.  From Grace’s original characters like Mr. Bradley to her portrayal of characters we already love to hate, All the Appearance of Goodness was a pure delight.  I immediately picked up the next book in the series, Twelfth Night at Longbourn, so stay tuned for my review.

Disclosure: I received All the Appearance of Goodness from the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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mr. darcy's pledge

Source: Review copy from author
Rating: ★★★★☆

“Georgiana, I have come to a decision.  It is time for me to find a bride for Pemberley.”

Who that bride would be, he had no idea.  Only one thing was certain.  It would not be Elizabeth Bennet.

(from Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, page 10)

Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, Volume 1 of The Darcy Novels, is a variation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that caught my eye because it focuses on Mr. Darcy’s attempts to forget Elizabeth Bennet by setting out on a quest to find a wife.  After she rejects his disastrous proposal at Hunsford, he returns to Pemberley never having presented Elizabeth with the letter that would have told her the truth about him and cleared up all the misunderstandings.  With the help of his sister, Georgiana, who knows nothing of his failed attempts to secure Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, he sets about making a list of the qualities he most desires in a wife and mistress of Pemberley.

Darcy is rattled when Georgiana questions him about the most important quality he seeks in a wife, remembering Elizabeth’s laughter, impertinence, and ability to remain poised in the worst of situations.  But he can never have her, and his desperate attempts to purge her from his mind give two young women the wrong idea.

Meanwhile, he must contend with Lord and Lady Matlock’s attempts to marry off Georgiana, and he has to patch up his friendship with Mr. Bingley, who has withdrawn from society after learning of the scheme to prevent him from proposing to Elizabeth’s sister, Jane.  When an accident brings Elizabeth to Pemberley, Darcy has a chance to change her opinion of him, but with an assortment of house guests preventing him from speaking to her alone, will he lose his only opportunity to marry for love?

In Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, Monica Fairview lets readers see the events following his failed proposal through Darcy’s eyes.  From wounded pride to embarrassment over his behavior to unexpected feelings of hope, readers see Darcy stumble — even emerging from the water à la Colin Firth — and evolve into a man worthy of Elizabeth’s love.  There were plenty of heated conversations, misunderstandings, and competition among the ladies to have me alternating between anger and laughter, and I wanted to cheer out loud each time Georgiana amassed the courage to put certain disagreeable people in their rightful places.

Fairview keeps readers interested with her expansion of several secondary characters, particularly Georgiana; the introduction of original characters, from the humorous valet Briggs to the obnoxiously transparent Miss Marshall; and Darcy’s sweet attempts to make himself appealing to Elizabeth.  My only complaint is that I finished the book disappointed that I couldn’t start the next installment straight away!

Disclosure: I received Mr. Darcy’s Pledge from the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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a jane austen daydream

Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: ★★★★☆

“I am a different person now.”

“Different?  How so?”

“I decided this last week,” Jane said matter-of-factly.  “I am planning to begin a new chapter in my life.”

“Is this like one of your little books?”

“My books are anything but little, Cassandra.”

(from A Jane Austen Daydream)

In A Jane Austen Daydream, Scott D. Southard says from the start, “This book is a work of fiction, only marginally influenced by the facts.”  From there, he takes readers on a journey with Jane Austen from her home in Steventon to her brother’s home at Godmersham Park and even to Bath and Chawton, from her early 20s through the publication of Sense and Sensibility.  Readers familiar with the known details of Austen’s life will notice that he plays with the timeline of her life, making her brother Charles younger than he should be, for instance, but his portrayal of Austen’s wit and sharp tongue provides much humor and makes it easy to just go with the flow.

Austen never married, but since she wrote much about love and had a keen understanding of romantic relationships and human nature, it’s not surprising that people want to believe she had a great love story of her own.  Generally the novels that create such a love story focus on one romance, but Southard imagines several relationships for Jane, including a youthful flirtation full of misunderstanding with Tom LeFroy and an attraction with a mysterious American with whom she crosses paths in Bath.

Southard also references Austen’s novels, and readers can imagine Jane tucking the things people say into her memory for later use in a novel and picture her at her writing desk remembering the ridiculous people she met over the years and turning them into Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Mr. Collins.  Southard also imagines the events that would inspire the two insulting proposals Elizabeth Bennet receives in Pride and Prejudice, and it was fun to find these things within the story.

A Jane Austen Daydream shows how a palm-reading by a gypsy put Jane on the lookout for love and how each of the men she meets along the way changed her views about love and marriage, her writing and her future.  Southard also focuses on Jane’s close relationship with her sister, Cassandra, how deeply Cassandra was affected by her fiancé’s death, and the burden women placed on their families by remaining unmarried.  Jane’s strained relationships with her parents, her brothers, and even their wives also play a role in the story, making it more exciting and dramatic, whether true or not.

The novel is creative in its blending of the facts with fiction, but the only thing I didn’t like was (spoiler alert, highlight the rest of the sentence to reveal) how the author inserted himself into the story.  Despite that minor quibble, I found myself lost in the novel, enjoying the Jane he brings to life on the page and the nod he gives to her immortality, as she lives on forever in the novels she wrote and the movies and novels they have, in turn, inspired.

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historical fiction challenge

Book 20 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received A Jane Austen Daydream from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the winter guest

Source: Review copy from Harlequin MIRA and the author
Rating: ★★★★★

Mine is not the story of the ghettos and the camps, but of a small village in the hills, a chapel in the darkness of the night.  I should write it down, I suppose.  The younger ones do not remember, and when I am gone there will be no one else.  The history and those who lived it will disappear with the wind.  But I cannot.  It is not that the memories are too painful — I live them over and over each night, a perennial film in my mind.  But I cannot find the words to do justice to the people that lived, and the things that had transpired among us.

(from The Winter Guest, page 11)

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Winter Guest, may be her best yet.  Set primarily in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940, the novel centers on 18-year-old twins, Helena and Ruth Nowak, tasked with raising their three younger siblings after the death of their father and their mother’s removal to a hospital in Kraków.  Although the Nazis have yet to enter their small village of Biekowice, the sisters must contend with constant hunger and worries about how to keep the family together and keep them warm as winter approaches.

Helena is the strong sister, accustomed to long walks in the forest in search of food and to the city to ensure their mother is receiving proper care at the Jewish hospital, the only facility affordable to the family.  Ruth is the gentle sister, who spends all of her time caring for the children and trying to stretch their meager rations.  Despite being close, the burden of the war and having to act as parents to the younger children take a toll on the sisters’ relationship.  Ruth laments her lost love and the likelihood that she will never have a family of her own, and she cares little about what goes on outside of the family and their cottage — even as talk of the Jews in the city being removed from their homes makes its way to the village.  Helena, meanwhile, is more realistic about what’s going on, but her weekly trips to Kraków to visit their mother put her face-to-face with the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, and she soon realizes that keeping your head down does not ensure survival.

When Helena comes across an injured American paratrooper in the forest, she decides to help him, finding him shelter in an abandoned chapel, feeding him from her family’s nearly bare cupboards, and keeping him a secret from Ruth — and not just because of the danger to her family.  With Sam, Helena not only finds love but also a purpose, someone to trust when the war finally hits home.  But increasing friction and jealousy between the sisters threatens their relationship and their lives.

In The Winter Guest, Jenoff brings to life a small Polish village in the midst of war, from the hunger and the cold to the watchful eyes of neighbors who report the most minor infraction in exchange for money or food.  The Nowak twins always felt out of place in their village, and the war and the loss of their parents isolate them even more.  Neither one wants to be left alone with the responsibility of caring for the children, and the differences that were emphasized since their birth push them apart as the years pass.  Jenoff does a great job portraying their complicated relationship and making me understand the motivations of each sister.  There was one moment when I was so angry at one of the sisters that I had to put down the book and vent to my husband for a few minutes.  Generating such an emotional reaction is a sign of a great book, at least in my opinion.  Jenoff brilliantly creates an atmosphere of nervous calm, and I kept feeling like something bad was going to happen at any moment.

Although the epilogue was a bit rushed and devoid of some of the tidbits of information that would have made it more believable, I still loved the book.  Jenoff unflinchingly details the struggles of living in an occupied country, the atrocities committed by the Nazis as they liquidated Jewish neighborhoods, and the danger of ignoring what’s happening in your own backyard.  She deftly balances the excitement of taking action with the horrors and loss inevitable in war, and she makes a story that happened decades ago relevant in the present day.  The Winter Guest is about the bonds between sisters and twins, the destructive nature of secrets, loyalty and betrayal, and the need to preserve wartime stories of courage and resistance before those who know exactly what happened are gone.

war challenge with a twist

Book 17 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 19 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Winter Guest from Harlequin MIRA and the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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longbourn to london

Source: Review copy from Meryton Press
Rating: ★★★☆☆

“I have divided them into stacks, the first being those we need not accept.”

“Is there such a thing?” Mr. Bennet asked over a lowered corner of his paper.  “I had thought a lady must accept all invitations.”

“Indeed, sir!”  Darcy smiled a little.  “I am more interested in that pile than any other.  I should make a study of how to extend an invitation into society in such a way as to have it not accepted, and then I shall give lessons to all of these others.”

Mr. Bennet smiled and nodded.  “Very wise, Mr. Darcy.”

Elizabeth extended them an arch look.  “Are you quite finished, the two of you?”

(from Longbourn to London, pages 18-19)

Longbourn to London is a different take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in that it’s not a re-imagining or a sequel.  Instead, Linda Beutler aims to fill in the blanks left by Austen when it comes to the weeks of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet’s betrothal and the early days of their marriage.

Much of the novel focuses on Elizabeth’s worries about what awaits her on the wedding night, the difficulties she and Mr. Darcy encounter in controlling their desires before their wedding day, and their many amorous moments afterward.  Yes, much of the book is about sex, and Beutler does not shy away from writing lengthy and quite descriptive sex scenes, so this is definitely a book for mature audiences only.  Although there isn’t much of a plot, just a recounting of the events that occurred during this period, there are a few obstacles that crop up and are almost immediately resolved.  I didn’t mind the sex scenes much, but given how many there were, they did start to get old after a while.

However, what I liked best about Longbourn to London were the humorous scenes, from the way Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy conspired to tease Elizabeth to Mrs. Bennet being put in her place about a certain wedding bonnet.  Beutler lets readers see Caroline Bingley come undone, gives Louisa Hurst some personality, and enables Mrs. Gardiner to swoop in and save the day, or Elizabeth’s sanity at least.  Even Mr. Collins made an appearance without trying my patience.

Longbourn to London is a sweet tale about two lovers — neither of whom expected to find such happiness, given Mr. Darcy’s disastrous first proposal and Elizabeth’s vehement rejection of it — navigating the nervousness and newness of getting married.  Like most couples, they experience stress with the wedding planning, have to deal with tiresome relatives, and spend less time together than they’d like.  Despite the abundance of detail when it comes to their most intimate moments, Beutler does a good job showing the joy Elizabeth and Darcy brought to one another and especially how Elizabeth softened Darcy’s rough edges.  I admire Beutler for taking a chance with this Pride and Prejudice “expansion,” and I liked it more than I thought I would given its focus.  If you’re looking for a happily-ever-after tale and detailed sex scenes don’t bother you, Longbourn to London provides some lighthearted entertainment for a lazy afternoon.

Disclosure: I received Longbourn to London from Meryton Press for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the program

Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

I hate The Program and what it does to us, but I also know that I don’t want to die.  I don’t want any of us to.  Despite everything, our school district has the highest survival rate in the country.  So in some sick and twisted way…I guess The Program works.  Even if the result is a life half lived.

(from The Program, page 24)

The Program is a young adult novel set in a world where suicide has become an epidemic among teens.  In an effort to prevent them from succumbing to their depression, some high schools have implemented the Program, which aims to cure them by erasing their memories.  Sloane is grieving the death of her brother and the loss of her best friend to the Program.  Neither Sloane nor her boyfriend, James, can express their feelings for fear they will be taken by the Program — either at school, where they are under the watchful eyes of handlers, or at home, turned in by their own parents, who believe the Program is their only hope.  They don’t seem to notice or care that the children who complete the Program come home as empty shells of their former selves.

James is the only person Sloane can trust, the only one who can see her cry, and he vows to protect them both from the Program.  But when they lose someone else close to them, James starts to unravel, and Sloane must find a way to safeguard her memories of him so that, no matter what, their love will survive.

The Program is an interesting look at how far society and the government will go to protect the next generation, but it soon becomes apparent that the Program doesn’t have the best interests of its patients in mind.  Although the cause of the suicide epidemic is unknown, the Program only makes things worse by forcing teens to bury any emotion other than happiness.  Sloane, for instance, has to fake an injury to have an excuse to cry and must always pretend for her parents’ sake that everything is just fine.

Suzanne Young tells the story through Sloane’s eyes, so readers understand the depths of her grief and the fear of knowing that every move she makes is being watched, and they follow her as she struggles to hold it together.  With the threat of the Program looming overhead, there is little talk about the future — other than trying to make it to 18, when they can no longer be forced into the Program.  Given their shared grief and their lack of another emotional outlet, it’s not surprising that Sloane and James’ relationship takes center stage.  Of course, Young creates a love triangle, among other obstacles, and between that and the Program, there is more than enough angst and melodrama to go around.  I understood why their relationship was so important to Sloane and central to her happiness, but it was also sad that she felt she had little to live for beyond that relationship, and all the memories she wanted to preserve involved James.  Honestly, all the “James this” and “James that” quickly became repetitive and even annoying at times.  I read this book with The Girl for our July book club meeting, and she did a fair share of eye-rolling throughout.

Still, the idea behind the story is intriguing, and the choice Sloane must make provides much food for thought.  The Program did generate a great book club discussion, though most of us had mixed feelings about the book.  It didn’t seem as though most of the book club was curious enough to read the sequel, The Treatment, but there were enough loose ends to make me want to know how it all plays out.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Program from my local library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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remember the past

Source: Review copy from the author
Rating: ★★★★★

Darcy shut the door behind her, emptiness filling his belly until he sank into his favorite chair.  What was more troubling, that others saw his admiration for Miss Elizabeth, or that Miss Elizabeth could not?

He knew her to be upset, but the possibility of hurting her was insupportable.  Somehow, he had to rectify the misunderstanding.  She must not be somewhere in the world thinking ill of him.

(from Remember the Past, page 45)

I’ve said it a lot lately that Pride and Prejudice retellings need to be very unique these days to keep my attention, and Maria Grace’s latest novel, Remember the Past, certainly fits the bill.  As soon as I started reading, I knew that this was going to be different from all the re-imaginings I’ve read before.  What if the Bennet family had a fortune, so marrying off the daughters wasn’t their sole concern?  What if Lady Catherine was kind, grateful to her nephew for saving her and Anne from a life of genteel poverty?  What if there was no Mr. Bingley to win Jane Bennet’s affections?

In Remember the Past, Admiral Thomas Bennet has retired from His Majesty’s Navy and purchased an estate in Derbyshire after being thrown out of Longbourn by his scheming brother.  While Alston Hall is being readied for occupation, the widower Bennet, his daughters Jane and Elizabeth, and his twin sons Francis and Philip are invited to stay at Pemberley, where the widower Mr. Darcy lives with his sister, his mother-in-law Lady Catherine, his sons George and David, and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam.  Darcy is immediately drawn to Elizabeth, who excites a passion in him that he never felt while married to Anne, but after a scandalous first season in London, Elizabeth cannot trust another man.

Even in these much changed circumstances, misunderstandings abound.  When Darcy admires Elizabeth’s willingness to sword fight with the boys while trying to put aside his feelings for her, she thinks the look in his eyes signifies his disapproval.  She also feels slighted when both her father and Darcy dismiss her feelings about Wickham serving as her father’s steward; she senses a littleness about him from their very first meeting, and thankfully the Admiral taught his daughters how to protect themselves!

Meanwhile, Bennet is a man used to delivering orders and expecting that they will be carried out, but he soon finds that the women in his life increasingly refuse to submit to his will.  When it comes to Darcy, Elizabeth isn’t the only one who needs to set aside pride and prejudice, as Bennet’s own happiness, as well as his daughter’s, depends on him doing so.

Remember the Past is a fantastic retelling of Pride and Prejudice not only because of the original characters — from the rambunctious Bennet twins and Darcy brothers to the menacing but gentle Piper, the Admiral’s valet — but also because of the huge risks Grace takes in leaving only the bare bones of the original novel intact.  It was exciting to read a retelling in which I could not predict anything, other than the ultimate happily-ever-after ending.  The novel itself was exciting as well, with everything from sword fights to dangerous floods, and if it hadn’t been for work and family responsibilities, I would surely have finished it in one sitting.

Grace stays true to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy even while drastically changing the circumstances in which they meet and fall in love, but her delightful versions of Lady Catherine and Mr. Bennet drew me to the novel from the start.  Moreover, I never once missed the characters left out of this retelling (Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Bennet, the younger Bennet sisters, Mr. Collins, etc.).  Grace also does a good job balancing the heavier topics of grief, violence against women, and duty to family and friends with moments of humor and lightheartedness.  I’ve long enjoyed Grace’s Austen-inspired fiction, but Remember the Past is her best work so far, and I can’t wait to see where she takes these characters next.

Disclosure: I received Remember the Past from the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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