Saturday, March 31, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

The Traitor in the Tunnel by Y.S. Lee (The Agency 3) -- Young Adult Historical Fiction/Mystery

Mary Quinn is now a full-fledged member of The Agency after two years. Her newest assignment is to investigate the disappearance of some small items from the Queen's drawing room. Serving at Buckingham Palace isn't easy with a mistrustful housekeeper, shrewish lady-in-waiting, disgusting equerries and an ambitious roommate. Mary knows enough to keep her eyes and ears open despite her difficulties. She becomes privy to the news that the Prince of Wales was out carousing with friends and stumbled into an opium den where the Prince's friend was stabbed by an old, opium addicted Chinese man - a man who happens to have the same name as Mary's father! While the Queen wants justice for the murder of an aristocrat or possibly treason, Prince Bertie won't share what he knows. Mary is determined to see social justice done even if the man is not her father. At the same time, Easton engineering is renovating the sewer tunnels under the palace and Mary and James encounter one another again. This time there's no denying the passion between them. Mary needs James' help again for she has discovered the presence of secret tunnels underneath the Palace which places the entire royal household in jeopardy. Mary and James must put personal feelings aside for now and determine whether someone means to use the tunnels for evil. Her search for answers leads her from the Prince's apartments, down into the sewers to the Tower of London where she uncovers difficult truths about herself and her identity. This is the best book of the trilogy. As usual the descriptive period details are amazing and really set the scene, especially in the sewers. Mary is a strong female character who I loved from the start. The author hasn't changed Mary in any negative way. Instead, Mary grows as learns to confront her issues. James too grows up while remaining as swoony as ever. The dialogue between Mary and James is top-notch and rather sweet and funny. The mystery of the murder was interesting and engaging but the other mysteries were less interesting mainly because I was intrigued by the secrets of Mary's past from the first book and was anxious for a resolution. The ending is not at all rushed and everything wraps up neatly - if not entirely historically accurately. I couldn't have written it better myself. I'm not sure there needs to be a fourth volume in the series but I look forward to reading it anyway!

French Leave by Sheri Cobb South (Weaver Trilogy #3) -- Regency Romance

The Earl of Waverly, who once tried to seduce Lady Helen Radney, has been in exile in France for four years since his debts forced him to leave England. He's been living hand-to-mouth on his winnings and is completely miserable. He takes a turn for the worse when he discovers that Ethan Brundy has been knighted. Staggering home drunk that evening, he is surprised to discover a young novice running away from her convent. She has nowhere to go for if she returns home her aunt and uncle will force her to marry her awful cousin Raoul. Her only hope is to find her estranged English grandfather and hope he will take her in. She puts her trust in Waverly and offers him a reward on her grandfather's behalf. Drunk and mostly senseless, Waverly agrees to escort the girl to England. When he comes to his senses the next day, he discovers the young lady is badly in need of an older, wiser head to guide her and since Waverly needs funds, why not escort her to England? With Lisette disguised as a boy, they make their way to Lancashire only to meet with misfortune. They have no choice but to seek help from the nearest house, which just so happens to be the home of the Brundys! Waverly has no choice but to throw himself on the mercy of Sir Ethan and Lady Helen. Next he must marry Lisette for surely she has been compromised just by being with him and the child needs a guardian, so why not? It should be a marriage blanc, a marriage of convenience for both, but Waverly doesn't understand the workings of the human heart. While he is busy trying to pursue his own interests, Lisette schemes to attract her handsome husband's attention. The Brundys are friendly enough but have their own marital problems to deal with. Meanwhile Lisette's despicable cousin is after her and will stop at nothing until he's found her. This book contains all the plot elements I can't stand. It borrows heavily from Georgette Heyer's canon. Lisette is very young and silly but she knows her own mind and she's strong-willed. She's very much like Leonie in These Old Shades and Waverly is modeled after Justin. Waverly does redeem himself in the end and I liked him better than Justin.  In my opinion, though, the characters in this novel can not compare to Georgette Heyer's and if I were an author I would stay far away from copying the best in the business. The epilogue of this book is worth reading and made me laugh. I only picked this one up because I wanted to find out what happened to the Brundys. They featured into this novel more than I expected. If you want to know what happens to them without reading the book, leave a comment and I'll respond. If you liked These Old Shades, The Corinthian, Friday's Child, you will like this book almost as much.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

The Counterfeit Lady by Daisy Vivian -- Regency Romance

Susanna Archer, the longtime faithful companion of old Lady Wycombe is shocked when her employer dies and leaves Susanna her entire fashionable wardrobe. Lady Wycombe loved clothes but rarely ever wore any of the beautiful gowns she had made. Susanna's friend Tibby, maid to Lady Wycombe, suggests Susanna could catch herself a rich husband by posing as a beautiful, wealthy widow in some watering hole. Susanna is tempted, she's a bit tired of not being noticed by handsome gentlemen such as Lady Wycombe's nephew Patrick, and tired of being dependent on cranky old ladies for a living. Finally, Susanna agrees to pose as Lady Kinsale, a widow of the Irish Lieutenant-General and settle in Cheyne Spa with Tibby posing as her lady's maid. Susanna is recognized almost right away by Lady Morphy whose nephew Gavin Marshall is the best friend of Patrick Wycombe. Lady Morphy decides she and her nephew can use Susanna to further their own ends by marrying her off to Lady Morphy's older brother, the Duke of Quince, a widower without children. In exchange for not revealing Susanna's true identity, Lady Morphy and Gavin endeavor to polish Susanna's manners to make her masquerade more convincing. The Duke is making is own plans for marriage. He's initially interested in young Cecily Fairfax, who has her eye on Patrick Wycombe though her mother desires her to marry the Duke. When Patrick Wycombe comes to town he is captivated by Susanna's beauty and gets to play the knight errant when another Duke takes an unhealthy interest in Susanna. All the while Susanna is confused about what to do. She isn't sure she wants to choose comfort and security over love or whether she can actually have both. This is an unconventional Regency romance. For one thing, it's not modeled after any of the Georgette Heyer Regencies or Jane Austen! Secondly, it took me almost the whole book to figure out who Susanna was going to choose in the end. Also, I found myself leaning more towards a very unconventional suitor. I didn't really like the heroine or the hero. Susanna is a bit unnecessarily cold and mercenary, at least at first. I can understand her desire for independence but I'm not sure I would have made the choices she did. Once she makes a decision though she sticks to it and she does the right thing in the end though it may cost her. The hero is surprising and I didn't much care for him either. The romance is very light with no real development on either side. I felt that Susanna should have not chosen any of the gentlemen! The plot moves along a little slowly in the beginning and picks up a tiny bit later after Susanna's arrival in Cheyne Spa. The ending is rushed and I think another few chapters would have better completed the story. I didn't love this novel but I didn't hate it either. It's nice and light and good bedtime reading. 

Cut to the Quick : Julian Krestrel #1 by Kate Ross -- Historical Mystery

Hugh Fontclair has just come of age. He's in London for the first time and should be celebrating but instead he is miserable because his family has engaged him to Miss Maud Craddock, a young woman he barely knows. The reason for the engagement is not for the usual reasons, however, for Miss Craddock's father is a Cit and has some kind of hold over the Fontclair family and only marriage to Miss Craddock will stop her father from ruining the Fontclairs. Hugh's raffish cousin Guy takes Hugh out for a night on the town where Hugh is rescued from a difficult situation by London dandy Julian Kestrel. Julian, a successor to Beau Brummell, doesn't think anything of the encounter so he is vastly surprised when he receives an invitation to Hugh's wedding. Thinking country life will save him some money, Julian heads off to visit the Fontclairs at Bellegarde, their country estate. Julian soon finds himself knee-deep in a criminal investigation when he discovers a young woman dead in his bed. His valet, a former pickpocket, is accused and Julian knows that an innocent man will take the blame if he can't find the real murderer. Julian's keen mind uncovers secrets about the Fontclair family that they will do anything to protect. This book is similar to Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries but with a male sleuth. The story is told in third person jumping from one character to another, sometimes abruptly. I had to really pay attention to figure out whose thoughts I was reading. As a result of the third person narration, Julian's character remains underdeveloped. A secondary character makes observations about Julian and the reasons for his dandy pose but I didn't really get a good sense of the reasons for Julian's pose just from reading his thoughts and actions. Many of the other characters are stock Regency novel characters: the cruel father, the blackmailer, the young woman in love but afraid to show it, the jealous bridegroom, and the eccentric relations. My favorite character is Dipper, the pickpocket turned valet. There's also the theme of forbidden passion that runs through this novel.  Kate Ross takes stereotypical themes to a new level though involving family pride that verges on madness and secrets that may reveal the reasons for the murder. All the elements of the mystery until then are revealed slowly and compellingly. I just couldn't figure out who the murderer was. Initially I suspected the actual murderer but there didn't seem to be a motive. Indeed, when the motive comes out at the end it seems a little out of the blue. The mystery was so good I couldn't put the book down. The period details are good and seem well-researched.The story is set in the 1820s despite the fact that many people label it Regency. The culture is still the same as in the Regency era, only the monarch has changed at this point. If you like historical mysteries, especially the Jane Austen mysteries, you should like this one.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movie Review : Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre 


Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, and Judi Dench

I viewed the recent remake of Charlotte  Brontë's classic novel Jane Eyre. In case you don't know the story, I shall try to summarize it. Jane Eyre is the poor relation of a wealthy family who can't be bothered with her. Her aunt sends her off to a strict and dour boarding school where girls are frozen to death and beaten with rods for disobedience. Jane's experiences make her meek yet resilient to hardship. After finishing at school, she's sent to work as a governess at Thornfield Hall to a young girl named Adèle Varens who is the ward of Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester. Jane likes the forward young French girl and enjoys living in a grand house and the freedom of walking out of doors through all kinds of gloomy weather. 

On one of her walks she accidentally causes a horse to fall and injure it's rider who is faults Jane for the accident. Jane soon discovers that the injured man is her employer, Mr. Rochester. He's temperamental but intelligent and seems glad to talk to Jane. Sometimes he goes away for long periods of time and on one such occasion he brings back a party which includes the beautiful Blanche Ingram, whom the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, believes Mr. Rochester has chosen for his bride. Mysterious events happen in the nighttime, perhaps caused by the ghost/vampire lady Adèle claims wanders the halls at night. Jane saves Mr. Rochester's life and they fall in love. 

On her wedding day, Jane discovers a terrible secret and runs madly across the moors, falling into a swoon in the brush where she's discovered by a young clergyman, St. John Rivers. St. John and his sisters nurse Jane back to health and St. John makes plans for Jane's future. Jane decides on her own path.

This movie is visually stunning. It's dark, foggy and gloomy when appropriate and as Jane falls in love, spring arrives and everything is sunny and the gardens are blooming. I especially liked the outdoor scenes. They were very effective. I have a fascination with the world of the
Brontës and loved seeing it come to life.
The plot seems mostly faithful to what I can remember from the book. It's told in flashback which makes the story a bit confusing to follow. It does leave out or quickly gloss over some things for the sake of time and that's not really a good thing. It's very very slow moving and I kept thinking about shutting it off but stuck with it. The romance is really rushed and shown but not developed. The ending is suitably gothic though I'm not sure it conveys what Charlotte Brontë intended it to. The movie seems to go in for the gothic plot over the important themes that the author intended.
The acting is excellent. Mia's Jane is meek yet strong. She can stand up for herself when she needs to, which the actress does without being overly melodramatic. Her scenes of anguish were nicely done. They were not over the top as is easy to do in a period drama such as this. Michael Fassbender's Rochester is passionate, temperamental and not quite as creepy as he appears in the novel but not as kind as the recent mini-series that aired on PBS. As she does in Cranford, Judi Dench provides a quiet, dignified old lady to act as a mother figure to the heroine. Jamie Bell is a bit too tormented as St. John Rivers. He's supposed to be a foil for Rochester and I found him too brooding but his acting was pretty good given the part. 

I keep watching adaptations hoping I'll like the story better but I just can not. In the novel, Mr. Rochester comes across as more controlling and creepy than mildly sympathetic. He treats Adele like a pet and Jane like a possession. I can not love him nor can I forgive him for the mad woman in the attic, no matter how kind the gesture. He kept her a secret for too long, holding too much power over everyone and abusing poor Jane's trust. As Mrs. Fairfax notes, Jane is young and has little experience with men and I believe Mr. Rochester takes advantage of that fact. Given my opinions of the story, I'm not the best judge to say whether the movie was good or not. I'll let you read my thoughts and decide whether you agree or want to watch it or not.

p.s This story is far better suited for vampires and zombies than Jane Austen!

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge -- Middle Grades Historical Fantasy

Imagine a fractured world where royalists are fractured into different segments battling with Parliamentarians and trade guilds for control of the kingdom. Imagine a world where most people are forbidden to read and only the official Stationer's Guild can print words and burn any books they consider objectionable. This is the world Mosca Mye is born into  at dusk on the sacred day of Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns.Mosca's father Quilliam, an eccentric scholar, names her after a fly and begins to tell baby Mosca about the political wars of the realm and of religious fanatics called Birdcatchers who once outlawed not just reading but worship of a pantheon of deities known as The Beloved. Quilliam also teaches his young daughter how to read before passing from this earth. Now twelve-year-old Mosca is orphaned and living with her cruel aunt and uncle. She longs for something more than slaving away at her uncle's book keeping. She's fascinated by words and longs for more, so when a wordsmith by the name of Eponymous Clent comes to the village of Clough Mosca is fascinated. When a stranger comes to town informing the magistrate that Clent is a swindler, Mosca is determined to save Clent. With her fractious pet goose in tow, Mosca frees Clent and talks him into letting her join him on his journey. Little does Mosca know that she will soon be caught up in an adventure that will introduce her to thieves, highwaymen, great ladies, cranky riverboat captains, smugglers, marriage houses (where anyone can be married for the right price) and Stationers. The journey takes them to the big city of Mandelion where Mosca hopes to attend school and further her education or perhaps work for the Duke of Mandelion's sister Lady Tamarind. Mosca discovers that her knowledge of words brings her power but it also makes her a pawn in the political war over who will control the crazy Duke: the Stationers or the Locksmiths. Mosca doesn't know what to think or who to trust. She must beware and learn to tell the truth for her self and decide where she belongs. The world of this novel is complex and requires the reader to pay careful attention to what is happening in order to sort out the different political and religious factions. I had a tough time understanding them myself. The world is not as well-drawn as Harry Potter, Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials or Cornelia Funke's Inkheart series but it's interesting just the same. It's loosely based on early 18th century England with lots of made-up elements. The strength of this novel lies in the plucky heroine, Mosca. Mosca is feisty and longs for freedom from her horrible life. She's similar to other feisty heroines in Middle Grades novels but she has the extra element of loving words. I can completely relate to Mosca's love of words and her desire to know more. Her dream of being recognized for her skill is a theme that runs through the novel. Her dream is understandable given the world she lives in. All of these things make her a great heroine and very sympathetic. My favorite character is Saracen, Mosca's bodyguard goose. I wish he had a bit more page time but some of the plot hinges on his actions. The story kept me guessing and second guessing though I thought I knew who I would trust, I could have easily placed my trust in the wrong people. It's wryly funny and very clever. The story reminded me a bit of Huck Finn. There's a good message about getting information to people so they can learn to think and decide for themselves what it is they believe in, if anything. There's room for all different beliefs. I would definitely recommend this to anyone at a 6th grade reading level or above. Though the main character is a girl, I think boys will like it too. I hope there will be more Mosca adventures to come.

Fly Trap by Frances Hardinge -- Middle Grades Historical Fantasy

Mosca Mye is back in this sequel to Fly By Night. She (along with Saracen) and Clent are on the run. They're not wanted in Mandelion anymore and neither is Clent's poetry. They've had to beg, borrow and steal what little they can to survive making many enemies along the way. Mandelion is still in a state of rebellion and trade with other locations is prohibited, so money is not easy for the fugitives to come by. It seems that there's only one place open to them is far to the east, across a bridge that has a hefty toll. In order to raise money for the toll and free Clent from prison, Mosca accepts an offer to be a scribe at a Pawnbroker's Auction. She soon discovers a plot to kidnap a young lady and learns that her skill may be the death of her. Fortunately for Mosca, her temper helps her escape with her life and her quick wits help her fund an unwitting ally. Mosca and Clent finally make it to the town of Toll where people are judged based on the time of day they were born. Mosca, born in the evening, has a "night" name associated with traits such as lying. Clent, however, has a day name, at least for now. Some of the town's residents have been reclassified as night since the rebellion in Mandelion. Those with night names do not exist during they day. They're locked into secret rooms and can only emerge into another secret world at night. The day people depend on their Luck (a mysterious object locked inside a clock tour) to keep them safe. Issued visitors' badges depicting their Saint's symbol, Mosca and Clent try to warn the mayor of the plot to kidnap his adopted daughter Beamabeth. Mosca is jealous of the wealthy, beautiful, adored older girl whose name day is just a half hour before Mosca's making Beamabeth a golden girl and Mosca a fly. Mosca's determination to do the right thing and Clent's desire for a generous reward lead the co-conspirators into a heap of trouble and they may not escape alive. This sequel is not as charming as Fly By Night. What I loved about Fly By Night was the importance of words and free thought. In this book words just cause a lot of trouble. There's lots and lots of adventure in this book but I found it all to be a little too much. Mosca is forced to lie, cheat and steal to survive and I don't think that makes her very admirable. There's so much going on in this story that by the time it's all unraveled, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I was on the right track to guessing secrets long before Mosca and it seems as if she should have figured things out earlier. The ending drags on way too long. After the plot seems to have been wrapped up, there's more action before finally a resolution is achieved. Mosca delivers the moral of the story again revolving around doing the right thing and fighting for justice. I still like Mosca in spite of everything and I hope there are more Mosca adventures in the future.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter

Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 
by Susan Witting Albert
Historical Fiction/Mystery Series

The Tale of Hill Top Farm (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter )

In 1905, Beatrix Potter is a best-selling author mourning the loss of her fiance and trying to become independent of her demanding parents. She has just bought Hill Top Farm in the Lakes District in Yorkshire. She loves the beauty and remoteness of the area and hopes to enjoy many getaways there. She can not yet take possession of the farm house for it is rented to the Jennings family, the tenant farmers. Miss Potter intends to stay with Miss Abigail Tolliver, a spinster in the village of Sawrey, but Miss Tolliver has just died unexpectedly and the village gossips believe it was murder. When Miss Potter arrives, the gossips have something else to talk about : the eccentric city woman who keeps wild animals as pets and wants to farm! Some of the locals are even downright hostile to Miss Potter but she endears herself to some of the ladies by befriending a young boy wrongly accused of stealing money from his school. Miss Potter also discovers that a valuable painting has gone missing from Miss Tolliver's house and the vicar can't find the parish register anywhere. A mysterious woman known only to Miss Tolliver arrives and shocks everyone for being more eccentric than Miss Potter. Miss Tabitha Twitchett, senior cat of Sawrey, formerly belonging to Miss Tolliver, enlists the aid of her canine and feline friends to solve some of the mysteries the stupid humans can't figure out. Meanwhile, Miss Potter's animal companions discover that the country is more exciting than they ever dared to dream. This is a sweet, charming book that has the flavor of Beatrix Potter's novels and reminds me a lot of Cranford or Lark Rise to Candleford (for you PBS fans). There are twin villages populated by quirky, colorful characters. The story is very quiet. There are several mysteries to be solved and none of them are heart-pounding page turners but simple, ordinary things that are lost and need to be found in the usual ways. I really liked the setting though I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight and kept referring to the cast list in the front of the book. I liked the the setting and the characters' actions felt realistic. No one was doing anything that someone from that time should not be doing, especially the female characters. Miss Potter is really a secondary character in the novel. The main characters are really the cats and Rascal, the Jack Russell Terrier. This book may not be to everyone's liking. The animals can talk to each other and even read and write. They can not talk to humans though. This book would be best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a good English scone. Those who love Beatrix Potter's books will enjoy this story and want to learn more about the author. I highly recommend the movie Miss Potter starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor as a starting point. 

The Tale of Holly How  (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 2) 

Summer 1906: Beatrix Potter is back in Sawrey working hard to renovate the farm house and make the farm productive. She has purchased some sheep from old Ben Hornby, a crusty old shepherd who breeds the best Herdwick sheep. When Beatrix goes to collect the sheep, their pen is open and Mr. Hornby turns up dead. Beatrix suspects the death was no accident. The sheep may have a clue but they've disappeared! Meanwhile, the animals have their own dilemma. Someone has dug up a badger sett and kidnapped a badger Mum and her two children to use as bait in a sport known as badger baiting. Technically, badger baiting is against the law because it's a form of gambling but the human law enforcement officials have a hard time pinning down the culprit. Bosworth Badger knows something must be done and it's up to the animals of the Cuckoo Brown Woods to come to the rescue. Other tensions in Sawrey include the position of head teacher at the school. The locals want the position to go to their own Miss Nash but old Lady Langford has proposed her own candidate, an Oxford educated missionary who is known to her companion Miss Martine. Lady Langford's young granddaughter Caroline has come to stay while arrangements can be made to send the orphaned girl to school. Caroline is lonely and unhappy with only the mean old companion/governess Miss Martine for company. Beatrix sympathizes with the poor girl and tries to help, but Lady Langford is ill and uninterested in outside influence. Then Caroline overhears a shocking conversation which could affect her life as well as her grandmother's. It's up to Caroline, her friend Jeremy and the animals to convince someone to help. Miss Potter proves adept at finding clues and she may be the one to solve the mysteries with help from her small friends. This book is much more of a mystery than the first. I was able to figure out one of the mysteries but the other two were harder and more complex. I couldn't put the book down until I was finished. I enjoyed this charming picture of country life. In this book I was more interested in the animals than the humans. The animal plot is in the tradition of of Charlotte's Web and Redwall. If you don't like talking animals who act like humans, then don't read this book. There were some shocking instances of animal cruelty and abuse that were hard to read but otherwise I quite enjoyed this story.

The Tale of Cuckoo Brown Wood (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 3) 

April 1907: Spring is springing in Sawrey and Miss Potter is back at Hill Top Farm happily ensconced in her newly renovated farm house. She's perfectly happy with the changes except for a problem with rats in the attic. Miss Felicia Frummety, the farm cat, is too uppity to kill rats and the other village cats refuse to violate the Cat Code Of Honour which states that no cat may poach on another cat's territory without permission. Miss Potter will simply have to hire more cats. Ridley Rattail, gentleman rat, resides in the attic with his kindly hostess Rosabelle, her sister's family and a whole host of carousing rats. Poor Ridley can never get a moment's peace. He takes it upon himself to advertise for cat assassins for hire little realizing that when a new and stubborn cat moves in, Ridley's own life may be on the line. He has to decide whether he has the courage to save his kind hostess or save himself. Other unhappy changes are coming to Sawrey. The vicar is besieged by unwanted guests who won't leave; Jeremy Crosfield is facing the end of his schooling and beginning of adult life, though he passed the entrance exam for grammar school; Caroline Longford's grandmother is still strict and refuses to allow Caroline to associate with the village children and plans to hire a governess to teach Caroline how to be a lady; Deidre Malone has been sent from the orphanage to help care for the veterinarian's children. The other children tease her because she has red hair, a sure sign of witchcraft. Only Jeremy and Caroline are kind. Deidre invites her new friends on a hunt for fairies so she can determine whether she still has the gift she inherited from her mother. The others agree to this one last journey into childhood make believe. With the help of Miss Potter and the wild creatures of Cuckoo Brow Wood, they may find their dreams coming true. Major Christopher Kittredge of Raven Hall and late of the South African war, has brought home a new bride. She too has red hair and was an actress, causing locals to believe she's a witch or a ghost. Even so the locals are excited to attend a party at Raven Hall where they can view the lady up close and get a glimpse of the famous Luck, a fairy-made glass goblet given to Major Kittredge's ancestors for good luck. Luck has caused nothing but bad luck and Major Kittredge hopes his marriage with be the start of good luck. When Miss Potter overhears some things she shouldn't, she worries that Mrs. Kittredge may bring more bad luck to Raven Hall and big changes to Sawrey. The plot in this book is slow to start. The real mystery doesn't begin until halfway through the book. Too much time is devoted to the story of the rats. I felt slightly sorry for Ridley, having been in a similar situation, but had a hard time sympathizing because he's a rat and the rats were behaving like humans and interacting with humans and I found that a bit strange. I liked the journey of the three children and how their search for fairies was their way of resisting growing up. I know how they feel and I can relate to Miss Potter's interest, never having grown up myself and wanting my young friends to stay children as long as possible. The real mystery wasn't much of a surprise. It's very similar to one of the mysteries in the previous book and even though I figured it would all end happily, I had to keep reading until I was done. This is my least favorite of the series so far.

The Tale of Hawthorn House (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter 4)

Emily Shaw, lately maid of Lady Longford, has taken a position at Hawthorn House for the summer. The renter, a Miss Rowena Keller, has promised Emily a good job in London after the summer reason and Emily is excited to finally make it to the big city. First though, someone has to find a home for Baby Flora. When plans for the baby fall through, a mysterious old woman grabs the baby and takes off leaping over the garden wall. Miss Potter is back at Hilltop Farm enjoying the peace and prosperity of her farm. She has several new animal companions, including Kep the Collie and Jemima Puddle Duck, the hapless duck who fell in love with a fox who wanted to eat her and her ducklings for dinner. Jemima is sitting on a new set of eggs and is determined to hatch and raise her own ducklings. It's taking an awfully long time for the eggs to hatch but Jemima refuses to give up nesting through she begins to long for the comfortable lifestyle the fox Reynard Vulpes offered her before Kep discovered the fox's treachery. Miss Potter is shocked to discover a baby on her doorstep. As much as she loves children she knows she can't care for a baby at this time and turns Baby Flora over to Captain Miles Woodcock, Justice of the Peace. The Captain's sister Dimity is delighted to care for the baby. She's always wanted to marry and have children of her own. She's in love with Major Christopher Kittredge but her brother doesn't approve of the match. He'd rather see her married to Will Heelis, the solicitor while Dimity dreams of marrying her brother to Miss Potter. Soon the humans romantic entanglements and the identity of the baby will be the talk of Sawrey both from the humans and animals alike as Miss Potter strives to uncover the mystery of the baby's missing mother. Meanwhile Emily discovers that life in London is not all it promised to be. This is another very quiet mystery. There's very little plot in this novel. Most of the story centers around Jemima Puddleduck's story which parallels Emily's. The animals are charming and funny and provide the more interesting moments of the book. The mystery involves the mysterious Thorn Folk, a type of fairy seen only by children, animals and a few knowing adults which some readers may be put off by. I would have preferred more about Beatrix Potter solving mysteries of the more common sort. I disliked the way the author stepped out of the story to address the readers and explain things much like in a children's book of this period. I also did not like how the author felt the need to relate too many facts about Beatrix Potter which had little relevance to the story. The series seems to have taken an unexpected turn after the first two mysteries. I will probably continue to read the rest of the series though for I find them very calming, easy reads.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

Silent in the Grave (Lady Julia Grey Mysteries 1) by Deanna Raybourn -- Victorian Mystery/Romance

Lady Julia Grey first meets Nicholas Brisbane over her husband's dead body - or more accurately, her husband's still twitching body. Sir Edward Grey has finally succumbed to the heart condition which has plagued his family for generations. Julia feels very lost and without purpose. True, her marriage to her childhood friend had not been all that was ideal, but her life had a routine and a purpose while Edward was living. Julia, now a wealthy widow, wonders what she should do now. Surrounded by a loving, eccentric family, she has always craved normalcy but now she thinks perhaps she's more like the rest of the March family than she thought. When Brisbane shows up claiming that her husband was murdered, Julia refuses to accept his allegation and dismisses him. Julia can't put the darkly brooding stranger out of her mind though and when she discovers incriminating evidence she feels she can turn to Brisbane to help her solve the mystery of her husband's murder. Brisbane feels the trail has run cold after a year but Julia remains convinced and Brisbane reluctantly agrees to help her. Julia's youngest brother and her servants are also keeping secrets which may or may not have anything to do with the investigation. Brisbane too has secrets of his own to keep. Brisbane tries to keep one step ahead of Julia and keep her safe while keeping the relationship strictly professional, which confuses and maddens Julia if she stops to think about it. Julia discovers that her husband was entangled in a web of lies that could cost her her life. This murder mystery has many elements that will please any fan of 19th century novels: a dark brooding hero to make the Brontes and Byron proud, a spirited heroine, loyal servants and journeys to various parts of late Victorian London. Brisbane is maddeningly attractive in a Byronic sort of way. He's much more appealing that Mr. Rochester and not as temperamental as Heathcliff though he does bear a strong resemblance to the latter. Julia is an interesting heroine. The first half of the book is mainly about her journey of self-discovery. She's tried hard to be conventional but must determine whether that's what she really wants or not. She's desperate to be noticed but shy of attracting attention. She's a loyal sister, daughter, friend and a heroine to admire. She also has great taste in books. There are references to Jane Austen, the Brontes, Byron and other 19th century writers.  I adored the mad March family though I'm not sure that all of their activities would have been understood or discussed in 1886 but I suppose it works because they're so unconventional. Portia and The Ghoul add many lighthearted moments to the novel. The mystery is introduced about a third of the way through and by that time, I couldn't put the book down. It kept me guessing all the way until the very end. I was able to figure out Edward's big secret that led to all the other secrets and I figured out the secret of Brisbane's heritage almost right away. I did not guess the identity of the villain until just before Julia. There is one secret that is too Gothic and seems out of place in the novel which I did not like. The ending is a bit rushed and foreshadows events of the second book in the series. The romance is very subtle. There's a grand sweeping passion as well as a marriage of true minds but it doesn't come out much in the novel. I got the impression that Brisbane was annoyed and amused by Julia at first and then grew to care about her. She's attracted to him but unsure of her feelings as yet. She's experiencing a sexual awakening of sorts which is quietly explored in her mind only. There is no real graphic romantic content but there is a lot about the sexual activities of a certain character and some characters are prostitutes. The language is somewhat modern, especially the use of a certain word of an item in the last third of the novel but the rest of the book doesn't sound too modern. I would definitely recommend this to those who love Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Jo Beverley and other novels written in or set in the 19th century. I'm unsure whether I will continue the series at this time though.

The Day Dreaming Lady by Jacqueline Diamond -- Regency Romance

Lady Sara Rowdon always has her head in the clouds. She loves to daydream stories out of lurid novels in which she stars as the heroine instead of the meek, quiet young lady she is in real life. No one was more surprised than Lady Sara when the dashing young Captain Kenneth Link offered for her hand four years ago. Lady Sara's parents refused to allow her to marry a penniless nobody. Lady Sara's heart was broken and she knows she'll never love another. However, Lady Sara's parents are pushing her to marry Sir Lindsay Manx who will rescue the family from financial ruin and Lady Sara is a dutiful daughter. Now Kenneth has returned to London and he's inherited both title and wealth. As the Marquess of Broadmoor, Kenneth is the object of ever matchmaking Mama in London. He's certain he doesn't want to marry any of the simpering, silly young misses who have set their cap at him. His tastes run more towards the lovely widow Lady Mansfield who is also after the Marquess for his title.  Lord Broadmoor has one main goal for the Season though - to find the young lady who broke his heart and enact revenge by breaking hers in return. If only he could keep from becoming entranced by a certain pair of dreamy eyes. Lady Sara's mother urges her to keep Sir Lindsay in reserve in case Lord Broadmoor doesn't come up to scratch but Sir Lindsay doesn't seem in any hurry and Lady Sara fears she may lose both her suitors. She finally makes some friends and learns a lot about real life as gossip and secrets spread through the ton like wildfire and just maybe she'll become the heroine of her own story after all. Lady Sara is a unique heroine in the Regency genre. I can totally relate to her daydreaming and I can see myself in her and some of the situations she finds herself in are things I would probably do. I think she deserves much better than the hero who is petty and childish. The secondary characters are stereotypical but provide a lot of drama and some comic relief. There isn't much depth to the story. The romance is mostly told rather than developed through the plot. This book is light and fluffy, just what I needed after reading the above mystery. The story may not appeal to everyone though and there are a few typos and errors in the way peers should be addressed.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore -- Young Adult Historical Fantasy

Nimira left her homeland in search of money and fame as a singer. Instead she found poverty and misery singing for pennies at a cheap dance hall as part of a troupe of exotic foreign performers known as "Trouser Girls" for the style of clothing they wear. Nimira scoffs at the girls who dream of something more but secretly wishes for something better for herself. When a handsome, wealthy young gentleman, Hollin Parry, takes an interest in her and invites her to come sing at his estate, Nimira takes her chance. Hollin wants Nimira to sing while an automaton plays the piano. The previous girls he hired all ran off in fright claiming the automaton was haunted. Nimira resolves to be brave for she has risked everything for this position. Nim finds life in the country beautiful, yet somewhat lonely. Hollin seems to be kind and interested in her despite still grieving for his wife who died two years earlier. Nimira finds his attentions a bit unsettling and his political beliefs about fairies and land ownership are not what she thinks is fair. Hollin is an ambitious sorcerer and Nimira begins to think he's hiding secrets from her. Nimira too has secrets. She has discovered that the automaton is really the trapped soul of a fairy prince imprisoned there during a war thirty years earlier. Nim becomes his confidant and friend. She's determined to save Erris even if it means being parted from the one she loves. This book mixes familiar elements from Jane Eyre, The Wizard of Oz series, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, Harry Potter and Pygmalion into an entirely new world where humans and dangerous fairies battle for land. The plot is slow to start off and I had a hard time getting into the strange world. The world isn't as well-drawn or as detailed as the world of Harry Potter or Tamora Pierce's worlds. It seems to be similar to Victorian Europe or America where women wear corsets and have no say in their futures, but it contains sorcerers and fairies and spirits. Nim is brown skinned and comes from a land where women wear harem pants. Her culture is looked down on by the people of her adopted land as are the fairies. The conflicts between fairies and humans over land ownership parallels that of American settlers and the Indians. This story also contains ideas about women's rights and the place of women in this society. The big mystery really kept my interest though I was really sleepy. The ending is a bit rushed and ends without full resolution leading me to conclude there is a sequel. (Magic Under Stone available in Feb. 2012) I liked the characters very much. They aren't stereotypical and their roles and viewpoints aren't black and white. Bad characters have some good elements and good characters may have or do bad things. I especially like Nim. She's a strong heroine despite her circumstances. She's faced with an extraordinarily difficult decision torn between her heart and her ambition. She doesn't have easy choices to make and when she makes her choices she stands up for what she believes in. Nim is a heroine to admire. I would recommend this book for young teen girls who like historical fantasy with tough, strong-minded heroines. 

Pride and Prescience: Or, A Truth Universally Acknowledged by Carrie Bebris -- Austenesque Regency Mystery

Elizabeth and Jane Bennet are happily married to their true loves at long last and both couples are looking forward to their honeymoons but Caroline Bingley interferes by announcing her own engagement to an American, Mr. Frederick Parrish, a plantation owner from New Orleans. Unhappily the Darcys and the Bingleys must put off their honeymoons to attend the wedding one week hence in London. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy set up housekeeping in Darcy's townhouse while Georgiana visits with the Gardiners. Darcy enjoys showing Elizabeth around London and introducing her to his friends. Elizabeth is especially fascinated by an exhibit of New World antiquities at the British Museum. The exhibit contains items relating to witchcraft and the supernatural. Darcy scoffs at the idea that there is something he can't see or figure out by reason (except God) but Elizabeth feels that there's more out there than meets the eye. She's interested in getting to know archeologist Dr. Randolph who specializes in supernatural objects. Caroline Parrish begins to act strangely shortly after her wedding and Elizabeth feels it necessary to help Caroline's family keep an eye on her while she recovers from her brain disorder at Netherfield. Dangerous and unexplained events overtake the Bingley family and Netherfield. Someone wants to extort money from kind Charles Bingley and someone or someones seem to want Jane and Charles dead. Elizabeth begins to think something akin to a curse has been placed on the family that is causing all the problems. Her belief in the supernatural causes a rift between her and her beloved husband. Can she solve the mystery before it's too late? This book is part Pride and Prejudice sequel and part mystery. The Pride and Prejudice aspects are very well done. The language is not quite Jane Austen's but sounds similar but modern enough to be accessible to a casual reader. There is a little bit of witty banter between newlywed Elizabeth and Darcy which is funny and sweet though not at the level of Nick and Nora. The characters from the original novel all behave in character which is both good and bad. It's bad because Mr. Darcy is such a paragon and Mr. Bingley and Jane are so kind that they're too good to be true. Darcy exhibits some temper which makes him seem more human but then the downside to that is that he quarrels with Elizabeth. I really enjoyed revisiting my favorite characters from Pride and Prejudice. What I didn't like about this book was the mystery. I figured out the mystery right away. The author plants some really obvious clues and it doesn't take much to solve the mystery. I did wonder who the villain was about halfway through but then a clue helped me figure out that my first impression was correct. The mystery is incredible unbelievable. I, like Darcy, do not believe in things that can't be explained by reason though like Elizabeth, I'm open to the possibility but the happenings of this novel stretched by credibility too much. The plot is far too Gothic and sounds like something Catherine from Northanger Abbey would enjoy reading. If you love Jane Austen and Ann Randcliffe then you will love this book. I will not be reading the rest of the series.

Brighton Honeymoon by Sheri Cobb South -- Regency Romance

This book is a companion to The Weaver Takes a Wife. Polly Hampton left her home in the country in search of work and adventure in London. She found a job as a bookstore clerk  which quite suited her for Polly loves to read, especially Gothic novels. When the ton leave town for the summer Polly loses her job. She has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Her mother is dead, she does not know who her father was and now the kindly vicar who took her in after her mother's death is gone too. Polly's employer makes her an improper proposal which she is loathe to accept. Polly doesn't know what to do until she hears about a workhouse boy turned wealthy textile mill owner, Mr. Ethan Brundy (formerly Crump). She decides to beg him for a job but then she seizes on the opportunity to claim kinship with Mr. Brundy! Polly styles herself Polly Crump and declares herself Mr. Brundy's long-lost sister. Mr. Brundy knows Polly to be an impostor but Lady Helen insists on taking up the girl as her protegee. Mr. Brundy is unhappy at the prospect of having a third person in his home just as he and Lady Helen are about to visit Brighton on their honeymoon. Mr. Brundy's friend, Sir Aubrey Tabor offers to help scare away the impostor. Poor Mr. Brundy finds himself saddled with two more house guests and a wife too shy to show her love while they have guests. Mr. Brundy wants his guests gone and he doesn't care how. Sir Aubrey does his best to intimidate Polly but the girl is more stubborn and spirited than she looks. Polly dreams of finding her biological father who will recognize her instantly and take her into his heart and home. Polly's plans don't go exactly as planned and she finds herself attracted to the maddening Sir Aubrey who seems determined to expose her as a fraud. This story is a drawing room comedy type romance but fails to meet my exacting standards. I really felt bad for Polly. Her story brings home just how hard it was to be a woman in the nineteenth century. I wanted her to find happiness but I felt that she didn't have much of a connection with the hero. The hero is a bit arrogant and rude, understandably so, but he doesn't make much of an attempt to be nice or sympathetic not even once he learns her true story. Some parts of the story are funny and there are secondary characters taken from the Georgette Heyer catalog of quirky suitors. I liked the subplot about the Brundys and the trials of being newlywed and in love. Mr. Brundy is not quite as likable in this story, being impatient and short tempered. In contrast, Lady Helen is kinder and gentler and more understanding than she was a few months earlier in the previous novel. If you want to know what happens next to the Brundys or want a story with a heroine who isn't of the ton, then I would definitely recommend this book.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What I've Read This Weeknd

What I've Read This Weekend . . .

Until There Was You by Kristan Higgins -- Contemporary adult romantic fiction

Cordelia aka Posey Osterhagen is a petite 33 year old who owns a salvage company. She loves rescuing precious historical architectural and decorative items from the homes she lovingly tears down. She shares her life with her beloved Great Dane Shilo, much to the dismay of her parents. Actually, she's currently secretly sleeping with her parents' enemy Dante Bellini who owns an Italian restaurant that her parents consider a rival to their own kitschy German eatery. In order to compete with Dante, the Osterhagens bring in Posey's cousin Gretchen a beautiful buxom blond celebrity chef to redesign the restaurant and draw in customers. They also hope to fix up Gretchen with Liam Murphy, former high school bad boy who has returned to town. Liam was a kid from a rough family situation. He was "nobody from nowhere" as one kid once told him. He took on the bad boy persona in high school. Liam had all the girls crazy about him and in and out of his bed. Then he found Emma Tate. Beautiful, wealthy, popular and nice, Emma had everything going for her and she chose to be tied down to Liam. Now Emma is dead, leaving Liam to raise their teenage daughter Nicole all on his own. Liam and Nicole have moved back to New Hampshire so Nicole can be closer to her mother's parents though they are trying to take over her life. He has developed panic attacks and OCD since Emma's death, but tries his hardest to hide his fears from his beloved daughter. Liam is an overprotective dad. He worries Nicole will end up with someone JUST like him! Mr. and Mrs. Osterhagen were kind to him in the past and gave him a job and a surrogate set of parents when he needed them. Posey secretly discovered Liam's hidden softer side and her fifteen-year-old self fell madly in love until prom night when Liam broke her heart and her date made her life a misery. Now Liam is back in town and she finds herself fighting her attraction to him. Liam has no interest in the multitudes of women who still throw themselves at him but finds Posey's indifference challenging and even a bit sexy.  Posey is determined to put the past behind her but as she's drawn into Liam's orbit she thinks she can uncover the ghost of the young man she had fallen in love with while Liam is determined to do what it takes to keep his daughter safe and happy even if it means giving up on love himself. Meanwhile Gretchen who seems to be hiding something is Posey's best frenemy and reveals shocking secrets about Posey's past. This book explores issues of belonging and identity along with the usual love story. The story falls short of the mark in the love department. The first half of the novel is all about lust. There's no connection at all between the heroine and hero. There's not much time spent developing the relationship between the characters until after they jump into bed together. The second half of the novel is much better. The romance is slightly more developed but still more of an afterthought. Much of the novel is spent on Liam's issues and his experiences raising a teenage daughter. The second half of the novel also delves more into the characters' identities and their issues and motivations which is very well done. One part even brought tears to my eyes. The secondary characters are quirky but not as appealing as in past books. Kate is gross and shares too much information, Jon is a stereotypical gay man and I don't even know how he and Henry can have a relationship because Henry is absorbed in his work and so different. Henry is a stereotypical Asian man. I liked Nicole for the most part. She's a good balance between sassy and sweet. I thought of my dad's cousin's daughter, who lost her own mom at the same age Nicole is in the story and remains a very nice young lady much like Nicole. My favorite character is of course Shilo and there's not enough of him. This is not Kristan Higgins's best book. There are some spelling/typo errors that really bothered me and the romance fail made this one fall towards the bottom of my list. If you liked her last few novels you would probably like this one but if you prefer her earlier novels, you might want to pass. 

Stanforth Secrets by Jo Beverley -- Regency Romance

Chloe Dellamere, Lady Stanforth, a young widow, has been managing Dellamere Hall since she eloped with the dashing Stephen Dellamere right out of the school room six years earlier. She's been content enough but there but now her husband is dead, his Uncle George (and heir) is dead and she's ready to move on. First though she has to deal with with a house full of residents and guests: her non-nonsense Grandmother, the senile old Dowager Countess and her companion and the farmer's daughter who married the most recent Lord Stanforth. Then there's also Justin Dellamere, the new Lord Stanforth who is just as dashing as Stephen ever was and is very attracted to Chloe. Chloe is unsure of her feelings towards Justin. She's attracted to him and has been since before she married Stephen. Her marriage wasn't perfect and she wants to be sure that if she marries again, her husband will be steady and reliable but not try to control her. Justin is certain he's the one for her but he has his suspicions about Chole's reputation. He's been sent by the government to discover the whereabouts of missing French documents that the British government has been searching for for the last year. They were supposed to have been delivered to Stephen but he broke his neck on the way and the messenger also turned up dead. The government suspects Chloe knows the whereabouts of the documents but Justin is convinced she's innocent. He does believe she's guilty in having an affair with her cousin, the rakish Lord Randal Ashby. When more people turn up dead or injured, Justin lets Chloe into the investigation. She suspects Lady Belinda Stanforth, Mrs. George Dellamere, knows more than she is telling. Chloe has to try to ignore her feelings for Justin and get the bottom of the mystery before someone else gets hurt and Justin has to learn patience and trusting. This book is a prequel to Lord Wraybourne's Betrothed and The Stolen Bride. I liked it better than either of the two sequels. Chloe is a good mix of headstrong and decorous. She understands that marriage based on physical attraction is not enough. I empathize with her dilemma and if I were a well-off widow in 1810 I would hesitate to marry again especially a man so similar to my first husband. Justin is a bit of a pig. He claims to love Chloe but he's tempted to seduce her into marrying him. He's not very patient and he has a very hot temper where Chloe is concerned. He's caring towards his dependents and sometimes kind to Chloe but I couldn't entirely love him. The secondary characters are well-drawn and unique for the most part. Chloe's stuffy suitor is lifted from Georgette Heyer and I was able to peg the villainous characters right away. I also figured out where the missing papers were immediately but couldn't figure out how they got there or what Belinda was hiding. I kept reading until I finished the book long after I should have been asleep. The book is a bit more sensual than a traditional Regency romance but less so than most of Jo Beverley's other books. There were a few typos but they didn't detract from the story at all. If you find Georgette Heyer's traditional Regencies not romantic enough but enjoy the mystery, this one should entertain you.

Friday, March 9, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South -- Regency Romance

Ethan Brundy is a baseborn man from the workhouse who has risen to become a prosperous textile mill owner. While in London, he spies the beautiful Lady Helen Radney and declares he will marry her. Lady Helen is known for her hard hard and sharp tongue. Everyone in the ton knows she'd never marry a frumpy nobody like Mr. Brundy. However, what the ton doesn't know is that Lady Helen's father is deep in debt and only an advantageous marriage can save him. Helen loathes to marry Mr. Brundy but it's preferable to becoming a governess - if only slightly. Once married, Mr. Brundy proves to be kind and considerate and perhaps Helen misjudged him, but there's someone else who desires Helen as much as Mr. Brundy and he'll stop at nothing until he has her. This is Regency in the tradition of Georgette Heyer. It borrows heavily from April Lady and also from Pygmalion. (There's even a Col. Pickering!) Mr. Brundy isn't a dashing hero but he's a nice man and likable in his own way. Helen is spoiled and not very likable in the beginning but her character has depth and as the story goes on she grows and matures. There's a slight element of danger to make things more interesting but mostly this is a quiet book about life as a married couple. For me, this story was only average. I'm not crazy about misunderstanding plot and arranged marriage plots. I think fans of Georgette Heyer's more quiet, mature stories will enjoy this one though.

Sweet Revenge: A Lady Ariana Hadley Mystery by Andrea Penrose -- Regency Mystery/Romance

Lady Ariana Hadley grew up in the slums of Jamaica with her English outcast father. She adored her father and when he was killed, she was left on her own. Now back in London, she has vowed to take revenge on his killer. Her desire for revenge causes her to disguise herself as a male French chef working in the home of the notorious Lady Spencer, who has an appetite for chocolate and for rich men. When Ariana serves the Prince Regent edible chocolate (chocolate had only been available as a drink) and he falls over poisoned, Ariana as the chef becomes the chief suspect. The government, wanting to know whether some property in the chocolate could have been poisonous, calls in the Alessandro De Quincy, the Earl of Saybrook, a member of Wellington's staff and chocolate expert. Saybrook agrees to get involved in the investigation and quickly interrogates Ariana. His expert eye sees through her disguise but his wits are dulled by opium taken for a war wound and his life is nearly cut off by a wicked villain. Ariana saves his life and in thanks he brings her reluctantly into his investigation. Ariana hasn't forgotten her vow though and her new disguise as a fashionable widow gains her the confidences of Lady Spencer and entry into a secret society that may hold clues to her father's death as well as the poisoning of the Prince Regent. Ariana thinks she'll never get anywhere if Saybrook doesn't stop taking opium. Cooking up a chocolate concoction, she orders him to drink it to sharpen his senses and heal his wounded body so Lord S can get down to business. Ariana has the ability to change like a chameleon and plays her new role very well - maybe too well for Saybrook. She isn't used to trusting people or having anyone care for him but she must learn if she wants to stay alive. This is a gritty mystery. Unlike most Regency set mysteries, it's a true crime mystery. The crime is of monumental proportions that could have worldwide consequences if allowed to continue. Ariana is not a sheltered young lady. She's had a tough life and she knows lots of dirty tricks, dirty words and isn't afraid to trade sexual favors with gentlemen if necessary. Though I like smart, strong heroines, Ariana is too tough for my tastes. She's very single-minded in her purpose and very bloodthirsty. She goes beyond the limits of what's considered proper behavior and gets involved in something very scary and nasty.  At first I did not think Saybrook would be an appealing hero being drug addicted but he grew on me. Sandro is darkly mysterious and has a bad boy appeal. He's smart, dashing, reckless and caring all at the same time and who can't love a man who loves chocolate? The author's research is excellent and really shines through in the novel. The setting is well done and the mystery is specific to this period. Each chapter begins with trivia and a (modern) recipe for chocolate desserts which I really liked. I would have preferred period recipes in the text and modern ones at the end though. The author is certainly very knowledgeable about chocolate. The author doesn't write in a period voice and there are far too many slang words for male body parts on nearly every page. In spite of that, there are no love scenes or even any kisses. Though I enjoyed the chocolate trivia and couldn't put the book down until the mystery was solved, I really didn't like this book. I didn't like the grittiness of the story. I think I'll stick to drawing room comedies and genteel mysteries.

Lord Wraybourne's Betrothed by Jo Beverley -- Regency Romance

Jane Sandiford is a gently reared young lady of strict parents who prefer life in the country to the excesses of London. Jane's parents have selected David Kyle, Lord Wraybourne to marry their daughter. Jane, being a dutiful daughter, trusts her parents to have her best interests at heart. She only hopes her husband is kind and not too old. When she meets Lord Wraybourne he is much more than she ever expected and the handsome youngish man makes her feel nervous and tongue tied. David finds Jane charming and thinks she will make the perfect Countess. Jane isn't so sure. She's nervous about fitting in with Lord Wraybourne's sophisticated friends and family. Jane's governess suggests a Season in London to provide Jane with a little sophistication before her marriage. Under the auspices of Lord Wraybourne's cousin Lady Harroving Jane's dream of adventure is fulfilled. As she spends time with Lord Wraybourne's family, first in the country at The Middlehouse and then in London, she begins to become less shy. She is befriended by Lord Wraybourne's impetuous sister Sophie and Lord Randal Ashby, the biggest rake in London. Jane is confused and conflicted in her feelings towards her betrothed. She's sure he only wants her for her money and her breeding, but why then does he act like a flirt? And why does his flirting make her feel so strange whenever they're together? Unfortunately they are not able to spend much time together because Lord Wraybourne is continually leaving town. The gossips would claim that he has a mistress (or several) that he's visiting but in actuality he is helping his uncle investigate a series of brutal crimes against women on orders from the Prince Regent. Jane must choose whether to believe the rumors or ignore them and follow her heart. She also has to deal with the shocking knowledge that her friend Sophie is suffering from unrequited love for Lord Randal. As Lord Wraybourne comes closer to catching the villain, he discovers that the villain may be too close to his loved ones for comfort. This was Jo Beverley's first novel and is a decent start. The mystery plot would have been more interesting if I hadn't read some of the follow-up novels and already knew who the villain was. The denouement was really quick and should have been drawn out more. The romance plot was a bit boring. Jane's constant insecurity wears thin after awhile. Her fears make sense given her upbringing but are tedious to read. I liked her a lot though, despite her insecurities. I liked seeing her blossom and learn to think and act on her own without direction from her mother. The romance develops nicely and is very sweet and quiet though both the heroine and hero are strongly attracted to one another. I had hoped to like Sophie and Randal after reading about them in other books but I found Sophie to be too young and silly for me to really like. Her hey-go-mad schemes are really outlandish at times and her sauciness is rather rude. The introduction of Randal and his adventures is quite shocking. I was disappointed to learn that his reputation was well-earned and everyone's fears regarding Sophie's feelings towards him are justified. He improves a lot in the final scene in which he appears. That happens to be my favorite scene in the novel. If you're looking for something a little different and more than the chaste kisses only sort of traditional Regency, I would recommend this one. I would not recommend following up with The Stolen Bride. It's not necessary.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age

Having grown up near the famous Newport mansions, especially the now-private Astors' Beechwood which featured a troop of young actors portraying the Astor family and friends. Since watching Downton Abbey, I have become more curious about what Lady Grantham's life may have been like growing up in New York and Newport. I turned the book A Season of Splendor : The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York by Greg King. The book details the rise and fall of Gilded Age Society and provides details on the history of the families, social life and customs, architecture, fashion, transportation, scandal and more. One doesn't need to read every chapter to get a good sense of Gilded Age Society. Each reader can choose what interests them and learn a lot.

Here are some interesting facts about the Gilded Age.

*        The Gilded Age lasted from 1865-1914

*         The Gilded Age was very much like England's Regency era. It had formidable matrons presiding over lavish parties, gorgeous dresses and even a Beau Brummel like figure.

Portrait of Mrs. Astor by Carolus-Duran
*          Society was presided over by Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor (known as THE Mrs. Astor), who was of an old New York Dutch family. She was married to William Backhouse Astor who was the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who made money in fur trade and the China trade.

*           Initially Society consisted of old monied families like Mrs. Astors who had a tradition of wealth and lived in the quiet manner of the English Aristocracy.

*          After the Civil War, an industrial boom created a new class of monied people considered "new money" by the old Dutch families.

*          The new money families, presided over by Alva Vanderbilt, wished to buy their way into the social circle of Mrs. Astor.

*          Mrs. Astor's social adviser Ward McAllister advised Mrs. Astor to admit some new families into her social circle. He devised the famous "400 Club" of the fashionable elite who really mattered in Society.

*       By the 1890s Mrs. Astor was beginning to be too old and too old-fashioned to reign Queen of Society. In her place rose three august matrons: Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt (Alva), Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs (Tessie) and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish (Mamie).

Marble House
*       The Vanderbilts were new money and social climbers. Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt was a notorious pushy, demanding woman who wanted nothing but the best. She never hesitated to show off her wealth and use it as a stepping stone to greater things. She had a Newport Mansion "Marble House" built for her as a 38th birthday gift from her husband. She shocked society by divorcing her first husband William K. Vanderbilt, and marrying his old friend (and younger man) Oliver Belmont and moving into his Newport mansion Belcourt Castle. She ruled her household with an iron fist and her daughter Counselo remembers being dreadfully unhappy, not allowed to go against her mother's will, especially in regards to marriage to the English Duke of Marlborough.

*     Tessie Oelrichs had her grand Newport mansion Rosecliff built after the Grand Triannon in Versailles. She was a fussy housekeeper, often seen on her hands and knees cleaning her own house. She held many lavish parties in the ballroom at Rosecliff. She was known for her theme parties where people came in costume and danced the night away in the ballroom and out on the terrace overlooking the ocean. Rosecliff has a beautiful heart-shaped staircase which is now a popular place for bridal photos and moving theater productions. 

*    Mamie Fish had a love/hate relationship with Society. She both reveled in throwing grand dinner parties and popular entertainments with the help of her social adviser Harry Lehr. She was quick witted and often had shocking quips at the ready. A dowager, Mrs. John Drexel had a male secretary who was her especial companion. One day a friend of Mrs. Drexel was looking for her and asked Mrs. Fish. 'Mamie, have you seen Cousin Alice?' she asked. 'I've looked everywhere in the house,' 'No,' replied Mrs. Fish. 'Have you looked under the secretary?' " Her home was more modest than some of the grand mansions that visitors can still see today. A postcard of her drawing room can be seen on Card Cow. You can read more about her at NineteenTeen.

*    The new money families tossed money around like there was no tomorrow. They spent money on fashionable clothes from Paris, social seasons in New York, Paris, London and Newport and of course lavish entertainments. 

*    One such luxurious entertainment was for the dogs, literally. 100 dogs in fancy dress dined on stewed liver and rice, fricassee of bones and shredded dog biscuits. One dachshund ate so much he fell over in a stupor and had to be carried home. 

*    A dowager drove down Bellevue Avenue in Newport with a pig seated beside her and a monkey on each shoulder!

Belcourt Castle
You can learn more about the Newport Mansions at the website of the Newport Preservation Society and view antique postcards of the mansions online at the Newport Postcard Museum.