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New take on a classic

the forgotten sister: mary bennett's pride and prejudice by Jennifer Paynter Lake Union Publishing, (2014; Kindle eBook) €4/£3.49 ***

Did you know that there exists a whole world of post-P&P fiction? Its most famous instalment is probably Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James, but there's loads of titles that are Mills & Boon-ish, focusing on the lurve, and several that get a tiny bit smutty.

The fascination that Elizabeth and Darcy continue to work upon the imaginations of readers is epic, and the notion that theirs is some class of perfect romance is, frankly, risible.

In Jane Austen: A Life, the late Canadian author Carol Shields pointed out that Austen's novels aren't about love, they're about money. The women she wrote about had no prospects, no independence, and no freedom, because they were genteelly poor. Their only hope was to marry, or else they would have nothing, and, essentially, be nothing. One supposes, then, that the fact that Darcy surmounts his pride and Lizzy her prejudice is perhaps romantic. Perhaps.

Viewed through the financial prism, however, many of the characters take on a different light. There is suddenly more sympathy available for Mrs Bennett, who seems to be the only one who understands her daughters' potential plight, and one can more easily comprehend why Charlotte would marry Mr Collins.

All of the above is to frame Paynter's story of Mary, the truly forgotten sister, the annoying middle one who is only good for playing the piano at assemblies so that her younger sisters could dance with the soldiers. Here, the author creates a plausible back story for this character, as well as the others – and I have to say, in a Lizzy-backlash kind of way, the gentle spitefulness of this character's reassessment is satisfying. Paynter approximates Austen's tone with ease, a greater ease than James did, in fact.

It's very, very slow going, however, and ultimately, Mary is not an engaging character. Which was Austen's intention, one presumes, and Paynter does not betray it . . . so one has to query the entire project. Mary's hopes and dreams come good in the end, but as to the rest, merely revising Lizzy's character into a waspish daddy's girl seems like it's insufficient pay off for the undertaking.

with all my love by Patricia Scanlon Simon & Schuster (2014) €11.50 ***

Scanlon can be seen to be the mother of all Irish chick lit, the thin edge of the wedge for writers of the genre on this island. Here, she delves into the secrets and lies in the maternal line of Briony who, whilst helping her mum Valerie settle into her new place in the Costa del Sol, comes across a letter from her paternal grandmother, Tessa, from whom she was torn away in childhood. The names and relationships are hard to follow at times, as Scanlon goes back and forth in time, but the structure is interesting and keeps the reader hopping.

archbishop by Michele Guinness Hodder & Staughton (2014) €21.50 **

A massive book in every way. At 500 pages, Guinness imagines a female Archbishop of Canterbury in a world that could benefit from a touch of the divine feminine. Naturally, the politics of religion makes things rather difficult for Vicky Burnham-Woods, and the way towards breaking her down is by attacking her marriage. There's more to this book than that, of course, but there's a weakness in the plot that pervades the narrative: it goes from flashback to present day to flashback again, and the dialogue is more akin to exposition than conversation. Worthy and full of information, but not as engaging on a story level as I'd hoped.

a heart so big by Rio Hogarty with Megan Day Penguin (2014) €10 ****

MY Facebook feed has recently become active with ads for fostering at-risk children, and then along comes this story of the life of a woman who has made it her life's work to give struggling young ones a chance.

The tone of the book is upbeat and humourous without compromising the inherent sadness of some of the children's tales; the combination of Day and Hogarty is a winning one. It may seem familiar to some – as it says on the back "material from this book was previously published in Beneath My Wings"; it's a good opportunity for those who missed it the last time to have a look.

Strange familiar by Catherine Ann Cullen Doghouse (2013) €12 ****

THE refreshing directness of poetry after having read many words this week! Cullen is at her best writing movingly about grief, managing to imbue those passages with humour and love – Pushing the Boat Out (for Síle Yeats) is particularly gorgeous – and less so when taking familiar formats to create her poetry. Overall, a pleasure to dip into.