Friday, January 22, 2016

What I Read in March 2015 Part II

What I Read in March 2015 Part II ...

Dido Kent Mysteries 
by Anna Dean

Regency mysteries

Bellfield Hall (A Dido Kent Mystery, #1)Bellfield Hall 

Miss Dido Kent, respectable spinster, has been asked to Bellfield Hall by her niece Catherine, who wants her aunt to figure out a few things. Mainly, where her fiance Richard Montague has disappeared to and why he broke their engagement after a wordless exchange with a mysterious man. Dido also wants to figure out who the dead woman in the shrubbery is. So she begins to ask questions and unravels the secrets of the guests and inhabitants of Bellfield Hall one by one.

The author seems to have based Dido and her family on the Jane Austen and her family. I am profoundly grateful to her for making her characters original and based on the Austens. While I enjoyed Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries, I felt they would have been more enjoyable if they were about an original character. The mystery kept me up too late trying to figure it all out. Dido sure is a clever sleuth because she put the pieces of the puzzle together easily. I wasn't there yet but I wasn't entirely surprised by the revelations in the end. I felt the story was kind of sad and a bit heavy. Though the book is set in 1805, it really could take place well into the 20th century. My only issue with the plot is she never really figured out why the young footman was scared to be alone with the Colonel and her conclusions about the Colonel's reasons for not marrying were never proven or disproved. A modern reader can guess what's being hinted at. There is a limited amount of historical detail and nothing overtly points to 1805 except for a brief reference to spying for the French, but Regency fans will be pleased with the country house setting and a bit of information on fashion, medicine and education.

Dido Kent is the main character, a respectable spinster of unknown years but more than 30. I can relate to her being a spinster of uncertain years more than 30 myself. Not a lot is revealed about her except she's never fallen in love and she's logical and satirical. I liked her well enough so far. She's intelligent and direct; she doesn't hold back anything. I thought she was a bit forward in some of her questioning but she needed the information so she let propriety lapse. The other characters are somewhat shallow but the female characters reveal hidden depth which were a revelation to Dido and the reader. I liked that twist a lot.

I recommend this book to casual Jane Austen fans, maybe diehard Janeites will enjoy it and historical cozy mystery fans will definitely like this one. It's very mild and nothing really objectionable except some blood, a medicine that's part of the plot that may shock some readers and hints about homosexuality.

A Gentleman of Fortune (A Dido Kent Mystery #2)A Gentleman of Fortune

Miss Dido Kent, spinster, age five-and-thirty, is visiting her cousin Flora in Surrey. The whole neighborhood is gossiping about the sudden death of Mrs. Lansdale of Knaresborough House. The apothecary, Mr. Vane, claims Mrs. Landale took 4 times her usual dose of opiates before bed and died as a result. Mrs. Midgley, the most gosippy of all neighbors, claims Mrs. Landale's death was too convenient for her nephew who will inherit a fortune. Dido's cousin is quite fond of Mr. Landsale and Dido feels something is not quite right. She writes to her sister, who is visiting Belfield to consult the opinion of Mr. William Lomax, of whom Dido is quite fond. Dido does not realize she's opening Pandora's Box and is about to discover all the secrets of the neighborhood and the deepest secret of her heart.

This mystery was not quite as engaging as the first one. It stands alone well enough to be read without knowing the characters. The mystery borrows from Jane Austen's novels and her life so some of the reveals were not much of a surprise. I know the novels well so I figured out a certain mystery right away, however, the author includes so many other secrets and plot twists that even if you think you know something, you don't really. If you don't know the novels, it might make the mysteries included here more fun. Still, I stayed up waaayy too late to finish the book. I was a bit surprised by some of the reveals and rather disappointed in the whodunnit conclusion. The writing style is more casual and easy than Stephanie Barron and Catherine Lloyd. Closer to Anna Maclean's Louisa May Alcott mysteries. There's a lot of information on the etiquette of the time period woven into the story and how the justice system worked. Casual Jane Austen fans and newcomers to the time period, and fans of cozy mysteries can all enjoy this series.

Dido is a bit of a mix between Jane Austen and some of her characters. Though she is intelligent, when she recognizes a quotation from Shakespeare, she doesn't remember where it's from. I knew some of the quotations but not the major one. There's not really much about her life here but we follow the progression of her relationship with Mr. William Lomax. I felt that was a bit too modern for the time period.

Other new characters include Mrs. Midgley, the mean-spirited, cheap gossip who is the character you will love to hate. Mrs. Midgley's ward, Mary Bevan, lives with her but is soon to go out to be a governess. She's a rather modern character or so it seems, however, some of her lines are taken straight out of Jane Fairfax's mouth so I guess she's accurate enough. Shes supposed to be the most mannered young lady who always appeard to behave correctly. Her secrets weren't much of a surprise but how she chose to handle her dilemma surprised me. I think she did the right thing for modern times but in her time, I think she should have made a different decision, the way another character did. Miss Prentice also lives with Mrs. Midgley as a boarder. She's a toned down version of Miss Bates from Emma and I liked her immensely. Her plot doesn't entirely reach it's logical conclusion and we're left hanging a bit. Mr. Lansdale seems nice enough but he isn't fleshed out very well and I don't feel at all well acquainted with him. There are several other characters who appear infrequently in the plot but play a major role in the story.

A Woman of Consequence (A Dido Kent Mystery, #3)A Woman of Consequence

Dido Kent, spinster, is now living with her eldest brother Francis and family. While on a visit with some neighbors to Madderstone Abbey, she hears tales of the Grey Nun, a ghost which supposedly haunts the ruins of the old Abbey. Dido doesn't believe in ghosts but when Miss Penelope Lambe falls on the stairs after seeing something shocking, Dido is convinced there's a rational explanation. Her ghost hunting is overshadowed by the discovery of a skeleton in the Abbey pond. The skeleton is believed to be the remains of a Miss Elinor Fenn, former governess to Mrs. Harmon-Foote, then Miss Harmon. Mrs. Harmon-Foote is horrified when the verdict comes back self-murder and Elinor is buried in unhallowed ground. Mrs. Harmon-Foote knew Elinor as a pious and proper lady. She would never have taken her own life. There must be some mystery afoot and Mr. Harmon-Foote refuses to allow her to investigate so she calls on Dido to find the answers. Dido is torn between natural curiosity and her feelings for Mr. William Lomax. He no more approves of Dido's investigations than Mr. Harmon-Foote. Dido fears that if she gives in and marries Mr. Lomax, they'll end up argumentative and unhappy. Natural curiosity wins out and Dido sets out to solve the fifteen-year-old mystery.

I liked this mystery the best of all three. It's suitably gothic for Halloween or a rainy day without actually being a ghost story. I never saw any of the plot twists coming except for the usual fortune hunter but even that was different than expected. There are so many things going on in this story that I could not put it down. The parts that I did not like were the lengthy conversations between Dido and William Lommax. His belief in separate spheres is more Victorian and it wasn't actually a thing... it was a construct made up by first wave women's historians. The story is set in 1806 which I think might be too early for the evangelical piety and concern about the delicacy of a subject suitable for women. I'm not an expert though. All that slows down the story. I especially like how the author takes elements of Jane Austen's life, adds a dash of Persuasion and makes it into something completely different.

Dido is a little less silly in this book. She's become wiser with each investigation and she's more sensitive to what kinds of information to share with people. She doesn't break any rules or behave in a modern way, which I like. She does get familiar with the servants but she doesn't really have a choice. I feel really bad for her that she's an impoverished gentlewoman living in her brother's house. That could easily be me. I like how her circumstances make her more empathetic in the end. She made the right decision.

Harriet Crockford, another spinster, annoyed me. She annoyed Dido too with her "Papa always said" and speaking in proverbs. She comes across as stuck-up or holier than thou. Her big secret was something of a surprise. I wanted to like her because she's a "middle-aged" (for the time) spinster but she was not a likable character. Her sister Lucy is also not very likable. She's selfish and scheming. Penelope Lambe is sweet and innocent, like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. She's never known anything outside of the walls of her school and thinks seeing a ghost would be thrilling. I don't blame her for wanting something to happen. I felt really bad for her when all was set and done.

The male characters were less appealing than the female. There's Captain Jerome Laurence, who is so transparent to anyone of sense. Mr. Coulson also rubs me the wrong way but I didn't even remember who he was until he was brought up towards the end. Mr. Paynter is somewhat mysterious. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to like him or not. I didn't really, not that much, but maybe if he had been in the story long enough to be memorable I would have liked him. Or not. Mr. Harmon-Foote hardly appears in the story but he seems nice but you don't know if he is or isn't until the end. The vicar is stupidly prejudiced and allows his personal feelings to get in the way. I did not care for him at all.

Another great entry in the series. One more to go.

A Place of Confinement: The Investigations of Miss Dido KentA Place of Confinement

After refusing to marry clergyman Dr. Prowdlee with his sidewhiskers and pew and a half of children, Dido is forced to accompany her wealthy Aunt Manners to visit her aunt's family at Charcombe Manor. Dido hopes to visit Belfield and see Mr. William Lomax again but her hypochondriac aunt keeps Dido close and Dido feels as if she's in prison. When one of the guests, young heiress Letitia Verney, goes missing, Dido is on the scent of another mystery. She's given permission to poke around and assess the guests at will, however, she is unprepared to discover that Mr. Tom Lomax is charged with murder! Tom tries to convince Dido of his innocence and begs her to help. She agrees not only out of natural curiosity but also because her beloved Mr. Lomax is attempting to be noble and push her away to avoid being tainted by scandal. Dido discovers family secrets long buried, what imprisonment really means and the problems of women.

This story is loosely based on Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon. It isn't necessary to know Sanditon to read this story. Though it's part of a series, it can be read as a stand alone. I recommend reading the books in order. The plot in this novel more closely follows the typical cozy mystery plot with the murder happening partway through instead of having already happened like in the previous books. It didn't change my enjoyment of the book but the first few chapters were a bit slow. It was difficult to keep track of all the characters and what was happening. The secrets Dido uncovers are pretty hard to figure out. I expected one things but I was wrong. The plot has fewer complicated twists and turns than the previous novels. It's more a straightforward mystery. I never guessed much of anything but I really wasn't surprised at the identity of the murderer. Something about that person just didn't appeal to me. The story wraps up loose ends for Dido's romance but there's still room for more mysteries. It did not wrap up a burning question one character needed to know. I would have liked to have seen one extra chapter to tie up all the loose ends.

I still like Dido. Finally, she remembers her Shakespeare quotations. Dido has become a bit cold and harsh when questioning people she thinks are lying to her which I didn't really like. I felt bad she was in the situation she was in and it shows how difficult life was for unmarried, poor women in the 19th century. Dido spends a lot of time contemplating women's rights and her own role in a patriarchal society. The author seems to be getting her information from Mary Wolstonecraft so I gather that the attitudes presented in the novel are accurate, it just seems like Dido's ideas are too modern for the time.

Aunt Manners is an old tartar of the Lady Catherine variety. She keeps Dido close by her side at all times with manipulative techniques. I had a bit more sympathy for her once her history was revealed but it should make her more sympathetic to Dido and not less.

The other characters are fleshed out enough to be interesting though mostly drawn from the typical cast of characters for a novel set in this time. The one character who features the most in the story never actually appears in person. Letitia Verney is a complicated character. She seems like a spoiled brat to me but she has feelings like every other young lady and she wants those feelings validated and I can't blame her too much for doing what she did.

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