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REVIEW:  Longbourn by Jo Baker

REVIEW: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Dear Ms. Baker,

Usually when I see a book that is in some way based on Jane Austen’s novels, I shy away from it. Though I’ve only read a fraction of the multitude ones that have been published, I find myself sick to death of variations on Austenlandia – the sequels, the prequels, the paranormal and, slightly less so, the contemporaries. It takes a lot to even get me past the blurb stage but “Longbourn” did it.

Longbourn by Jo BakerWhat caught my attention and made me pause, then read the book? It’s the downstairs edition for one thing. The other lure was the lone sentence from the book quoted on the back – “If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.” That sounded so period but without trying to sound “Regency,” that I said, “Self, let’s give it a whirl.”

This is the Bennet household and daily affairs as seen by their servants and other working class characters. But it’s not just about the Bennets and the events that take place in “Pride and Prejudice,” it’s about the servants’ lives and a servant romance. Older maid Sarah, younger maid Polly, Mr and Mrs. Hill and footman James have their own worries and concerns and only experience the periphery of the lives of their “betters” as I would expect would have actually happened. It’s not that they don’t know most of what’s going on – they do as servants would. They just aren’t “worked into” that story in unrealistic ways.

When the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy appear and interact with the Bennets, it’s the extra workload for the assembly and ball at Netherfield that we see. When the Gardiners arrive to spend time at Longbourn before Jane returns to London with them, it’s the nasty nappies of the youngest child the servants have to deal with that is mentioned. Mr. Collins is someone Mrs. Hill caters to and attempts to prove her housewifely abilities to as he’ll someday be the master of the house and servants can be chucked out of lifetime positions if the new mistress wishes it. When Charlotte Lucas snares a proposal, Mrs. Hill is somewhat relieved because Charlotte has always appreciated the way Mrs. Hill has managed her duties as well as enjoying Mrs. Hill’s lemon tarts. A batch of them sent home with the Lucases after the announcement is the kind of thing she hopes will secure places for all of them in the future.

The hard work done by the household servants isn’t whitewashed. Wash day is a day long chore that begins at 04:30, chamber pots must be carried down and emptied every morning, call bells can interrupt any activity and the trays carried up for meals are heavy. It’s more obvious to me now why servants were given vales by visiting guests as the staggering workload increased exponentially by their presence. None of this is as glamorous as a London ball but the details worked so effortlessly into the narrative show how hard it was for these people and how much the upper classes depended on them.

Still despite all the gory details of life below stairs, I would have been bored if the only reason behind this book was to shine a spotlight on Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth from a different angle. Yeah, I wanted a love story for Sarah and James and I got one. Better still, it’s one that makes sense and fits into the possibilities of the day.

Sarah isn’t one who’s dreamed of finding her someone. She has recollections of her parents, carried off by typhus, being in love and the Hills have a workable marriage built on respect but Sarah is practical and watching the Bennets doesn’t incline her to matrimony. She’s a servant with little time to moon over the farmhands, not that they interest her anyway, and a Tchaikovsky “Romeo and Juliet Overture” HEA just isn’t on her “to do” list.

James is a man with a history and secrets that he fears won’t allow him the opportunity to settle down, grow roots and woo anyone. Plus he knows that what he has is as good as he’s likely to get. A bed, regular meals, clothes and a small salary aren’t enough for him to think he’s got the right to propose to anyone. So when he realizes he loves Sarah, little about his plans actually change. A wife and possible family are expensive.

Yet love blooms anyway. The bud is slow to appear and even slower to open but I honestly felt these were two working class people of the day, discovering feelings they never expected, and daring to hope for a future in a world where they had so little but were willing to risk it for love. I enjoyed the way Sarah is initially prickly around James and how he likes her the more for it. The quiet way in which they help each other with onerous daily tasks and the simple happiness they take in doing so shows me more about how their feelings are advancing than any showy display.

Though most of the story revolves around how the servants maneuver their way through the lives of the upper class, there are major liberties taken with two of the original P&P characters. I didn’t have a problem with the story line as it could easily be seen as “period” but I’m not sure how this will go over with Austeninstas. Yet if they’re reading the book, they’re probably open to seeing some changes done.

I know I’m not alone in wanted more stories about the merchants and lower classes of the day. There are only so many Dukes I want to read about. Still the story must make historical sense to me – I just can’t believe in dairy maids marrying Viscounts – and not just rely on the relative novelty of the plot. This book does that yet it’s the execution of the story that lifts it up to recommended status for me. It never “broke character” or felt incorrect. It amused me and made me happy to see two people who truly fell in love get the ending they so richly deserve. B+



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REVIEW:  Bare Knuckle: Vegas Top Guns by Katie Porter

REVIEW: Bare Knuckle: Vegas Top Guns by Katie Porter

Dear Ms. Porter:

Each book in this series supposedly deals with some sort of sexual kink. The first book was where the hero scandalously enjoys seeing a woman dress up, like in fishnet tights and a waitressing costume. I remember remarking on a podcast with Sarah at SmartBitches who enjoyed it more than I that I thought unless the hero wanted the heroine to dress up like a dog and bark while they were doing it, his kink didn’t seem very perverse. So then comes “Bare Knuckle” and I’m wishing for a tamer story.

The hero is Captain Eric “Kisser” Donaghue who is moonlighting as a fighter to pay for the rehab bills of his younger brother.  The heroine is Trish Monroe, a showgirl whose headlining act just got canceled and works as a ring girl at an underground fighting club while attending classes and living with her pageant driven mother.

Bare Knuckle: Vegas Top Guns Katie PorterShe likes to perform; he likes to watch. This should be a perfect match but the connection between the characters was almost clinical and the love scenes read like a porn script taking place in a concrete bunker.  We don’t even get the cheesy music to provide some ambience.

Besides Eric’s predilection for fighting, he’s a nude photographer in his spare time and maybe a part time film maker. He has many, many nude portraits in his bedroom and he felt like his current films were getting stale. In sum, I felt like he was a neckbeard who spent all of his time whacking off in his poster ladened bedroom, watching his old porn films and feeling like he just couldn’t get it up anymore unless he found some new material. Enter Trish.

These two seem to get off on everything but actually doing it. Eric is always checking out other women because he likes to watch (or that’s his excuse). After having ordered, he found it difficult to keep from checking out the waitress’s ass. Any guilt he might’ve felt dissipated when he realized Trish was looking too. But why is Trish looking? She’s the performer. I felt like she was written in way to make every lewd and unsavory action of his seem okay yet it never did.

Trish’s character, for all that she was taking classes, plays on her looks and pursues the kind of guys who only want her because she looks good on their arms and then she cries about it.

“Every man looks at me like you do,” she continued, forging on with only a whisper. “I play up to the fantasies you mentioned. And sure, I get off on it. But sometimes I’m not worth talking to. Sometimes I’m a fun fuck, or I get slapped with dumb-shit remarks that remind me I’m meat.”

There is no sense of connection between the two. He’s watching the ass of every woman that walks by and Trish is going home with a former ex-girlfriend. Trish and Eric pass this off as meaningless but even though she didn’t have sex with the ex girlfriend, she was being intimate with her in an emotional sense which means it wasn’t really that innocent. But because they aren’t having sex and the ex is NOT A GUY, it’s okay:

“Had it been with a guy, that would’ve been different.” He licked his lips. He abandoned her knee in favor of the softer meat of her inner thigh. His thumb rubbed along her taut tendon. The comforter slid back, revealing inch after inch of skin.

“Different how?”

“I’m not ready to share you yet.”

And when she is with the woman physically, it’s still okay to Eric because it’s two women together:  Maybe another man would be offended when he realized they were lost to one another. They’d used him for a moment to urge their passion to new heights, then forgot about him. Eric loved it—the pure voyeurism of watching when all the defenses were stripped and no one pretended anymore.

This gender flip didn’t work for me because all it meant to me as the reader was that Trish really wasn’t into Eric nor was Eric into her. They were into the act but there was no emotional connection. And the “if it was a guy” excuse seems to belittle lesbian relationships altogether.

Finally, the book seemed to suffer from series-itis. There was a ton of backstory that I was missing out. Eric is apparently a former mysogynist but was reformed in a previous book (he still came off as a chest beater in this book).  There were several references to previous relationships with which I was unfamiliar.  Overall, this book didn’t work for me. In an effort to be really outre, I ended up being turned off by the unlikeable characters and the lack of emotional resonance between them. D

Best regards,



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