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Happy New Year!! I thought I would start off 2017 by celebrating the best of the books I read last year. Rather than do my usual Top 10 list, I thought I’d try something new this year and list my favorites in various categories, with links to (and quotes from) my reviews.

BEST HISTORICAL FICTION (WWII)

A Moment Forever by Cat Gardiner

A Moment Forever Cover LARGE EBOOK

A Moment Forever is not a book you merely read; Gardiner ensures you actually live the story — from the overindulgence of Long Island’s Gold Coast to the wartime excitement in the Big Apple, from the airfields and USO dances and the fashions of the ’40s to the solemnity of Paris 50 years after the roundup of its Jewish residents for deportation. There are so many layers to this story, and I never wanted it to end.

BEST HISTORICAL FICTION (OTHER ERA)

Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

lost among the living

Simone St. James is a new-to-me writer, and as soon as I finished Lost Among the Living I determined that I must read her previous novels, which all seem to be equally suspenseful. I loved her writing here, particularly the passages that describe the intensity of Jo and Alex’s relationship, which enable readers to feel Jo’s grief and the frustration inherent in not knowing Alex’s fate. I also liked that while there was romance and passion, Lost Among the Living is at its core a ghost story, but it’s so much more than that. St. James shows the impact of the war on the returning soldiers and the women whose men never came home, as well as the blurring of the boundaries between social classes and how greed and selfishness can tear families apart.

BEST AUSTEN VARIATION (REGENCY)

Mr. Bennet’s Dutiful Daughter by Joana Starnes

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Mr. Bennet’s Dutiful Daughter is a beautifully written novel, with just the right amount of angst to move me to the brink of tears without making me put the book down in despair. Starnes has a knack for putting Elizabeth and Darcy in impossible situations, delving deep into their souls, and keeping readers on the edge of their seats as they wonder how a happily ever after will be achieved. I loved the pacing of the novel, and Starnes does a wonderful job evolving their relationship through many ups and downs as they navigate the challenges posed by their families and themselves.

BEST AUSTEN VARIATION (MODERN)

Without a Conscience by Cat Gardiner

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Like Denial of Conscience, Without a Conscience is sexy (definitely for mature audiences only) and exciting from the very first page. Gardiner is a fantastic storyteller who weaves clever plots and navigates Darcy and Liz through the twists and turns while further evolving their relationship. In the midst of the danger and excitement, Gardiner provides plenty of humor, and the obvious rivalry between Liz and Caroline had me laughing out loud several times. The novel is perfectly paced, and there’s just something about Gardiner’s writing style that has me hanging on every word.

BEST AUSTEN VARIATION (SECONDARY CHARACTERS)

The Trouble to Check Her by Maria Grace

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The Trouble to Check Her exemplifies why Grace is one of my favorite authors of Austen-inspired fiction. Her attention to detail in terms of character development and the history of the era is fantastic, and I hope there is another book in the series (mainly because I want to find out what happened to Jane Bingley after her falling out with Elizabeth Darcy).

BEST AUSTEN VARIATION (OTHER)

The Elizabeth Papers by Jenetta James

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I enjoyed reading both Elizabeth’s diary and about the rocky start to Charlie and Evie’s relationship and their determination to find Elizabeth’s papers. I especially loved how James showed that even Austen’s beloved couple likely didn’t have a perfect marriage, and by telling that story from the point of view of Elizabeth, readers are able to see her insecurities and her frustration while having little clue what Darcy is thinking or feeling, which creates just the right amount of tension. I also loved getting a glimpse of the Darcys and their family years into their marriage, so they are no longer bright-eyed newlyweds but older and wiser and settled into their life together. Charlie and Evie’s story was exciting and even had some similarities to Darcy and Elizabeth’s, and Charlie’s client, Cressida Carter, is very Caroline Bingley-esque. The dual narratives were seamlessly connected, and the shifts between the two were timed perfectly to ensure readers can’t put the book down.

MOST UNIQUE AUSTEN VARIATION

The Many Lives of Fitzwilliam Darcy by Beau North and Brooke West

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The Many Lives of Fitzwilliam Darcy is unique and exciting. It made me laugh, and it left me in tears, so much so that my husband kept asking if I was okay and I worried I would short out my Kindle! It’s been a while since I’ve been so emotionally affected by a Pride and Prejudice variation. It’s absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year, possibly one of my all-time favorites, and definitely one I won’t forget!

BEST HOLIDAY NOVEL

Lucky 13  by Cat Gardiner

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Oh, how I loved this novel! Gardiner is a master at bringing Jane Austen’s characters into the present day and turning up the heat (and the laughs). From their heated arguments to their heated encounters at the jaw-dropping calendar audition and the chest-oiling photo shoot, I couldn’t get enough of this Lizzy and Darcy. The secondary characters are equally entertaining, from Jane, the supermodel with a secret, to Caroline, the matchmaking poochie mama, and especially Charlotte (aka “Punky) and Darcy’s cousin, Rick (aka “Preppy”), who are the most obnoxious of the numerous matchmakers.

BEST POETRY COLLECTION

The Jane and Bertha in Me by Rita Maria Martinez

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Martinez’s poems are full of vivid imagery (“The Bertha in me sleeps until three in the afternoon and sits on the back porch with a cup of Earl Grey that quells the desire to chop up her crotchety landlord,” from “The Jane and Bertha in Me”), sensual (“Charlotte’s manuscript sepulchered like an incorruptible saint, splayed on its back like a woman whose architecture I want to touch,” from “At the British Library”), insightful (“Pain caused by first love never truly subsides,” from “Jane’s Denial”), and even humorous (“She’ll be sorry for canoodling with the missionary, thinks Rochester, who’s exceeded his cursing quota and looks like Wolverine,” from “Jane Eyre: Classic Cover Girl”). Martinez even writes about Brontë herself, from her different personas to the migraines she suffered through in order to create her “pristine prose” (from “The Literature of Prescription”).

BEST SHORT STORY/COLLECTION

“Tea Time” by Tiffani Burnett-Velez

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I finished reading “Tea Time” in less than half an hour, and I was satisfied with the abrupt ending even though I wasn’t ready for the story to be over. The final few lines pack a punch and made it a story I won’t soon forget. I can’t wait to read more from Burnett-Velez.

FAVORITE COVER

Undercover by Cat Gardiner

undercover book cover

Gardiner is a fantastic storyteller who had me hooked from the very first page. The use of slang from the era, her vivid descriptions, the steamy scenes, and the murder mystery are handled so perfectly that I could picture the entire book in my head, as though I were actually watching a black-and-white hard-boiled crime drama on the screen. She moved Austen’s characters into 1952 New York City in a way that felt true to them. I loved that she gave Darcy a painful back story and that Elizabeth and Jane weren’t the best of friends. Gardiner’s portrayal of Georgiana as a modern and independent though innocent and sheltered young woman is handled beautifully, as is Lydia’s downfall at the hands of Slick Wick.

****

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Some of the more memorable 5-star books from 2016 (click the covers to read my reviews)

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denial-of-conscience

undeceived

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Miss Darcy's Companion front cover_V4

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Liebeslied-Final-Kindle

the forgotten room

What were your favorite books of 2016? I’d love to know!

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undercover book cover

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

If she hadn’t been a principled woman (and undercover) she would’ve shacked up with the suit — had he offered. He might have made her rethink that Eli Bennet doctrine. Of all the men who had made passes at her, his would have been the one she welcomed and accepted. When he had glanced in her direction her breath caught. Tall, mysterious, and handsome, his brooding smolder was hard-boiled through and through.

(from Undercover)

Quick summary: Cat Gardiner’s Undercover brilliantly blends Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with crime fiction Noir, telling the tale of Elizabeth “Eli” Bennet, a gumshoe on the trail of George “Slick Wick” Wickham as she investigates the disappearance of her best friend, Mary King. Elizabeth’s family thinks she’s a bookkeeper for Macy’s but instead she runs Bennet Private Investigations in an office/apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. She’s a career girl who high-tailed it out of her drunken parents’ home in Queens as soon as she was able. She’s at odds with her sister, Jane, who’s biting comments put a dent in Elizabeth’s self-esteem, and she knows what it’s like to have loved and lost. Her investigation leads her to wealthy bachelor Fitzwilliam Darcy, and you can cut the sexual tension between them with a knife. The two join forces when Darcy’s socialite sister, Georgiana, gets entangled with Wickham and some communist thugs. Set in 1952 in the midst of the Red Scare, Gardiner takes readers on an exciting ride through the dark side of New York City and the nightlife in Havana.

Why I wanted to read it: I’ve long wanted to read Gardiner’s work, and the cover is among my all-time favorites.

What I liked: Gardiner is a fantastic storyteller who had me hooked from the very first page. The use of slang from the era, her vivid descriptions, the steamy scenes, and the murder mystery are handled so perfectly that I could picture the entire book in my head, as though I were actually watching a black-and-white hard-boiled crime drama on the screen. She moved Austen’s characters into 1952 New York City in a way that felt true to them. I loved that she gave Darcy a painful back story and that Elizabeth and Jane weren’t the best of friends. Gardiner’s portrayal of Georgiana as a modern and independent though innocent and sheltered young woman is handled beautifully, as is Lydia’s downfall at the hands of Slick Wick.

What I disliked: Only that I’ve been so busy lately that I couldn’t finish the book in one sitting! And that I waited so long to finally read one of Gardiner’s books. (I am so thankful that I have a few more waiting on my Kindle!)

Final thoughts: Undercover is unique among Pride and Prejudice variations, and if I were to attempt to create a list of my all-time favorite variations, it likely would be near the top. Gardiner is a breath of fresh air in JAFF (and historical fiction in general), and I can’t wait to read more of her work. Undercover is a definite on my Best of 2016 list.

To learn about Gardiner’s inspiration for Undercover, check out this guest post from April.

Disclosure: I received Undercover from the author for review.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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It is my pleasure to welcome Cat Gardiner to Diary of an Eccentric today to celebrate the release of her latest novel, Undercover. I will be reviewing this fantastic-sounding novel in June, so stay tuned!

UNDERCOVER – AN AUSTEN NOIR
THE ROMANTIC COLLISION OF THREE WORLDS

Thank you, Anna, for inviting me to share Undercover with your readers at Diary of An Eccentric. It is an honor to visit for the first time and introduce another side of my Pride and Prejudice inspired work.

undercover book coverMy latest novel was written on a dare, believe it or not. Pamela Lynne, my publishing partner and friend at Vanity & Pride Press, and I were chatting one night when she had a light-bulb moment for me to write something that hadn’t been done in the JA fandom before: A crime fiction Noir in my own Cat-style. I was unsure that I could do it justice lest both Jane Austen and Raymond Chandler rolled over in their graves. But Pamela wouldn’t let up, confident that if I can write WWII-era Romantic Dramas as well as a Mr. Darcy on a Harley that I would be up for the task and neither authors would be offended — too much. My muse, feeling uninspired in another project, eventually took up the challenge. And what a challenge it was given that I only write third person and that I didn’t want to make the story too dark, and, of course wanting to provide a happy ending. The latter two, IMHO are essential for an Austenesque novel, but not for a true Noir. Yet, I needed to incorporate all the other elements that make an intriguing, hard-boiled detective novel, simultaneously giving it my own voice within, something that my readers have come to expect.

Undercover became a collision of three worlds, two that were already familiar. My adoration of 20th Century Historical Fiction and my love of Pride and Prejudice together combined with the sultry, dramatic theme of Noir (or more precisely, in the case of Undercover, hard-boiled crime fiction, but that wouldn’t read well on the book cover. 😉 )

The Austenesque theme for me was easy since my style of P&P is inspired, giving me much more latitude in where I can go with our dear characters in a modern world. This novel kept certain character traits but focused on a 20th Century “What-if” scenario.

What if in 1952:

• What if Wickham was more debauched than we had realized?
• What if Mary King’s uncle hadn’t whisked her away to safety?
• What if Elizabeth hadn’t married, either to save her family’s future or for love and instead chose to become a career girl.
• What if Jane was truly a vain and mercenary creature and sibling rivalry existed between the two “most beloved” sisters?
• What if that relationship with Jane altered Elizabeth, making her insecure and feeling unworthy — maybe even unloved? Would she be more susceptible to Wickham’s advances?
• What if Bingley had arrived — with Darcy — after Wickham had come and gone?
• What if Darcy’s back story tormented him? Any other man (except our Darcy) would have been broken, but he hid his anguish behind a façade.
• What if Elizabeth met Darcy as a matured, confident woman who knew what she wanted and was already settled into a non-traditional role in society.

blackandwhiteNow for the challenging part of incorporating some of the thematic elements of a post-WWII, hard-boiled detective story. Unlike characters Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, and Philip Marlowe, we are not hearing their voice in a first person narrative – Undercover is told in a third person, alternating POV. But what we do have is:

• A gruff tone when in certain characters’ POV, using slang and period words like “dame,” “flatfoot,” “moxie.”
• Necessary characters such as a police detective, a femme fatale, a private investigator, the shrew, the sympathetic friend, the psycho, and the emotionally scarred, beefcake hero who always gets the girl.
• An intricate plot with flashbacks and a smoking gun.
• A visual mood, filled with shadows and a dark city, smoky bars, and the ever-present cigarette.
• Sensuality in the darkness.
• Clichés and similes that don’t quite make sense, yet add to the thematic traits of a rough-around-the-edges police detective from the wrong side of the tracks.

The third component of Undercover is the part I live and breathe: 20th Century Historical Fiction and the fun of weaving research finds into the novel. The backdrop is set in New York City, 1952, at a time when gender equality wasn’t any further along following the gains of the “Rosie the Riveter” vital movement into the workforce. Post-war life had settled back into a focus on family (hence the following Baby-boomer Generation) in an attempt to return to normalcy by restoring all things to pre-war 1941. Women had been forced out of the factories when “the boys” returned home. “Career girls” existed, of course, but in limited areas such as nursing, secretarial, and shop girls. Certainly not as a gumshoe (private investigator) such as Elizabeth. But in Undercover, we also explore an alternative career choice prevalent in NYC at the time on 52nd Street: that of a bump-n-grind girl, a stripper.

Historically, 1952 was an iconic (and atomic) year of milestones – but today, they seem blips on the map of forgotten historical significance. Just to name a few:

• In this early Cold War era, we were two years into the Korean War, which, then, had been referred to as a “police action,” yet history would tell us how more than 40,000 American G.I.s never came home.
• General Dwight D. Eisenhower became President with a slogan “I Like Ike,” vowing to bring our boys home.
• Codename “Mike,” the United States’ first hydrogen bomb had been successfully tested on an atoll in the South Pacific.
• The first sexual reassignment was performed.
• Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation into un-American, Communist activities sparked the Second Red Scare in America, coining the term “McCarthyism.”

havanaAs our hero and heroine travel from New York City to Havana, it was a wonderful experience to embark on research about the complicated political atmosphere, yet dynamic lifestyle of pre-Castro Cuba in 1952.

In a coup d’etat, Fulgencio Batista had returned to power as president and brutal dictator and the Communist movement went temporarily underground. With a corrupt government fostering the long relationship, the American Mafia continued to have a pretty good gig in Havana, running luxury hotels, casinos and the nightlife. The capital had been prosperous and bustling with both commercial and high-roller tourist trades.

This brought me to discover a true historical gem within the pearl of Cuba: Central Hershey, a little-known sugar plantation, refinery, and chocolate manufacturing worker town thirty miles outside of Havana. This town with its houses, school, hotel, shops, railroad, casino, and orphanage had changed lives from 1920-1945. I used this location as a backdrop to a dangerous rescue in the dark of night by our gumshoe and her brooding man.

History—and chocolate aficionados—will enjoy this video.

Pull it all together, sprinkle in a soundtrack with period music that sets the scene in places such as the Copacabana and the Tropicana Club, add a dash of visual inspiration with a Pinterest board, and you have a mixture of three worlds in an Austenesque novel that was supposed to have been a novella! Take a chance on Undercover; I hope you’ll enjoy this unique, sultry mystery with a Mr. Darcy in a fedora!

Thank you again, Anna, and thank you, dear readers, for the welcome to Diary of an Eccentric!

AUTHOR BIO

Cat Gardiner loves romance and happy endings, history, comedy, and Jane Austen. A member of National League of American Pen Women, Romance Writers of America, and her local chapter TARA, she enjoys writing across the spectrum of Pride and Prejudice inspired romance novels. From the comedic Christmas, Chick Lit Lucky 13, and bad boy biker Darcy in the sultry adventure Denial of Conscience, to the romantic comedy Villa Fortuna, these contemporary novels will appeal to many Mr. Darcy lovers. Her newest release is a sultry Pride and Prejudice Noir, just released 4/20/16.

Her greatest love is writing 20th Century Historical Fiction, WWII-era Romance. Her debut novel, A Moment Forever, will release in late spring 2016 with The Song is You following.

Married 23 years to her best friend, they are the proud parents of the smartest honor student in the world — their orange tabby, Ollie. Although they live in Florida, they will always be proud native New Yorkers.

GIVEAWAY

Cat is generously offering 2 ebooks of Undercover to my readers. To enter, please leave a comment with your email address telling me why you want to read the book. The giveaway will close on Sunday, May 1. The winners will be chosen randomly and announced in the comments section of this post. Good luck!

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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