The future of my favorite reads posts
I’m covering two months of reading with this post. That would cause it to be extra long if I listed all the four or five-star reads as I have in the past, so I’ll place the Jane Austen variations last, and include only those I like so much that I want to read them again.
I may in future do these favorite reads posts only quarterly. If I do, my next post of this type will appear in October. Let’s see how life cooperates. Thank you for visiting. I appreciate every reader who visits this blog. Though I make no promises about how frequently I’ll post, or when I’ll get to a particular topic, I appreciate every single visitor who comes to read my content, and I get a lot of joy out of knowing anyone reads here.
My overall reading preferences
Most of my fiction reading for the past five or six years is comprised of Jane Austen variations, and mostly those variations set in the Regency Period. I’ve developed quite a love of Austen’s stories as well as variations on them, especially those based on Pride and Prejudice. Among historical settings, the Regency Period in Great Britain has become a fascination of mine, ever since I fell in love with some of Georgette Heyer’s novels in 2017. I’m also a fan of Mary Stewart, for the past 50 years or more, since as a teen I first borrowed my mom’s copy of Wildfire at Midnight. That set me on a course of enjoying romantic suspense by many authors, as well as further into fantasy when Stewart published her Merlin and Arthur series. I had already fallen for fantasy when my mother brought me home a library book and said, “I think this is something you’d like.” It turned out to be volume two of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and I immediately realized I needed the whole series, and then decided to read The Hobbit first. While I was still dating the man who is now my husband, he shared with me his love of science fiction. I also love mysteries and literary classics. I include a modicum of poetry and nonfiction in my reading material as well.
My nonfiction reading interests are currently in personal creativity and writing. Recently I’m interested in personal knowledge management, which is important to creative writers in particular, considering the research we do, as well as for creatives in general to help organize ideas, projects, and inspiration. I’m interested in books on journaling, knitting and other fiber arts, drawing, painting, psychology (especially Jungian), nature, climate change, and politics. Those are my main reading interests during the past decade or so. As time goes on, as I mature, and as my life and the world at large change, my reading interests evolve as well.
I’ve been reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, published in 2015, which is relevant to anyone who does creative work, but to writers in particular. I can’t recommend it enough, and I already know, at 60% through, that I’ll read this one again, and maybe again. I’ll review it later, probably in its own post, but a small portion of it relates back to this 2009 TED Talk:
I’m also in the middle of rereading one of Mary Stewart’s which I won’t name, because while I edit this post over a few days, I’m sure to finish that one and move on to another.
Favorite May-June 2023 Reads:
Awaken Your Genius by Ozan Varol — I previously posted a standalone review of this book, here.
The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson
An historical thriller set in the winter of 1909-1910 in Paris, this novel reads like literary fiction. If I could, I’d give it ten stars for how it gripped me and carried me along, much like the flotsam carried along by the floods in Paris that winter. It also at times chilled me to the bone.
Maud Heighton is a young English woman of modest means who has come to Paris to study art. But living in Paris is more expensive than she counted on, and having survived a long illness during her last winter there, she fears what will become of her this winter, with little to eat and the cold setting in. After learning of the suicide of a fellow art student, she and her cohorts at the atelier discuss the girl’s death over their tea and cake. Maud has to force herself to eat the cake slowly, and the life-model Yvette notices Maud’s shaking hands.
Yvette consults with Maud’s fellow student, a rich Russian girl called Tanya (Yvette wryly calls her “princess”), and suddenly Maud is swept into a friendship with the stylish young Russian, and guided towards help, an organization run by a Miss Harris that helps destitute English women and children living in Paris. Miss Harris helps Maud find a position as a companion to a young woman named Sylvie Morel, an ethereal beauty who lives with her older brother, Christian. Sylvie wishes to improve her English as well as her drawing skills. The position allows Maud to continue her work at the atelier during the mornings as well as paying her quite well. Maud soon learns from Mr. Morel that Sylvie has a secret addiction to opium, and she notices other oddities about her employers, so the position might not be as ideal as Maud first hoped. But she believes she’s so much better off, no longer in danger of starving herself into another illness, that she puts up with their idiosyncrasies.
Then things become much more troubling, even horrifying, for Maud. In the meantime Tanya’s family tries to persuade her into a well-connected marriage she doesn’t want. Yvette is growing older and fears what she might have to do for a living once she’s too old to model for artists. The three become an odd cross-cultural and cross-economic-class mix of friends in the course of going through some rather horrific experiences.
I can’t recommend this novel enough. It’s one of those stories that scoops you up and carries you along, and it’s so well-crafted, with many historical details, that I felt I was there, a witness to everything, the artwork, the history, the personalities, the architecture, Paris’s many bridges, the weather, and even the jewels. I found that I cared a great deal about these young women, and even when they behaved in troubling ways, it felt like such an organic outcome of events combined with their personal histories that I willingly went along for the ride.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is an adult, contemporary, cozy, romantic, witchy fantasy, and may be the best new fantasy story I’ve read in years. It was published in August 2022 and is a standalone. If this were a series (it’s not, and not planned to be in future, that I know of), I would devour the entire series at once, and I’m not even that fond of series reading these days. But I will look for other books by this author. As it is, I think I may reread this one very soon.
In addition to the above-mentioned qualities, it has a diverse collection of characters, a sweet dog, lots of references to nature and natural magic, and it delights this reader as well with it’s many references to Jane Austen’s writings, and its own developing romance. The world-building and system of magic it involves are complex, and their development in this book is beyond excellent, being both detailed and concise, and so clearly laid out that I felt I was there and never got confused about it. It’s also a tiny bit of a mystery, though to me the fantasy, found family, and romantic elements feel stronger.
Mika Moon is a 31-year-old witch, born in India, and raised and now living in contemporary Britain. There are few witches in her world, at least that she knows of, though it’s known there are more, and worse, all of them were orphaned early in life. When a witch is born, their parents die soon after their birth of various causes, due to some event in the past now referred to as “the spell that went wrong.” Only a few witches, like Mika, are the daughters of witches, and she happens to also be the granddaughter of one. Most are born to non-witch parents and then raised by relatives. A small group of witches in Britain, those 21 or so who are known to each other, meet only once every few months, always in a new location, and always in secret. No one else knows them to be anything other than ordinary women. Their witchcraft is kept completely secret, due to a time in the past when witches were hunted. They are restricted from gathering at other times because it’s believed that too many witches gathered in one place might draw attention.
The leader of their group, Primrose Beatrice Everly, is the witch who raised Mika after she was orphaned, or at least Primrose hired the succession of nannies, tutors, and servants who raised Mika. She now isn’t happy that Mika posts “witchy” videos online, in which she appears to only pretend to be a witch, making potions and using her powers, but presenting them in ways that they can be passed off as video-editing tricks. Mika is sure that it’s a safe thing to do. “Nobody who watches my videos thinks I’m actually a witch.”
Little does Mika know that there is someone in a household in Norfolk who thinks exactly that, until she receives a message on her social media account, starting with “WITCH WANTED” and proceeding with what appears to be a job advertisement, targeted specifically at her.
What a great read. If I could give this 10 out of 5 stars, I would. The writing is beautiful, fluid, clear, concise, and the editing flawless. The few critical reviews I’ve seen seem to mostly focus on the story being too whimsical or cozy. That surprises me. But while I can understand that as a criticism if one really isn’t into cozy stories at all, I find this story to be a great relief after some of the utter drivel labeled as cozy fiction that I’ve read of late. In fact I recently almost gave up on finding many new cozy stories I could stomach. It doesn’t seem to be something people do well anymore.
But this is cozy brilliance. Although this is a cozy story, it involves a lot of deep thinking and exploration of loneliness and of finding family, of wounded people learning to trust when they have rarely been given a reason to trust. Of being different in a world that doesn’t easily accept differences. Of learning to let love in, and that goes for all kinds of love, for family, for friends, and romantic love. It’s almost in that sense a trauma recovery story, and that doesn’t seem too cozy to me. It’s a very human story, even if it involves witches and magic, golden magic dust, and a trio of precocious children.
Jane Austen Variations
Please note, many Jane Austen variations are self-published, and that frequently means they have limited availability. I read e-books on a Kindle, so that’s the only format I can say with any reasonable assurance the following books can be found in, but I can’t guaranty any book’s availability and I apologize if you find something here you’d like to read and can’t locate it in a format you can read.
An Affectionate Heart by Heather Moll
This is one of those novels that I thought about immediately rereading as soon as I finished it. It’s a fresh take on Pride and Prejudice that mostly takes place in Meryton. There are so many passages I wanted to linger over, yet I also wanted to find out what happened next, so I frequently moved along too quickly to savor everything I wished to. There is tragedy and loss, but there is also romance, light teasing and banter, long walks, secrets, misunderstandings, and oh, so much that appeals to me about this novel.
This variation involves lots of changes to the original story, the most important of which is that Mr. Darcy comes to Hertfordshire not with the Bingleys but with his sister, and they’re leasing Netherfield Lodge, an old gatehouse, not the great house at Netherfield Park. Another important difference is that Mr. Bennet has died of a heart attack, and Mr. Collins and Mary Bennet are now married and preside over Longbourn, and not at all generously. Nearly all of Elizabeth’s sisters are married, but she is left moving between one relative’s household and another. Because her uncle and aunt Gardiner are on a long trip to the Canadas for business reasons, she’s stuck moving between households where the company puts her under a great deal of discomfort regarding her status as a poor spinster relation, in spite of her being only twenty-one. At Jane’s home in London, it’s Jane’s mother-in-law Mrs. Cuthbert who is a mean-spirited, constant irritation, doing everything she can to make Elizabeth feel shame and distress over her reduced status.
When Lizzy has to return to Longbourn, things are even worse.
Irresistibly Alone by Julie Cooper
It doesn’t get much more romantic than this novella-length Pride and Prejudice variation. I think some might, if they’re looking for a flaw, only find it a bit too knight-in-shining-armor-ish. But not me. I found this to be one of the most romantic P&P variations I’ve read. It’s sweet, angst-filled, and very touching. It was just what I needed, after stopping reading another not-to-be-named book just before it.
This one, I couldn’t have left unfinished. Impossible!
To Elizabeth Bennet’s dismay, her father acts completely against the character of the father she thought she knew when he decides to force her to marry an acquaintance and distant relation, a much older widower, because his property is entailed and his only son recently died. Apparently Mr. Bennet owes the man a great debt, and the man has insisted he needs a wife so he can father another heir. He wants one of the two eldest Bennet daughters. Since Jane appears to be soon engaged to Mr. Bingley, it’s up to Elizabeth. She’s shocked, and of course refuses at first, but soon realizes her father is completely serious and unrelenting. He gives her a few days to adjust to the idea, and insists she still attend the Netherfield Ball.
Highly recommended to lovers of Jane Austen variations, or to anyone who loves a romantic story.
Fate’s Intervention by Jann Rowland
Although there are some elements of this Pride and Prejudice variation that I thought were a bit over the top, I still liked it so much that I can’t give it less than 5 stars. It’s touching, romantic, and humorous at times. I love Mr. Bennet in this one. There are some scenes I read twice just for the pleasure of it, such as when Mrs. Bennet clued into Darcy’s interest in Lizzy. I felt for Lydia when she finally had her realization.
In this variation, we enter the story when Elizabeth Bennet is trying to convince her father not to let Lydia go to Brighton with the Forsters. Her argument fails, though later at a small gathering she lets Wickham know she has changed her opinion of Mr. Darcy.
Still later, the family all gathers to see Lydia off, but as Lydia is about to enter Mrs. Forster’s carriage, she slips on the step, falls and hits her head, and winds up in a heap on the ground. She is not gravely hurt, but a concussion and a sprained ankle prevent her from taking the journey, and she isn’t about to let anyone hear the end of it.
Darcy has been wondering how to confess to Bingley about his interference, though he does find a way to hint that Bingley might have a chance with Jane Bennet. He nearly convinces Bingley to return to Netherfield at once, but Bingley decides to wait until the end of summer. Bingley heads off for Scarborough, and then Darcy gets news that worries him. Colonel Fitzwilliam has learned that Wickham has deserted the militia and is believed to have some plot of revenge that could harm the Bennets in some way.
Meanwhile Darcy has confessed to his sister Georgiana what a hash he made of his offer to Elizabeth Bennet at Hunsford. Darcy, the colonel, and Georgiana, who insists she accompany them because she wants to meet Miss Elizabeth, all head for Meryton. Their arrival surprises the entire Bennet family, especially when the men declare they have business to discuss with Mr. Bennet.
The rest of the story advances at a rapid pace, and I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t stop reading. Though not novella-length, this is a shorter novel compared to the author’s others. I read it quickly in spite of pausing to savor certain scenes. Highly recommended to lovers of Jane Austen variations.
A Folly of Youth by Amy D’Orazio
This variation on Pride and Prejudice has a lot going for it, with an intriguing premise that differs quite a lot from the original story. I found myself caught up with the characters and their antics, the romance that develops so slowly, and lots of humor as well as serious matters, all coming together to keep up a nice pace for the reader.
I’ve read lots of books by this author, and I would call her a favorite at this point. Not every story of hers is a hit for me personally, but I always enjoy them and come back for more.
The story spans about four years. When Elizabeth Bennet is just sixteen and visiting her aunt and uncle in London, she gets caught up in a little adventure. Her aunt’s younger sister is staying with them as well, and she is someone young Elizabeth wants to emulate, thinking her fashionable and beautiful. When a suspicious invitation to a ball in Mayfair is handed to Miss Penelope Cartwright in Hyde Park, she sees it as an opportunity to mix with the beau monde. She wants to attend, and for Elizabeth to go with her. Elizabeth is thrown into conflict, because she knows it’s probably not proper for them to attend, but she wants to please this young lady she looks up to. Penelope somehow convinces Mr. Gardiner, who is distracted by other matters, to let them go.
The ball turns out to be completely improper, and Elizabeth is only saved from utter ruin by a young Mr. Darcy. But he does so in such a way that causes her uncle and father to consider her compromised, and they demand that Darcy marry her. He refuses, but offers them money instead, which Mr. Bennet refuses. A complicated legal tangle results, which causes problems for Lizzy at home, and also prevents Darcy from marrying anyone else.
The majority of the story is about how this tangled situation resolves. Meanwhile, Darcy at first comes off as a horribly arrogant, snobbish man, even more so than I found him in the original story. I don’t want to give too much away, but this is one of the cleverest plots I’ve read in Jane Austen variations, romantic and at times hilarious, though there are serious events as well. Highly recommended.
A Faithful Narrative by Mary Smythe
This shorter variation on Pride and Prejudice is a delight to read, with just that right amount of a twist on the original to fascinate lovers of Jane Austen.
Mr. Darcy walks through Rosings Park, rehearsing how he’ll propose to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, certain that she holds him in the same high esteem as he does her. He plans to call at the parsonage and ask her to walk out with him, and then propose.
When he hears familiar singing, he changes course and comes across her seated in the patch of bluebells that he guided her to days ago, with her bonnet off and her hair down, a red leather-bound book in her hands. Enraptured, he is about to make his offer then and there. But the lady suddenly seems unwell, and she expresses a desire to return to the parsonage at once. She isn’t at all receptive to his attentions, but he insists on escorting her home, where she immediately retreats upstairs.
Darcy walks back the same way he came, and spots something red among the flowers. Her book, which she’s left behind. He puts it in his coat pocket, happy to have an excuse to see her again, when he returns it. Later, in the study at Rosings, he notices the weight of his coat pocket, and remembers her book, assuming it’s a novel or a volume of poetry. But he drops it on the floor accidentally, and it falls open to pages of handwriting. Not a novel but a diary? He picks it up carefully, determined not to read what it holds within, because a gentleman would never do that. Then his eye falls on his own name written on the page.
As anyone who journals knows, even someone we love might be shocked to read what we write about them, because we never see others exactly as they see themselves. Seeing oneself through another’s eyes is like looking into a distorted mirror. Even a loving hand might create a written portrait that would shock the one it depicts, especially if it isn’t meant for anyone but the writer to read. Snippets written in moments of anger, ill humor, or wounded feelings can be even worse. But imagine if the diary was written by someone who despises and misjudges the person who happens upon and reads it?
It’s been said that when we fall in love, first we’re projecting what we want to see onto the other, and only coming to terms with the reality of the person forms a more complete understanding and a true relationship. This story takes the reader on a journey through that process, sometimes cringing and sometimes delightful, from the mortification of discovery, the self-examination on both parts that results, and the adjustment of impressions and behavior that brings about understanding. It’s well-crafted and a quick read. Highly recommended.
The Ball at Meryton by Bronwen Chisholm (reread)
This is my second reading of this Pride and Prejudice variation. My first was in 2015, and I believe it was one of the first few Jane Austen variations I ever read.
This story is a low-angst and yet touching variation, in which just after Mr. Darcy’s insult at the Meryton Assembly, Elizabeth feels more hurt than she lets on to anyone while she appears to laugh off the insult with her friends. She’s not as sure of herself as she would like, because of her mother’s constant comparisons between her and Jane. She feels a need for some fresh air, and walks outside. Not as safe an undertaking in Meryton, at night, as it would be if she were home at Longbourn. A male voice, and the reek of spirits catches her attention in the dark.
Mr. Darcy meanwhile realizes that he has let the recent changes in his sister in the aftermath of her near elopement cause him to be irritable and even more unsocial than usual. He realizes the young woman he insulted may have overheard, and he glances around for her, intending to apologize. But in order to avoid Miss Bingley, he decides to walk outside.
Elizabeth, after being accosted by a drunken man who tried to pull her into an alley and tore her dress, comes running in Mr. Darcy’s direction and nearly collides with him. Again with his mind still so much on his sister, he wants nothing more than to protect the young woman, and takes her at once into Bingley’s carriage and then home to Longbourn. There Mr. Bennet takes in the situation and realizes that in saving his daughter, Mr. Darcy has unwittingly also compromised her.
This is a thoughtful and sensitive variation on the classic story, and still resonates for me, even with eight years between my readings of it. Highly recommended.
Think of Me by Elizabeth Adams
This is part of the author’s Collection of Unusual Tales series of Pride and Prejudice variations. In it, Mr. Darcy is telepathic, to the extent that he hears others’ thoughts about him, and he’s more generally empathic in that he can sense others’ feelings, characters, and how honest they are. While his “gift” is not such a great gift from his point of view, it does get better once he arrives at Netherfield and meets Elizabeth Bennet. The book is written partly from his point of view and partly from Elizabeth’s, though it takes quite a while with the setup of the story before the two actually meet. No problem there, because it holds the reader’s interest just fine.
While I don’t find the romance very angsty or conflict-driven, it’s still romantic in that there’s definitely a lot going on here, and except for a disturbing event early on, and some very real fears about the war, it seems filled with humor, and with that special secret communication that sets characters apart. Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam plays a part in this story, as well as some new characters who aren’t from canon. There’s also some LGBTQA inclusion.
I’m a long-time fan of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, beginning with her award-winning Dragonflight, and in that series I always loved the telepathic interactions of the dragons. So this story feels just right to me. It’s not quite fantasy, so I’ll call it magical realism. However you want to categorize it, I recommend it.