Monday, February 28, 2011

What I've Read This Week

What I Read This Weeked . . .

A Walk With Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love and Faith by Lori Smith -- Memoir/Travelogue

Exhausted and depressed from a debilitating mystery illness, Lori Smith had questions about her life and her faith and went searching for answers in Jane Austen's England. Starting her trip at a religious retreat at Oxford, Lori thought she found her Mr. Darcy, but he was kind of more like Willoughby, that is, non-committal or maybe just not that into her, Lori isn't sure. After Oxford she heads off alone to visit the places significant in Jane Austen's life and works, exploring Jane's ideas about faith and working out her own. She interrupts her travelogue to travel back in time to tell the reader about her childhood and then forward in time and then off on tangents about her family and her faith. In between, she tramps through fields, down deserted roads and in the footsteps of Jane Austen. She shares with the reader related quotes from Jane Austen's books, letters, biographies and other anecdotes about the author's life that are already well-known to the true Janeite. Lori muses about her lack of love life and her desire to marry and have a family. She sounds a lot like someone from the 19th century with her deep religious convictions and the idea that she's almost thirty and unmarried. All of the above combine to make extremely dull reading. Lori comes across as naive and whiny at times, though I understand she was feeling bad. I wanted more description of Jane Austen locations rather than tedious, pointless details of Lori's own life. I'm not a Christian and couldn't relate to Lori and mostly skimmed the parts where she talks about her family and faith. Don't read this book expecting a travelogue of Jane Austen sites. I recommend this one only to Christian women in their twenties and early thirties.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer -- Young Adult Historical Fantasy
This story picks up a few months after A College of Magics left off. In an alternate England of 1908 (Titanic beat her own trans-Atlantic record), Samuel Lambert, an American sharpshooter from the Wild West has been recruited by Glasscastle University, a top college of magic in England. The fellows of Glasscastle want to test Lambert's accuracy of aim in order prepare a top-secret project. Lambert feels at home there. He loves the calm and peace of Glasscastle, especially the evening chanting of the wards, but he knows Glasscastle isn't for the likes of him. For one thing, he doesn't know the first thing about magic and for another, he doesn't have the right background. Still, he is enjoying his time spent wandering the paths of Glasscastle and admiring the architecture; he even finds the Provost's wife charming for all she tries to read his fortune in tea leaves and by other methods Lambert finds silly. Six months into Lambert's visit, Provost Robert Brailsford's youngest sister Jane arrives unexpectedly. Lambert doesn't know what to make of Jane. She seems the serious, school ma'm type but then she bursts out with outrageous comments that reveal her sense of humor. She also insists on driving a motor car and treats Lambert and his friend Nicholas Fell to a wild ride. Nicholas Fell, the absent-minded professor, has a destiny to fulfill and Jane has come to ensure that he stops resisting his fate. When a stranger walks through the gates of Glasscastle and breaks into Fell's study, Lambert wonders whether someone else is after his friend and why. Lambert shares his suspicions with Robert Brailsford and the next thing he knows Robert has disappeared. Then Fell disappears and no one will believe Lambert that Fell hasn't just gone off on his own to pursue his studies in peace. Together, Lambert and Jane head off to in the motor car to find Robert and Fell and stumble upon the secret behind the mysterious disappearances. Lambert learns first hand just what the mysterious Agincourt project is. This is Lambert's story and almost a coming of-age book combined with an exciting plot. This sequel is much better than the first book. The properties of magic are still a bit muddy but Jane explains that Greenlaw magic is highly personal and individual so I guess that's why College of Magics was so confusing. Lambert is the main character of the story and I liked him a lot. He has a good sense of humor and he's an honorable man. He's an unusual type of character and it's fun to read about someone different. I absolutely love Jane. I enjoyed her  as Farris's friend in College of Magics and adore her in this book. She's smart, witty, brave and daring. I love her quirky sense of humor and the way she can look serious and sound ridiculous at the same time. I also love that she has the ability to mock the Fellows to their faces without them knowing about it. She's a really strong and fun heroine and she and Lambert have great chemistry. The story veers off in a rather wild direction with a fairy tale about a lustful shape changer that seemingly has nothing to do with the plot and is a bit mature for younger teens. There's also a lot of mathematical discussion which makes my head hurt. I know that's stereotypical of me to say but I really am terrible at math and I hate it. The end of the plot is a little rushed and confusing and I wasn't thrilled with the final action but there's a possibility for another sequel where we might learn more about what happens to the characters. Even if you didn't like College of Magics, read this sequel!

Sweet Disorder by Jacqueline Kolosov -- Young Adult Historical Fiction
Sixteen-year-old Miranda is an Elizabethan girl dreaming of marrying her sweetheart Henry Raleigh. The her father dies deeply in debt and Miranda's world is changed forever. Her father's friend Lord Grey petitions thr Queen to reduce the debt but it isn't enough. Miranda's suitor cries off and Miranda is sent to live with distant relatives she's never met in order to prepare for appearing at court. Her new guardian, the Countess of Turbrury is strict and dour and Miranda's new home is gloomy. She misses her mother and the beauty of her old life. She finds a friend in the maid's daughter but they must meet secretly. Finally, Miranda is ready to appear at court. She hopes to find a true friend among the other maidens but learns that she must be wary and not place her trust in the wrong people. To complicate matters, Henry Raleigh is also at court and Miranda isn't sure if he's still the same man she fell in love with. There's also the handsome, charming Kyd, a commoner who befriends Miranda and offers to help her find a way out of the awful marriage the Countess has planned for her. Miranda hopes her sewing and embroidery skills will win her the favor of Queen Elizabeth and gain her her freedom. Miranda has to navigate the Queen's tricky moods and overcome the Queen's jealousy of her mother. By the time the story is done, Miranda has managed to create a "sweet disorder" in court. This novel has many wonderful details about period clothing and life in Elizabeth I's time. The writing is lovely and the story flows nicely. I couldn't put it down until I found out what happened to Miranda. The story is sweet but rather unrealistic. Even so, I enjoyed it. I recommend this book for teens. Adults who are mildly interested in the period and looking for a sweet romantic story rather than an epic or saga found in adult novels will like this book too.

Friday, February 18, 2011

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel by Michaela MacColl -- Young Adult Historical Fiction

Liza has lived all over the world with her sauerkraut king father and her German-born mother, but now, it's 1838 and Liza is 17 and ready to make her debut in English Society. Her plans are shattered when her parents are tragically killed in a carriage accident. Liza soon learns even more devastating news: her father died deep in debt. With no family to protect her, Liza must make her own way in the world. She applies for a job as a maid to the Princess Victoria in Kensington Palace but her sassy attitude and smart mouth don't win her any favors. However, Liza's ability to speak German gets her the job. It's not exactly what Liza had in mind, being subjected to the whims and fancies of the teenage princess, the demands of the Duchess of Kent, and trying to avoid the advances of the villainous Sir John Conroy. Not to mention the fact that everyone in the palace seems to want her to spy on someone else! Liza feels trapped inside the palace thanks to Conroy's Kensington System that doesn't let Princess Victoria go anywhere or be by herself for a minute. Liza decides to befriend Princess Victoria, in hopes of what the Princess might do for her some day, but finds herself feeling sorry for the Princess who is a virtual prisoner in her own home. Liza and Victoria, with the help of a mysterious boy and a news sheet publisher, set out to expose Conroy for the villain they know he is; if they can find proof, that is. Liza's relationships with Princess Victoria and a handsome young man help her find her way out of the palace prison. This novel is great fun and filled with the type of historical detail that will please teenage girls. Liza is spunky and spirited, a very modern heroine, who doesn't let anyone dictate her behavior. She's a girl that a modern reader can relate to. Princess Victoria is a more complicated character. At first she's spoiled and bratty and I didn't like her much, but felt intensely sorry for her. Then her fun-loving side came out and she was much easier to sympathize with and finally she matured into the woman who became the longest reigning monarch in British history. The language is very modern and accessible for all readers, especially those who haven't been exposed to period language and the author uses real diary excerpts from Queen Victoria's childhood journals. I didn't feel the romance was very strong. The love interest's character development got lost in a series of letters. That was the only thing I felt could have been better in this great debut novel. The cover is to-die-for amazing, especially the back which features a Victorian era news sheet with articles that reveal tantalizing bits of the plot. I enjoyed this look at Victoria's young adulthood and recommend it to teenage girls, those who have read Bewitching Season by Marissa Doyle, A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee and those who may have seen and liked the movie Young Victoria


Lady Macbeth's Daughter by Lisa Klein -- Young Adult Historical Fiction

This take on Shakespeare's play is told in alternating viewpoints with Grelach, Lady Macbeth and Albia, the daughter, telling the story. Grelach is the granddaughter of a king and expects that her father will inherit one day until her grandfather is murdered and King Duncan puts himself on the throne. Grelach is married off at 13 to a man twice her age, whom she detests. She gives birth to a son, Luoch, whom she also dislikes. When her husband is murdered by Macbeth, Grelach's father forces her to marry Macbeth. Macbeth is younger and more handsome than her first husband and Grelach thinks she can grow to feel affection for him, however, he has a nasty temper and a war-like nature that Grelach fears. Macbeth has been told by an "oracle" that he will have many sons and he looks forward to the birth of his first child. When the child is born female and with a crooked leg, Grelach fears for the safety of the child she loves. When Macbeth learns the baby is a girl and "deformed" he sends his henchman out into the woods to leave the baby for the wolves. The baby is rescued by Lady Macbeth's lady-in-waiting Rhuven, and given to her sisters to raise peacefully in the woods. Albia grows up believing Geillis is her mother and knowing nothing of the dramatic events that are to happen thanks to her aunt Helwain's prophecy. At age 14, Albia is sent to live with Banquo and his wife and grows to love her foster brother Fleance. Meanwhile, Grelach has been unable to provide Macbeth with sons. Scared for her life, she fosters his ambition in hopes that he will adopt her son and her family will return to the throne. Albia finally learns the truth about her heritage from a dying Geillis and also discovers that she has second sight. When Macbeth's perfidious deeds personally affect Albia, she desires revenge. Assisted by her friend Colum, the shepherd, she sets off to destroy Macbeth.  Colum reminds her there's a difference between revenge and justice and Albia must decide which path she is to choose in order to save the kingdom and protect the man she loves. Lisa Klein says in her author's note that she drew on the true history of the period as well as Shakespeare's source material and the play itself. Her research really shows through in the wonderful, descriptive period details. The plot is a bit confusing and gruesome with too much killing shown. The ending is a bit confusing and open-ended. Grelach is not a character that readers are meant to like but she does inspire some sympathy and she could probably argue a convincing case that none of the destruction was her fault and she was an innocent victim. Albia is not very likable either. Her romantic plot isn't very convincing and if it were not part of the story, I think the story would have been a bit stronger. Overall though, the writing is really good (especially Shakespeare's) and though this book was written to be read alongside the play or just after, it works well as a stand-alone. I think high school students who have an interest in history and/or Shakespeare will really like this book.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England by Amanda Vickery -- Non-Fiction

This book gives readers a close-up look at the idea of home in Georgian England (18th century) and what went into making the house a home. She begins each chapter with an anecdote about real people and the way they lived which makes the book more enjoyable than a scholarly text. Using letters, diaries and account books, Amanda Vickery pieces together stories of middle-class life. There are fabulous paintings, etchings and political cartoons of the period which add to the enjoyment of the book. I really enjoyed learning about the home in Georgian England and I hope the BBC documentary series based on the books will air in America or be available on DVD soon. For now, you can read more at Amanda's blog on the BBC website and get the full run-down on Jane Austen's World. This book is highly readable and very interesting. I recommend it to those who have an interest in the period and have time to pick up this book and read it. (I've had it for awhile but been too swamped with school work to want to do any more non-fiction reading. It's due back at the library soon so I had to finish.)

Friday, February 11, 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 February (links lead to my reviews):
  1.  A Poor Relation by Joanna Maitland
  2. College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer  (YA)
  3. Prisoners in the Palace : how Victoria became queen with the help of her maid, a reporter, and a scoundrel : a novel of intrigue and romance  by Michaela MacColl (YA)
  4. Lady MacBeth's Daughter by Lisa Klein (YA)
  5. Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer  (YA)
  6. A Sweet Disorder by Jacqueline Kolosov (YA)

What I Read This Week . . . . . .

What I Read This Week. . .

A Poor Relation by Joanna Maitland -- Regency Romance

While traveling to London, Lord Amburley rushes to the rescue of a lady he believes to be in distress. he is distressed to find that not only is the lady a servant of some sort, she doesn't need his help. Instead, she snaps at him and comforts the supposed accuser. Amburley leaves in a huff, angry at this sharp-tongued woman. Isabella Winstanley, dressed in shabby clothing, is traveling to London with her young relative, Sophia. Along the way, Isabella stopped to visit the poor soldiers and orphans for whom she is a benefactress, when Lord Amburley, misinterpreting the situation, attempted his rescue. When they next meet, sooner than Isabella had hoped, his charming manner disarms Isabella. Aburley is confused and angry at Isabella for her deception, only he misunderstands the situation and believes her to be a poor companion masquerading as a member of the ton. He's determined to ferret her out and punish her for her deception. What he doesn't know is
that Isabella is a really a wealthy woman, but to discourage fortune hunters, she and her great-aunt, with whom she lives, have put it out that Isabella is a poor relation. During the social whirl of the Season, Amburley attempts to win her confidence so he can finally expose her for the liar he believes her to be. They battle wits in a high-stakes card game and challenge each other to a daring race through the London streets. As they prepare for the race, Lord Amburley comes to see Isabella for the lovely woman she is. He also decides to help his friend Lewiston in his pursuit of Sophia. Isabella loses her heart completely to Amburley but she fears he's courting Sophia. The outcome of the curricle race will be the final showdown between these strong willed individuals before the happy ending can be decided for one of the lovely ladies.

I really couldn't like this story as much as I wanted to. I couldn't stand Lord Amburley. Isabella believes him to be an honorable man, while he's scheming and plotting against her. He's a Mr. Darcy wannabe without Mr. Darcy's honesty. Amburley listens too much to gossip and pre-prejudges Isabella based on her appearance. If Amburley hadn't been so sure of himself and sneaky, I probably would have liked this take on Pride and Prejudice a lot more. Isabella is an interesting character and I would have liked more of the story from her point of view. Much of the plot borrows from classics like P&P and Georgette Heyer's Arabella and Regency Buck but without the sparkle and fun of the originals. The romance is clean, with one serious kiss and Isabella's feelings about the kiss.

College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer -- Young Adult Historical Fantasy
In an alternate version of early 20th century Europe, Faris Nallaneen, the heir to the Duchy of Galazon, is sent by her uncle/guardian to Greenlaw College in France to learn polish, manners and magic. Faris absolutely does not want to be there and is determined to get sent home or run away as soon as possible. Her plans are thwarted and she must remain at Greenlaw and become a witch of Greenlaw. Faris keeps mostly to herself and doesn't bother anybody, but a nasty girl Menary spreads rumors about Faris's birth and Faris takes delight in her revenge. The rumor serves as a catalyst for Faris to make friends with the Englishwoman Jane, who plans to stay at the college as long as possible in order to avoid an unwanted marriage. Jane and the other girls of Study Number Five help Faris lighten up and enjoy her adventure. Magic isn't actually taught at Greenlaw and Faris doubts the existence of it but something strange happens when Faris is provoked by Menary just before they're set to graduate. Aided by Jane and her faithful bodyguard Tyrian, Faris leaves school and heads on a journey to discover her true destiny. This book is vastly different from Sorcery and Cecilia, which Stevermer co-wrote with Patricia C. Wrede. The story is set in a different magical world where magic seems to be all around and absorbed rather than learned. The author isn't very clear on the subject and all the magic parts of the story are very vague and confusing. Greenlaw is no Hogwarts and lacks the fully fleshed out description of the more famous magical school. The plot is full of adventure yet the adventure leads to... more confusion and a really odd ending. There's also an unusual romance that never fully gets off the ground and something about Oriental carpets that isn't fully explained. I like my stories to have nice, predictable, fairy tale endings and this one left me a bit puzzled and a bit sad. Jane is the best part of the whole novel. She's amusing, whimsical and prim all at the same time. I look forward to reading more about her in Scholar of Magics. Don't read this book if you're looking for something like Sorcery and Cecilia or Harry Potter.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Brian Jacques

Farewell, Brian Jacques

picture from Redwall wiki
Sad news for fans of the wonderful children's writer Brian Jacques. His family has confirmed that he passed away on February 5, 2011. He was the creator of the amazing Redwall series of novels set in a mythical woodland abbey and populated with all manner of woodland creatures who are moved to take up the sword to defend their peaceful home from evil invaders.  He also wrote the Castaways of the Flying Dutchman series based on the legend of the ghost ship.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Jacques one afternoon about ten years ago at a storytelling/book signing event at a bookstore near my home. I had never read the Redwall books though I was aware of them from the library shelves. Mr. Jacques was an entertaining storyteller and told many humorous anecdotes about growing up in Liverpool and other fun stories. He took the time to greet each child in line and personalize an inscription. I picked The Castaways of the Flying Dutchman for my mom's friend's son and headed to the library to pick up the Redwall books. I was surprised by the amount of violence in the stories but I quickly got sucked into the beautiful world Mr. Jacques created. His descriptions are so vivid and characterizations so real, I felt like I was right there in Mossflower Wood. I think I read the entire series in one week and waited eagerly for the next installment. My personal favorites are the ones that deal with the history of Redwall and move backward in time to tell the story.

I'm saddened that the world has lost such a gifted storyteller. 
Farewell, Mr. Jacques!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

It's Sunday night 9 PM and I'm experiencing Downton Abbey withdrawl! Anyone else with me? What did you think? Who is your favorite character? Mine is of course Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess. I also love Lady Sybil. I have a soft spot for the Earl and Bates as well.

If you haven't already seen this fabulous British drama, lucky for you it's still playing on PBS

What in the world is Downton Abbey you ask? 

It's a British import drama set just before World War I. It's the story of the aristocratic Crawley family: Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, his wife Cora, their three daughters, his mother and of course the downstairs family: the servants. As the first episode opens, the news of Titanic's sinking makes its way to Downton Abbey and the Earl learns of the deaths of his cousin and cousin's son, the heir to Downton Abbey. Lady Mary, the eldest daughter was unofficially engaged to marry Patrick but as she tells her sisters, only until someone better came along. She mourns only the fact that she can't mourn him more, while her middle sister Edith truly loved Patrick and is jealous of her sister for getting everything Edith wants. The one thing Mary can't have though is Downton Abbey. It's entailed to be legally passed down to the next male on the family tree.

Lady Violet, The Dowager Countess, played by the always delightful Maggie Smith, wants her son to get a good lawyer who will help him break the entail, but he accepts the way things are.
Lady Violet

The family learns that the next heir is Matthew Crawley, a lawyer from Manchester who neither knows nor cares anything about the estate. Matthew is summoned to Downton to take his rightful place and learn to be the next Earl. Matthew arrives with his intelligent, strong-willed mother who clashes with the The Dowager Countess,  Matthew's mother also decides to take up nursing at the village hospital, much to the dismay of her son's new family.

The Earl is happy to show Matthew how much he loves the estate and how to be caretaker in hopes that Matthew will learn to love it as well and want to carry on caring for it. Matthew has a very middle-class outlook on life and is determined not to change.

Violet schemes with Lady Grantham to find out how to break the entail and leave everything to Mary. After all, it's Cora's American money that kept the estate from being sold in the 1880s. Cora wants to do all she can to help her children, but she's also supportive of her husband's decision and makes it a point to try to find an eligible husband for Mary, preferably Matthew. 

Stubborn Mary wants nothing to do with her mother's plans or with Matthew, at first. She prefers to find her own husband. Lady Edith simmers with jealously and tries to throw herself at Matthew instead. Lady Sybil is not yet "out" and cares nothing for marriage yet. She represents the New Woman of the new century: intelligent, capable and interested in women's suffrage. 

Meanwhile, the servants downstairs have their own little family, presided over by the kind, yet proper Mr. Carson. When the Earl's new valet arrives, the servants worry he won't be able to do his job because he walks with a limp and the problem of Mr. Bates divides the servants. First Footman Thomas and Lady's Maid Miss O'Brien, jealous of the upstairs folks, scheme and plan for their own ends. Housemaid Gwen, a farmer's daughter, dreams of bettering herself and becoming a secretary. Little Daisy, the kitchen maid experiences the wrath of the cook and the trauma of falling for the bad boy. Kind Anna, Gwen's roommate, does all she can to help Gwen's dreams come true and make her own dreams come true as well.

I'm not going to add more plot details because you have to see it for yourself. It is rather soap opera-ish and I felt many scenes were cliched and overdramatic (really, Lady Mary? Really?!?! OMG! and OUCH Lady Edith and Lady Mary) is all I have to say about that) but I was totally hooked by the end of episode one. 

The acting is very strong, there's not a weak link among this distinguished cast. Each one makes their character fully three-dimensional, even the ones you love to hate. By far the best actors are Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, the two grande dames who take pot shots at each other and snap out the best zingers. Maggie Smith alone is worth the price of the DVD. The costumes are to-die-for gorgeous! 

The scenery is splendid because the series is filmed at a real estate and historic village.

I highly recommend catching this series while you can or getting the DVD ASAP! You won't regret it! I can't wait for series 2!