Friday, January 29, 2016

What I Read in September 2015 Part V

What I Read in September 2015 Part V ...

Celia's House by D.E. Stevenson-- Historical Fiction/Historical Romance/Austenesque 

Celia's House
Celia Dunne has lived 90 years at Dunnian. She was born the day after Waterloo and has lived into the new century. Now she's elderly and dying and knows she has to leave her beloved Dunnian. There have always been Dunnes at Dunnian, even before their house was built. Her nephew, Maurice, and his wife Nina are dying to get their hands on Dunnian to make "improvements," but Celia has other plans. She summons her great-nephew Humphrey, on leave from the Navy and determines he loves Dunnian as much as she does. It will be a good place for his children to grow up, she thinks and she will leave the house to his daughter Celia. The catch - Celia isn't born yet and the house has to stay in the Dunne family. Should Celia marry, her husband must take her name. Humphrey's wife Alice and their three children: Mark, Edith and Joyce, settle into life at Dunnian. Once Mark becomes acquainted with the woods, the streams and the old Peale, he becomes enchanted with Dunnian. When his distant cousin Deb comes to live with them, she shares his quiet enthusiasm for their beloved old home. Years come and go, two more children are born at Dunnian and Mark learns the truth about the inheritance. He promises to work hard and make a living for himself if he can be near Dunnian. One by one the siblings begin to leave the nest and old neighbors are now grown. This includes the beautiful, lively Tessa and her charming brother Oliver, who come to visit their grandmother in the summer. Summer casts it's spell and soon the plot turns into Mansfield Park. If you haven't read the original - go do that now before you read this book.

The story has too much exposition at the beginning and very little plot. About halfway through the story turns into Mansfield Park - light. It's close enough to be a pale imitator rather than an homage. The plot pretty much follows Mansfield Park from the scheme of getting up the play to the end - leaving out all the extraneous bits that don't fit the 1920s plotline and leaving out nasty Mrs. Norris. There's a lot at the end - a few chapters of epilogue. The writing is decent but there's a lot of telling. The very best writing is reserved for the last chapter. I was very interested in that final chapter and it ends so abruptly! I can imagine what happens though. This book isn't what I would call a romance. It's more about the house than the people and the romance is only a third of the story. It follows Mansfield Park pretty closely but there are some changes which I really liked. This story lacks the satire and humor of Miss Buncle's Book but it's not that kind of story. The first half and the end reminded me a lot of a Lucy Maud Montgomery story. It's a story of place more than people.

The characters aren't all that memorable. I wasn't crazy about Humphrey and his feelings that Dunnian should be entailed on Mark. He was away a lot and I kept having to remind myself that the story begins in 1905 and he is a man of his time. I'm not sure what was up with Alice but she's better than Lady Bertram. She's kind and loving but a little vague and physically weak at times. She wants Deb to stay with her because she truly loves Deb and requires Deb's help, unlike Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris who treat Fanny as an unpaid servant. Deb is very much a member of the family. Mark frequently refers to her as "my favorite sister." She's sweet and kind but not as insipid as Fanny. She has good heart, she nurses her secret love for years but she also has a lively, loving grandmother who gives her good advice. I liked the way Deb handled her situation very much. I liked Mark a lot too, for the most part. He's smart, works hard, loves his family and the old home. I can relate. He, like most men, like Edmund Bertram, is dazzled by a pretty face and sparkling personality. I liked Tessa too, at first, until she grew into a spoiled minx who would stop at nothing to achieve her ends. Then I loathed her. Her brother Oliver is too slick for my tastes. He's not as bad as Henry Crawford but he is indulged and used to getting his own way.

The minor characters include the other children. Edith and Joyce are Maria and Julia Bertram without the influence of Mrs. Norris. Edith is a spoiled beauty and I didn't care for her much. I didn't feel bad for her at all. Joyce is hardly in the book but her character transformation is told rather than shown and I was happy to read it. The younger children are charming. I like their adventures very much and thought they should have been in the story more. I also really liked the servants who are as devoted to Dunnian as the family. They're more like family than hired help. I wished they appeared more often.

Listening ValleyListening Valley by D.E. Stevenson-- Historical Fiction/Historical Romance

Lou and Antonia Melville live in an ordinary house in the city. They spend their days in the nursery with Nannie except for a daily walk. During those walks the girls spy a walled garden they long to see inside. One day while Nannie is out, the two sisters take off on an adventure that will change their lives. Lou, always bold and daring, marches right up to the mysterious house and rings the bell. A kind lady answers and brings them in for tea. They have the most marvelous time eating eclairs and listening to the lady's son Jack teasing. All too soon it's time to return home and the adventure ends - or so they think. Years later, the girls are grown and Lou dares to make her boldest move yet. Poor Tonia is left alone without her sister, without Nannie or anyone to love her or help her. Her hands are clumsy; she can never do anything right; her parents bicker and Tonia is miserable. All she has is her listening place where she can go in her head and dream and listen to the music there. Enter Mr. Robert Norman who is willing to take Tonia under his wing to teach her about life and give her a sense of self-worth, if only she'll let him. Set against the backdrop of the years between the wars and World War II, this novel is a companion to Celia's House. Part I only mentions the Dunnes in passing, but part 2 takes place in the Scottish countryside near Dunnian and serves as a prequel and sequel to Celia's House.

This book is a light, easy read. It reminded me a lot of Lucy Maud Montgomery's later stories and novels, especially The Blue Castle. The writing is more sophisticated than today's "chick lit" but very accessible. The plot is a little slow at first. There's a lot of exposition and a lot of telling what happened. Then in Part II the action picks up a bit and becomes more interesting. I especially liked/but didn't like the bits about flying. They were boring but yet interesting because my grandfather was in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the war stationed in England and flying liberators over Europe. I can't see him participating in the easy camaraderie the characters in this novel do. My library copy is missing the final page. The ending seems very abrupt and unsatisfactory. Thanks to some Good Reads friends for sharing the beautiful ending. This author has a way with words and her descriptions are really lovely. I fell in love with the country more than I did in Celia's House. I loved the connection to the Dunnes and learning more about both Celia's, my favorite characters who didn't get enough page time in Celia's House. The romances rely a little too much on coincidence to be realistic but I enjoyed them anyway. I found a certain mystery element to be entirely obvious and can't believe the characters wouldn't have figured it out.

The characters in this book are great. I liked and identified with both Lou and Tonia. Like Lou, I'm the big sister and I tend to take charge. I am also like Tonia - shy and going away to a place in my head where I can dream of more pleasant things. This is Tonia's story - her coming of age and coming into her own. I loved her character development. Her sweetness and sympathetic nature appealed to me and annoyed me at times. I wish she wasn't such a push over sometimes. Lou probably wouldn't have let people walk all over her and would have figured out what was what quickly.

Daisy is lovely. She's so warm-hearted and the type of person anyone except the stuffy Victorian-minded Melvilles would want t be friends with. Her son Jack likes to tease and I don't really care for that. He's not in the story long enough to be developed well. I especially liked the Smilies. As their name implies, they're very happy, caring people who open their hearts to Tonia and serve as the parents she didn't have. The young officers are pretty much all alike. I can't remember which was which except for Bay. Bay's character development is interesting. If I say more, I risk spoiling the plot.

I highly recommend this novel to those who enjoy quiet, kind sorts of novels. It's the perfect bedtime read or should be read with a cup of tea on a rainy day.

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