Friday, August 31, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week  . . .

Secret Letters by Leah Scheier -- Young Adult Historical Mystery

Headstrong and clever, sixteen-year-old Dora is not about to act the proper Victorian lady. She would much rather solve mysteries like her idol Sherlock Holmes. When a blackmailer threatens her beloved cousin's happy marriage, Dora heads off with her cousin to London to consult the great Sherlock Holmes. Dora is excited and even nervous to meet the great detective; not just because he is her idol, but because he is also her biological father. Upon arriving on Holmes' doorstep, Dora learns that Sherlock Holmes has met his demise. Heartbroken, Dora doesn't know what to do next but the brash young Peter Cartwright, detective in training, offers to help. His new master all but dismisses the case but Peter and Dora discover a clue that could link the disappearance of an heiress to the blackmailer. Dora must use all her wits and detecting skills as she goes undercover as a maidservant. If she can swallow her pride and let Peter help, they may be able to solve both mysteries before anyone gets hurt. This is a cute Victorian mystery for young teens. The mystery was impossible to figure out. Even though I sort of wondered about something, I really had no clue at all as to what had happened. The story isn't too grisly except for the final confrontation at the end which is far too ghastly for such a tame book. I really liked Dora. She's very human. She's overconfident and stupid and makes a lot of mistakes, but she learns a lot along the way. I especially liked her relationship with Peter - they keep each other humble. This novel is best read by older kids or young teens but probably not by adults. It is a tamer version of a typical Victorian mystery. Dora is akin to other Victorian female spies like Mary Quinn (Y.S. Lee's The Agency series) and Julia  (Lady Julia Grey novels). Dora and Peter's relationship is similar to that of Mary and James and Lady Julia and Brisbane. I enjoyed this book and I hope there's a sequel!

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

This book picks up where Magic Under Glass left off with Nim and Erris trying to find a way to free his spirit from his clockwork body. Their journey takes them to the remote home of Ordorio Valdana, one of the greatest necromancers of all time. Though Ordorio is not home, the young people are invited to spend the winter to cheer up Ordorio's sickly daughter Violet. Violet, the only child of the necromancer and his fairy wife is Erris's niece. He thinks he can make her well but the girl is stubborn and spoiled. Nim worries about her beloved Erris and is confused over her feelings for Hollin. She finds strength in learning magic. She's determined to free Erris no matter what. Ifra is a teenage Jinn, on his 5th master in only a few years. Ifra longs to be free. His heart is not in the wishes he grants and doing violence makes him ill. He falls under the control of the fairy king Luka and his son Belin. Luka wants Erris and sends Ifra to find him. Ifra hates the task set before him but finds something quite unexpected. A fairy civil war is brewing and Luka and Belin want to make sure they are on the winning side, with Ifra's help. Can Ifra help his master but be true to himself? Will Erris ever get his body back? This book takes a long time to get going. At first there's a lot of brooding, which is understandable. There's also a plot similar to The Secret Garden. The story is told alternately by Nim and Ifra which makes the story even more slow and unnecessarily complicated. I would have told Ifra's story in a novella and then linked him up with the main plot in this book. That would have given more time to tell the actual exciting part of the story which instead comes out rushed and a bit anti-climatic. There is a lot of time spent on magic and the principles of it and explaining how certain things are done which also bogs down the story. I was a little disappointed because I was dying to read about Nim and Erri's journey and instead most of the book is about Ifra and his journey while Nim and Erris mostly just do nothing. This story really could have benefited from more action from the main characters and more action earlier in the novel. The story doesn't work as a stand alone so you must read Magic Under Glass first. I recommended reading the last third of the book to find out what happens.

Promise Me This by Cathy Gohlke -- Inspirational Romance/Historical Fiction

Owen Allen has big dreams for his future. He's soon to set sail on the Titanic to join his uncle in New Jersey. Owen knows his green thumb and big ideas will make Uncle Sean's nursery business thrive and grow and then he can send for his sister Annie. Owen wants to build a better life for his sister but he faces a challenge from his wealthy aunt who wants to control his and Annie's lives. Wresting Annie away from Aunt Eleanor will be difficult but Owen has faith that everything will work out. Michael is a street urchin from Belfast. Since his parents' deaths, he has known nothing but hardship and misery. When he gets the opportunity to stow away on Titanic during her sea trials, he jumps at the chance to be rid of his abusive uncle. In Southampton Michael meets Owen and the older young man gives Michael a chance to redeem himself and make something of his life. Michael is envious of Owen and Annie's relationship and longs to be part of a family again. He blames himself for the loss of his little sister and his inability to save her. Michael stows away on Titanic once again and runs into Owen whose generous nature provides Michael with safe passage and dreams for a new life. When the ship sinks, Owen gives Michael all his dreams for the future and his life belt and sends the boy off into a lifeboat. Michael survives the sinking and feels guilty about taking Owen's place. He promised Owen he would look after Annie and is determined to keep his promise though it means working hard at gardening and landscaping - something he knows nothing about. In the years following the sinking, Annie is crushed under a mound of burdens. She must learn to forgive and be strong if she can ever hope to lay down her burdens. This novel reads like a Victorian melodrama. Some of it even sounds like Uncle Tom's Cabin and other sentimental novels of that period. I had to stop reading the book before the end and then skip ahead to find out if there was a happy ending. I almost didn't even make it that far I was so tired of all the abuse the author heaped on her characters.The message is forgiveness. There's a lot of blame and finger pointing that could be done and the way the characters choose to handle it is the crux of the story. I'm not a Christian and I found there was a little too much of a Christian message to please me. One character seems to carry so much hatred, there doesn't seem to be a realistic motivation. Even though the motivation is explained, I found it difficult to believe that one person could do so much and people were willing to go along with it. The character growth is tied a lot to the message of the novel. I could not really feel for most of the characters because the story is told in a rather detached manner from the points-of-view of Annie and Michael. I felt for Annie but I found Michael whiny and boring. We never get to know why they love each other as very few of their letters are included in the plot. I would have liked more development of the relationship and less drama.  I wouldn't recommend this as a novel about Titanic because it is more about the aftermath and the effect one person's death had on the other characters. There's very little about the ship and what is there can pretty much be found in any other story or documentary about the Titanic. Downton Abbey fans might like to read this book. It includes women's suffrage and nursing during WWI. Lady Sybil would fit right in. I would not recommend this book to non-Christians and atheists. Agnostics, depending on personal preference, may or may not enjoy the story glossing over the obvious Christian references.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Whom the Gods Love (Julian Kestral 3) by Kate Ross -- Historical Mystery

Alexander Falkland, darling of Society, has just been brutally murdered in his own home. Alexander's father, Sir Malcolm, asks Julian Kestral to take the case. The dandy sleuth agrees to help solve the mystery. Who could have murdered the handsome, charming, wealthy young man? As Julian delves deep into Alexander's past, he uncovers secrets and lies and a hidden life no one ever expected. The mystery deepens when his widow is involved in an accident. This mystery will take all Julian's considerable skills to solve. This story is much darker and more disturbing than the prior two. The events that led to the murder are terrible and sickening. This book is not for the faint of heart. Even so, I couldn't put the book down! I did figure out several clues that Julian really should have picked up on and I even figured out who the murderer was pretty much right away. It was obvious WHO and even basically why though the motive becomes more clear as more clues are revealed.  One plus in this novel is that we finally learn Julian's back story and who he is though he's still essentially devoid of personality. The details about London life in the 1820s are amazing. If you want to look beyond the balls and Society life then you will love this book. Personally, learning about the underside of life isn't my cup of tea. I missed Sally and the humor she brought to the previous book. Also Dipper was not in this one enough. Even though I couldn't put the book down, the fact that I could solve the mystery so easily leads me to think this book was not as well-written as the previous two. Fans of the series will probably enjoy it anyway. 

The Captain's Courtship (The Everard Legacy 2) by Regina Scott -- Regency Inspirational Romance

Ten years ago Richard Everard offered for Lady Claire and was rejected. He turned to the sea to make his fortune and to become worthy of her. When he learned she married another he never looked back, until now. Now he needs Lady Claire Winthrop to sponsor his cousin Samantha in her upcoming Season. If Lady Claire doesn't agree, Samantha won't fulfill the terms of her father's will and Richard's brother and cousin will lose their inheritance. Though Richard is a bit bitter that Lady Claire rejected him, he still loves her and believes they are meant to be together. Lady Claire Winthrop has spent the last ten years regretting her hasty marriage the the handsome Lord Winthrop. Her marriage was not at all ideal and now she's an impoverished widow. She has learned to follow the Lord's path and stand up for herself but when Captain Richard Everard enters her house, she's uncertain what the Lord has planned for her. She's uncertain of her own judgement though Richard has absolute faith in her. Samantha is unsure of herself. With Claire's guidance she will blossom into a beautiful, confident young lady, but Richard would prefer Samantha stay her own sweet self and not become a copy of the strong-willed, selfish girl Lady Claire once was. Can he trust Lady Claire to do the right thing? Meanwhile, the Everards search for clues to their uncle's mysterious death. As Claire comes to know the lively Samantha, she learns to love the girl. When a dangerous enemy threatens the Everards, Claire learns to stand up and fight for those she loves. This story continues right where The Rogue's Reform left off and ends with the beginning of the Season. The story is a little slow in the first half until the real mystery begins. I was able to figure out who the villain was and I think I'm right about the arch villain but the characters seem unwilling to believe what they've been told. The obviousness of the villain doesn't take away from the romance plot. Even though Claire and Richard already know each other, they have to come to know each other again as adults. They've both changed a lot over the years and getting to know each other all over again isn't easy. As usual, Regina Scott excels at this sort of thing. Her characters are so well-developed and the dialogue is so realistic that admiration turns to trust to friendship and finally romance. Of course the time line is a bit fast but ignore the fact that the story takes place over a few weeks and you have another excellent romance. The last third of the book sets up for the final book in the series; not only the mystery but also about Samantha's heart. Even though I guessed the villain and know there's a third book coming, I kept reading way too late into the night to get some answers to questions lingering from the first novel. I missed Jerome and Adele who were away but Lady Dallsten-Wallcot is there and of course, my favorite, Vaughn. I just love the handsome, fiery poet. I liked Samantha better than Claire. She's fun and feisty and a true Everard. If you're not Christian, you will still enjoy this book. The inspirational bits aren't too heavy handed. They can kind of be skipped over and the story still works. Just ignore the parts where Claire wonders about the Lord's plan for her and thinks about doing His will, etc. etc. I suppose that's the point of the story but it worked for me without it, especially since I had no idea what she was quoting most of the time. This is another great offering from Regina Scott. I can't wait to read the third book and hope she writes more.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss --  Regency Fantasy/Romance/Austenesque

Miss Lucy Derrick has been miserable since the death of her beloved eldest sister and father and the subsequent marriage of her middle sister to her father's heir, a simpering clergyman unfailingly loyal only to his patroness Lady Harriett (sound familiar). Lucy is stuck in Nottinghamshire with her stingy uncle and his cruel maidservant. Lucy's reputation hangs by a thread since she ran away with the scoundrel Jonas Morrison. Though she returned home with her virtue intact, her uncle never ceases to remind her of the incident. He seeks to remedy the matter by marrying Lucy off to a wealthy local mill owner, Mr. Olson. Lucy sees no way out of her predicament, that is, until one night a ramshackle gentlemen shows up on the doorstep with a cryptic message for Lucy : "gather the leaves" and then proceeds to vomit pins. The doctor declares the young man is under a curse and sends Lucy to a local cunning woman, Mary Crawford (yes THAT Mary Crawford) for help. Mary sees great potential in Lucy and trains Lucy to become a powerful cunning woman. Lucky will need all the help and power she can get for it is 1812, a time of great change in Britain. Lucy soon discovers she is caught in the middle of a great struggle between industrial forces and the Luddites. If she doesn't take a stand, she could be killed and the world as she knows it will be gone forever. What if there was an underlying cause of the Industrial Revolution and that cause was magic? How can Lucy, a mere slip of a girl, change the fate of a nation? With some help from the likes of Lord Byron, Mary Crawford, William Blake and even Mr. Morrison. I enjoyed this story quite a lot. The mystery sucked me in and didn't let me go. I enjoyed learning that there was a magical reason behind the Industrial Revolution and Luddite attacks. I especially liked the quirky secondary characters, some drawn from Jane Austen, some from real life and others fictional. They added some much-needed (dark) humor to the story.  At first I did not like Lucy, thinking she was meek and dull (Fanny Price, maybe?) but she grew a lot as the story went on and I really appreciated her growth as a character and how she came to be a strong woman. I also really liked the romance plot though it started a bit late and ended a bit anti-climatically. The magic bits were rather confusing without knowing a whole lot about the history of alchemy or understanding complicated diagrams and charts. I think I would make a terrible alchemist/cunning woman/wizard! The real-life people and events and magical background are well-researched. I'm not sure Lord Byron gets a fair portrayal but there's an interesting explanation for his immortality. The author does an excellent job writing in the voice of a young woman. he manages to capture the tone of Jane Austen without resorting to copying her "stile" exactly. This book can be enjoyed by older teens and adults. Grown-up fans of Harry Potter will enjoy this book a lot. The Philosopher's Stone plays a large role in the story and the Hand of Glory even makes an appearance. Jane Austen fans will love the "Easter Eggs" hidden in the story for them to discover and especially the romantic plot. I highly recommend this book and hope there's a sequel!

Friday, August 17, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Wonder Show by Hannah Barbary -- Young Adult Historical Fiction

Portia was happy living with her dad Max, Aunt Sophia and the gypsy caravan of relatives. She loved going to the circus even though Max and Aunt Sophia wouldn't let her see the sideshow. Then the dust came, people moved away, and Max lost his money and drifted away from Portia before finally leaving. He promised to return for her one day though and left her in the care of Aunt Sophia. Aunt Sophia found it too difficult to care for the rebellious Portia so she placed Portia at the McGreavy Home for Girls where Mister rules with an iron fist and the girls do chores until turn into colorless nothings. Finally, Portia finds a way to escape - escape Mister and the memories that haunt her. She's determined to find Max and the first place she thinks to look is a traveling circus. Hired on to be the carnival talker on the bally, Portia encounters a colorful cast of sideshow "freaks" plus the very normal Violet and normal and sympathetic Gideon. Being normal among freaks isn't easy but Portia may be tough enough to stick around for awhile while she searches for Max. She ultimately learns to face down her fears and discovers her true family. I was really expecting to like this book about a spunky girl in a circus, but I found it too dark and depressing for my tastes. Much of the book is given over to Portia's beginnings and then when she finds her way to the carnival, nothing really happens. The story becomes very repetitive. The story also alternates between Portia's point of view (first person and third person) and the points of view of several other characters. The unusual point of view leaves little room to develop the secondary characters much or tell a story with a real plot. As a consequence, I was left wondering about the ending and how it came about. There's also a heavy handed moral to the story. This book was labeled Juvenile at my library but I think it's more Young Adult. Some of the events are scary, dark and depressing and some of the themes and topics are too mature for a younger reader to handle. There are not really any lighthearted moment or tongue in cheek lines as in the Series of Unfortunate Events. The historical information on sideshows in the 1930s was interesting and people who would like to know more about that kind of life might want to read this book.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland -- Historical Fiction

In the 1890s most women who had to work for a living worked in factories or as servants to wealthy families, but not Clara Driscoll. She was a Tiffany Girl. Before her marriage she had worked in the art department for Tiffany Studios making stained glass. She was one of six women. Now she's widowed and needs her job back. Mr. Tiffany agrees to place her as head of the newly formed women's department to prepare windows for the World's Fair in Buffalo. She recruits and trains a number of artistic immigrant women to create beautiful works of art in stained glass. She shares her passion with Mr. Tiffany, creating together in a flurry of shared passion and fights the business department who are all about numbers. Clara longs for the recognition she knows she deserves but is up against Mr. Tiffany's ego, as brilliant and large as his stained glass windows, as well as being a part of a patriarchal society which does not value the accomplishments of women. Clara's friends, a set of Bohemian artists, provide cheerful support, particularly George Waldo. There's also Mr. Henry Belknap of the business department at Tiffany who takes Clara out to the opera. None of these men seem suitable to fill the vacant place in Clara's hart. Clara feels some maternal affection for Frank, the deaf mute janitor at Tiffany Studios and assumes that's the closest she'll ever come to being a mother.  Clara not only longs for recognition, she longs for love as well. When she thinks she's finally found love at last, she faces a difficult decision for Mr. Tiffany does not allow married women to work for him. She struggles to find her place in a changing society that doesn't seem to be changing fast enough for her. This book had a lot of promise and I was excited to read it, having adored Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party. I like stories about "New Women" in the early 1900s but I just couldn't love this novel as much as I had hoped. Clara is a vastly unappealing character. She's a feminine version of Mr. Tiffany; both of them seldom seeing anything beyond their passion for nature and art. She's a bit cold and distant and I did not feel that the reader ever really got to know her or feel for her. I did feel sorry for her facing such challenges at that time and even sorrier that women today still face some of the same challenges. I preferred the Bohemian cast of characters over Clara. I had never heard of George Waldo but he was so charming and amusing (an Oscar Wilde character almost) that I will certainly be looking him up. I also had a difficult time telling which character was speaking, with the exception of George they all sounded alike. The details of life in New York City at the turn-of-the-twentieth century are incredible. I especially liked the gritty, realistic depictions of immigrant life. I did not enjoy the technical details about making stained glass as much. They bogged the story down and made the plot pace very very slowly. I would have started the novel at a much earlier time in Clara's life and talked about how she came to be an artist and how she came to Tiffany Studios and culminated with the World's Fair playing with the historical timeline along the way. Actually, I would have made Clara fictional and based her on the real Clara Driscoll. The book could also have benefited from a glossary of terms and pictures of Tiffany glass. Art enthusiasts will probably enjoy this book and I would also recommend it to those interested in women's rights but not to a casual reader looking for a good book.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge Conclusion

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge Conclusion

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at

I did it! I made my goal and added one extra book despite not knowing about the challenge until late in the game.  I just loved The Little Women Letters! It was nice to read a retelling of a classic book without it being the identical plot rehashed or the characters not behaving like the author created them. I liked meeting a new family similar to the March family and a modern woman like Jo to relate to. I enjoyed the mysteries for a fun summer read and learning more about the Alcotts as a family. The stories are a bit far-fetched but it shows that Louisa was an intelligent and capable woman who refused to fit the ideal. I have always admired her and I am happy to see others getting to know one of my favorite authors for the first time or rediscovering her and her books.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week  . . .

Becoming Little Women: A novel about Louisa May Alcott at Fruitlands by Jeannine Atkins -- Middle Grades Historical Fiction

When the author of Little Women was ten years old, her family moved to a farm with other Transcendalists. They called this farm Fruitlands and vowed not to use beasts of burden, wear cotton or leather, eat sugar or honey or drink milk do anything that would deprive animals of their natural state or support the slave system. This also included not using any money. Louisa is excited at first about a new adventure but apprehensive about what life will be like away from Boston. Louisa's older sister Anna, the perfect and good one, accepts their fate patiently while sweet Lizzie and baby Abby are a bit too young to understand what is happening. . Louisa's patient mother deals with all the household chores with some assistance from the girls. Louisa finds it difficult to keep her temper and finds solace writing in her journal and composing stories in her favorite apple tree. By midwinter though, the adventure is no longer so much fun. Lizzie, Abby and William are sick and and Mother is thinking of taking the children and leaving. Louisa worries a lot about her father and wants nothing more than to keep her family together. Louisa vows that one day her family will be rich. For now though they must muddle through as best they can. Can they stay together and still be different from the rest of the world? This is a very simple introduction to a difficult period in Louisa May Alcott's early life. The story draws from Louisa's journals and family letters to provide a portrait of what life was like at Fruitlands. The character of Louisa seems pretty true to life. Anna, like Meg, is portrayed as a good two-shoes. She reminds me a lot of Mary Ingalls, especially in her relationship with Louisa. There are some quirky characters who live at Fruitlands who provide the laughs to relieve the tension. The author did a great job of explaining what the Transcendentalists believed and the purpose of their experiment. I already knew the story so the plot didn't really grab me. It's similar to Fruitlands: Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan and Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass. It's been a long time since I read the other two but from my memories of them, I liked Klass's book the best but Atkins does the best job of explaining everything so I would recommend starting with this one and then reading Whelan's book and then Klass's. Adult readers will probably just want to read Transcendental Wild Oats or Louisa's journal entries.

Little Women Letters From the House of Alcott: Selected by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian De Forest  by Jesse Bonstelle -- Non-Fiction

This book was originally compiled in 1914 as a response to the popularity of the Little Women play. It includes letters and journal entries written by the Alcotts with explanation by the editor. The story of the Alcotts is not told in chronological order but by theme. It talks about Bronson Alcott's childhood and his drive to become better educated and his desire to be understood. The book includes a letter from the patient, saintly Abigail May Alcott defending her husband's unusual beliefs to her brother. There are sweet letters written from the Alcott parents to their daughters on their birthdays and touching tributes to beloved parents from Louisa. II have read some of the journal entries before but not all of the letters. I especially liked the photographs of the original handwritten letters. gather that this book was the first compilation of these private papers. Since then there have been numerous biographies and scholarly works on the Alcotts. This book would be best appreciated by older children, teens and newcomers to the world of the Alcotts.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly -- Contemporary/Historical Fiction

The loving, eccentric Atwaters are a present day family living in Islington, in North London. There's Fee, a 1970s feminist and family therapist; her husband David, a Londoner with dry wit and plenty of charm; lovely, perfect Emma who is marrying the solid, dependable Matthew; baby Sophie, the actress and middle sister Lulu, a bit harsh and wild and difficult to get along with. There is also Charlie, Lulu's best friend, a lonely young woman attracted to the lively Atwaters as well as a host of other secondary characters. Fee Atwater also happens to be the great-granddaughter of Jo March! Fee has inherited all of Jo's independence and spirit with more advantages and opportunities. She's grateful that her daughters live in a modern world where they have as many opportunities as they wish to take advantage of, which is why she worries a bit about Lulu who is a bit lost. Sent to the attic on an errand, Lulu discovers some lost letters written by Grandma Jo many many years ago. She discovers that like her, Jo was stubborn, awkward and strong but with the help of her loving family she grew from an awkward girl into a confident woman who never lost sight of the importance of family. Jo's letters help guide Lulu as she tries to figure out her life. Emma and Sophie too must learn to figure out how to navigate the transition to adulthood in this funny, warmhearted novel. I simply adored this book! The characters truly come to life through witty and amusing dialogue and descriptive, distinctive personalities. The dialogue between the characters was so realistic I could easily picture me saying many of the same things to my siblings. All of the main characters are counterparts to characters in Little Women. Like Marmee, Fee dispenses loving advice to her daughters. I identified with Lulu so much more than even my beloved Jo. I can not count the number of times I have had the same conversations with my parents:
Parents: What do you want to DO with your life?
Me: I don't know.
Parents: Do you want to go back to school?
Me: NOOO (even though I did in the end)
Parents: What do you want to do with your life? What are your plans?
Me: I don't know...

I've ALSO had the same conversations about relationships with my friends. Fortunately they are more understanding than Emma and Meg. I laughed out loud in a lot of places in this novel, especially when some of the secondary characters were on the scene. I just adored Jo's letters. The author did an amazing job making them sound like they were written by Jo (Louisa) and making the 19th century come alive. I loved the descriptions of what the Alcotts were up to during and after the events of Little Women. The letters are touching, tender and funny and truly reveal a portrait of the loving March family. The author also did an excellent job making parallels between the Marches in the nineteenth century and the Atwaters in present day. Sometimes those parallels felt a little forced, especially towards the end but not enough to make me like the novel any less. I can not gush enough about this novel. I highly recommend it to fans of Little Women who want more of the Marches and to those who enjoy light contemporary novels who may find themselves wanting to read or reread Little Women.

Louisa and the Country Bachelor (Louisa May Alcott Mystery 2) by Anna Maclean -- Historical Mystery

After the investigation of the Wrotham murder, Louisa is in need of some rest and relaxation. She's invited to visit her Uncle Benjamin Willis and cousin Eliza in Walpole, New Hampshire. Louisa is glad to get out to the country and pleased to have some money to be able to bring the rest of the family along with her. Walpole proves to be anything but restful. The locals are interested in politics and gardening and a misstep with either one can cause a scandal. Then, shortly after the Alcotts arrival, a young man falls to his death. The man, a Dutch immigrant named Ernst Nooteboom, was invested in land that would make him a wealthy man. His sister Lilli seems to think her brother was murdered for his property and she will do anything to prevent his murderer from obtaining the land. Louisa feels Lilli must be right and sets about investigating once again. The Alcotts also have their hands full with their nosy neighbor, Ida Tupper, deemed "fast" by Abba. When Louisa meets Ida's unusual son Clarence Hampton, she's suspicious of his erratic behavior. Could he know something about Ernst's death? With the help of her friend Sylvia, Louisa once again sets out to bring justice to her corner of the world. This story is far less probable than the first book in the series. Louisa does not have any justification for being interested in a supposed murder of someone she's never met. She barges in where no lady should go and asks pointed questions that she has no business asking. I do not mean to say that she was acting unladylike for we know she did not care for the feminine ideal, but what I mean to say is that I found it unbelievable that she would go to such lengths to investigate and that people would willingly talk to her. The mystery is far more difficult to figure out than the Wrotham murder. I had my suspicions about a few bits and pieces of the story but the who and why remained a mystery until somehow Louisa figured it out. What really shines in this novel is the details about domestic life and life in Walpole just before the Civil War. The famous actress Fanny Kemble makes an appearance and readers get to witness a famous Alcott play. All of these details provide a wonderful window into the world of Louisa May Alcott. I think mystery readers will enjoy the story and those who know a little bit about Louisa will enjoy seeing her in this setting. I am not sure Alcott scholars would enjoy this novel.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

The Lost Quilter (an Elm Creek Quilts novel) by Jennifer Chiaverini --Historical Fiction

When we last saw Joanna in The Runaway Quilt, she was being dragged away by slave traders just days away from her flight to Canada. Now in present time, Sylvia uncovers some evidence that sheds light on what happened to Joanna. What follows is Joanna's story from early childhood until adulthood. Fiercely independent and proud, Joanna refuses to be completely servile. She goes from job to job in the Big House and the fields until she's chosen to be the family seamstress. The cook, Ruth, tried her hardest to protect Joanna but trouble caught up to her and forced her to run. After her stay with the Bergstroms, Joanna's desire to be free burned even brighter despite being sold back into slavery and sent to South Carolina. Through the turmoil of the antebellum years and Civil War, Joanna never stops longing for freedom or thinking of the son who is lost to her. She experiences loss, love and all the heartbreak of slavery while stitching her secret map North into her quilt. This is an incredibly well-researched book. I took a graduate seminar on slavery and I can track some of the source material the author must have used for research. The story is light on plot aside from the utter misery of being a slave and when the plot does come, it seems a bit far fetched and the ending is a bit rushed. Sylvia never really does get the answers to her questions which really bothers me. I don't know why the author chose to frame the historical story with the present. The epilogue would have been fine on it's own. The epilogue is fascinating and I have to find out if it's based on something real. Even without a traditional plot, I found this book very engrossing. I wanted to know what happened to Joanna but yet I had to keep putting the book down because it was just so sad. That being said, I greatly admire Joanna. So she so strong and so brave. I can not even imagine what it must have been like to be a slave and I can't say how I'd deal with it but I know there were many real life Joannas who were strong and survive. The book satisfied my curiosity about what happened to Joanna after the Runaway Quilt. I recommend this book to readers who read The Runaway Quilt and want to know what happened to Joanna and also to those who like to read novels about slavery. It stands alone without having read The Runaway Quilt though it helps if you have read it. This is another great entry to the Elm Creek Quilts series.

Austenesque Review

Austenesque Review

Second Impressions by Ava Farmer

This sequel to Pride and Prejudice finds the Darcys, the Bennets, the Bingleys and their friends (the Wentworths, The Knightleys) 10 years after the conclusion of their novels. Most of the characters are content but not all and some look forward to the promise of the future.

Ava Farmer is the pen name of Sandy Lerner, the founder of the amazing Chawton House Library. She has the very best resources at hand and has clearly made a thorough study of Jane Austen's works and her world. Therein lies the problem. This book really has no plot. The plot doesn't kick in until the last few chapters. Most of Book 1 sets the stage and tells the reader everything the Darcys and family have been up to in the last ten years. The dialogue is about nothing and doesn't advance the plot or bring the characters to life.

Book 2 is largely a travelougue of a trip to Europe. We're told everything the Darcys are seeing but not often are we told how they react to it unless their reaction is negative. All of the descriptions are incredibly detailed but make for tedious reading. I love historical details but there were just too many in this book. The book reads very much like a travel diary of the period. When it's in a diary, it's vastly more interesting than when in a novel where one expects a plot with a beginning, middle and end. There are small glimpses of plot but mostly nothing happens. The Darcys don't seem at all like Miss Austen described them.  I loved Elizabeth's intelligence, wit and fortitude in the original but none of that comes across in this book. In fact, Elizabeth comes across as a silly, stupid, incapable ninny. Georgiana is something of a bluestocking and somewhat headstrong but still shy and reserved. She doesn't confide in Elizabeth and for some reason Elizabeth can not figure out what is wrong with her sister nor does she want to pry and ask. She and Darcy are mainly concerned with marrying their sister off.

Another big problem with this book is the "stile" in which it is written. The author copies Jane Austen's spelling, grammar and punctuation exactly but also throws in a lot of French phrases left untranslated (I studied French for 5 years) and also some archaic words that most modern readers will not understand. The author lacks Austen's wit and insight into human behavior that makes Austen's novels timely and readable 200 years later. 

I really appreciate all the hard work that went into making this novel. It took many years of research for it to come together. I also appreciate the attempt to copy Jane Austen's writing patterns - no easy feat I'm sure.I am sure that the scholars at Chawton House adore this novel and love picking up references to things they've read but the casual fan will have a hard time getting through this novel. It took me a month to read and I consider myself an ardent Janeite and scholar. I think this book will require a "second impression" to see whether it improves.