Monday, May 28, 2012

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend

Taking Heart by Rowena Summers -- Historical Romance

Set in late 1930s in Bristol, England this is a story about the coming of age of the Caldwell sisters. The family has always been comfortable and close-knit with a beautiful, laughing mother, a father whose haberdashery shop provides well for the family, three fiery-haired sisters and two spoiled brothers. The last few years for the Caldwells have been difficult. Since the birth of their little brother Teddy, Mother has been frail and her mind wanders. She needs nearly full-time care, putting a financial strain on the family. As the story opens, Mr. Caldwell breaks the news to the family that the large firm Prestons is buying out the whole row of shops and since he doesn't own his own shop and has made bad investments, he has no choice but to close the doors forever. The girls are outraged and come up with ways to make ends meet while almost 15-year-old Baz dreams of going to sea. Practical Imogen the eldest has been dreaming of a future with her newspaperman sweetheart. How can she abandon her family when they need her most? Throughout the next year of her life, Imogen will experience heartbreak, the loss of innocence and romance before she finally decides what she wants out of life. Meanwhile, sweet Elsie, the second eldest is comfortable taking a job in the new store thanks to the generous Prestons and quickly falls in love with the manager Joe. With war looming on the horizon will they have time for happily ever after? Sixteen-year-old Daisy dreams of being a dancer or an actress like her mother before her. It takes a tragedy to help her grow up and discover talents she didn't know she had while she also learns to overcome her snobbish ways. Headstrong Baz is determined to go his own way, causing much grief along the way. Throughout everything, the family is supported by their doing Aunt Rose and Uncle Bertie and Imogen's best friend Helen, a silly socialite and Helen's brother Jimmy, a serious young man with a crush on Immy. The plot moves very very slowly before it finally comes to an end at the outbreak of World War II. The romantic conclusion comes too quickly without much resolution. I had hoped in the beginning that this book would be an update of Jane Austen's novels but it wasn't at all. I never fully became engaged in this novel. Not only is the plot slow, the characters are annoying and unlikeable. Imogen is a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who deals with awakening sexuality and trite romantic dilemmas. I thought she needed to find herself before finding a man. Elsie is too good to be true but I liked her plot the best because it is very sweet and romantic. Daisy is young and foolish but her story is more compelling than her sisters'. She didn't get enough of the story and if I continue reading the series, I look forward to watching her grow up. She was the only one who really learned anything and transformed. The one character I did like initially turned out not to be who I thought they were. This book contains rather more sensuality than I would like and it also contains a scene of near rape that is described in rather a lot of detail. I do not plan to read the rest of the series. 

Dark Road to Darjeeling (Lady Julia Grey)  by Deanna Reyborn
Contains SPOILERS for previous novels!!

After a blissful Mediterranean honeymoon, Lady Julia is in Darjeeling on a tea plantation with her sister Portia and brother Plum. Brisbane has elected to stay behind in Calcutta though Portia has asked for Julia and Brisbane to investigate the untimely death of Jane's husband. Portia is worried for the sake of Jane and her unborn child for if Freddie was killed for the inheritance then Jane and her unborn child are in danger. It has been difficult for two such strong-willed people such as Julia and Brisbane to come together in marriage. Julia is stubbornly determined to solve the mystery and present it to Brisbane as fait accompli when he arrives. This time she not only has to contend with a murderer but also a man-eating black tiger on the loose. (I found it hard to believe in the existence of a black tiger but according to Wikipedia there WAS a sighting of a black tiger in September 1895).  She must work alone for Portia is busy attending to Jane and Plum is brooding over unrequited love. Julia has some assistance from the man the locals call The White Rajah who lives like a hermit but knows all the local gossip. She meets the eccentric local English gentry and also becomes reacquainted with her cousins Emma and the now widowed Lucy who live on the estate. The Peacocks is a beautiful location and Julia has trouble believing anyone could be a murderer. When Brisbane finally arrives the sparks fly. He would keep Julia tucked in a bandbox on the shelf while he goes off adventuring and Julia is determined to be a partner in all things. Julia of course ignores Brisbane and goes poking around learning everyone's darkest secrets. Nicholas also reveals himself to truly be Heathcliff in this novel. By the time the mystery is solved, Julia learns that not all is what it seems and she also discovers some surprising uncomfortable truths about herself and her family. If you've read the previous three books, you will have noticed a pattern that continues in this book : Julia and Brisbane work at solving the same mystery going about it differently without telling each other. Brisbane is a bit maddening in that way but Portia helps Julia to understand him better and he explains to Julia why he doesn't like her sleuthing. I am glad they talked it out and finally came up with a solution in the end. I don't think Julia is going to like the solution and they'll continue on as they always were butting heads. I still enjoyed their relationship but I think I should have stopped reading at the end of Silent on the Moor when they were blissfully happy. I don't like the darker aspects of their relationship though I have always had my misgivings about them as a couple.  Though I liked the way the problems were resolved, I found Julia a bit irritating because she had to have things pointed out to her and I doubt she learned anything. I hope by the next novel she's grown up a bit and thought more about what her siblings and husband have told her. She is starting to remind me a bit of Stephanie Plum but not so ditzy. As for the mystery - it was a bit simple in the beginning and then went way off course to become something more than it seemed but in a different way from the others. Without spoiling the ending, I'll say that the investigation revealed dark undercurrents in paradise that would have come about anyway regardless of the investigation. I guessed a few pieces of the puzzle and finally figured out the murderer before it was revealed to Julia. What was revealed afterwards was truly surprising and shocking and I didn't feel that it really fit the characterization of the murderer. The motive didn't work for me. What was truly surprising is what was revealed as the reason for estrangement between two characters. I don't know if something of that nature would have been understood even by the most free-thinking 19th century people but the Victorians are always surprising me. The story drags on just a bit too long to tell us what happens to the characters and there's one more big shocker (that's not much a surprise to the reader) that upset me greatly though I see where the author wants to take the characters and why it had to happen. The final chapter wraps up the relationship plot and Julia and Brisbane's witty banter made me giggle. I want more light-hearted moments in future novels please!The real stand out of this novel is the setting. The author's research shines through to really create  a description of this beautiful, magical place. I could easily picture it though I don't know much about India. I loved the natives and all the local color. The story barely touches on the caste system and the native Indian cultures but all of that is included in subtle ways and incorporated into the plot and dialogue nicely without stepping out of the story to explain things to the reader. Well done! This was not my favorite of the Lady Julia mysteries but I can't wait to find out what happens next! I would give this one 3 3/4 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 25, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .
Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen -- Young Adult Historical Fiction

Everyone knows at least something about the legend of Robin Hood - he robs from the rich and gives to the poor. In this version, Robin Hood is a young nobleman whose lands have been stolen from him by the wicked Prince John and given to the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. Rob leads a small band of not so merry young men to steal what they can to help support the common people. There's Munch, the Miller's son who is sweet, the flirtatious John Little and mysterious and aloof Will Scarlet. Actually, make that just Scarlet for Scarlet is actually a girl. Scarlet is running from the past, literally and emotionally and has been taken in by Rob and the others.  She's fierce and feisty yet she doesn't feel as strong and brave as she acts. Her feelings are complicated, especially those feelings for John and Rob. She insists she isn't really part of the band but yet feels compelled to stay and help. When the sheriff hires a thief taker Scarlet has to make a decision. If she stays, her life may be on the line. As the situation becomes more dire, Scarlet inches closer to the past and truths she doesn't want to reveal. This is a vastly different Robin Hood story than any of the others I'm familiar with. The characters are younger and there are fewer men in the band. The non-stop action adventure kept me very interested to see how it all turned out. The story is told from Scarlet's point-of-view and her story is revealed little by little, which I really liked. Clever readers may figure out her secrets before I did. She's a very proud and stubborn girl and her angst started to bother me a bit by the middle of the book but not half as bad as Rob's self-sacrificing attitude. I bought Scarlet's attitude because she's been through a lot but she sounds younger than she really is. I would have set the story a little earlier than it is. There's an interesting love triangle that was at times sweet and other times maddening. I honestly didn't know if Scarlet would survive long enough to choose a sweetheart or not. The thrilling conclusion is a bit unusual and unsatisfying. It leaves room for a sequel or two and for the characters to grow. This book is very violent and contains profanity and dialogue about sex. For these reasons I would recommend this book to anyone 14 or older. I think this book would appeal to boys as well as girls. 

Claire : A Novel of Love and Adventure Set in Late Eighteenth-Century England by Elizabeth Lyle -- Georgian Romance

Mademoiselle Claire de la Robiniere and her cousin Simone, the Countess de Lille escape the guillotine and arrive unescorted in England where they immediately make the acquaintances, both honorable and dishonorable, they need to help them set up a new life in England. The handsome carefree bachelor The Honorable Vincent Carlow has escaped London to avoid the matrimonial noose his childhood friend Maud is determined to place around his neck. He heads to Brighton to help the Prince of Wales redesign his famous Pavillion. He finds himself with his hands full rescuing Claire and the Countess from trouble and introducing them to Brighton society. The enterprising ladies set up a business selling antiques and other goods smuggled from France, achieving great success among the Prince of Wales and his set. They insist on selling only things that belonged to them and only until they have enough money to bring Claire's brother Raoul over safely. Carlow suspects what the ladies are up to but refuses to get involved. He's not interested in responsibility yet he feels responsible for Claire's safety and is continually helping her out of scrapes. He's attracted to the spunky young woman but his attraction can never be more than a passing fancy for he does not wish to be "leg-shackled" and she has a fiance back in France. At first Claire is infuriated by Carlow's high-handed manner. She comes to depend on him as a friend but she knows that in order to secure his friendship she has to tell some white lies and deny her growing feelings for him. Another gentleman takes an interest in Claire and her activities too, though not in a beneficial way. The dastardly Lord Milcroft seems amiable enough in public but Carlow knows otherwise and he's determined to keep Claire away from Milcroft. Milcroft has other ideas. He is determined to posses Claire at any cost and is willing to blackmail her to achieve his ends. Will Claire be able to rescue herself and her brother before Milcroft ruins her or will Carlow once again be there to help? If Carlow becomes involved with responsibility there may be no turning back to his carefree life again. This novel is written in the tradition of a Georgette Heyer comedy of manners. It is full of many of the character and plot elements found in that style of Regency romance though the action is set just before the war with France begins. The characters are very flat and two-dimensional with the exception of Claire. Claire is brave, proud and spunky and able to hold her own against a villain. I liked her a lot yet she didn't quite come to life on the page. Maud is the only other character that shows any depth or originality. I liked her transformation though it happens very quickly. Carlow is a typical hero: he's a noted Corinthian and friend of the Prince of Wales; honorable and caring. His only flaw is his stubbornness which makes him perfectly suited for Claire. The villain's motive seems unbelievable and his actions don't make sense. Giving him a motive seems like a way for the author to make him less than a stock villain but it comes too late and doesn't really work. The author did an excellent job describing Georgian era Brighton and especially the Pavillion. The descriptions of the clothing and manners are also excellent. The plot is good but not great. It's very slow moving and I had no problems putting it down. The plot drags on and then is concluded too speedily. I liked this book and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it but I didn't love it. No one can quite match up to Georgette Heyer.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jane Austen Made Me Do It

Jane Austen Made Me Do It : Original Stories Inspired by Literature's Most Beloved Acute Observer of the Human Heart edited by Laurel Ann Nattress

This is an anthology of stories edited by AustenProse's Laurel Ann Nattress. The stories are inspired by Jane Austen, her family, her writings and her attitudes towards life and love. Most of the stories are written by Austenesque authors and other romance writers. One story is written by a contest winner.

The first story "Jane Austen's Nightmare" follows Jane into the depths of a dream in which she is confronted by her characters. Some of her characters are angry at her portrayal of them and others are happy. I really didn't like this story very much. It felt more like literary criticism than fiction. I felt sorry for Jane Austen to be thus confronted by her own creations.

"Waiting : A story inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion" by Jane Odiwe fills in the blank between the final action of Persuasion and the conclusion. I liked reading this story about Anne and Frederick waiting for Sir Walter's blessing while they reflect back on how they met and fell in love. I think Jane Austen would have imagined the story like this. Anne and Frederick have long since been my favorite Austen couple and this story makes their romance all that much sweeter and more enjoyable. 

"A Night at Northanger" by Lauren Willing parodies ghost hunting shows and Northanger Abbey, which itself makes gentle fun of gothic novels. Since Ghost Hunters is one of my favorite TV shows and Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, this story is my favorite of the bunch. It made me laugh a lot and roll my eyes a bit but I think the author intended it to be a gentle parody like Northanger Abbey. I highly recommend this one for those practical minded individuals who have enough sense of humor to laugh at their guilty pleasures.

"Jane and the Gentleman Rogue: Being a fragment of a Jane Austen mystery" by Stephanie Barron fills in the gap between her Jane Austen mysteries up to that date. Jane finds herself associating with the nobility in the company of Lord Harold, helps uncover a spy and is tormented by her own heart. Given what happens in the novels, this story is bittersweet. It doesn't work on it's own but having read the rest of the series and gone back to read this one, I enjoyed it much more. Read this if you liked the novels and loved Lord Harold. 

"Faux Jane" by F.J. Meier is a take on The Thin Man movie series. Nicola Scott and her beloved husband Charlie Scott have a brush with celebrity as they discover a young woman in love is attempting to appease her new mother-in-law to-be with a first edition signed copy of Pride and Prejudice. The problem? There is no such thing as Jane Austen wrote anonymously. The married couple, along with their disreputable uncle must work together to solve the mystery. I had high hopes for this story being a huge fan of the movies. The names are taken from the movies but that's about it. What I loved about Nick and Nora is that she never gets jealous, unlike Nicola. I couldn't like Nicola or Charlie in this story. They both acted like idiots. The mystery is unusual and figured out too quickly and introduces too many characters for a story of this length. Perhaps it would have worked better as a longer novel. This is my least favorite story in the collection.

"Nothing Less Than Fairy-Land" by Monica Fairview is an additional chapter of Emma dealing with Emma and Knightley's early married life. Not all is rosy in Highbury thanks to the constant demands of Mr. Woodhouse and Knigtley's estate duties. While I'm sure this story is realistic, it's a bit sad and I prefer to leave the story where it ended with everyone happy. 

"Love and Best Wishes, Aunt Jane" by Adriana Trigiani imagines a letter by a contemporary Jane Austen to her niece on the occasion of her niece's engagement. Aunt Jane offers advice on love and happiness. This letter is very long and boring. It feels more like the Trigiani is sharing her views with her daughter or someone younger. It is also not edited very well as the name of Anna's fiance changes halfway through. This is Trigiani's first attempt at publishing Austenesque fiction and she should stick to her usual romantic melodramas or find another format for her idea.

"Jane Austen and the Mistletoe Kiss" is a new story by one of my favorite Regency romance authors. This story is about a widow Elinor Carsholt who is struggling to care for her young adult daughters afte rher husband's death. The new estate owner, Sir Nicholas, is kind and attentive. Elinor is uncomfortable with his attentions, believing them to be charity. As Christmas approaches and the two families spend more time together, Elinor thinks her teenage daughter has been unduly influenced by Miss Austen's novels to think above her station. Can true love really cross class lines? Miss Austen has some advice for Elinor and her daughters that may solve the problem. This is a very sweet story by one of the masters of the genre. It lacks her usual passionate style, thankfully, and sticks to the heartwarming style of a typical Regency Christmas story. The story is a little slow and confusing but is sweet and happy at the end. This is my second favorite story in the collection.

"When Only a Darcy Will Do" by Beth Pattillo is set in contemporary London. Our heroine offers a bootleg Jane Austen tour to bored tourists. She thinks she's going crazy when she spots Mr. Darcy in the crowd and he asks to take her tour. Is he for real or is she hallucinating? This is a sweet story that could be about any one of us. I enjoyed the take on Pride and Prejudice and the contemporary twist worked quite well. This is definitely one of my favorite stories.

"Heard of You" by Margaret C. Sullivan tells the story of Admiral and Mrs. Croft, my favorite secondary characters of any of Austen's novels. When Frederick Wentworth was a young midshipman his sister Sophie was a teacher at a girls' school. They exchanged frequent letters which caught the attention of the ship's bully. Captain Croft was kind and sympathetic and longed to know more about Sophie. The rest as they say is history. I adored the Crofts and their relationship and this story is true to Austen's portrayal. It's a very sweet and soft romance. I loved it as a supplement to Persuasion and wish Jane Austen had thought of it!

"The Ghostwriter" by Elizabeth Aston borrows many elements from her previous book Writing Jane Austen. A contemporary writer with writer's block receives a visit from a mysterious visitor who helps revive Sara's career and helps her solve her romantic dilemma as well. I really didn't like this story. I couldn't relate to Sara except for the writer's block. I found her whiny and self-centered and the whole ghost plot stretched by credibility beyond belief because it was meant to be taken seriously. I'm more intrigued by the twist at the end. 

"Mr. Bennet Meets His Match" by Amanda Grange is a prequel to Pride and Prejudice telling the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Mr. John Bennet is the only son of a minor gentry family. If John never marries the estate passes to a distant cousin who no one can stand. Miss Jane Gardiner and Miss Mary Gardiner are two lively girls from the village dreaming of romance. Their parents are dreaming of social climbing. The young ladies catch the eye of young Mr. John but only one catches his heart. This story is true to the portrayal of the Bennet parents in the original novel. He is indifferent to anything except books and she is silly. Jane and Mary are just like Kitty and Lydia. I am not overly fond of this story. I feel sorry for Mr. Bennet and would like to think that their relationship was more substantial in the beginning. 

In "Jane Austen, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" by Janet Mullany a teacher in a girls' school in the 1960s attempts to teach her students about Jane Austen through their understanding of The Beetles and comes to an understanding of herself and her own relationship. This is one of the darker, more somber stories in the collection. The girls are funny and just like any teenage girl with a celebrity crush. The story would be better if it was longer so the characters could be fleshed out more. There's little motivation for the main character's actions in this brief space. I found this story interesting though and liked it well enough.

"Letters to Lydia" by Maya Slater is a fun take on Pride and Prejudice from Maria Lucas's point-of-view. She writes to Lydia Bennet with all the enthusiasm and exclamations of her tender years. This is a cute story. If you can stand Lydia, Kitty and Maria's youthfulness you will enjoy this different viewpoint. 

In "The Mysterious Closet" by Myretta Robens a young woman comes to stay at an old Gothic inn and discovers a mysterious closet that leads her to a handsome man and every expectation of happiness or unhappiness for surely she has dreamed up her true love. This story is one after Catherine Morland's own hart however, I found it too strange, especially the unusual ending. If you can swallow your disbelief and enjoy passionate (but clean) romances you'll like this one.

The premise of "Jane Austen's Cat" is very similar to Trigiani's story except it's told in story format. In the summer of 1813 brothers Edward and Charles and families are in residence at the Great House. Jane is busy writing Mansfield Park. Her writing is interrupted by a visit from two of her nieces. Anna, already grown, is unsure of herself. She enjoys writing horrid novels but would like to be a serious novelist like Aunt Jane. Anna's little sister Caroline doesn't care for romance, she would like Aunt Jane to tell her a story about a cat like her pet Tyger. Aunt Jane tells the tale of Mansfield Park in a simplistic way using cats as the main character. It's a cautionary tale for Anna sharing lessons on writing and on love. I liked this quiet story. I think it could have actually happened. Jane Austen was a devoted aunt and enjoyed telling stories. She was a keen observer who had much advice to offer on life and love and knew how best to deliver it. 

In "Me and Mr. Darcy, Again . . ." by Alexandra Potter, a contemporary young woman and her best friend are off on a girls only trip to London. Last time she was in London for a Jane Austen tour, she met Mr. Darcy. Then she found a real boyfriend in Spike but he hasn't been there for her lately and she's both dreaming of and dreading meeting Mr. Darcy again. When she does, it leads to unexpected results. Not having read the novel Me and Mr. Darcy, I feel like I missed a huge part of the story. This short story is more like an epilogue to the novel I suppose. I liked the message but the fantasy element just isn't my thing. 

"What Would Jane Austen Do?" by Jane Rubio and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway is the most surprising story in the collection. A fourteen year-old boy has gotten in trouble at school - not for the usual reasons but because of a change in behavior that has resulted in James becoming gentlemanly! James's mother was on his case to do something with his summer so he signed up for a country dancing class at the library thinking it was country western line dancing. Instead he discovered that country dancing is the style of dance done in Jane Austen's day. At first James is not impressed but the more he gets to know the other dancers, especially the beautiful Cathy, the more he enjoys himself. With some help from his mom, a devoted Jane Austen scholar, he develops an understanding of the human heart and an appreciation for nineteenth century manners that helps him stand out in the treacherous high school world. This is such a cute story. I could picture everything that was happening in my mind and felt very engaged in the story. I adored young James (where was he when I was in High School?) and wanted him to succeed. James's voice is wry and a little old for his years which may turn off some readers. The author bio says they are developing this story into a full length novel. I can't wait to read it. The ending left me hanging a bit. I hope mothers make their sons read this story for the world needs more boys like James!

"The Riding Habit" by Pamela Aidan is a continuation of Pride and Prejudice. The Darcys are in London for the peace celebrations of 1814 and Georgiana's come out. Mr. Darcy is extraordinarily happy. He has a thriving young heir in the nursery and his Elizabeth by his side to love him and guide Georgiana to womanhood. His only regret is that his beloved Elizabeth does not ride. He hits upon the grand plan to teach Elizabeth to ride. Elizabeth has her hands full planning Georgiana's debut. She hardly has time for herself, let alone time to learn to ride. She's determined to please her beloved and show him she belongs in his world by learning to drive. A near tragedy results in the moral of the story. This is not Pamela Aidan's best story. She gets inside Darcy's head very well but I think she lacks understanding of Elizabeth. A story about riding turns into a self-confidence tale that while realistic, I do not think would happen given what we know about Elizabeth. The story didn't captivate me the way Aidan's Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman novels did but fans of her writing and of Pride and Prejudice will certainly enjoy this story.

"The Love Letter" by Brenna Aubrey is the winner of the short story contest. It's a contemporary take on Persuasion. Dr. Mark Hinton receives a mysterious message in the mail quoting from some unknown book. His quest to find out which book leads him to reflect on his lost love Justine and face to face with the lady once again. This story is rather sad. The forces that separated the main character and his love are more dramatic and of course contemporary than in the original. The story is more bittersweet as a result. It didn't appeal to me because of the contemporary setting and the plot dragged on in flashback before suddenly and randomly turning back to present time then came to an abrupt ending. I enjoyed some of the other stories in the contest a lot more than this one. 

"The Chase" by Carrie Bebris is something different from her. Instead of a gothic mystery, this story follows Jane Austen's brother Francis on board his ship The Petterel in pursuit of a French ship. The subject matter of this story is quite unusual and frankly, quite boring. If you enjoy nautical stories and British Navy stories like Horatio Hornblower and Master and Commander, you would probably like this one.

"Intolerable Stupidity" by Laurie Viera Rigler is also a new theme for this author. It resembles the first story in this anthology as Jane Austen's characters appear outside the pages of their books. In this story, The Court of Intolerable Stupidity, presided over by Judge Lady Catherine de Bourgh pits the young untried lawyer Fitz Williams against super star advocate for the plaintiff Tawny Wolfson. The defendant claims that so-called literary works have cause grave and irreparable harm to the plaintiffs who only wish to continue living their lives as their creator intended. What does this mean? Well, it means that Andrew Davies and other screenwriters and novelists who write and rewrite Jane Austen's novels are intolerably stupid. Mr. Darcy appears dripping wet and complaining of living constantly with a cold and being the object of obsession of many hysterical women. Wolfson vows to burn every Creator-inspired work she owns when she wins the case but Fitz Williams discovers a secret that he could use to win this case. Will he let his infatuation for Tawny bring him down or win the case of a lifetime? This story raises some issues that I don't think need to be dealt with in a short story anthology. Though I agree that most Jane Austen inspired creations are intolerably stupid, this story IS one, so what does that say about Laurie Viera Rigler? It's all in good fun I suppose. I'd rather read a fun and frivolous story than literary criticism.

Overall, I expected more from this anthology and many of my favorite writers. I think by and large the stories failed to live up to my expectations. Like all anthologies, some stories were suited to my taste and others weren't. There were some fabulous stories in the contest that would be better suited to this collection than some of the ones which were included by well-known authors.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Downton Abbey Related Books

Downton Abbey Related Books

If you, like me, are obsessed with the PBS/ITV soap opera Downtown Abbey, then you may want to do a bit of reading about the house, the show or life in the Edwardian age. This is the first and hopefully not the last post on Downton Abbey related books.

The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellows
This full-color coffee table book is eye candy for the Edwardian enthusiast. It contains chapters on the history of the Edwardian age. The chapters cover the topics of family life, society, change, life in service, style, house & estate, romance, war and finally behind the scenes. Each chapter is based around anecdotes from the show and explains the real history behind the actions. The factual text explains how and why people acted and reacted the way they did. The chapters also contain sidebars about the show's real-life counterparts: American "buccaneers" in search of titled husbands, servants, women, etc. As a history nerd I especially enjoyed meeting the inspirations behind the characters. The chapter on style is my favorite. The behind the scenes chapter is also especially fun. I loved learning about the making of the show though some may feel it ruins the magic a bit. I learned a lot about the time period in an entertaining way. The amazing photographs provide a detailed, in-depth look at the house and the costumes. The photos alone are worth the price of the book. I recommend this book to all fans of Downton Abbey and the Edwardian age. This is a must-have book for your bookshelf! Just drool a bit over the sample on Amazon and you'll be hooked.


Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey : The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon -- Memoir

Almina Wombwell was just nineteen when she married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1895. With her marriage, Almina solidified her status in society making her one of the leading hostesses of the day. Almina's mother, Marie Wombwell, was a French woman who was separated from her wastrel husband. Almina's father was likely Alfred de Rothschild, a wealthy Jewish financier. He never publicly acknowledged Almina as his daughter, but claimed her as his goddaughter and always treated her with love and indulgent kindness. For all intents and purposes, he was, in modern language, her dad. With Alfred's money and Almina's charm, the shy young Earl (he was 29) was happy to claim his bride. Over the next 30 years Lady Almina cut a dash through society, hosting lavish parties for illustrations guests such as The Prince of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Marlbourough (Counsuelo Vanderbilt), and redecorating her home Highclere Castle. Lady Almina's true passion was nursing. Most of the book is dedicated to the World War I years when Lady Almina turned her home into a hospital for wounded officers and later opened a hospital in London. Lady Almina ensured her patients would not only have the best care but the most comfortable place to stay. She believed that comfortable surroundings would aid in recovery. She loved her husband and was always by his side in sickness and in health. The Earl of Carnarvon had a passion for fast machines (cars and airplanes) and antiquities. His passion led him to Egypt and an archeological expedition that would transform Egyptology and change his archeologist partner's life forever. This book is more of a memoir of a family than a history of the home. The current Countess has put together this memoir from archival sources. It reads like a conversation. The writing is simple and easy to read. The Countess has chosen to focus most of the book on World War I and the affect it had on the Earl, the Countess and their families. Those chapters are a bit gruesome and grim. I was hoping for more on the glittering pre-war society and the history of the house The book made me want to learn more about the house though, especially since Lady Almina's decorative touches still stand in the state rooms. (Which you can see on the show). I enjoyed reading about Lady Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon and those she loved. I learned a bit about Edwardian society, a lot about World War I and Egyptology. I would recommend this book to those who want to know about the real Countess who inhabited the real house during the first two decades of the 20th century.

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend  . . .

Contagion by Joanne Dahme -- Young Adult Historical Fiction

It's 1895, almost a new century and Philadelphia is a rapidly changing city. Irish families like Rose's are becoming more respectable all the time. Her husband Patrick is a top contractor in the city and he wants to win the contract to construct a brand new water filtration plant. Rose and her best friend Nellie are on a committee of concerned citizens who want to preserve the city's parks, including the old water works. Sean, a manger at the water works, loves the old park and the old machinery. He feels the solution to the problem is not a modern filtration plant but to enforce the city's sewer laws to keep people from dumping refuse into the city's water supply. Unfortunately for Sean, powerful men are dead set on the new filtration plant. When Rose recieves threatening notes directed at her husband, she's scared but Patrick doesn't want to involve the police. Then tragedy strikes close to Rose's heart and she feels that someone is trying to hurt her and the dastardly act may have been connected to the notes. Rose defies her husband and turns to a sympathetic police officer and homicide detective for help. Sean finds himself attracted to Rose and wanting to keep her safe. Rose is fond of Sean too but she's a married woman so there can be nothing more than friendship. Then a deadly outbreak of Typhoid seems to threaten everything and everyone. It seems that someone will stop at nothing to get what they want - not even murder. This novel reads more like an adult novel. There's lots of violence and dramatic moments that kept me reading far too late at night. I could not put the book down until everything was resolved. The description of the Water Works is beautiful and so detailed I can almost picture it. The book seems well-researched but there isn't an author's note to tell the reader where fact meets fiction. I felt really bad for Rose being a woman in the nineteenth century and unable to really fight for herself. The villain is truly supremely awful and the outcome of the plot is a bit shocking but realistic. I would have liked one more chapter as an epilogue to tell how things turn out ever after. I think realistically, a different outcome would probably happen than the one hinted at on the last page but it wrapped up everything nicely. I enjoyed this thriller and learned a lot too. To learn more visit Fairmount Water Works, Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center and Drinking Water and Public Health in 19th Century Philadelphia. For more on Laurel Hill Cemetery see this exhibit by the Library Company of Philadelphia.

A Lady of Qualities by Meredith Leigh (aka Daisy Vivian) -- Regency Romance

Sabrina Fairchild wants nothing more than to ride her beloved horse all day long and avoid the trappings of the social whirl. Her younger sister Posey dreams happily of romance and hopes to marry their neighbor Gerry Afton, while Aunt Alice deplores Sabrina's bluestocking ways. Papa is a military man and almost never home so the upbringing of the girls is left to their maternal aunt who local gossips say wishes to marry Colonel Fairchild. When a Mr. John Lawlor arrives the lives of the Fairchild sisters and Mrs. Cunningham will never be the same again. Not only is he an infuriating know-it-all, Mr. Lawlor is a factor for the family's estates in Devon and Cornwall - estates that belong to Sabrina and Posey's new step-mother! When the new Mrs. Fairchild arrives on the scene she is not at all what the girls were expecting. Phoebe Fairchild is very bright and lively and it seems that she and Aunt Alice were old school chums. Phoebe stirs up excitement in their sleepy country village with her eccentric ways and fascinating friends. Even Sabrina is somewhat drawn to the raffish Polish Prince Kozlowska and his wife Fanny, a former actress, is most amusing. Also interesting is Gerry's pal Phillip Quarles who seems to know Phoebe from Brussels. Posey is far more interested in their new step-brother Raymond, a dreamy artistic type. Before the end of the novel, secrets will out and the entire countryside will be set on it's ear. This book really has very little plot and it comes crashing to a halt without much resolution either. It's difficult to describe more than I just have. The characters are well-drawn. I adore Sabrina and I would be just like her were I a Regency era young lady. Phoebe has surprising depths and I felt a bit sorry for her. I also felt really bad for Aunt Alice who loses her place after 17 years of mothering and keeping house for the Fairchilds and especially bad for Fanny who is just trying to get by the only way she knows how. Lawlor is a bit of a mystery. He appears a lot early on and then mostly is kept in the background. Gerry is the typical amusing brother/friend boy next door who isn't ready to grow up. He provides a lot of comic relief. There are some rake characters as well to round out the typical Regency cast of characters. The secrets exposed at the end aren't really surprising. I thought one was common knowledge because it was mentioned earlier in the book. Because there's no plot, this book was very slow moving and I was able to put it down halfway through and start again later without wishing to finish it. The story had potential. It could have been a cute comedy of manners but I think it got away from the author due to too many plots and characters.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett -- Historical Fantasy

Set in a fictional fantasy universe that strongly resembles eighteenth or nineteenth century England, this fantasy novel takes plots and characters from Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and adds fantasy elements to create an entirely new story. The title is spoilerish and misleading so please ignore it. The main character, Ivy Lockwell, is trying to hold her family together in the face of poverty. Her father, a once respected doctor and magician, has lost his mind and her mother and frivolous youngest sister can not be counted on to economize. Ivy's middle sister Rose is lost in her own world. All her life Ivy has been fascinated with magic and wonders what would happen if she was able to do magic. Of course magic is forbidden to women and no woman has ever been a magician. Women were once witches but everyone knows witches are evil and there are no more witches in Altania. Even so, Ivy is clever and her father has left her a mysterious riddle on which the entire fate of Altania rests. Dashton Rafferdy is a bored, frivolous fop who can't be bothered to discuss anything more serious than the color of his coat. He enjoys drinking punch in low taverns with his friend Eldyn Garritt. Then Rafferdy meets Ivy and his boredom evaporates. He finds himself enjoying her company more and more but he's the son of an aristocrat and Ivy is only gentry. Their friendship goes against all rules of society. His life also changes when he receives a mysterious magical ring that can not be removed. He tries to fight the magic but is drawn to it at the same time. Eldyn is down on his luck. His drunkard of a father died and left his two children with nothing but debts. Eldyn will do anything to ensure his sister Sashie's safety. He'd love to join the priesthood but he hasn't the money. He's fascinated with the illusionists who work in the theaters but that's not considered a respectable occupation. An encounter with a notorious highwayman brings new opportunities for Eldyn - opportunities that he may pay for with his life one way or another. When tragedy strikes the Lockwell family, Ivy removes to the countryside to become a governess for the two young wards of father's former friend. The children tell stories about ghost ladies and the locals tell Ivy to steer clear of the mysterious old patch of trees known as the Wyrdwood. The ancient trees or someone in the Wyrdwood is trying to draw the children in and Ivy must figure out how to save them and save herself. Secrets are exposed and old acquaintances are renewed and battles are fought before the thrilling conclusion.

I couldn't put this book down for wanting to know the secrets and the outcome of the magical plots. Yet it started slow and seems to mash together several cliched plots along with elements of English history turned fantasy. It's really three books in one. The first third of the book reads like a Jane Austen comedy of manners. It's a bit dark but fun and enjoyable. The second third is Jane Eyre with magic and the final third is a fantasy with elements of the comedy of manners plot. The first book is the best written and the one I found most enjoyable. Readers will recognize characters from Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility and enjoy getting to know Ivy and a host of other new characters. Ivy is strong and brave and a heroine worthy of Jane Austen. She is by far, my favorite character yet I did not like the decision she made towards the end of part 2 though I understand it given her circumstances. My other favorite character is Rafferdy. His plot line is a journey to adulthood and I especially liked seeing him mature. I was intrigued by Rose and hope she plays a larger role in future books. I enjoyed this book very much though not as much as the original source material. I can't wait to read the next two but alas the library doesn't have them. I have to part with some birthday money to buy them instead. The wait for the mail is killing me!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Return to Cheyne Spa by Daisy Vivian -- Regency Romance

Miss Elinor Hardy is down on her luck. Her gamester father died with massive debts leaving Elinor to fend for herself as a hostess as Lady Blessingstoke's gaming hell. When Elinor is fired, she is taken up by Lady Augusta, the Duchess of Towans who wants to set Elinor up as a rival to the Duchess's spoiled niece Lady Barbara. Lady Barbara has two young suitors whom she's been keeping on a hook for a long time. Ben Weymouth is handsome, wealthy and urbane. He takes a liking to Elinor, making Lady Barbara jealous. Lady Towans would rather that Trevor Quenton, a penniless younger son, dangle after Elinor but otherwise the plan is going quite well. The plan is going well until Barbara discovers the handsome Irish actor Patrick Tyrone and decides to become a patron of the arts. Elinor becomes the darling of Cheyne Spa and even Tyger Dobbyn, the gentleman pugilist turned gamester takes an interest in her. The only person who is unhappy with Elinor's appearance in Cheyne Spa is her cousin Cecil, the hair to the Earl of Glastonia. The Earl learns that his long-lost granddaughter has come to town and he must decide what he wants to do about it. The plot of this book goes nowhere. The ending is very rushed and the romance is almost a non-romance. I liked Elinor and her stubborn, independent pride. I do not know what I would have done in her situation. I did not like the gentleman Elinor chose in the end. I did not find his character very appealing. I preferred another suitor. I felt like the Duchess took advantage of Elinor and would have dropped her had the plan not succeeded. This is not the best book in the series. It borrows a bit from Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army. I hoped for more about characters from the previous novels but there was only one brief mention of Gavin. 

Cassy by Elizabeth Lyle -- Regency Romance 

Lucasta Loring's parents have recently died in an accident, leaving Cassy, her two younger sisters and their aunt to live in genteel poverty. Cassy's mother and aunt's childhood friend, now the Marchioness of Allingham, learns of the accident and asks her son to offer for Lucasta. Julian, the Marquess is bored by society beauties and doesn't remember meeting Lucasta at Almacks, but he understands the need to secure the succession so he dutifully offers for Lucasta - only to be soundly rejected! Lucasta refuses to even see Allingham. She has another plan in mind - to become an actress. Known as Cassandra on stage, Cassy becomes the latest sensation. All the young bucks want to know her but she remains aloof, chaperoned by former servants and friends. Cassy makes the acquaintance of Lord Allingham and his younger cousin Thomas. When it becomes clear that Cassy will not accept any improper attentions, the men offer friendship instead. Cassy lives a double life performing on stage as Cassandra and visiting her family as herself. She makes friends among the theater folk but somehow has made an enemy of someone who does not wish her will. Meanwhile, the Marquess enjoys the company of Cassy's younger sisters and spoils them with attention. On one visit to the young Lorings, Allingham brings a friend, Marcus, and soon Aunt Letty becomes involved in a romance of her own. Allingham becomes a rock Cassy can lean on in tough times and if she's not careful, she may succumb to temptation and give in to the secret desires of her heart. Before she can solve her romantic difficulties, Napoleon intervenes. God and Napoleon willing, Cassy's story will have a happy ending. This Regency novel is in the tradition of Georgette Heyer. It seems very well researched and full of wonderful period details. Some important parts are a bit too summarized and slow and some of the dramatic moments are resolved too quickly. Mostly the story flows well. The romance builds well and Allingham is an easy hero to love, for all he is a noted rake. Cassy and Julian have good chemistry without being too intense. The older couple's romance is very sweet. The Waterloo scene is mercifully short, unlike Georgette Heyer's Infamous Army. There are moments of humor to lighten the mood too. I really enjoyed this book and was happy to discover an unknown Regency romance in the library.

Titanic Tea

Titanic Tea

I had the pleasure of attending a Titanic-themed tea at a local house museum this afternoon. I wore a dress made from Sense & Sensibility's 1910s Tea Gown. The dress is very lovely but as it doesn't come with a lady's maid, it is highly impractical. (Also, the anachronistic zipper is broken). My dresser arranged my hair as suggested in this video. I would recommend smaller rats or putting your rats in sheer nylons or something the color of your own hair.

Each guest was issued a boarding pass for Titanic. 

Before "boarding" we had photos taken with Captain Smith. I wore a lovely blue heart necklace and imagine my shock when a young artist showed me a sketch he had done of a young lady wearing nothing but a similar necklace! I blushed and covered my face with my fan. 

We boarded on April 10 and the tea was held that afternoon. Once aboard, we were assigned identities. I was Miss Edith Graham, a young lady of independent means traveling with her mother and her governess.  We enjoyed tea sandwiches, scones, small pastries and tea. 

The Captain told us all about the brand new ship and his plans for retirement.

Mrs. Sallie (Monypenny) Beckwith talked to us about fashion and etiquette. She had a new dinner dress she wanted to show off. (Very vulgar!)

I greatly admired the ladies' fashions, especially their hats. I saw one very young lady in her undergarments and another very young lady in a very pretty but far too short dress. Quite shocking!

There was a raffle for tea and Titantic-theme gifts. I really wanted to win a Titanic tea cup but alas I did not win. We each received a commemorative Titanic print.

We toured the house which is decorated primarily from the nineteenth century. The house was lived in from 1810-1996. The attic contains antique 18th century looms originally owned and operated by one of the families who lived in the house.

It was an interesting and enjoyable afternoon tea.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

To Have and To Hold (Bridal Veil Island 1) by Tracie Peterson and Judith Miller -- Inspirational Historical Romance

Audrey Cunningham and her father Boyd have returned home to Bridal Veil Island where they have not lived since the Civil War. The war changed everything, making it difficult to find work in the South. The Cunninghams enjoy the serenity and beauty of her new home but Audrey's grandmother failed to pay the back taxes and now their home is threatened. Audrey is eager to go to work to support her father as she did in Pittsburgh. She liked working for the Morelys and became almost one of the family. Boyd is determined to find a way to save Bridal Veil because it's his hard drinking life that got them in this mess in the first place. He believes in a life devoted to God now and thinks God will lead him down the right path; a path that will spare Audrey more pain. Aunt Thora, Audrey's grandmother's friend, believes the d***n Yankees are to blame and she's determined they won't ever set foot on the island again. When a group of wealthy Northern investors, including Mr. Morley, want to create a leisure resort on the island, the Cunninghams refuse to sell their land. Mr. Morely and Mr. Cunningham come up with a compromise that will help. Marshall Graham comes to Bridal Veil at the request of Boyd Cunningham. Marshall is the son of Boyd's old drinking buddy who was killed in a barroom brawl. Audrey distrusts Marshall straight away. Marshall knows he's a good man and is determined to follow the path the Lord has laid out for him. Boyd knows Marshall is a good man too which is why he asks Marshall to look after Audrey. Audrey can look after herself but Marshall is hurt that Audrey can not see him for who he really is. She seems to prefer the company of Dr. Wahler and his two young daughters. He wonders if they will ever be friends. Marshall is determined that Audrey shall come to know the Lord as he does and accept what God has in store for her. In the meantime, he's hired on as the project manager and must deal with deliberate sabotage to his work site. His job and even his life are on the line. This book is one of the most boring novels I have ever read. I had a hard time getting into it. The plot moves very very slowly. Not much happens in most of the book. The second to last chapter contains most of the action! I figured out some of the villains because it was so obvious. I thought certainly I must be wrong but sadly I was not. I didn't really care for any of the characters. Audrey is a well-rounded character - she has her flaws but sometimes she's too good to like. Boys is likewise flawed and I care mostly about him aside from his deep religious convictions that to me, made him seem a bit lazy. I did not like Marshall. He is too good to be true. Again I found his religious beliefs a bit too much to handle. There's no chemistry between Marshall and Audrey and the romance is mostly played out off screen or told in passing. Most of the secondary characters are fairly two-dimensional. Aunt Thora provides the comic relief but she's also a stereotype of the steel magnolia. My biggest beef with this story is that the characters don't sound nineteenth century. Aside from Aunt Thora's comments about the Yankees and the war, this book could take place at any time. I'm not a Christian so I failed to appreciate all the religious sentiment and found it to be a bit too much for my taste. I won't be reading more books by these authors and the gorgeous setting isn't enough to make me want to read any more of the series.

Silent on the Moor (Lady Julia Grey 3) by Deanna Raybourn -- Historical Romance

Lady Julia has been staying with her sister Portia and Portia's partner Jane in London for the last few months. Now spring as arrived and Portia will be on her way to Yorkshire to visit Brisbane and fix up his new house. Julia is determined to go along and settle whatever is between her and Brisbane once and for all. Hopefully it will end in a marriage proposal. Her youngest brother Valerius is roped into going along for propriety's sake and the March siblings prepare to take Yorkshire by storm. They discover Brisbane's new estate is way out in the middle of the moors where no carriage can go. The village is dreary and desolate and the people weary of strangers. To their surprise, the March siblings discover that Brisbane is not alone in the great house. The previous owner, Lady Allenby, and her two daughters live there also. The Allenbys are descended from Saxon kings and are extremely proud. They're kind but reticent, except for Hilda who prefers chickens and sulks because she's not a boy. Brisbane wants Julia to leave but she discovers his words and his actions are in direct contrast to each other. When Julia undertakes the task of cataloging the late Sir Redwall Allenby's Egyptology collection, she stumbles across dark secrets no one was meant to discover. Her shocking discovery leads her to search for clues and when she finds them, the answers are even more horrific than she could ever imagine. Brisbane knows death is coming and he is powerless to stop it. Julia seeks help from a kind Gypsy woman to try to get Brisbane to accept who and what he is and exorcise his demons so they can live happily ever after. Meanwhile, Portia is having her own romantic difficulties and like her sister, may not end up with the happiness she feels she deserves. Someone is about to become a grandmother (comic relief at it's best) which comes as a huge surprise to all involved. This is the BEST Julia Grey novel in the series so far. It's also the most disturbing. The setting is gothic and perfect for a rainy day. There are numerous references to the Brontes, especially Wuthering Heights. If you aren't familiar with Wuthering Heights you may not get some of the references but that won't take away from the enjoyment of the story. The mystery isn't your typical "whodunnit" murder mystery. It's much darker and deeper than that and truly disturbing. I actually figured it out based on some knowledge of Ancient Egyptian culture. The comic relief is really funny and does a great job of relieving the tension of the story. The romance heats up but still remains clean. I love the push-pull relationship between Julia and Brisbane. Julia is stubborn and a perfect match for the equally hard-headed Brisbane. There are numerous bits of the story to swoon over as it is a very character-driven story. Portia's plot line is sad and I hope she finds happiness because I enjoy her. My only complaint besides the very disturbing plot is that the author and therefore Julia, doesn't seem to like dogs very much. If you liked the previous two Lady Julia mysteries. you'll love this one. If you prefer traditional murder mysteries or traditional romance mysteries (a la Georgette Heyer) you probably would not enjoy this book. I loved it! It could have been the last book in the series. I am not sure I will continue with the rest. Perhaps.