Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What I Read Last Weekend

What I Read Last Weekend . . .

Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann -- Contemporary/Historical Fiction

Amanda Rosenbloom is in a bad place right now. She can't sleep, her married boyfriend refuses to leave his wife and she's pushing 40 and her child bearing years are coming to an end. At least she has her vintage clothing store Astor Place Vintage. When she gets a call from an elderly lady to look over some old clothes, she finds more than she bargained for when she discovers an old diary sewn inside a muff. Amanda becomes engrossed in the life of Olive Westcott, a young woman living 100 years ago in 1907 in New York. In 1907, Olive and her father have recently moved to the city where her father manages a Woolworth's. Olive thinks finally her life can begin! She means to start by working in a department store as an assistant buyer and work her way up to buyer. She'd be perfect for the job- after all, she's spent her whole life in her father's store memorizing everything about running a business. Sadly, it's 1907 and men except women to marry and stay home to raise babies. Olive wants none of that but she is curious about childbirth and what exactly happened that killed her mother. Olive attempts to beat the odds after a devastating tragedy and the stock market crash of 1907. She meets new people whose lives are totally different from hers yet they seem to be living life more fully. She learns to think hard about the issues affecting women. Olive wonders if she has the courage to live her own life no matter what anybody says or thinks. Amanda feels a strong connection with Olive as she reads the diary and soon she feels she can see and hear Olive and her friends. Amanda must do some soul searching and figure out what will truly make her happy. 

This is a moving and affecting novel that's a bit different from what I usually read. I adore old diaries and in my work as a special collections librarian I've read many many diaries. I'm a sucker for the Gilded Age, especially women's rights and this one hooked me from the title and the premise. I stayed up waaaayy too late reading because I couldn't put it down. I was surprised to learn a lot about the time period that I didn't already know. I've studied and written on Progressive Era women but this author's research went way beyond my expertise. This story fits right in with what some of my classmates have written about.The author gets an A++ from this librarian and historian for her research. There are even amazing period photographs in between each chapter. 

Now, on to the story itself. I didn't like Amanda's plot at all. I couldn't relate to her and we have nothing in common. She's whiny, selfish and annoying. She learns a little bit from Olive but the story is left open ended so we don't get to see much growth. I would have liked more about her relationship with her father. Olive, on the other hand, is a character I can really truly relate to probably more than any other character in literature (as an adult). I felt an instant connection to Olive, shouting mentally "I understand you!" Even 100 years later, a woman like Olive faces the same societal and peer pressures. Needless to say, I loved Olive. However, I felt that some of her conversations were very modern and that the author made Olive a mouthpiece for her own personal feelings. This is something I normally hate, it fit the character and her situations, but I just don't think that it was all that realistic. I've never read a real diary that's as frank as Olive's from that period and that's a big pet peeve of mine when authors write fictional diaries. I liked her story and followed her struggles eagerly turning the pages. Like Amanda, I feel bereft when I finish a diary. Unlike Amanda, I start researching what happened to the people at the end and it bothers me that we don't get all the answers. I would have liked a bit more closure to Olive's story. I liked the story for the most part but could have done without Amanda. The story really made me aware of how difficult it was for women even in 1907. Like Amanda, I tend to romanticize the past, especially the Gilded Age. The two stories parallel each other a little bit too much at times to be realistic. I expected a more direct parallel but I'm glad it wasn't. The supernatural elements annoyed me and should have been left out. I'm happy I read this book and I enjoyed it for the most part. It's not the best book I've ever read but not the worst. I'd give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Content warning: This story deals with Olive's growing awareness of her own sexuality. There's frank discussions about how babies are made and how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. There are two semi-graphic love scenes. You can skip them, but it's important to know that they happened and what happened because they serve as a turning point in the plot.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

The Melendy Family written and illustrated by Elizabeth Enright -- Children's Classic/Historical Fiction

This omnibus edition contains three books about the charming Melendy family: The Saturdays; The Four Story Mistake; Then There Were Five. In The Saturdays we are introduced to the Melendy family. There's an often absent but loving father; a strict but kind housekeeper/cook/nanny, and of course the children: Thirteen-year-old Mona who is going to be an actress; Twelve year old Rush, a piano prodigy who wants to make music AND be an engineer; Randy (Miranda) age 10 1/2, who dances like a fairy and wants to be both an artist and a dancer; Olivier, age 6, thoughtful and determined. Bored with their ordinary lives, the Melendys decide one rainy Saturday afternoon to pool their resources to give each of them a chance of experience a day of doing something they had always dreamed of.  In The Four Story Mistake, the Melendys move to the country. There's a war on and everyone must do
his or her bit to help out. In addition, there's the new house and surroundings to explore, new friends to make and a new school. Then There Were Five concludes the Melendy family saga. You can probably guess what you think is going to happen but you have to read the books to know for sure. The places the children go and people they meet will change their lives forever. I simply adored these stories. I didn't want them to end. I loved the eccentric Melendy family. The children are so real and their adventures are very ordinary yet they seem magical because the children take such delight in them. I felt fully immersed in their world and part of the family. Any kid would love to be a Melendy. Some of their adventures are a bit
far fetched and they're never punished for not behaving quite as they ought. I'm not a parent, so I don't worry about that sort of thing, especially since the Melendys all have a strong conscience that tells them when they're not doing something Cuffy would approve of. They're all thoughtful and caring individuals and they enrich many people's lives, including the reader. Even though the stories were written in the 1940s, they still feel fresh and exciting. There are a few spots that reflect attitudes of the day but nothing major stood out. I can't believe I never read these books as a kid, especially since I liked Thimble Summer a lot. These are books for the keeper shelf if you can find them.

Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio -- Historical Fiction

This book is difficult to summarize. It starts in 1917 while the protagonist May is in court, being sued by her former friend Miss Frank Sawyer, Esq, who claimed the "baronness" cheated her out of millions of dollars. May tells her story in her own words, alternating between the court room. Her father's death shattered her happy childhood. After high school, a fling with a local rich boy resulted in a pregnancy scare so May decided to head out to Chicago to find herself a rich husband. Well, her plans didn't work out quite as she hoped and to save herself from starving, she finds employment at a first class bordello. She quickly gains a taste for expensive clothes and jewelry and continues her plot to find a rich husband. One bad mistake lands the Pinkerton detective Reed Doughtery after her. May's further adventures take her around the world and from wealthy friend to wealthy friend before she ends up in the court room. Is she an innocent girl trying to help her family or is she a hardened swindler? You decide based on her testimony. I found it extremely hard to like May. She continually makes bad decisions. She says she wants to help her mother but she's truly helping herself to the riches she desires. She seems to take after her father. I don't like Frank very much either. She is also a manipulator and a swindler. She's ruthless and will stop and nothing to get what she wants. None of the other characters who flit in and out of May's life are all that appealing either. May puts her trust in the wrong people. The plot plods along with many many lengthy descriptions of where May is going, who she's speaking to and what's happening yet the events of the 1910s where she traveled with Frank are barely touched on! The lawyers keep alluding to events that happened but we never get to see them from May's point-of-view. I wish the beginning and middle were shorter and the end longer. I was surprised by the conclusion but yet not surprised. The author did a considerable amount of historical research and includes period details about fashion, travel, cultural activities and social life but world events take a back seat to the main plot. The book needs some postcards and photographs to really enhance the novel. I didn't love the book but I didn't hate it either. Since I found it difficult to like May, I felt little sympathy for her so the story didn't really resonate with me.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

Fog Magic by Julia Sauer -- Children's Classic/Historical Fantasy

Greta has always loved the fog and known that fog is magic. When she's eleven years old, she is allowed to walk in the foggy woods and comes across an outline of a house where she knows no house exists in her own time (1940s). Through the fog and over the mountain she travels to another place and another time to the prosperous fishing early 19th century village of Blue Cove. Greta makes a new best friend and becomes a part of village life, but when the fog rolls away, it's time for her to head home. I find it hard to believe that I never read this book as a child. It's exactly what I loved. It's probably a good thing I didn't, or I would have been out getting lost in the fog looking for my own Blue Cove. This story is very gentle and simple. It has a message about growing up at the end that I didn't really care for. I loved Blue Cove and the residents and visitors. I wish the book was longer so I could have spent more time there. I couldn't quite pinpoint the exact date of Blue Cove but more than 100 years before Greta's time before 1820 I think. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the time travel and some of the residents of Blue Cove, but overall, this is a sweet, satisfying read.

Park Lane by Frances Osborne -- Historical Fiction

Grace Campbell has left her home in northern England to find a place as a secretary in London. She has the training, thanks to her school teacher aunt, but her accent precludes her from finding a job. She's forced to take a job in service at a grand house in Park Lane in order to help her family. She lies about her job and sends every shilling home.The work is hard, the other maids are a bit cruel at times, and Grace is attracted to the handsome footman Joseph. She knows that way lies trouble and tries to deny her feelings. Her brother Michael is also in London working as a law clerk. He's dissatisfied with his lot and wants to change the world. Beatrice Masters, the daughter of Sir and Lady Masters, is almost 21 and unmarried. She longs for freedom and independence from her overbearing American mother. She thought that her young man John would take her away from this life and she would be content to live a bohemian life with him, but he turned out to be a fortune hunter. Beatrice doesn't have a fortune. Her father is busy wasting money in all the fashionable gambling spots on the Continent and her younger brother Edward is poised to follow in their father's footsteps. Bea's older sister Clemmie is smugly marries and Mother is busy trying to get women the vote peacefully. She has no use for those wild women suffragettes who chain themselves to gates and go on hunger strikes in jail. Bea's aunt Celeste offers her an opportunity for a bit of independence working with those very suffragettes Lady Masters disapproves of. Bea becomes caught up in the excitement of hearing Emmeline Pankhurst and becomes devoted to the cause. Whenever she finds herself in trouble, a young man named Michael is there to save her. He feels she's a spoiled little rich girl and despises everything she's grown up with, but Bea can't help but find this dangerous young man appealing. Then war comes and women's suffrage is put on the back burner. Everyone must do their duty to help the war effort, even Bea. When the war is over, who will remain and will there be a new world order? Downton Abbey fans will be satisfied with this basic plot points novel. It contains many of the same hackneyed plots as the show minus the witty dialogue and pretty costumes. It even reads like a play because it's told in first person present tense. Grace and Bea alternate in telling the story. The events of the plot are largely summarized and there's no real dialogue to speak of. It takes a long time to get interesting and when important things happen, the timeline skips forward. I really didn't like the direction the story took. I would have written it completely differently. Grace is an entirely unappealing character. She lies, steals and makes really bad decisions. I felt bad for her on occasion but mostly I hated her. Bea is slightly more interesting. I can relate to her feelings in the first third of the novel. I got caught up in her activities and couldn't sleep until I read to the very end. The history behind the story is very interesting. I liked learning about the women's suffrage activities the best, but the descriptions go on far too long. I really wanted to like this book but it was just too slow, awkward and cliched to be appealing.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Peerless Theodosia by Rebecca Baldwin -- Regency Romance

When Lady Southcote learns that her husband's American diplomat friend, Senator Clement's children have been taken prisoners of war she invites them to stay with her family in their country home. The war will surely be over soon and how much trouble can two children be? Senator Clement's children turn out to be fully grown young adults and how much trouble is a matter of opinion! Bookish Jefferson, age 18, finds himself strongly attracted to Lady Cynthia, a beautiful bluestocking while Theo and Lady Southcote look on disapprovingly. As for Theo, she's too bold, too fashionable and too fast for Edwina Morton-West, neighbor and affianced wife of Lord Claremont Southcote. Theo is reunited with her old friend Albert, the new Marquess of Torville and other old friends from her past. Lady Southcote is delighted to be a part of such a fashionable crowd. Edwina, always aware of what's proper and what's not, aided by her new friend Torville's cousin Lieutenant Steyland, sends tales of the goings-on to Clare, who rushes to his family home to put a stop to these adventuring mushrooms. Though Theo fears being put into prison, she is too fiercely proud of her independence to give in to Clare's bullying. When they aren't fighting, they find a good friend in each other, however, Theo can't forget she's a prisoner of war. Soon everyone around them can see what's happening, but Clare's temper and Theo's pride may get in the way of their relationship -whatever form it takes. This story is a remake of Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy. Unlike The Grand Sophy, most of the action takes place off the page. Theo is called "peerless" any number of times and we're told a lot about what she has done, but not much is actually part of the action. Nevertheless, the plot is cute and enjoyable. It has something for almost everyone: a pair of mischievous twins; a parrot; the ton; a young couple; slightly older ladies; an alpha male; a somewhat buffoonish young Lieutenant, and of course, romance. The romance has it's ups and downs. Theo and Clare's relationship is difficult but they understand each other. It ends up being sweet, anyway. I liked Theo for the first 2/3 of the book. She's strong, brave, independent and fearless. In the last third she turns into a missish watering pot and the way she chooses to solve her problem seems out of character. Clare's temper keeps him from being a truly appealing hero. He loses his temper over the most trifling things. My favorite character is Peg. She made me giggle, especially during the romantic scene. I also liked Lady Cynthia and I felt bad for her because she's a young bluestocking and everyone scolds her for it. I enjoyed the plot, for the most part, especially the last chapter, which was so unrealistic but very funny. I think this book is cute though it's not at the level of Georgette Heyer. It's more like a Joan Smith and a lot of the other early Regency writers. It's a good, light, summer read. 

Regency Delights by Patricia Rice -- Regency Romance novellas (Kindle/e-book)

Three previously published stories are compiled in this e-book. 

In Something Borrowed Melanie is a bit envious of her older sister Jane: beautiful and vivacious, a wealthy widow and now about to marry a handsome Earl. What more could a girl ask for? Well, Jane never arrives so Melanie takes matters into her own hands and proposes a fake marriage to Damien. Damien is the only person who doesn't turn away from Melanie's crippled leg. He needs money and she believes he is the best person to help her escape her controlling family and help her live a little. Damien finds Melanie's innocence attractive, but is reluctant to ruin the innocence of a young miss. Hhe needs the money and would marry her legally but he hesitates to burden her with his dark secrets. He takes her to London where she quickly becomes the talk of the ton. Can her fantasy survive a little London gossip? What will happen to Damien when Melanie returns home? This story is a different take on the arranged marriage plot. The tone is rather somber. Melaine has self-esteem issues stemming from her crippled leg and doubts her own worth. Damien has dark secrets that aren't revealed until the end. He's a very noble sort of gentleman and I can see why he would be attracted to the lighter hearted, innocent Melanie. I think many ladies would swoon at his feet given half a chance. The plot is decent. It contains a bit of sensuality which doesn't make sense in the context of the story. There's some interesting issues to think about here. Overall, the story was darker than I usually like but it wasn't bad. 

Father's and Daughters is set around St. Valentine's Day and 18 year old Carolyn Thorogood is in love with the rakish Lord Jack Chatham. Her Papa disapproves and refuses to allow his oldest daughter to wed a penniless spendthrift and live a life of penury. He forces Jack to break Carolyn's heart and leave her to earn his fortune. Five years later Carolyn is still unwed. She's chaperoning her younger sister Blanche in her first season. Blanche is enjoying the delights of town and preparing for St. Valentine's Day. Carolyn is waiting to become officially engaged to a stuffy Marquess when she discovers Jack is back in town. Older, wiser, wealthier and with secrets he would rather not share just yet, Jack is shocked to discover that Carolyn has turned from a loving girl to a cold and heartless shell. Can he find the heart that beats inside her once again and this time hope for better results? If she can't accept his past, he's doomed to bachelorhood forever. This is my favorite story of the three. The plot is paced nicely for this length. The plot elements are realistic (somewhat) and make sense for the story. The hero and heroine are a bit annoying with their constant bickering but the romance is so sweet, I was rooting for them. Blanche adds a bit of comic relief. I really enjoyed this one and I liked learning about Valentine's customs in the Regency era.

Deceiving Appearances is very different from the other two stories. The hero, Peter,  is a self-made man. He was not born of the ton but his money opens doors. The one door his money can't open is the path to finding a wife. Longing for the peace and beauty of his favorite painting, he sets out to find the house and offer to buy it. When his carriage meets with an accident, he's nursed back to health by the lovely Cecily, whom he assumes is a ladies' maid to the home owner, Lady Honora. The mysterious and lovely lady visits him during his convalescence and he is determined to meet and marry her. Cecily and the man servant block his way, however.  Mysterious moonlight happenings confuse everything and Peter finds his carefully laid plans changing. This is the weakest of the three stories. It's strange. I didn't care for the supernatural element. The romance could have been based on friendship and Cecily's loving heart but instead it's based on physical attraction. I didn't like the ending AT ALL and it wasn't what I expected. If you like ghost stories and romances, you might enjoy this one, but it wasn't my cup of tea.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Movie Review: Emma

Movie Review

Emma (1996)

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Colette, Jeremy Northam and Alan Cumming

I remember seeing this movie years ago when it first came out on DVD. I thought it was all right but not as good as I had hoped. I decided to rewatch it to see if my opinion had changed. Overall, I thought the movie was cute and the first half did a good job summarizing the novel but the last half left out too much.

The good points:

  • Gwyneth Paltrow's accent sounds good most of the time but her real life accent has hints of British in it so it's hard to tell. I found her Emma is not quite as annoying as Emma in the book.
  • Toni Colette is fabulous and funny as always.
  • Emma's diary voice overs let the viewer know what she's thinking and feeling.
  • It includes the strawberry picking party (but chopped all the important stuff to combine it with the picnic to Box Hill)
  • It uses some of Jane Austen's words and it sounds period. 
  • There are some scenes which aren't in the book which fit in nicely.
  • It's very pretty!

I had a lot of minor complaints and one really big one:

  • The second half of the movie leaves out many important plot points that stem from Frank Churchill (an unrecognizable Ewan MacGregor) and Emma's flirtatious friendship. There just isn't enough teasing and flirting. First, Frank Churchill doesn't come and go on a whim - he leaves because his aunt is sick, therefore, Mr. Knightley's dislike of Frank is rather unjustified aside from jealously. Frank's blunder and the letters game on Box Hill were left out entirely. 
  • Mr. Woodhouse is too hale and hearty looking for a man who spends most of his time indoors. 
  • Emma's diary entries are also bad because they spell out too much of the story rather than letting it develop through the plot. This was probably done for time constraints but it does seem rather like dumbing down for modern audiences.
  • Why does Emma look miserable when Mr. Knightley proposes? She just got done telling the audience how she loved him! There isn't much chemistry between the actors.
  • Spoiler alert: Poor Harriet! They made her very unhappy by making her in love with Mr. Knightly at the time he proposes to Emma rather than allow her happiness with Robert Martin first!

The most faithful adaption is the version with Kate Beckinsale (1996) but this one is prettier and a bit livelier. Mr. Knightly is better looking but not as good looking as Johnny Lee Miller in the version that aired on BBC/PBS in 2009.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

Precious Bones by Mika Ashley-Hollinger -- Middle Grades Historical Fiction

When the worst storm of the 1949 summer season blows through the swamp where ten-year-old Bones lives with her parents, she thinks the worst that could happen is their house will flood. Little does she know, real trouble is just around the corner. Some citified Yankee men come sniffing around trying to get Bones' daddy to sell his land. The confrontation does not go well and soon one of the men turns up dead and Nolay (Bones' daddy) is the chief suspect. Bones adores her father but she knows that sometimes he considers himself beyond the law because the laws were made by white men and Nolay is part Indian. When Bones finds startling evidence, her mind begins to make up stories it shouldn't. She must wait though, for the sheriff to conduct his "po-lease" business. When a local man turns up dead, the sheriff believes there must be a connection. The summer and fall suddenly never seemed so long to Bones. She has the utomost faith in Nolay; after all he's never lied to her before, has he? She hangs around the general store hoping to pick up some clue to the murders and also to chat with Mr. Speedy, the wounded war veteran who always has fascinating information to share. There's also visits to the cousins in the everglades, hunting in the swamp and raising her pet pig and pet raccoon to keep Bones busy while waiting for the sheriff. During the long fall, Bones learns that she never really knew her neighbors, friends and family and takes her first steps towards growing up. This book isn't exactly a coming-of-age novel since Bones is only 10 but it is a growing up novel. The events of the summer and fall of 1949 help Bones to question everything she's known, look more closely and listen more carefully. She discovers her hero has feet of clay and her safe, protected world in the swamp can't keep out sadness and pain. Bones is an appealing character. I could relate to her love of animals and her desire to rescue them. I can also relate to her overactive imagination, which I had as a child. She's a nice kid, a little spunky like Jennifer Lynn Holmes' May Amelia, but without a chip on her shoulder and without being overly precocious. She's similar to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her best friend is a boy, Little Man, and he shares in many of her adventures which will make this book appeal to boys as well as girls. The adult characters in this story seem a bit incompetent at first but as the story progresses, they become more fleshed out and three-dimensional characters. I especially liked Mr. Speedy and Chicken Charlie. The plot deals with prejudice, racism, class differences and ecological conservation. The mystery grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let go. I read way way too late into the night and only managed half the book. I couldn't sleep for wondering how it would all turn out. I had a pretty good idea of what happened, but like the sheriff, I lacked evidence. As the mystery plot unfolds, the clues come out just when the characters are ready to discover them, for the most part. There's a bit of foreshadowing at the end of each chapter that I didn't quite like. The book is really long for this age level and I think it could have been shortened by a few chapters. If you like local color stories then you will love this book. The Florida swamp where Bones lives comes to life with beautifully written descriptions like "The sun's reflection skimmed across the water's surface, turning it into an endless black-topped mirror." Other similes are equally beautiful. The author's purpose was to capture a way of life that has pretty much disappeared and she truly succeeded. I think kids and adults 8+ will truly enjoy this story. It's sweet, poignant, sometimes funny and very interesting. There's room for a sequel, I hope!

Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes by Mollie Panter-Downes -- Historical Fiction

These stories, originally published in the New Yorker, deal with every day life on the home front in Great Britain during World War II. The stories are bittersweet. The characters embody the British "stiff upper lip" philosophy as they endure refugee boarders; watching their loved ones head off to war and attempt to help the war effort (with a healthy dose of gossip). There's no connection between the stories at all or any sort of overall plot. The stories are to be taken individually. These stories are very slow. The action is all internal, inside the characters' heads. I found it hard to sit down and read this book because of the slowness and the sheer nothingness happening in the stories. The stories are bittersweet and often the characters are lonely and feeling regret over something or they're fed up with having guests. The characters' feelings make them rather unappealing yet I know I would feel the same in their positions. These stories really aren't my cup of tea and I wouldn't recommend them for casual, fun reading. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

What I've Read This Week Part II

What I've Read This Week Part II . . .

The Nabob's Daughter by Dawn Lindsay -- Regency Romance

Lord Stone Chance absolutely forbids his headstrong younger sister to sail off to Jamaica to marry some fortune hunter he's never even met. His word is final but Georgy doesn't seem to accept that. She's determined to have her own way. Miss Anjalie Cantrell is in London to visit her estranged maternal relatives. Since Anjalie is an heiress to her father's Jamaican plantations, everyone assumes she's in London to buy a title. It won't be so easy because her father was an orphaned nobody from nowhere turned sailor. He "smells of the shop." Anjalie is proud of her father and his humble origins. She can't stand the way these idle, effete British gentlemen spend their days doing nothing, wasting money and running up bills. If she had her way, she'd put them all to work. She feels distant from the English and never misses a chance to tell them what she thinks. When Georgiana forces an acquaintance with Anjalie, Chance is angry. He's upset because Miss Cantrell is filling his sister's head with romantic notions of Jamaica. When he tells her so, she informs HIM that HE should go to Jamaica, that it would do him good. Lord Chance can not believe the nerve of this girl who doesn't care one wit for his birth or title. He's used to being toadeaten and has avoided marriage but when he does marry, it certainly won't be to a wild hoyden. Then why does he seem to sometimes actually like Anjalie Cantrell? When circumstances force Anjalie and Stone together in an adventure beyond his wildest imaginings, he begins the charm in Jamaica and just maybe Anjalie was right. She begins to see a new side of Lord Chance that makes her reevaluate her opinion of him. This story is a reworking of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest with Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy as the hero. The first 2/3 of the book are very slow moving. Not much happens except a lot of arguing back and forth. The last 1/3 of the book is very good and I couldn't put it down. The descriptions in that part of the book are excellent and I really felt pulled into the novel and a part of the action. There's about as much romance as there is in North and South (the novel) or perhaps even less. It's obvious that Anjalie and Stone are Lizzie and Darcy but they never really get their relationship to the point where I wanted to root for them to be together.Anjalie is a very modern woman. Anjalie described as being "mannish" a lot or "more like a man than a woman." I would think she would not be accepted in society if that were the case. I felt like the author made Anjalie her mouth piece for criticizing Regency society. Yes there was a lot wrong with that time but 200 years from now people will have a lot to say about modern life and I read the books for escapism and fun. If you like Pride and Prejudice and North and South, you might like this one. 

A Christmas Gambol by Joan Smith -- Regency Romance

Cicely Caldwell, a plain country girl and aspiring author absolutely despises the latest modish novel Chaos is Come Again. She thinks it's silly and unrealistic and her own novel, based on the style of the anonymous lady who wrote Pride and Prejudice, is vastly superior. However, when her old friend Meg (now Lady Fairly)'s older brother Lord Montaigne invited Sissy to stay in London and pose as the author of that dreadful novel, Sissy agrees. She thinks London will provide research for her new book. She longs to observe the life of the ton AND see the slums. Lord Montaigne (Monty) has a secret. In a fit of boredom while recuperating from a broken ankle and broken heart, he wrote Chaos is Come Again. His political and social life would be ruined if anyone found out he was the anonymous lady, yet he agrees that the author will meet with the publisher and reviewers. The more success the book enjoys the more money Monty will earn to put towards an orphanage. In addition to continually mocking Monty's book (without knowing he's the author), Sissy relishes life among the ton. The ton provide her with any number of amusing characters for future novels. Yet, she does enjoy the feeling when the men flirt with her and doesn't really want to leave. She's also quite busy writing and trying to fix Meg's marriage. As Sissy becomes the darling of the ton, Monty becomes more and more annoyed with her. He should send her home now, but yet for some reason, he doesn't want her to leave. This is not one of Joan Smith's better novels. The entire plot is filled with inaccuracies : a young unmarried lady travels in a closed carriage with a gentleman; a country nobody calls a Duke by his nickname at invitation; Sissy continually insults her hosts and everyone else; Sissy talks openly to Meg and Monty about pregnancy and why Meg hasn't had a baby yet; she brings up the topic of mistresses to Monty, etc. etc. SOME of those things I can handle but not all of them in one book. It's just too unrealistic for me. Sissy is too modern to be a Regency heroine. She isn't very likeable. I wanted to like her because I think we would have a lot in common, but she's rude and insulting to everyone, especially Monty. Monty is a perfect paragon of a hero. He's romantic, philanthropic and kind. I don't know what he sees in Sissy except that she doesn't bore him. The actual romance comes at the end but there's a little bit more than in some of her earlier works. The romance is funny and sweet. I think the author was going for a Georgette Heyer vibe in this one but it doesn't work for me.

What I've Read This Week Part I

What I've Read This Week Part I . . .

Blue Willow by Doris Gates-- Children's Classic/Historical Fiction 
Newbery Honor 1941

Ever since the drought and dust storms drove Janey Larkin's dad to give up his Texas ranch, the family has been on the move. Janey longs for a real home where they can stay as long as they want and Janey can place her family heirloom blue willow plate in a place of honor. Janey reveres that plate. To her it's the most beautiful thing in the world and symbolizes home and family. For now Janey's family is settled in the San Joaquin Valley in California in an old shack. Janey worries about how long it will be before they move on and tries to keep her distance from people. Before long, the lively Lupe Romero and her family work their way into Janey's heart. There's also school, not regular school, just camp school, but school with books and a teacher who understands. The mean overseer, Bounce Reyburn threatens Janey's contentment and future dreams. Will the Larkins ever find a place they can stay as long as they want? This is a sweet, charming story told from the point-of-view of a young child.
The story is free of any sort of judgement, racism or any sort of prejudice. It is told told with a child's innocence. It reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird in that respect. No matter what happens, Janey keeps on dreaming of a better future. Despite her difficult circumstances she's neither wise beyond her years nor broken down and defeated. It does have elements of a fairy tale at times but that's all right for a children's book. I could relate to Janey and her love for stories and the importance of family heirlooms. This is just the sort of book I liked as a child. I don't know how I missed this one.

The Silver Pencil by Alice Dalgliesh-- Children's Classic/Historical Fiction 

This Newbery Honor winner from 1945 is based on the life of the author.  
Janet Laidlaw lives in a house on a hill in beautiful Trinidad in the early 1900s. Her mother often has "spells" where she's unwell so Janet is alone a lot. She has a powerful imagination and her beloved father gives her a silver pencil for Christmas to write down her stories. Soon after, her father dies unexpectedly and Janet is too grieved to write. When it comes time for her to go to high school, her mother takes her "home" to England where she distinguishes herself in school and is on track to earn a scholarship to college. However, finances don't allow for college so Janet and her mother return to Trinidad, where Janet is terribly bored. After observing Janet with young children, a friend suggests Janet go to Canada or America to become a kindergarten teacher. Janet chooses to move all the way to Brooklyn to attend teacher's college. She isn't sure she's cut out to be a teacher. Story time is the best part of her day. Does she have what it takes to be a teacher? Will she ever find time to write? This story is similar in premise to Emily of New Moon but without the charm and color of Lucy Maud Montgomery's famous trilogy. Janet is a flat and boring character. The action of the story is told rather than shown and there really isn't much plot. It's very very slow. The descriptions of Trinidad are beautiful and a little more lively than the plot. The depiction of England is also charming but once summer is over and Janet becomes busy with school, all description ends. Later in the book, Janet arrives in a small village in New York which is also treated to a charming description which made me sure the author had been there and was writing from life. This book contains a lot of pre-WWI British Empire sentiment that really annoyed me. Though I understand that's what people believed at the time, it's rather distasteful to modern readers. America is described as backwards and uncultured; somewhere Janet would never want to live, in the beginning of the story. Later though, once Janet is older and has traveled more, the author stops editorializing on how wonderful the British Empire is and just describes what's happening and the scenery. I would have liked to have read Janet's book. Part of what makes Lucy Maud Montgomery's stories so fascinating are the local color stories she imported into the plot. It sounds like Janet had the same idea as Anne but we never get to experience it. I don't think modern readers will appreciate or enjoy this novel. Kids today are used to lots of action and adventure and this book doesn't have either.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Professor Amanda Vickery

Professor Amanda Vickery

I finally had a chance to browse YouTube to see some wonderful documentaries hosted by Professor Amanda Vickery.

At Home With the Georgians

This documentary supplements Professor Vickery's book. She takes the viewer on a trip through Georgian era homes and explains the importance of home and the meaning of home in the Georgian era. She uses diaries, prints, artifacts and other period objects to delve into the period. I was only able to find Part 3 Safe as Houses in full and clips of other parts. 

She starts by setting the scene: nighttime in London today is an exciting, energetic place but not so in the Georgian era. Nighttime was dark and threatening. A house breaker could enter over the gate or down the chimney armed and dangerous ready to attack anyone who stood in his (or her) way. Georgians went through great lengths to protect their homes. 

Dr. Vickery examines the seamier side of Georgian life. A diary of a well-respected widowed clergyman reveals a secret affair with a maid which deeply troubled his conscience.

She also discusses the plight of women without an independent income. She looks at the diary of a married woman who felt captive in her own home. Due to her husband's increasing jealously, he placed serious restrictions on her movement. She stayed for the sake of her children. Another sad story involved a spinster dependent on her brother for a home. She had no rights at all and was constantly made fun of and was deeply unhappy and lonely. Finally, an inheritance from an aunt allowed her to become independent in her 40s. This story hit home for me, being a single woman without a fortune. It also showed a bit of what Jane Austen's life must have been like before she published her first novel. How liberating it must have been for her to finally have some money all of her own.

This documentary was a bit dull at times, especially when Dr. Vickery was examining locks and anti-burglar devices. History really came alive when she read from diaries. Actors portraying the real people make the stories come to life. I loved seeing both the diaries and the representations of the people who wrote them. I would have enjoyed the first two parts of the series more but they were unavailable. Dr. Vickery is personable and truly seems to love researching the period. Her joy shines through on her face as she shares her research with her viewers. This series makes history more tangible and accessible for the amateur historian.

The Many Lovers of Jane Austen

Despite what the title may sound like, this documentary is about the people who love Jane Austen. It examines her enduring legacy and the reasons why nearly 200 years after her death her books remain so popular. She discusses Jane Austen's fame with noted scholars and public figures such as the Earl of Spencer, whose ancestor Lady Bessbourough was among one of Jane Austen's first fans. Each person interviewed reads an excerpt from one of the novels and scenes of modern readers reading all over the place are shown. 

Dr. Vickery tours Chawton cottage and debunks the myth of the shy spinster. She concludes that publishing anonymously was merely a polite convention and that witty Miss Austen enjoyed playing games with people who didn't know she was the author. By the 1820s, the romantic movement ushered in the age of sweeping landscapes as a character which made Jane Austen passe. At the end of the 19th century, Jane Austen came back into print thanks to the invention of train travel. Train stations sold and continue to sell cheap paperback copies of her novels.  Jane Austen's nephew also wrote a memoir of his famous aunt that brought her back into public notice. It wasn't until around 100 years after her death that Jane Austen achieved immortal fame. She became the subject of study by a group of intellectuals and professors, the first Janeites, who examined Mansfield Park and the social commentary within. Rudyard Kipling read Jane Austen to his wife and daughter to ease the pain of his only son Jack in World War I. He even wrote a story about soldiers in the trenches enjoying the light escapism of Jane Austen's novels. 

Dr. Vickery also looks at the movie versions of Pride and Prejudice, the first being the famous Olivier movie people either love or hate. The scholar explains that this movie was a hit Broadway comedy and it wasn't intended to be a faithful production of the novel. The next movie aired in the 1960s in Britain and was aimed at a juvenile audience. In the 1980s, Jane Austen finally arrived on the BBC (BBC2) in an expensive production, but it wasn't until 1995 when Jane finally catapulted into super stardom. Andrew Davies' sexed up script and Colin Firth in a wet shirt made Jane Austen a household name and created legions of new fans. Since then, Jane Austen has become a brand. 

Dr. Vickery traveled to Bath to the Jane Austen festival and to Texas to the annual JASNA meeting where she met ladies in costume; learned Mr. Wickham sends panties to ladies along with his phone number; and shopped for Jane Austen themed tea and souvenirs. Finally, it is concluded that Jane Austen mania has peaked in the West but it just getting started in Asia.

This documentary is fabulous and a must watch for any Janeite. I knew some of the history but this documentary delves much deeper than any biography or blog post I've read so far. I especially liked the visuals - seeing clips of the movies I haven't seen (OK and seeing Colin Firth in a wet shirt again) and seeing the fans dressed in costume.I was a little taken aback at the commercialism of Jane Austen. I don't mind sexed up Jane Austen as long as it's tasteful and within the realm of possibility because I think it introduced new fans to her lovely novels. I enjoy the movies and I adore the novels. I like buying themed gifts and I cherish rare books and academic discussion. I think Jane Austen can be accessible to everyone if they try and if it takes commercialism to do it, then so be it. I think Miss Austen would get a kick out of all the fuss.

Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball With Jane Austen

Professor Amanda Vickery and art critic Alastair Sooke hosted this 90 minute special which recreated the Netherfield Ball from Pride and Prejudice. The purpose was to uncover the deeper meaning behind the ball and everything that would have gone into it. This was something that Jane Austen's readers would have been aware of but has gotten lost over time. The Netherfield Ball was a private invitation only event to which only the best families in the county would be invited. The hosts take the viewer on a detailed journey to look at period customs, music and food. 

To recreate the ball, a troop of ballet students was recruited to learn several complicated dances. They found it far more difficult and energetic than they expected. The music was chosen from Jane Austen's own music books. Alastair took a look at a manuscript music book that could have been written in Jane Austen's handwriting and even contained a doodle in the margin! 

The food was painstakingly recreated from Georgian era recipes, some by Martha Lloyd. The food is quite different from what we're used to. May jellies and ices and alcoholic drinks were served alongside meat and vegetable dishes all at the same time. People could reach across the table and grab whatever they wanted.This type of meal was haute cuisine and would have been very luxurious for the Bennets. One of the dancers said that it was possible, if you were attuned to someone and they were speaking loudly, to hear what was being said across the table, despite the noise. This verifies what Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice about Mr. Darcy hearing Mrs. Bennet's conversation. 

 Clothing and makeup is also examined. The costume designer chose silk taffetas for the wealthy Bingley sisters who would have had their gowns made in London. The more provincial Bennets would make do with a local dressmaker. Elizabeth may have made her own dress, remade from an older one. The costume designer chose a sheer white muslin with embroidery. She gave lie to the myth that some ladies dampened their petticoats for muslin becomes see through when wet. If it happened at all, it was for a very private party. Not even Lydia would be so bold! 

Modern electric lights were removed and beeswax candles were made to adorn the small room in Chawton House where the ball was held. As the evening went on, the dancers took on more and more characteristics of the period. They became flirty and high spirited, especially once a new young man was introduced into the mix. They also became very hot under all the candlelight! Amanda Vickery remarked that she found herself watching the men more than the ladies because their calves were easier to see. Dancing well must have been more important for the gentlemen than the ladies because it was a chance for the ladies to check out the gentlemen. I know from my visit to Colonial Williamsburg that this was indeed true. The expression "put your best foot forward" actually comes from dancing. Some gentlemen padded their calves to make them look more muscular and thus more attractive to the ladies. In short, a ball was an elaborate courtship ritual.  

In between ball preparations, an actress portraying Jane Austen wrote her novel with her quill pen. 

This program is absolutely spectacular! What a labor of love! As a social historian, I thoroughly enjoyed all the historical details revealed through the creation of this ball. I especially liked learning about the food and the music which I have not studied much. I appreciated all the attention to detail and seeing how the food, costumes and lights made the dancers act. Their comments were very interesting and informative. I loved this behind-the-scenes look. It would have been nice to actually see more of the dancing after all that rehearsal. This documentary will appeal to casual Austen fans, amateur historians, social historians and the general public. I highly recommend trying to watch it or read the article from BBC news.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Eccentric Lady by Jane Lovelace -- Regency Romance

Lady Elizabeth Anne Haughton-Marshall is content to work on breeding chickens on her farm and wants nothing to do with fancy dresses or the London Season. Her uncle, the Earl, feels he's been neglecting his late brother's wishes and forces Lady Beth into coming to London for the Season by threatening to away her farms for good. Lady Beth bristles at the thought of having a chaperone and playing nice with the snobs of the haut ton and comes up with her own plan to follow her uncle's rules. Lady Beth's chaperone, Jane, far from being a dragon, is delighted and amused by Lady Beth's plans and takes eager part in Beth's shocking tall tales and crazy stunts. Beth thinks the ton will dismiss her and she can return home, but the crazier she acts, the more London society falls at her feet. Jane's nephew, Steven, the Marquis of Alspeth and his nephew Jonny are also in town for the Season. Beth befriends the callow youth and his charming uncle. Steven has a sense of humor and enjoys hearing about Beth's latest stunts while Beth tries to help young Jonny through the course of his first romance. When one of Beth's stunts goes too far, she risks losing her only true friend in London. Will his good opinion once lost stay lost forever or can she do something to make things right? This is a really cute story in the vein of Georgette Heyer. It's not as zany as a Heyer novel but pretty close. I loved Lady Beth and she is exactly the heroine I would want to be if I were a heroine in a Regency novel. I'm not sure how realistic she is but I loved her. She could be a bit cruel but she never actually is because everyone seems to be aware that she's making fun of them and takes it in good stride. Steven is a good uncle, nephew and friend. That's about all the reader knows about him until the last page. It would have been nice if some of the story was from his point of view. As it stands, the romance isn't fully believable because the reader doesn't really know why she loves Steven. The plot starts off strong and fast but gets slowed down towards the middle/end with a lame subplot that gets in the way of the romance. I wouldn't even classify this novel as a romance but more of a traditional Regency hybrid comedy of manners love story. The romance comes at the very end a la Heyer. It's sweet and made me chuckle a bit. I really enjoyed this story. Fans of Georgette Heyer, Joan Smith and some of the older Regency authors will like this book. I suggest trying to find it through a bookseller site that sells used books or a swapping site.

Friday, July 5, 2013

What I've Listened to Lately

What I've Listened to Lately . . .

All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor , read by Suzanne Toren-- Children's Classic (1951)

At the turn of the 20th century, a family of five little girls, known as the All of a Kind Family, live with their Mama and Papa in the Lower East Side of New York. They enjoy visiting the library and choosing books with the kind library lady; buying and eating treats; poking around Papa's peddler shop; visiting Coney Island and celebrating holidays both American and Jewish. This story is the first in a series. It's a series of vignettes about the seasonal activities of ordinary girls. The stories are simple and sweet. There's nothing supernatural or violent about their lives. They're just ordinary girls living ordinary lives. I loved this series when I was a kid and nothing has changed. I was delighted to discover this audio production through the library and am pleased to report that the story charmed me just as much now as it did back then. The depiction of life in the Jewish neighborhood in the Lower East Side is so descriptive, I can very easily see the sisters and their world. Like Little Women and The Five Little Peppers, the family in this story is poor but happy. They love each other and support each other. I especially liked the depictions of Jewish holidays. Not being Jewish, those traditions were unknown to me when I first read these books years ago. The characters are so realistic! I loved all the sisters. I can relate to different aspects of several of the sisters: Ella, the oldest; Sarah, the bookish one and Henny, the tomboy. Henny is my favorite. She's so spunky and energetic. Suzanne Torren reads each character in a different voice. It was very easy to tell which sister was speaking for the most part. Charlotte and Gertie sound a lot alike but it's a testament to Sydney Taylor's writing that their dialogue is unique enough to tell apart. Mama and Papa are read with Yiddish accents which sounds a little phony, but that is the only weak link in this production. I highly recommend this book to kids (not just girls) and adults ages 6+. I am eager to reread the rest of the series. I remember Ella of All of a Kind Family was a particular favorite.

What I Read Last Week

What I Read Last Week . .

The Diabolical Baron by Mary Jo Putney -- Regency Romance

Caroline Hanscombe hates the London Season. She has made all attempts to turn the gentlemen away, much to her stepmother's dismay. Her only place of refuge is with her widowed Aunt Jessica who allows Caroline to be herself. Jason Kinkaid, Lord Radford has finally decided to take a wife since he lost the only woman he could ever love long ago. He sees marriage as a business arrangement and any well-bred lady will do. After a few drinks with a friend, he makes a list and pulls Caroline's name out of a hat. When Caroline's sister makes a love match, Caroline's parents inform her that it's up to her to make a brilliant match with Lord Radford. Caroline feels forced into accepting Jason's proposal for the sake of her family. As hard as Jason tries, his fiance can barely speak to him or even manage to look at him. In an effort to get to know her better, he invites Caroline and her aunt to his estate. When Jason discovers Caroline's aunt is the love of his life, he feels honor bound to marry Caroline yet he can't stop thinking about kissing Jessica. What a dilemma! Richard Dalton, recently returned from the wars, is shocked to discover that should he accept it, he is the next Earl of Walgrave. Richard isn't sure he wants the duties and responsibilities that come with the title. After a nomadic life, he wants to settle down on a small estate and live life as a country squire. If he doesn't accept, his rake of a cousin will inherit and sell the estate. Believing that Walgrave is uninhabited, Caroline is given permission to use the music room where she loses herself in playing and composing. When she meets Richard, he is kind, gentle and shares her love of music. He supports her unladylike dream of composing music and encourages her to follow her dreams. In short, Richard is nothing like the curt, sardonic, almost elderly (he's 35 to her 22) Baron. She still feels she must marry the Baron to save her family. Richard loves Caroline and he thought he loved him back, he wouldn't hesitate to risk the Baron's wrath and offer for Caroline instead. Will any of these characters end up with their true loves? The answer is obvious but getting there takes a long long time. This story is really slow and nothing happens. There's no relationship between any of the characters. I'm not sure why Caroline fears Jason so much. Her relationship with Richard is developed slowly and sweetly and I can see why a shy girl would be drawn to him but there's no real romance there. Jason's interest in Jessica has potential. I could see at once what drove them apart in their younger days (haven't they read Pride and Prejudice?) and what had to happen to fix things, yet nothing really did happen. There's no real romance in this novel - not even much kissing. There are a few villains who are stereotypes of Regency men. They don't really add anything to the story, but merely pad out the plot too much and complicate matters.There are quite a few typos in the Kindle edition which drove me crazy. Overall, this story is entirely unmemorable and I would not recommend it.

Christmas Mischief by Mary Jo Putney -- Regency Short Stories

These three novellas were original published in previous collections. 

In The Christmas Cuckoo, Major Jack Howard arrives in England at Christmastime after selling his commission tired and hungry. He's annoyed at the commands from his great-aunt and refuses to bow to her wishes. In a fit of pique, he gets on a stage headed for Bristol. Cold, exhausted and drunk, Jack never makes it to Bristol. After falling asleep in Chippingham, he's met at the station by a lovely young woman who wants him to come home with her. Mistaking her for a tart, he kisses her and is pleased at her reaction before realizing what he has done. Determined to forget about it, he follows the young lady home. Meg Lambert was looking forward to having her family all together for Christmas, but when her brother got waylaid in Spain, he sent along his best friend Captain Jack Howard, instead. Meg is delighted to welcome her brother's best friend into her home and hopes he'll make a match of it with her younger sister Phoebe. While Phoebe doesn't seem interested, Meg can't help but admire the big, kind man. He's sympathetic to the troubles a local aristocrat had caused her family and his kisses under the mistletoe make Meg burn. Jack quickly falls in love with Meg but he knows he's not the man she thinks he is. How can he ever bring himself to tell her news that will surely hurt her and drive him from the most welcoming home he's ever known? This story is so impossible to believe. I highly doubt an unmarried woman would welcome a stranger into her home where there were no men present even if she thinks he's her brother's best friend. Even so, this is a sweet holiday story that will warm your heart. Jack's backstory is revealed slowly. His background doesn't come as huge surprise to the reader, but the reader learns the truth the same time Meg does. There's enough suspense in the story to keep me interested and the romance is sweet. Because of the short length of the story, the romance develops quickly and improbably but I liked it. There are a lot of good period details about Christmas customs that I also enjoyed. Meg is an appealing heroine because she's older and strong and keeps her family together through tough times. Jack is a bit of an enigma. No doubt he appears in a novel and his story is more fully explained. In this story though he's a bit rough around the edges and proud, he's also kind and caring and in need of someone to love him. I liked this story best of the two I read.

Sunshine for Christmas appeared in Regency Christmas II and is reviewed in my post for that anthology. It was the best story of the three in this volume. I especially loved the descriptions of Naples, the nearest big city to where my beloved recently deceased Nonnie spent her early years.

The Christmas Tart is about a down on her luck French seamstress who is accused of stealing a valuable ring from her employer. When Nicole is turned out on the streets without her savings, the kind lady's maid takes pity on Nicole and gives her a garish old cloak the lady of the house discarded and a bit of money. Nicole wanders through the London streets tired, cold and hungry. She's unable to find work without references and her only friend is a stray cat. Sir Philip Selbourne has been working hard for the last six months since his honored father's death. He's come to London on business and his friends decide to give him a Christmas present in the form of a woman in his bed. They approach Nicole who weighs the advantages of giving up her virtue as opposed to starving to death, and decides to accept the generous offer of payment. Philip isn't in the mood for seducing an innocent but kindly takes Nicole under his wing. A snowstorm and a delightful interlude at a peasant's cottage bring these two closer together. If only Nicole could believe he really loves her for herself and not as a stray animal he's determined to help. This story is the weakest of the three. It's slow to start and not much happens. Nicole is in a tough position and I do not envy her in the beginning. The romance develops both slowly in terms of plot development but quickly in terms of the amount of time the characters spend together. It's a sweet romance though with only a kiss at the end and very little sensuality in between. I can see why Nicole loves Philip but I don't know what he sees in her. The interlude in the peasant's cottage is the most delightful part of the story and I wish there had a been a bit more of it. There is a great description of period Christmas decorations that I enjoyed. The Kindle edition had a few typos but not too many. If you want a good escape story or a heartwarming Christmas story, then this one isn't bad.

Monday, July 1, 2013

What I've Read This Week: Austenesque Edition

What I've Read This Week: Austenesque Edition . . .

Murder on the Bride's Side by Tracy Kiely -- Austenesque Contemporary Mystery

Elizabeth's best friend Bridget is marrying the love of her life, Colin, at their family's home in Virginia. Bridget's opinionated grandmother predicts death and Bridget can't help feeling nervous that something bad is going to happen. The family feels extreme animosity towards Bridget's uncle Randy's second wife Roni, a scheming, greedy witch. When Roni ends up dead, no one is truly upset or really surprised, but when the police lay the blame on one of the family, Bridget enlists Elizabeth's aid in solving the mystery. Elizabeth is anxious, but wants to help Bridget's cousin Harry, who she once had a crush on. It will also help her get back at Peter who is spending a bit too much time with the wedding planner, his old girlfriend. Will Elizabeth solve the mystery before the police convict Harry? This mystery is a take on Sense and Sensibility but it doesn't much resemble the original. Bridget represents sensibility and Elizabeth sense, though that's not saying much. The plot has many many twists and turns and I think even if I wrote down all the clues, there's no way I could have solved it. I couldn't put the book down and read way too late to finish it. I don't know how Elizabeth figured it out. The ending was a bit unsatisfactory. I don't want to spoil the whodunnit but it came as a big surprise to me. The final reveal was unconventional and didn't make a lot of sense. I enjoyed the story though the characters were all unlikeable and unrealistic. It seems like they were picked from a cast of two-dimensional characters.Also, things are wrapped up a bit too neatly and happily ever after to be realistic. I would have liked more development of Elizabeth and Peter's relationship. They've been dating for 8 months and she's pretty sure she loves him and he's THE ONE - how the heck did that happen?! Elizabeth quote extensively from Jane Austen's novel and the movie version of Sense and Sensibility along with a few other movie references I didn't always recognize. (Love the Cary Grant reference though). I would recommend this series to those who like contemporary adaptations of Jane Austen's novels and those who like light mysteries.

Murder Most Persuasive by Tracy Kiely -- Austenesque Contemporary Mystery

Elizabeth Parker is having a rough time. She's staying with her smug sister Kit in the jungle room from hell while her apartment is renovated; she hates her job; Peter has been traveling a lot for work and to top it off, her Uncle Martin (Aunt Winnie's older brother) just died. Martin's grieving family includes Elizabeth's cousins, close in age to her sister: Regina, Frances and Ann, as well as his second wife Bonnie. Bonnie, a Gone With the Wind quoting fluff head decides to head off to a spa retreat to relax after selling the family's summer home, leaving Ann in charge of cataloging and distributing Uncle Martin's things. When a body is discovered in the foundation of the pool at the family's old home, it turns out to be the missing former employee who was believed to have embezzled a large sum of money from the family business eight years ago. The man had been like a son to Uncle Martin and was engaged to Regina at the time, so naturally the family comes under suspicion. The investigation brings Detective Joe Muldoon back into Ann's life after she broke her engagement with him on the advice of her mother's friend. Ann still has feelings for Joe, but his partner wants to see Ann convicted of the crime. Joe is tough but he doesn't believe Ann is a murderer. Ann ropes Elizabeth into helping her solve the crime and keep in touch with Joe. Despite Peter's cautioning her not to play Nancy Drew, Elizabeth steps into the role pretty easily but investigating gets harder when her jealous sister Kit tries to play CSI. By the end of the book, family secrets are revealed and everyone discovers that what they thought they knew, turned out not to be true. Meanwhile, Peter wants to take their relationship to the next level and Elizabeth isn't sure she's ready. 

This mystery is a take on Persuasion. It's more direct than any of the other mysteries in the series. The family is closely modeled on the Eliots which makes none of them likable except Ann. They're all pretty much direct copies of their original counterparts except that a few characters are combined to create Ann Elliot's cousin William Walter. I liked the way the story paralleled the original but the original is a love story and this is a mystery. The love story takes a back seat so it's not really developed on page. I would have liked a bit more of the relationship between Ann and Joe to echo Ann and Frederick's. The mystery kept me guessing and guessing. I honestly couldn't figure out "whodunnit." The reveal was a surprise because the motive just wasn't realistic. The author tried to hard to match the original plot but it just seems far fetched in today's world. I don't know how Elizabeth figured it out. She seems to have some kind of super memory even though things keep fleeing out of reach. I have an excellent memory and couldn't remember the minute details she did. That too felt unrealistic. The story was similar to Murder of the Bride's Side since it revolves around a family close to Elizabeth and a wicked stepmother. The story kept me reading when I had other things to do with my life. It has a lot of funny moments; I like Elizabeth's snarky sense of humor, however, it lacks the beautiful language and social satire of Jane Austen's original. If you love Persuasion and enjoy a good mystery, you will like this one.