Friday, March 17, 2017

What I Read in March 2016 Part VIII

What I Read in March 2016 Part VIII . . .

A Gilded GraveA Gilded Grave by Shelley Freydont-- Gilded Age Mystery

Eighteen-year-old Deanna Randolph is making her debut in Newport society after her arranged marriage to Joseph Ballard, scion of one of Newport's old families, falls through. Deanna doesn't want to marry Joe or anyone right now. She isn't cut out for society life like her sister Adelaide who is insipid as a girl can be and engaged to the worthy Charles Woodruff. She's tired of her mother's strict rules, the stuffy clothes she's forced to wear and the endless rules that keep her from ruination. She longs for her childhood days when she was carefree and could splash in the waves on the beach and follow her now-deceased brother Bob, Joe Ballard and their friend Will Hennessey on their adventures. Deanna isn't done having adventures just yet though. When her older sister Adelaide's migraines don't improve, Mrs. Randolph takes Adelaide to a specialist in Boston and Mr. Randolph goes back to New York to deal with business, Deanna is left to stay with her best friend Cassie Woodruff and the Woodruffs guests, Lord David and Madeline Manchester. The sugar cane plantation owner from Barbados has some to do business with R and W Sugar, Deanna, Cassie and Joe's family business. He has also come to look at some new inventions of Joe's in his workshop in the seedy Fifth Ward. Lord David's business could keep the evil Havermeyers from stealing R&W and creating a monopoly. When the Woodruff's maid, Daisy, ends up dead on the cliffs and Joe's apprentice is accused, Deanna suspects the maid's death is not a simple matter of being in the family way but part of a larger chain of sinister events happening in the Woodruff home. Soon Deanna realizes the only people she can trust are her maid Elspeth, Joe Ballard and his eccentric Gran Gwen. Can she solve the mystery before the murderer realizes she has figured it out?

I liked this book a lot but I didn't find it as interesting as Alyssa Maxwell's Gilded Age mysteries. This is partly because Deanna is so young but mostly because the characters and their homes are fictional. I can't use this novel as a guide book to Gilded Age New York the way I can with Alyssa Maxwell's books. Nevertheless, I did really enjoy the Newport setting. Downton Abbey fans will like this look at American society in 1895. The story also contains an upstairs/downstairs element that fans of the British period dramas will enjoy. The plot was engaging enough to stay up very late reading and sophisticated enough that I only figured out one secret, but not the identity of the murderer or murderers. I also liked the growing friendship between Deanna and Joe and the light romance. I had a suspicion about Adelaide's headaches and subsequent trips to Boston and Switzerland but my suspicion didn't come to pass and I suppose it didn't make sense for the story. The ending is a bit of a cliffhanger. The big reveal comes from a character other than the villain so we don't really know the whole story and the way the events unfold did not satisfy me. It IS more realistic but I like my books to have tidy endings so I'm not left with questions and longing for the next book to see what happens.

What I wasn't crazy about was the young heroine. Deanna is likable but she's very young and naive. This leads her into dangerous situations which could have gotten her killed eventually. She feels goaded into doing the opposite of whatever Joe and Will tell her, despite the fact they are concerned about her safety. I think modern teens and adults can relate to her sense of longing for her childhood and her rebellion against doing what is expected of her. She's modern enough to appeal to contemporary readers. My own personal preference is for older heroines. Deanna isn't too modern for the 1890s though. Times were changing and evidenced by the references to Mrs. Ballard's interests and the changing fashions. Cassie thinks Deanna's mother is too old-fashioned and strict. I also liked that Deanna missed her older brother Bob, who died in an influenza outbreak at Yale and how she cared about not just her maid but also the other two maids who feature into the story. She looks at Elspeth as a friend and not an employee.

Elspeth is an interesting character. She's from an Irish working class family and yet she's nearly as stuffy as Deanna's mother. Elspeth knows the rules and knows her place but she cares about Deanna and can't help but act as a surrogate sister to the girl. Their love of dime novels is a little silly but it also makes their minds sharp and shows them how to pick up on clues the police may have overlooked.

Cassie, Deanna's best friend, is rather silly and naive. She doesn't know or want to know, anything about her father's problems. She has no interest in solving a murder and only want to have fun and flirt with handsome, rich young men. However, she is fun-loving and a rule breaker when she wants to be. She and Deanna make a good team because Deanna's level head can keep Cassie from getting into too much trouble and Cassie can make Deanna lighten up a bit. Cassie has a good relationship with her family. Her parents represent the less fun aspects of Gilded Age Society and the pitfalls of being used to having too much money. The other main female character is Madeline Manchester. Growing up in Barbados without a mother makes her more worldly than the sequestered New York/Newport girls. She's more sophisticated but also harder and colder. She doesn't care much about anything but her brother. She cares a little TOO much about him which to me, tipped me off about something that is revealed at the end. Her brother David is very charming but I didn't care for him much. He was too charming and too eager to flirt with Deanna.

I really liked the Ballard family. Joe is a complicated character. Like Deanna, he chafes against the rules of society, but at the same time wants her to obey them. He has a brilliant mind and is an honorable gentleman. He's just too stubborn for his own good sometimes. He would make Deanna an excellent husband if he let himself care for her in that way. My favorite character is Joe's Gran Gwen. She's a real eccentric. I love her sharp wit and her devil may care attitude. She reminded me of Lady Violet in Downton Abbey yet Lady Violet would be horrified at Gwen's egalitarian attitude, her past history with men and her sympathy for women's rights.

This is an interesting and entertaining book for readers in their older teens and up. I would classify it maybe as "new adult" because Deanna is only 18. Since the story is told through Deanna's eyes, she's very innocent and some of the darker aspects of Gilded Age society pass right over her head. There are mentions of mistresses, affairs, hints at what happens when couples go off alone to the rocks in the dark and one incestuous kissing scene.

A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell, #1)A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn--Victorian Mystery

Veronica Speedwell isn't content to stay in her country village now her Aunt Nell has passed away. Since the age of 18, Veronica has been traveling the world collecting butterflies and selling the specimens to collectors. It's not the most proper thing for unmarried ladies to do in 1887, but Veronica is not a conventional spinster. As she contemplates her next adventure after burying her age, she returns home to find an intruder ransacking her aunt's rented cottage. Veronica bravely fights the man off, but he attempts to abduct her. She is saved by the timely interference of a German Baron who whisks Veronica away to London and takes her to his friend Stoker, a fellow naturalist and promises tantalizing secrets about Veronica's mother. Stoker is a great bear of a man; a taxidermist, naturalist and as cantankerous and secretive as they come. He's not match for Veronica though, who can easily handle him. When the good Baron is murdered, Stoker panics and drags Julia off on an adventure across England to a traveling circus, a run down estate outbuilding, to London and on the Thames. It seems someone is after Veronica but for what purpose remains for her to find out. With Stoker's help, she approaches the problem with a scientific mind, but the results of her investigation have wider repercussions than she realizes and her life may be in danger.

I was sad to leave behind the Mad March family and Brisbane but had high hopes for this new series. The adventure wasn't quite as thrilling a mystery as in the Lady Julia Grey series. The plot didn't get really good until 2/3 of the way through. I found the whole thing relied too much on coincidence and especially the big secret. My reaction to the secret was "What?! No!" It is just so far fetched. It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense realistically speaking. I can think of a number of other ways to solve the problem. I also think I know the identify of the superior pulling the string, which should be obvious to Veronica once she knows the truth. I'm not fond of "what if" type stories I also found the constant use of scientific names for species to be way over my head. This book needs a glossary!

My biggest problem was the anachronism known as Veronica Speedwell. She is a VERY modern woman- very, very modern. She considers herself a scientist, thinks nothing of dallying with men when her libido requires it (as long as she is abroad and the men are not English) and hares off with men she doesn't know without a chaperone merely because she thinks she's an expert at reading facial expressions because she's read about them. The big big big problem here is that there is no way a sheltered young lady brought up by two spinsters in a sheltered English village would have access to the information she seems to have access to. No librarian would ever allow a girl/unmarried woman to read scientific texts. Most, if not all, libraries had closed stacks at that time and even if the stacks were open, a librarian would not allow Veronica to check out the books she seems to be reading. No doubt Veronica will enjoy the writings of Mona Caird, a married lady. There were lady scientists in Victorian Britain but I don't think they were as independent as Veronica and it just doesn't make sense for her character. Her frank discussions with Stoker, a man she doesn't know well, about sexuality and sex just seem unbelievable for a Victorian woman. In some ways she reminded me of Amelia Peabody Emerson because she was so smug and also very managing. Those who think Lady Julia Grey is too modern will not like Veronica.

I liked Stoker better than Veronica. He is brooding but different from the brooding half-Gypsy Nicholas Brisbane. Stoker has a back story that has yet to be explained but he doesn't get along with his family, has had a drinking problem, a bad temper, is passionately devoted to scientific study but has lost his nerve after a dark time. He's battled depression and isn't quite on the other side. He's a loyal and caring friend, even when he thinks he hates Veronica and doesn't trust her. He's gentlemanly in his relations with women, despite the fact the sexual chemistry between him and Veronica is palpable. If I go on to read any future books in this series, I'd like to know more about Stoker. He's not the type of hero that would appeal to everyone and he wouldn't be my type of romantic hero but as a character in a novel, I enjoyed his complexities and how Veronica brought out the side of him he believed lost.

There are an assortment of other people who flit in and out of the story. The villains (or are they?) are deep and complex. Their motives are specific to the place and time and provide some interesting background information on the 1880s. I wish the author had included a note explaining more of the history.

I have mixed feelings about this book but I will probably read the next one if my library carries it.

I Don't Know How the Story EndsI Don't Know How the Story Ends by J.B. Cheaney--Middle Grades Historical Fiction

It's bad enough that Isobel Ransom's father went off to war when he didn't have to, but now her mother is dragging Isobel and her irrepressible little sister Sylvie off to Los Angeles to stay with Mrs. Ransom's sister. Isobel resents being dragged away from her native Seattle. Los Angeles seems like a foreign land with shoot-outs and cars carrying strange boxes following people's every move. It's 1918 and the motion picture industry is just getting started in LA and it's all very strange and foreign to Isobel, who isn't really allowed to see pictures. The only kid Isobel's age to hang out with is her movie-obsessed step-cousin Roger. Roger wants to be a famous filmmaker, like his idol D.W. Griffith. Roger's father wants to send him to military school, thinking the boy needs to grow up. If only Roger can convince D.W. Griffith to hire him, his father won't make him go to military school. He's been working secretly with his acquaintance Sam on a film but first he needs more actors. He enlists a reluctant Isobel and an eager Sylvie to act in his film. Isobel points out the film's one big flaw- there's no ending. Actually, the plot keeps changing daily! Will Roger ever finish his film? How will the story end?

I really liked this look at early Hollywood. I've read a little bit about the motion picture industry when it was based on the east coast and I've seen History Detectives on a Hollywood investigation but mostly I didn't know much about the silent film era. I know just enough to know D.W. Griffith changed the film industry by making epic films rather than brief vaudeville style acts. I also know a bit about Charlie Chaplin and his womanizing and of course I have seen some of the films featuring his iconic character The Tramp. All this and more is included in this novel. I didn't realize that movie film had to be developed like print film and I didn't really know anything about movie cameras and how movies were filmed. So, obviously, I enjoyed the history behind the story. The plot is cute. I was kept wondering how the movie would turn out and what the plot would ultimately be. I was torn between wanting Isobel's father to return from the war and not wanting him to return. I knew if he did, he wouldn't be the same and Isobel would have a hard time accepting the change. The underlying father at war story made this novel more than a cute story about movies. I found the last chapter and epilogue especially heavy handed and knocked off a star because of it. I also knocked off half a star because I failed to cry at the end, though I can see other readers tearing up.

A note to parents who give this book to children: because the book is set in 1918, the characters sometimes use somewhat offensive ethnic terms to describe people. It may go over the heads of the target age reader or it may bring up questions.

Isobel's whole life has been changed and her father's absence has made her grow up too fast. She's proud but at the same time angry and resentful towards her father for leaving. This gives her character depth, more than any of the other characters who are mostly two-dimensional. I could relate to her, being the oldest child in my family. Sylvie's crazy antics lighten the mood of the story but I got tired of her being the annoying, cutesy little kid all the time. I liked Roger, though I thought he was crazy if he thought he could avoid military school while all his actions pointed towards his father being more inclined to send Roger! The issue of his Indian mother comes up a bit at the beginning but gets dropped quickly. I completely forgot about his being different, which I assume was the author's intention, but some more interaction with his peers would have been nice. Sam is more interesting character. Silent and steady, Sam has had a tough life. He accepts what is and what can not be changed, which is rather sad. It allows him to connect with Isobel. His passion for film making leads him to an odd friendship with Roger and somehow it works.

This story deals a lot with parent/child relationships. Isbobel's mother is, from Isobel's point-of-view, a bit strict and no-nonsense. I'm sure having a husband away at war, even as a doctor, and raising two children would be difficult. Mother's personality changes when they come back to her native LA. Surrounded by her eccentric sister, flattering movie stars, and sunshine, she allows herself to ignore her cares for awhile. This makes her relationship with Isobel complicated and I think I would feel the same way as Isobel at 11. My favorite character is Aunt Buzzy. She's eccentric and a lot of fun - just the opposite of her sister. Her husband, Titus, seems like a fun person too. He appears briefly and then leaves and reappears to advance Roger's part of the plot. Roger has a difficult relationship with his father, similar to Isbobel's father's relationship with his father.

I liked the story enough to read a sequel if there is one and to want to read more by this author but I don't think it will be the best children's book I've read all year.

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