Monday 27 May 2019

#CBR11 Book 23: "The Austen Playbook" by Lucy Parker

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Disclaimer! I got an ARC from NetGalley. This has in no way influenced my review.  I had already pre-ordered my copy of the book months ago, long before the ARCs became available. Also, because I am terribly late in reviewing it, the book is available on sale from the e-book vendor of your choice. It's excellent, you should totally spend your monies on it!

But what is the book about, Malin? You cannot expect people to fork out their hard-earned cash without knowing anything of the story. So here goes...

Frederica "Freddy" Carlton has been a critical darling on the London stage for more than a decade, having started out as a child star. She started out doing a lot of comedic work and musicals, but now her father, also her manager, wants her to focus on more dramatic and "serious" acting, following in the footsteps of her acclaimed grandmother, who was famous not just for her dramatic roles, but for later in her career writing one of the seminal dramas of the 20th Century. To say Freddy feels the family legacy weighing heavily on her shoulders is putting it lightly.

James "Griff" Ford-Griffin is the only rational and pragmatic member of a family of dreamers. When he's not on television as a theatre historian, he writes insightful and scathing reviews in one of the big London papers. His parents keep spending money they don't have hand over fist, his brother is well-meaning but rather ineffectual when it comes to actually helping out in any real way, while Griff is trying to keep the family estate afloat though any means possible.

Freddy and Griff first run into one another in a pub in London, after Freddy and her TV presenter sister has overheard Griff taking apart Freddy's most recent theatre performance in very unflattering terms. Even though his judgement of her acting is rather brutal, Freddy is also deeply impressed with how Griff seems to be the only one to see what she really wants to do with her career and how these new serious parts are sapping her spirit.

They meet again about a year later, when Freddy arrives along with a large cast of high profile TV and theatre actors to take part in "The Austen Playbook", a one night televised stage performance of a popular "Choose your own adventure" computer game, starring Jane Austen's many popular characters in a drawing room mystery. The TV viewers will have the chance to vote at various points of the performance on what direction they want the play to continue, meaning all the actors will have to learn a truly staggering amount of lines and plot variants. The location for this special TV event? Griff's family estate, which sports its own private theatre (built by his love struck grandfather for Freddy's actress/playwright grandmother, when they had a torrid affair back in the day). Griff and his brother have been promised a share in the profits and desperately hope that the event is a hit, or it's pretty much bye bye family mansion.

Freddy is bubbly, cheerful and optimistic. Griff is icy, sarcastic and tends to see the worst in any situation. They are polar opposites, but both became aware of the sizzling chemistry between them that first time they met in the pub, and staying in close confines on Griff's family estate means they soon find the opportunity to act on their mutual attraction. Complicating matters further is the fact that Griff is developing a film about Henrietta Carlton, Freddy's famous grandmother (and her affair with his grandfather), while Freddy's father is trying to stop him from getting the film financed. Freddy's manager dad is also deeply displeased about her choice to do something quite as frivolous as playing Lydia Bennett in a crowd-pleasing TV event, when she should be focusing all her energies on getting cast as the lead in "The Velvet Room", her grandmother's famous play.

History would have it that Henrietta wrote the play while staying on the Ford-Griffin's estate, but there are details to the story that don't entirely add up. In between trying to learn lines from a script the size of a phone book and trying to avoid the malicious attention of one of her fellow actresses, Freddy tags along with Griff to discover more about their grandparents' love affair and uncover secrets that have been buried for several generations. Secrets that involve both their families and could have huge ramifications if exposed.

The romance between Freddy and Griff develops quickly (they also address this IN the story), but they had met and formed an attraction before they are suddenly thrust into close proximity, and Parker really does make it work. The main couple are not the only great characters here. The supporting cast, especially Griff's brother Charlie and Freddy's sister (who will obviously be the heroine of Parker's next romance) are also excellent.

Neither Freddy, nor Griff, have easy relationships with their parents. Freddy's father is a former actor, who when injured on stage (rescuing a young Freddy from falling props) wrote a best-selling biography about his mother and is now an acclaimed theatre writer, as well as her demanding manager. Unfortunately, they have very different ideas of which direction Freddy's career should be taking, and what sort of parts would suit her best. Freddy feels obliged to follow the family legacy and take the dramatic roles her father expects of her, but dreams of starring in a big fantasy musical production, doing light hearted work and making audiences happy instead. Griff's parents are impractical dreamers, who spend outrageous amounts of money on materials and supplies for their extremely elaborate doll houses and miniature landscapes. They have absolutely no concerns about the family being nearly bankrupt and Griff having to mortgage his London flat to try to pay off some of the family debts.

I liked the underlying mystery of what exactly happened the summer that Henrietta Carlton wrote "The Velvet Room" and how Griff and Freddy's investigation uncovers new truths about previously believed facts. I absolutely loved the whole concept of "The Austen Playbook", taking Austen's many characters and pitting them against each other in a country house murder mystery, with the audience being allowed to decide what happens next. I would be glued to my television if this existed for real. I liked the rivalry between Freddy's sister and her handsome talk show nemesis (who is clearly going to be the hero in the next book - the enemies to lovers factor is going to be off the charts). I didn't particularly like the bitchy actress making life difficult for everyone during the production, but I don't think we're supposed to. It was nice to see a cameo from Leo from Making Up, with a brief mention of his girlfriend and baby! While they're only mentioned in passing, there was enough detail about the fantasy book series being adapted into the musical Freddy wants to star in that I found yet another fictional book series I would probably become completely hooked on. Seriously, there are so many things I could mention that worked for me, and I can't think of a single thing I disliked.

I feel like I should personally apologise to Lucy Parker. I got this book as an ARC in the middle of March and devoured it in less than 24 hours. I've been in and out of reading slumps this year, and this book certainly pulled me out of one. I'm a huge fan of all of her previous books, but was pretty sure this was her best one so far. About a month later, I re-read the book, which confirmed to me that yes, it is my favourite of all her four books and my initial belief that it was a 5-star book entirely held up. This book was an utter delight to read. I think every single aspect of the story works for me. However, the whole point of ARCs is for the readers to get their reviews out in a timely fashion, to generate advance buzz and hopefully help the author sell more copies of their books. The Austen Playbook has been out for more than a month now, and I'm only now getting round to writing about it. So dear Ms. Parker, if you're reading this, please forgive me. Your book is amazing and I loved it both times I read it. I'm already looking forward to Sabrina's book. If I am granted an ARC of that one, I promise to try to get the review out in a timely fashion. No matter what happens, I will pre-order it the second links become available. Your writing is a gift.

Judging a book by its cover: Much as I love the book, I am not really a fan of the cover. While the female cover model looks a lot like Freddy is described in the book, the strange pose with her legs and feet in the foreground gives her strange proportions. The male cover model, on the other hand, is a complete disaster. Griff is described as a short-haired Lucius Malfoy, with imperious features and platinum blond hair. He also always seems immaculately dressed, normally in tailored suits. The cover model looks to have a bad bleach job and wears and old t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He looks like he's come straight from the gym - not at all like Griff is described throughout the novel. It makes me sad, because a romance this great, deserves a much better cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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