Sunday, January 30, 2011

What I've Read This Week

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

Like a Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce (Dear America) by Lois Lowry -- Middle Grades Historical Fiction

In 1919 Portland, Maine, Lydia lives a comfortable life with her parents, older brother and baby sister. Sometimes her big brother Daniel teases too much but he also helps Lydia with her geography homework. Lydia looks forward to her 11th birthday when her parents will take her to the movies as a special treat, but the Spanish Influenza comes to town and ruins Lydia's plans. Her mother gives her a journal and and an heirloom antique ring to make up for the disappointment. Lydia's concerns quickly seem petty and childish once her parents and baby sister die from the Spanish Influenza. Lydia and Daniel are first taken to stay with their uncle on his farm, but their aunt is overworked and overburdened with too many children and demands they leave. Lydia and Daniel are taken to Sabbath Day Lake to the Shaker settlement there to live among the Shakers. At first, Lydia finds life among the Shakers confusing with their separation of the sexes, hard work ethic, lack of worldly goods and belief in confession. Daniel, too, has difficulty adjusting to his new life and longs to escape. Lydia begins to see the good points of Shaker life and care for her new family. Still, she sometimes finds it hard not to be selfish and whiny and learns that she must bend like the willow tree in order to be truly content. As usual, Lois Lowry, who has been one of my favorite writers since childhood, delivers an excellent story of a realistic little girl coping with difficult changes. The dialogue sounds like it's coming from the mouth of an eleven-year-old. I like the way Lydia sometimes talks in questions ("My house? I mean my house in the world.") like real children do. Her world is very vivid and described in enough detail to interest and teach the reader. Though I have read books about the Spanish Influenza and Shakers before, I especially like how Lowry makes her heroine innocently ignorant about who the Shakers are so that Lowry can explain about the Shakers and their life through Lydia's eyes as Lydia learns about Shaker life.The Author's Note section includes information on the Spanish Influenza and Shakers, including photos taken by one of the Shakers featured in the story. I highly recommend this book to children 8+ and to their sisters, mothers, aunts and anyone who likes a good, simple story. My only complaint is the computer-generated portrait on the front cover which lacks the charm of the historic paintings used in the original Dear America series. 

The Unflappable Miss Fairchild by Regina Scott -- Regency Romance
Chas Prestwick,  younger brother of the Earl of Prestwick, is a well-known rakehell, but when a former paramour confronts him at a party and threatens to make a scene, he only wants to escape. Luckily, he's accidentally rescued by the arrival of Miss Anne Fairchild who rises to the occasion and handles the situation neatly and quietly. Chas is instantly taken with this angel but thinks she's not for the likes of him. Capable and dependable, Anne has always been willing to do whatever anyone asks in any given situation. The one thing she refuses to do is marry without love, and that happens to be the one goal her Aunt Agatha has in mind for Anne. When Anne finds herself again unexpectedly thrown together with Chas Prestwick, she can't help but enjoy the free feeling the adventure provides. Chas can't get this angel out of his mind and is determined to find out who she is. As luck with have it, Anne's aunt Millicent was a good friend of the Dowager Countess, therefore, Chas finds a legitimate excuse for being in Anne's company and longs to court her properly, but knows he isn't the man for her. For Anne, Chas makes her other suitors appear foolish and boring, but she knows that she doesn't have what it takes to be the woman for Chas. Can true love win out over misunderstandings and the sins of the past? This is a nice, light romance with just the right amount of depth to keep it from being totally fluffy. Chas is a flawed hero and he recognizes his flaws and the reasons for his behavior, which I really like. I also like the family dynamic of the Prestwick family and the way it plays out in the end. Anne is a multi-dimensional character. Her independence is more subtle than most characters and her coolheadedness is much to be admired. The romance is sweet and the chemistry develops nicely without overpowering the plot. There are a few serious kissing scenes but fortunately, they lack the excessive emotional language that often accompanies those types of scenes. I like the characters very much and would like to be friends with them. The plot kept me engaged after a slow Prologue and first chapter. This is a great, quick read for those who enjoy the old style Regencies.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What I've Read This Week

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

 The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede -- Young Adult Historical/ Fantasy Fiction

Set in an alternate America, or Columbia, as it is called,in the 19th century, this book is a coming-of-age tale about Eff Rothmer, the thirteenth child in a family of fourteen children. Eff's twin brother Lan is a "double seven," the seventh son of a seventh son. In their small, magical community, Lan is revered for his natural magic and extra special good luck. Eff is not so lucky. Being the 13th child is considered unlucky and it is assumed the child will "go bad" one day. Eff lives in the shadow of Lan and is forced to put up with the taunting and tormenting of her cousins and the hatred of her uncle while Lan is held up and revered. When Eff and Lan are five, their Papa accepts a position at a new land-grand college in The North Plains Territory, just east of the Great Barrier that protects humans from the dangerous magical creatures that inhabit the West. In Mill City no one knows Eff and Lan or what they are and their parents ensure that their upbringing as as normal as possible. As they get older and their magical training begins, Eff Eff wonders if whether she really is unlucky and blames herself for anything that goes wrong. She confides in her favorite teacher, Miss Ochiba, who teaches Eff different types of magic and ways of seeing things that are different from the traditional Avrupan way. Still, Eff worries though her friend William thinks she's pretty special. A crop-eating grub crises in the settlements brings the Rothmers to the Rationalist Settlement, where people rely on hard work to get by, rather than magic. There Eff figures out her own magical dilemma and discovers just who she really is and what she is meant to be.  This story is told in the first-person past tense, which makes it difficult to read. Eff tells her story from age five to age eighteen as a summary of her life. Unfortunately, it takes the entire book to get anywhere and achieve anything like a plot. As a result, the ending feels rushed and summarized. The magical world isn't as charming and fully fleshed out as Harry Potter's world and creates a lot of confusion. I would have also enjoyed learning more about the strange beasts before they enter the story. This book lacks Wrede's characteristic humor and features a heroine with such little self-esteem that she's not very enjoyable to read about. I much prefer Wrede's stories about 19th century England in a world that is much like our own to this far flung fantasy. I wouldn't recommend this book to adults but I think 8-12 year olds who haven't read much fantasy will enjoy it.

Cate of the Lost Colony by Lisa Klein -- Young Adult Historical Fiction 

Lady Catherine Archer's father dies for his Queen and his country, leaving Catherine an orphan thrown on the mercy of poor, unfeeling relatives. When a summons from Queen Elizabeth (I) arrives, Catherine is thrilled to join the Queen's court as a maid of honor. Catherine soon learns that life with Queen Elizabeth is not as fun as it sounds. The aging queen is much troubled and her mood changes by the minute. Some of the other maids are not quite friendly. Still, Catherine enjoys her new life, especially the handsome Walter Ralegh who captures the Queen's eye and becomes her new favorite. Walter, too, is smitten by the bold, beautiful young maid. As Walter Ralegh becomes elevated in the Queen's favor, he dreams of settling a colony in the New World in a new land he will name Virginia after the Queen and a land in which he will be ruler. After some setbacks, an initial party returns with tales of an Eden on earth and friendly "savages." They even return with two Indians to show the Queen: Wanchese, an older, cynical Roanoke leader and Manteo, a young Croatoan man with big dreams. Catherine is fascinated by the tales of adventure in the wilderness and longs to see it for herself. She dreams of being by Sir Walter's side as they rule Eden in peace. Catherine's dream is shattered when the jealous Queen discovers Catherine and Sir Walter's secret love. Catherine is betrayed and banished; banished to the new land they call Virginia. Life in Virginia is not quite what Catherine, now called Cate, had dreamed of. Her beloved Walter remains in England and Eden is nowhere to be found around Roanoke. The English quarrel with each other, worry about attacks from the Spanish and the Indians as they try to make their new home in this strange land. The Indians are not thrilled to have the English settle on their lands but Cate manages to make a fragile peace with the women, while Manteo works on the male leaders of neighboring tribes. The colonists wonder if Manteo is trustworthy and whether ships will return with the supplies they desperately need. Manteo dreams of honor and glory for his people, but questions the best way to do it. Should he side with the antagonistic Wanchese or  help the English who have become his friends, especially the beautiful "ladi-cate"? Meanwhile, back in England, Sir Walter struggles to maintain the favor of the Queen so that he can sail to Virginia, become wealthy and return with Lady Catherine. Strong-willed, opinionated and brave, Catherine is ready to face any challenge that comes her way.  

This book is an attempt to explain what may have happened to the Lost Colony of Roanake using alternating viewpoints of Catherine Archer, Sir Walter Ralegh and Manteo. It blends fact with fiction to create a compelling story rich in detail. As you know, I adore historical detail and this book is full of wonderful descriptions of life in Elizabethan England and in Roanoke. I really felt like I was right there all along. I could quibble about Cate being a very modern character and transitioning too quickly from shy girl to bold woman, but I won't complain because she really is a great character and a good role model for teenage girls of any century. The only real problem I had with the story was Sir Walter Ralegh. His story is uninteresting and I didn't care for the unlikely romantic pairing of Sir Walter and Lady Catherine. The chapters from his point-of-view contain letters and memorandum that bog down the otherwise exciting plot. An author's note explains the known facts about the mystery of Roanoke and provides sources to learn more, which is always a plus for me. I highly recommend this book to teens and adults. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

What I've Read This Week

What I Read This Weekend . . .

The Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Longsted -- Young Adult Historical Fiction
In the nineteenth century, girls like Bet don't typically have many advantages. The daughter of a maid and nobody knows who, Bet has been lucky in life for sixteen years. First, her mother was allowed to stay in her position as maid in the Gardener household and keep Bet in the servants' quarters. Then, after the deaths of Bet's mother and Mrs. and Mr. Gardener, Bet and the Gardener's son Will, were taken in by Will's great-uncle Paul. At first Bet and Will were raised like brother and sister, until they were ten and Will's maternal relatives insisted on sending Will to school and keeping Bet in her place as companion to Will's uncle. Not quite family but not really a servant, Bet is well enough, but she isn't really content. What she really longs for is an education. Angry at Will for being sent down from yet another school (this makes four), Bet wonders why Will would willingly give up something she longs for. Will dreams of joining the military instead and Bet comes up with a daring plan that will give them both what they dream of. Bet disguises herself as Will to attend the Betterman Academy, a school for losers and misfits who can't excel anywhere else. Masquerading as a boy is a lot harder than Bet ever imagined. The school work isn't hard but she has to contend with bullies, keeping her identity a secret and falling in love with her handsome roommate, James Tyler. Bet also worries about Will, who is employed as a drummer boy in the army. What will happen if he's killed? What will happen if her identity is discovered and will she ever be able to reveal herself to James? This first-person narrative of a young woman's struggle to achieve her dreams is a great read. Bet is an inspirational, plucky heroine. Her dream of wanting an education may be difficult for modern readers to really understand but she's a very sympathetic character and the reader will want her to achieve her dreams. Will doesn't appear much in the novel and I'd love a companion story about his coming-of-age. The romance is totally swoonworthy (the best line in the book is "Swoon!") and so very sweet. Though the story is likely improbable, it's a fun and fast read that girls 12 and up will love hopefully as much as I did. This is one of the best YA books I've read in a long time for the simplicity and sweetness of the story and the sheer courage of the protagonist.

Friday, January 14, 2011

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend by Cora Harrison -- YA Historical Fiction/Austenesque

Sixteen-year-old Jenny Copper and her younger cousin Jane Austen are students at a horrible boarding school in Southampton where they're always cold and hungry. Jane has made shy Jenny's life bearable with her jokes and witty stories. Without Jane, Jenny would die. Now Jane is dying of fever and the school mistress doesn't care and the doctor's potions are not working. Jenny feels that if her Aunt Austen would come, Jane would get well, however, Jenny is forbidden from contacting the outside world and the school mistress will not send for Jane's mother. Fearing for her best friend's life, Jenny dares break the rules to sneak out and mail a letter on the midnight mail coach. The streets of Southamton are dangerous after dark and Jenny is scared of the drunken men and other unsavory characters, but is rescued by the handsome young Captain Thomas Williams. The Captain listens to Jenny's story,  helps to make sure her letter will reach her aunt ASAP and escorts her safely back to school. Jenny falls madly in love with the kind, caring young man but she knows if anyone ever finds out she was wandering the streets alone at night, unescorted, her reputation will be ruined. Jenny, always a worrier, pours her feelings into her journal, hoping her Aunt Austen will come and make Jane well again. The Austens come to take Jane and Jenny away from school and back to the Steventon Parsonage in Hampshire where Jane's lively and boisterous family are ready and willing to accept Jenny as one of their own. Jenny is fascinated by Jane's five brothers (especially charming  Henry), one sister and several theology students who live at the Parsonage. Jenny's only brother is much older and he and his wife care little about her so she is content to stay with the Austens. Jenny records her daily activities and thoughts into her journal accompanied by sketches of the Austens and their world. Jenny's quiet nature is a contrast to her lively cousin Jane who is always dashing about, speaking her mind, writing romance stories and getting into trouble. Jenny's terrible secret hovers in the back of her mind, right next to thoughts of the dashing Captain. She wonders if he'll keep his word never to share her secret and whether she'll ever see him again. With Jane, Jenny learns about family, friendship, flirting and love as they run around, attend parties and balls and fall in and out of love.

This is a sweet little fictional account of Jane Austen's early years through the eyes of someone who knew her well. Jenny is a great narrator because she's observant and records everything. She's sweet and shy and I like her a lot. I love her romance and the story kept me guessing as to what her heart really felt. Jane, on the other hand, is a little unlikeable. She's bratty and immature for 15 and never thinks things through. She has a difficult relationship with her mother, who apparently is the model for Mrs. Bennet, and adores her indulgent father. Her romance stories are hilarious and if you haven't read her juvenile stories, you'll want to after this. I also didn't like how certain people and events in Jane's life influenced her stories. This story would have been better without the too obvious parallels. Diehard Janeites might dislike the portrayal of young Jane Austen and history geeks might miss the lack of period language,  though for teens, I think it's a good introduction to Jane Austen and her time. The language is modern and accessible and Jane and Jenny's feelings and actions are just the same as any other teenage girl in any time or place. I enjoyed the book and think it's worth a read if you want to know what a young Jane Austen COULD have been like. I liked this one better than Dearest Cousin Jane by Jill Pitkeathley.

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week Part II

Dancing With Mr. Darcy: Stories Inspired by Jane Austen and Chawton House -- Short Stories

These short stories are the winning entries in the Jane Austen short story contest sponsored by Chawton House, the home of Jane Austen's brother, which is now a library for early women writers. The winning entries are written by experienced writers and are inspired by Jane Austen, (her themes, her stories, her life) or some aspect of Chawton House or Jane Austen's home, Chawton Cottage. There are a mix of contemporary, historical and fantasy stories of all types. 

The winning entry "Jane Austen Over the Styx" finds our beloved authoress in Hades answering to six of her most horrible elderly female characters. They charge her with being guilty of disliking the elderly and wish to punish their author in some way. This is an usual setting for a story and slightly darkly funny. I disagree with the ladies because there are other examples of kind elderly women in Jane Austen's stories. The outcome is bittersweet. This was one of the stories I liked in the anthology because it was funny and odd and very different and featured Jane Austen. 

The runner up entry, "Jayne", is set in the modern world and features an adult model protagonist who also studies English Literature. She has the same monetary goals as Jane Austen's characters but set in the real world, her goals seem more practical and easier to relate to. This is a good story if you like contemporary fiction. 

The second runner-up takes place inside Jane Austen's head as she struggles with her decision to marry or not marry Harris Bigg-Wither. Like her characters, she wants financial support for herself and her family but she really doesn't want to marry without love. The author expertly captured Jane Austen's thoughts and feelings and the reader will feel like they are right inside Jane Austen's head. 

My favorite story is "The Delaford Lady's Detective Agency" in which Elinor Dashwood Ferrars is a detective specializing in minor domestic crimes affecting women. She sets out to solve the mystery of a ghost who finishes the embroidery of one of Marianne's house guests while the guests sleep. The story is told from Elinor's point of view and the author stays true to Elinor's calm, rational personality. The answer to the mystery isn't all that surprising but how Elinor deals with it is true to her time period and her personality, which I like. 

Another take on Sense and Sensibility but in the modern world is "Marianne and Ellie". Ellie, the sensible, practical sister has to help her over-emotional younger sister through a bad break-up while keeping the secret of her own failed relationship. I could really relate to the two sisters in the story. I can see my little sister as Marianne. I'm not as nice as Ellie but I can see myself in her shoes and enjoyed the updated version of the story. 

My other favorite contemporary story is "Cleverclogs." I gather that Cleverclogs means smartypants in British because the narrator of the story is a little girl who loves to learn and talk about what she's learned. She's precocious and intelligent and just discovering the works of Jane Austen, thanks to her sympathetic grandmother. She lacks maturity for all her wisdom but figures out the right thing to do in the face of a crisis. This is another story I could relate to because the narrator reminded me of myself as a child and of a girl I used to babysit for. I liked the way she experienced Jane Austen and used her love of books to overcome a big change in her life.

Another stand-out is "Snowmelt" about a librarian who is afraid of change and fears the apocalypse is coming soon. When the world changes around her and she's no longer relevant, she learns to accept the changes and turn a negative into a positive. I especially liked this story because of the changing library theme and the study of early women writers.  

"Second Fruits" is another good contemporary retelling of a Jane Austen story, this time Persuasion, in which a young lady is forced by her father to give up her happiness for the sake of ambition and money. The father in the story did not seem very realistic and I find it hard to believe that a 20th century teenager wouldn't fight for her own happiness, but otherwise I liked the way the author updated the story and made it relevant to the real 21st century world. 

My least favorite story is "One Character in Search of Her Love Story Role" in which the author uses footnotes to explain obscure literary theory references. It made the story even more confusing than it was and distracted the flow of the narrative. In this story, a contemporary heroine spends time with Jane Bennet and Jane Eyre to discuss life and love and how to be a heroine. It would have been a much better story without the complicated references. 

Overall, I was a bit disappointed in these stories. I was hoping for more Regency-set stories or more Jane Austen stories and didn't care for the overwhelming amount of modern stories.I also think the overwhelming use of British terms and Literary philosophy make some of the stories difficult for the average American reader. I wouldn't recommend buying this book as part of a Jane Austen collection but for a general literature collection or women's literature collection.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week

 cover art by Arthur Barbosa © Heinemann, Australia 1954
The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer
Unable to endure his stuffy cousin's engagement party more than one night and tired of his mother and sister's matchmaking schemes, Captain John Staple sets out for his friend's hunting box. Much to his dismay, he gets a late start, his horse loses a shoe on the moors and he takes a wrong turn and ends up in the middle of nowhere, Derbyshire in a rain storm. Finding a toll-gate, John demands entry to the pike, hoping to spend the night in the nearest town. The gate is opened by a ten-year-old boy, wet, cold and afraid. Ben's father, the toll keeper, has disappeared and Ben doesn't know where he is or when he will return. John, wet and tired and also intensely curious, decides to spend the night until Mr. Brean returns. Mr. Brean has not returned by morning and John, always up for an adventure, takes on the role of toll-keeper. One of his first customers is Miss Nell Stornaway, the Squire's granddaughter. Suddenly, John's reasons for staying increase. Miss Nell is not a young miss nor is she missish. She's taken over the management of the estate from her ill grandfather and cares for the old man as he lays dying. Now her cousin and grandfather's heir, Henry and his sleezy friend Nat Coate are staying at the Manor and Nell is sure they're up to no good. John wonders if Henry Stornaway's arrival has anything to do with the mysterious disappearance of the toll-keeper and if so, what is the connection. With the help of a highwayman with a heart of gold, John sets out to solve the mystery and protect Miss Nell with all his heart and body. This is an unconventional novel for Heyer. The hero doesn't even appear until the second page and he doesn't speak until page 6. There are kisses in the middle of the book and more romance than most of her other novels. (I'm not complaining though, I enjoy a good, sweet romance). The plot reads like a copycat for the first half but the last half sparkles with her usual wit and intelligence. Only Heyer could create such quirky characters and infuse humor into a mystery plot. John is a great hero, he's an alpha hero but he's not arrogant or angry and never loses his temper. Nell is one of my favorite heroines. She's strong, intelligent and capable of taking care of herself. The romance is a bit unbelievable given the time frame it happens in but I like the couple together and think they'll suit very well. Nell has just the right temperament to deal with John. I adored the secondary romance which made me giggle a lot. The mystery is impossible to solve and kept me turning the page far too late into the night. I can't believe I hadn't read this one before because now it's one of my favorites! 

Young Master Darcy : A Lesson in Honor by Pamela Aidan -- Austenesque Fiction

This novella by the Wytherngate Press writer of the fabulous Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman chronicles takes the reader back in time to December 1797 when Fitzwilliam Darcy was just 13 years old. Young Master Darcy is looking forward to the winter holidays after his first term at Eton. He can't wait to see his family again and spend Christmas at Pemberley and is looking forward to learning how to drive a team of horses in the summer. Upon his arrival at Erewhile House in London, he learns the devastating news that his mother is ill and dying. Lady Anne refuses to allow her illness to dampen the holiday spirits and insists on celebrating as always. Fitz tries to summon the courage to face the future with good spirits, but it isn't always easy. He escapes for a long gallop on his horse to rid himself of his turbulent emotions and comes across a group of village children practicing a Mummer's play. Entranced by their lively fun, and a girl with twinkling, dark, witty eyes, Fitz can't help but join in the fun. When his cousins arrive at Pemberley for Christmas, the children provide entertainment for Lady Anne and the other adults that no one will ever forget, but Darcy wonders whether he'll be able to keep his promise to his new friends too. He needs to confide in his cousin Richard Fitzwilliam for help. As Christmas grows closer, Fitz worries about pleasing his family and his friends at the same time and learns exactly what it means to be a Darcy. This book is another wonderful chronicle in the life of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Pamela Aidan makes his world come alive with descriptive details and fully internalizes Darcy's feelings. As with her previous books, I really feel like I am there inside Darcy's head as he grows up. I'm thrilled this has been published at last, after reading the first two chapters online years ago, I've been dying to finish it. My only complaint is that it's too short and I can't wait for the next installment!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Greetings Readers! I have entered the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge sponsored by Historical Tapestry. As you know it's not much of a challenge for me, but it will be fun. I'm aiming for "Severe Bookaholism": 20 books. I hope some of you will enter the challenge also.

Here's my list of books for January (links lead to my reviews):
  1.  The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer
  2.  Young Master Darcy by Pamela Aidan
  3. I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend by Cora Harrison (YA)
  4. The Education of Bet  by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (YA)
  5. The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede (Middle Grades)
  6. Cate of the Lost Colony by Lisa Klein (YA) 
  7. Like the Willow Tree : the diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce by Lois Lowry (Dear America),
  8. The Unflappable Miss Fairchild by Regina Scott

Happy New Year

Happy New Year
Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Mrs. Durfee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading, 1876, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Happy New Year fellow Bluestockings! I hope you your holidays were filled with lots of geeky bluestocking fun. Do you wonder what other bluestockings receive for the holidays? Here are my gifts:

Bluestocking t-shirt from Bas Bleu, Ada Lovelace t-shirt from Think Geek, books : one antique (New Chronicles of Rebecca) and one new (A Walk with Jane Austen). Not shown are two gift certificates to Barnes & Noble. I have purchased Dancing With Mr. Darcy and the Jane Austen Companion to Life Calender. What did the rest of you bluestockings receive?