TBR Challenge: The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Set against the vivid historical background of the Napoleonic Wars, “The Wedding Journey “is the unforgettable story of Captain Jesse Randall, assistant surgeon of Marching Hospital Number Eight, and his undying love for beautiful, young Nell Mason. A battlefield is no place to wage a campaign of love, and even if it was, Jesse is far too shy to ever confess his love to Nell, who helps the surgeons in the field hospital.

Her father, Captain Bertie Mason, is a compulsive gambler, and when Nell’s mother dies, he desperately agrees to marry her to the despicable Major William Bones to relieve his crushing gambling debts. To prevent such a fate, Jesse hastily weds Nell. He doesn’t dare hope she’ll ever return his devotion.

A marriage on the front lines of the Napoleonic Wars would be difficult enough, but now Major Bones is out for vengeance. As the British army retreats from Burgos for Portugal, Jesse, Nell, and a handful of the sick and stragglers are left behind to fend for themselves. The newly married couple must now draw on all their strength to survive and save their small band, and somehow nurture a love that can endure the most trying of journeys…

Rating: B+

For June’s prompt of Favourite Trope, I turned to Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey, the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts.  In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.

Elinore Mason  – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember.  Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can.  Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.

The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable.  After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead.  He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.

Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way.  With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations.  The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.

The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read.  Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.

As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror.  But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.

The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero.  He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care.  He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.

We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship.  But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.

I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat.  Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.

The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour.  The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.

Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFay

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Five years ago, Lord Sorin Latham fled England’s shores to avoid heartbreak and scandal in the form of one Lady Eleanor Cramley. On returning home, he finds the young miss he used to scold for lack of decorum is now a stunning woman who fires his blood. But he must resist temptation or risk losing his honor as a gentleman and the friendship of those he holds dear, including Eleanor.

Lady Eleanor is determined to be the paragon of propriety Sorin urged her to become. But now that he’s back, the man she once thought of as an older brother makes her long to be anything but proper. She must make Sorin see her as worthy of his heart and his desire without losing his good opinion, or her Season will end in disgrace.

Rating: C-

Scandal of the Season is a standalone friends-to-lovers historical romance in which the twelve-year age gap between the principals means that the hero has been something of an older brother and mentor figure to the heroine for most of their lives. The premise attracted me – one of my favourite books of all time is Jane Austen’s Emma – but it unfortunately falls largely flat here, as pacing, characterisation and plot issues drag the story down. There is also a particularly problematic scene which I’ll discuss later in the review plus – I spent most of the book wondering what the scandal was and when I was going to find out about it!

Lady Eleanor Cramley, cousin to Charles, Duke of Ashford, grew up in her cousin’s family after the death of her parents when she was a child. Charles’ closest friend, Sorin Latham, Lord Wincanton (Sorin? Seriously? What sort of name is that for a 19th century English nobleman?) was often around when she was growing up and did his best to curb the worst of her hoydenish tendencies and teach her the importance of proper behaviour. When she’s sixteen, he becomes suddenly, uncomfortably aware that she is now a young woman and, realising his feelings for her go deeper than friendship, is rather cool and aloof towards her, which upsets her and makes her wonder what she’s done wrong. Sorin is horrified at the idea of lusting after his friend’s cousin, so he decides to keep as far away from her as possible and leaves England to travel abroad. Returning after an absence of five years, he is somewhat dismayed to discover that his attraction to Eleanor hasn’t abated – if anything it’s stronger – but he is determined not to act upon it (even though there is absolutely nothing preventing him from doing so) because he thinks he’ll crush her spirit if he marries her and because he thinks considering her in an amorous light is a betrayal of Charles’ trust.

Eleanor was upset by Sorin’s coldness but they have repaired their friendship and been regular correspondents during his five year absence. When he returns, she is overjoyed to see him and hopes things will return to the way they were, but when her flighty friend, Caroline, sets her cap at Sorin, Eleanor finds herself unaccountably jealous, and, in spite of her avowal to remain unmarried, slowly comes to realise that perhaps there could be something else between them, something more than friendship.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Lord of Chance (Rogues to Riches #1) by Erica Ridley (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Disguised as a country miss, Charlotte Devon flees London, desperate to leave her tattered reputation behind. In Scotland, her estranged father’s noble blood will finally make her a respectable debutante. Except she finds herself accidentally wed to a devil-may-care rogue with a sinful smile. He’s the last thing she needs…and everything her traitorous heart desires.

Charming rake Anthony Fairfax is on holiday to seek his fortune…and escape his creditors. When an irresistible Lady Luck wins him in a game of chance – and a slight mishap has them leg-shackled by dawn – the tables have finally turned in his favor. But when past demons catch up to them, holding on to new love will mean destroying their dreams forever.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

In Lord of Chance, the first in Erica Ridley’s new Rogues to Riches series, we are introduced to the handsome, charming Anthony Fairfax, a somewhat rackety young man who supports himself and his family by means of an inveterate gambling habit. Ms. Ridley has already released a number of her books in audio format (her Dukes of War series, narrated by Stevie Zimmermann) but this is the first I’ve listened to and I have to say that the result is a mixed bag. The narration by Marian Hussey is good, but while Ms. Ridley has a deft touch with the humour and dialogue, and she does briefly touch on a couple of darker themes, the story is a little too fluffy for my taste.

In order to escape pressing debts, Anthony Fairfax has left London to try his fortunes elsewhere. He is currently at a small inn on the Scottish border and things are looking up. On this particular night, it seems he cannot lose, and he can’t help but attribute this to the mysterious, cloaked woman he has nicknamed “Lady Fortune”, who is sitting quietly on the other side of the room. But when Lady Fortune is encouraged to join the card game, it seems she makes her own luck, because she cleans Anthony out completely and wins everything on the table.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much by Amanda Quick (audiobook) – Narrated by Louisa Jane Underwood

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

At the exclusive Burning Cove Hotel on the coast of California, rookie reporter Irene Glasson finds herself staring down at a beautiful actress at the bottom of a pool. The dead woman had a red-hot secret about an up-and-coming leading man, a scoop that Irene couldn’t resist. Seeking the truth about the drowning, Irene finds herself drawn to a master of deception.

Once a world-famous magician whose career was mysteriously cut short, Oliver Ward is now the owner of the hotel. He can’t let scandal threaten his livelihood, even if it means trusting Irene, a woman who seems to have appeared in Los Angeles out of nowhere four months ago. With Oliver’s help Irene soon learns that the glamorous paradise of Burning Cove hides dark and dangerous secrets. And that the past – always just out of sight – could drag them both under.

Rating: Narration – C-; Content – D+

Anyone who has read or listened to even a small number of Amanda Quick’s historical mysteries will have realised that her books tend to be somewhat formulaic. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing; Ms. Quick’s particular formula – independent heroine meets mysterious, slightly dangerous hero and they solve a mystery while falling in love (and have their first sexual encounter anywhere else but a bed!) – is a popular and successful one, and I have no problem with formulaic when it’s done well. I wanted to listen to The Girl Who Knew Too Much mostly because the setting of 1930s Los Angeles is a departure from the author’s usual setting of 19th Century England, and being a bit of an old movie buff, I was looking forward to a noir-ish mystery with a touch of good old Hollywood glamour. Sadly, however both the noir and the glamour were missing and the mysteries – there are two of them – were very predictable.

Adding to my disappointment was the narration by Louisa Jane Underwood, which did nothing to help an already lacklustre book and in fact, made listening to it a chore rather than a pleasure. Had I not been listening for review, I’d have DNFed and returned it to Audible.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Proud Mary (Roxton Family Saga #5) by Lucinda Brant

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Widowed and destitute, Lady Mary Cavendish is left with only her pride. Daughter of an earl and great-granddaughter to a Stuart King, family expectation and obligation demands she remarry. But not just any man will do; her husband must rank among the nobility. Falling in love with her handsome and enigmatic neighbor is out of the question. As always, Mary will do her duty and ignore her heart.

Country squire Christopher Bryce has secretly loved his neighbor Mary for many years. Yet, he is resigned to the cruel reality they are not social equals and thus can never share a future together. Never mind that his scandalous past and a heartbreaking secret make him thoroughly unworthy of such a proud beauty.

Then into their lives steps a ghost from Mary’s past, whose outrageous behavior has Mary questioning her worldview, and Christopher acting upon his feelings, and for all to see. The mismatched couple begin to wonder if in fact love can prevail—that a happily ever after might just be possible if only they dare to follow their hearts.

Rating: B-

I’m a big fan of Lucinda Brant’s and have enjoyed all of the books of hers I’ve listened to or read.  Which is why it saddens me to say that Proud Mary, the fifth book in her Roxton Family Saga, was something of a disappointment.

The proud lady of the title is Lady Mary Cavendish, whose husband, Sir Gerald, died two years previously.  Sir Gerald was a boorish brute of a man who did not treat Mary well and whose death has left his wife and ten-year-old daughter Theodora (Teddy) on the verge of destitution.  Were it not for the actions of the estate’s steward, Mr. Christopher Bryce, Mary and Teddy would have had to leave their home, but Bryce keeps the truth of their situation to himself and due to his astute management and assistance they continue to live as before.

Christopher Bryce has been steward of Abbeywell Farm for something like eight years, and has been quietly in love with Mary for just as long.  His good-looks and natural charm set hearts a-flutter among the local ladies, but he has eyes for none but Mary – even though he has little hope that she will ever return his affection.  She is the daughter of an earl and the great-grand-daughter of a king, and he is a mere country squire – albeit a successful and wealthy one – with a rather mysterious (and unusual)  past.

Having married once for the sake of family and duty and been utterly miserable, Mary is loath to remarry for the same reasons, but accepts that she will have to do so at some point.  Of late, however, she has been unable to prevent her thoughts going in a different – and not at all welcome – direction.  She and Christopher Bryce rarely see eye-to-eye about the estate, yet there’s no denying he’s an extremely attractive man and that when they aren’t at odds, he is kind and agreeable company, attentive to her wishes in a way she has never before experienced.

The first part of the book is lovely, beautifully chronicling the longing Christopher and Mary feel for each other and then showing Christopher becoming more determined in his pursuit as he attempts to show Mary that they are right for each other and that they could be happy together.  Mary, whose spirit has been squashed both by her obnoxious, snobbish mother and her abusive husband, takes a little time to come out of her shell, but with Christopher’s coaxing and support, she decides it’s time she allowed herself to experience pleasure and to have something she wants for herself, and spends an idyllic week with him squirreled away at his cottage by the river. Christopher and Mary are able to explore their physical attraction to each other discreetly, and are well on the way to making some decisions about their future, when the plot veers off in another direction, almost the entire Roxton clan reappears – and the story suddenly becomes more concerned with the progression of Antonia, Duchess of Kinross’ pregnancy, and various family issues, some of which are plot threads picked up from the previous book, Dair Devil.

I’m grateful the author resolved these threads.  But it comes at the expense of the romance between Mary and Christopher, which is pushed to one side in favour of a big Roxton reunion  and means we have to wait for almost half the book for Mary’s response to Christopher’s proposal.  When it finally comes, it is overshadowed by other developments.  I will, however, say that Mary’s long-awaited upbraiding of her horrible mother made me want to cheer.

Proud Mary is every bit as well-researched and well-written as Lucinda Brant’s other books.  Her research and attention to detail is superb and her ability to transport the reader to an earlier time and place – in this case the middle of the Eighteenth Century – really is masterful.  Those aspects of the book, whether it’s the outward trappings (fashions, furniture etc.) or the more important understanding and integration of custom and social convention are excellent and thoroughly enjoyable.  The two protagonists, too, are terrific, well-rounded characters with a lot of depth and complexity to them, who are, in spite of the vast differences in their social stations, obviously meant for one another.  But I wanted more of them together and more of the newly confident Mary who is happy and in love for the first time in her life.

I liked Christopher and Mary individually and together, and their histories – his as a man with things in his past he’s not proud of and hers as the wife of a neglectful and abusive husband and the daughter of an overbearing, status-obsessed woman – mean that they have a lot to work through before they can achieve their HEA.  But the intrusion of the larger family in the last third or so of the book wasn’t a welcome one. I’ve liked all the previous stories in the series and am familiar with the characters and relationships, but this book missed the mark, and it’s a shame, because the two protagonists are such great characters that I felt they were rather wasted amid the throng.

I can’t rate the book any lower than a B-/3.5 stars because the writing is excellent and the historical background is superb.  But I can’t rate it any higher because as a romance, it runs out of steam in the second half and in the end, falls rather flat.

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession … or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

Rating: A-

The Wicked Cousin is the fourth book in Stella Riley’s Rockliffe series of historical romances set in Georgian England, in which she once again presents readers with a gorgeous hero, an admirable heroine and a well-written, strongly developed romance that simmers with sexual tension and is deliciously, well, romantic. Add to that a delightful cast of familiar secondary characters, witty dialogue, wonderfully written friendships and a gently bubbling secondary romance with great potential for a future book… and Ms. Riley has another winner on her hands.

The eponymous cousin is the Honourable Sebastian Audley, only son and heir of Viscount Wingham. Following the tragic death of his beloved twin brother at the age of eight, Sebastian was wrapped up in several suffocating layers of cotton wool, mollycoddled and over-protected to such an extent that when he was finally able to, he went more than a little wild in his determination to experience life to the full. There was no wager too risky, no lady too unattainable and no bottle too undrinkable for Sebastian, and tales of his exploits as he cut a dash through Europe have spread far and wide, shocking (but secretly titillating) the ladies and entertaining the men, most of whom think Sebastian is a jolly fine fellow and would gladly slap him on the back if ever he stayed long enough in one place to allow them to do so.

The problem with a reputation of such magnitude, however, it that it tends to be both inflexible and impossible to dislodge, as Sebastian quickly discovers when, after an absence of several years (barring his annual and very quiet flying visit) he returns to England for good when he learns that his father has suffered an apoplexy and that his life is in danger.

Truth be told, Sebastian’s hellraisng lifestyle has begun to pall and at the age of twenty-eight he is ready to embark on another phase of his life – to start to learn how to manage the family estates and to ready himself to take on the responsibilities that will be his when he eventually inherits his father’s title. But he knows that he faces quite the task in terms of convincing society that he has thrown off his hellion ways and wants to settle down; the minute he is known to be in London, he’ll be besieged by young bucks vying for his attention and attempting to get him to wager on the most outrageous things, and while he isn’t going to agree to any of them, it’s going to be difficult to keep on turning them down without causing offence.

Fortunately, Sebastian’s good friend, Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player) comes up with a solution to that particular dilemma. If they make a private wager, it will preclude Sebastian from accepting any others, thus giving him a legitimate reason for declining any others offered him.

Sebastian is therefore set for his re-entrance into London society which, given he’s handsome as sin and twice as charming, welcomes him with open arms.

Miss Cassandra Delahaye, whom we met in The Player is getting tired of hearing of very little other than the wicked Mr. Audley – who happens to be a very, very distant relation of her family – from her younger sister and her friends, all of whom are swooning over the tales of his exploits printed in the scandal sheets. While constantly hearing about the dashing, handsome rake, Cassie is trying to work out how to gently reject yet another suitor who has asked her to marry him simply because she’s exactly the sort of girl one marries – pretty, sweet and well-bred. She’s not silly enough to expect to be swept off her feet and fall madly in love with the man she will eventually wed, but she would at least like to be chosen for herself and not just because she is regarded as “eminently suitable”.

Her first – accidental – meeting with her so-called wicked cousin is not an auspicious one and at first she thinks him arrogant and conceited. But she is forced to concede her error when further encounters prove him to be neither of those things; he’s funny, kind and clever and she finds herself enjoying both his company and his conversation, which is interesting and enlightening. But even more than that, he is probably the first man to take an interest in her opinions and what she has to say; in short, to see and appreciate Cassie rather than the demure Miss Delahaye, and it isn’t long before she is thoroughly smitten with the genuinely decent man she is coming to know.

For the first time ever, Sebastian is in love, and, in a touching and beautiful scene at his brother’s graveside, talks to him about the strength of his feelings for Cassie and the task he faces in convincing the woman he loves that he is a changed man. More difficult than that, however, he is going to have to prove to her father that he can be trusted with his daughter’s heart and happiness. But Sebastian is not one to give up easily and is determined to win Cassie’s hand.

The Wicked Cousin is a character-driven romance which has, at its heart, a tender and romantic courtship that is not without a few heated moments. But there is a lot more to enjoy as well, not least of which is meeting characters from the previous novels. We get to see the Duke of Rockliffe as a besotted new father, to witness Caroline, Lady Sarre, giving Adrian’s mother a well-deserved set-down and Adrian’s first, sartorially-challenged meeting with his wife’s bluff, yet kindly grandfather. We catch up with Amberley and Rosalind, Rock’s sister, Nell … and there is still something brewing between his younger brother Nicholas and the lovely Madeleine Delacroix (sister of Adrian’s business partner, Aristide). It’s also incredibly refreshing to read a story in which the heroine’s family is kind, fond and well-adjusted, and while Sebastian and his father have clearly butted heads over his life-choices in the past, Ms. Riley has very wisely opted not to have them at each other’s throats, and to show instead that there is affection and respect between them and to point the way towards an improvement in their relationship.

That’s not to say that everything in the garden is rosy, however. Sebastian’s relationship with his oldest sister, Blanche, is very strained and has played some part in his estrangement from his family; and his rakish past comes back to haunt him in the form of one of his past lovers, who is obsessed with him and refuses to believe he is no longer interested in her. The “evil other woman” plotline can be a difficult one to pull off and is one which I know some readers dislike, but it works well here, clearly showing how Sebastian has changed and become aware of the inadvisability of many of his past actions, while also injecting a bit of drama into the story.

If I have a criticism of the book overall, it’s that while Cassie is a lovely heroine and perfect for Sebastian, she is somewhat overshadowed by him. She’s not a shrinking violent by any means – she’s charming, intelligent and not afraid to stand up for herself – but Sebastian is so vital and charismatic that he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. But for a hero-centric reader like me, that’s no problem at all, and I was more than happy to be completely charmed by him in all his red-headed, blue-eyed glory.

All in all, The Wicked Cousin is a delightful read and one which is sure to please fans of intelligently written, strongly characterised historical romance. It’s a self-contained story, but as it’s the fourth book in a series, characters from the previous books are mentioned and many make cameo appearances, so if you haven’t read the others you might want to familiarise yourself with who is who. Or just read the first three books, which are every bit as enjoyable as this one.

More, please, Ms. Riley!

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

England, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. They are not what they seem, but colleagues from a technologically advanced future, posing as a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team of time travelers, their mission is the most audacious yet: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen.

Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common except their extraordinary circumstances. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.

But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile her true self with the constrictions of 19th century society. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history as they found it…however heartbreaking that proves.

Rating: A

Confession time.  When I picked up The Jane Austen Project for review, I really didn’t expect it to be a book I couldn’t put down.  I thought the premise – two time travellers go back to 1815 to meet Jane Austen and secure a previously unpublished manuscript – was interesting (which was why I chose it) but also fraught with potential pitfalls in terms of tone and characterisation. I’m happy to admit that my scepticism was quickly laid to rest and to say that this is a thoroughly entertaining, compelling and unusual story that hooked me in from the first page and kept me glued to it throughout.

Doctor and Austen devotee Rachel Katzman and Professor Liam Finucane, an actor turned academic, were carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics for one particular mission – to go back in time to 1815, meet Jane Austen and locate the manuscript for The Watsons, a novel previously thought unfinished but which a newly discovered letter indicates was actually completed and subsequently destroyed by the author.  Rachel and Liam are charged with bringing back The Watsons and also more of Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, documents which later proved incredibly valuable in piecing together details of the author’s life, and of which only a few survive.  If Rachel can also figure out what caused Jane’s premature death at the age of forty-one, well, that would be a bonus.

The pair arrives, bedraggled and disoriented in a field in Leatherhead, Surrey with a small fortune in forged money hidden under their clothes and a cover story that they are Doctor William Ravenswood and his spinster sister, Mary, recently returned from Jamaica where they have sold off the family coffee plantation.  Unable to secure rooms at the local inn owing to their having no luggage and looking somewhat suspicious besides, they instead hire a post chaise and head to London where they take up residence in a fashionable town house and formulate their plan to get to know Jane Austen’s brother, Henry, who is, at that time, a successful banker.

Posing as acquaintances of a distant Austen relative, they wrangle an introduction to Henry who is everything they expect from what they know of him: good-looking, charming and gregarious, it’s easy to see why Jane referred to him as her favourite brother.  Over the next few weeks, they become part of Henry’s intimate circle and eventually, as planned, are introduced to his sisters and other family members when they visit London.  Cassandra Austen is brusque and most definitely suspicious of her brother’s new acquaintances while Jane is quiet and circumspect, clearly not a woman who allows people to get to know her easily and who doesn’t rush headlong into friendships.  The portrayal of Jane Austen is one of those potential pitfalls I mentioned at the beginning, but I’m pleased to say that this is a very credible portrait of her in which she comes across exactly as I’m sure many of us imagine her to have been – intelligent, witty, considered and insightful.

Once the shock of finally meeting her idol has begun to wear off, and what had begun as a slightly uneasy relationship develops into a genuine friendship, Rachel is faced with a dilemma she hadn’t before envisaged.  Back in her own time, and in the early days of the mission, having to search Jane’s home for the manuscript and letters was just a job, and the idea of making a great literary discovery was thrilling.  But several months down the line, Rachel is faced with the prospect of stealing from someone who has become a close friend, which is a different matter entirely.

The other major concern on my initial list of potential pitfalls was to do with the characterisation of Rachel.  Would she be too obviously modern for 1815, continually asserting her rights and chafing against all the things she wasn’t allowed to do? The answer – fortunately – is no; Ms. Flynn gets it right, having Rachel know full well that there are things she simply cannot do.  She doesn’t like it, but accepts it’s necessary to conform in order to maintain her persona.  In her own time, she’s a doctor, but in this period, all she can be is William Ravenswood’s spinster sister, carefully coaching Liam to play the part of a doctor while she watches from the sidelines, sewing shirts and wondering how intelligent women of the time didn’t end up going round the bend.  Admittedly, she slips up from time to time, but is mostly able to explain it away because of her Mary’s non-traditional upbringing in Jamaica.

Time travel fiction is always going to have to address one big problem – how do people go back in time without somehow affecting their future? Here, Liam and Rachel are given specific instructions NOT to do anything which could have ramifications for their own time, but, as they soon come to realise, that was impossible from the moment they arrived, and they have probably altered things without even meaning to. And as they get to know Henry and Jane as real people rather than as historical figures they’ve only read about, they find it impossible not to want to help them in some way; by preventing Jane’s early death and the ruin of Henry’s business. It’s tempting – but dangerous. There comes a point where they both have to wonder if perhaps the tiniest thing they’ve done during their lengthy stay might have changed their own world/time out of all recognition and even to question if  they want to risk returning to it or stay in one that has, over the months, become more real to them than they could ever have thought possible.

There’s a lot to enjoy in The Jane Austen Project, not least of which is the sweet, sexy romance that develops between Liam and Rachel in which Rachel – in the manner of all Austen’s heroines – comes to examine her own thoughts and feelings and to draw some new and unexpected conclusions about herself.  Ms. Flynn carefully crafts a realistic portrait of life as led by the middle class during the Regency period, and there’s a terrific sense of time and place throughout. Having two fish-out-of-water protagonists act as the reader’s window into that world works extremely well to bring home the emphasis placed on the importance of correct behaviour and propriety, the position of women in nineteenth century society and the great inequalities and hardship that existed between the different social strata.

The Jane Austen Project is a creative and entertaining novel that addresses some interesting ideas while at the same time telling a cracking good story.  My only criticism really is that the ending is a bit abrupt and inconclusive. While I understand the book is not categorised as a romance, I won’t deny that I’d have liked things to have been more obviously settled at the end, which maybe – just – sort of – points towards a HEA somewhere along the line (if you squint). But that aside, this is an impressive début novel, a terrific read and a book I’d definitely recommend to anyone who enjoys something a bit out of the ordinary, whether they’re an Austen fan or not.