Friday, May 31, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne -- Non-Fiction

This new book uses ordinary objects from Jane Austen's life to examine the famous author's life and times. Paula Byrne seeks to show that Jane Austen was far more than the demure spinster aunt her family portrayed her in the Victorian era. Instead of a life limited to "Three or four families in a country village," Jane Austen had a wider range of experiences that influenced her writing. Each chapter revolves around one particular object and shows how that object fit into Jane Austen's life. Paula Byrne quotes extensively from Austen family letters, novels (Jane wasn't the only novelist in the family), period book reviews and other primary sources as well as biographies and travel books. This book paints a picture of a woman who lived a rich life. Through her family, neighbors, friends and visits, Jane Austen obtained a wide knowledge of the world. She developed her sly wit early on with the influence of her literary family, she enjoyed fame when it finally arrived and she loved the money that she earned from her writing. In contrast to being depressed and unproductive during her Bath years, Paula Byrne argues that Jane was busy socializing, shopping, waiting for Susan to be published, writing The Watsons and revision First Impressions and Elinor and Marianne. This statement is a bit controversial but it makes a lot of sense given the evidence provided. I'm inclined to agree that Bath was a productive time for Jane Austen.

Paula Byrne also speculates on the identity of the sitter of a portrait she believes could be Jane Austen. The portrait has caused a lot of uproar in the Jane Austen community. Byrne states there is evidence that the portrait is authentic to the time period and the woman looks very similar to the known portraits of the Austen men. I agree that it looks like it could be an Austen, but my personal opinion, knowing nothing about art, is that perhaps the face was done while Jane Austen sat and the rest was filled in later and or the portrait was done from memory. In the epilogue, Byrne admits that we will never know Jane Austen because she never showed her true face to the world. The only known true portrait of her shows her with her back to the viewer. Even Cassandra's famed watercolor is not said to be a true likeness.

Some of this book is biography but in places it is also a social history, examining the world in which Jane Austen lived. It's also literary criticism. The author makes some bold statements such as Tom Bertram was homosexual and Jane Austen understood she was making witty jokes in Mansfield Park (Mary Crawford's quip about "Rears and Vices" was intended as a double entendre). Byrne also can't tell the difference between Charlotte and Emily Bronte but her conclusion about the country house as a setting is valid. 

Some of the chapters went off on tangents about distant relatives, distant connections and so forth. I needed a family tree to keep them all straight. Those parts really dragged for me and made the book less interesting. It seemed like the author was reaching to make a connection between Jane Austen and that object when there really wasn't a good one.

This is a long book but it can be picked up and read a little at a time, out of order or in order, however the reader wishes. It took me (a fast reader) two weeks to read it a little at a time. I've read many biographies and Jane Austen blogs so not all the information was new to me, but I really liked the way it was presented and I learned a lot from it. This volume is a good addition to any serious scholar's library and worth a read for everyone who loves Jane Austen and her time period.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What I've Read Recently

What I've Read Recently . . .

Upstairs & downstairs : the illustrated guide to the real world of Downton Abbey by Sarah Warwick

This coffee table book provides readers with a brief look at the daily activities of Edwardian Britons. Each chapter is divided by time of day, has sidebars with even more information and concludes with a story of real life people. The book covers upstairs and downstairs but not middle class life. It's illustrated with many photographs, advertisements, and drawings from the Victorian era through the 1930s. It's hard to believe people lived like that well into the 20th century. It's more fun to romanticize 100 years ago or more and dream about living that lavish lifestyle. This book is good for casual readers who liked Upstairs Downstairs (the original) and Downton Abbey and want to know more about real life during those periods. 

 Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir that Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey by Margaret Powell -- Memoir

 Margaret Powell went out to service at age 14 to help her family. Her father was a house painter who only worked during the summer and her mother had a large family to care for so as the eldest, it was up to Margaret to give up her dream of becoming a teacher and go to work. Margaret tells her story in a matter of fact manner, comparing then to "now" (1960s) and explaining exactly what she did and why. From her first job as a kitchen maid, she spares no gruesome details about the difficulties of her job and the huge class divide between "Them" and "us." It is easy to spot the influences on the two hit TV shows yet the book also shows that the screen writers reduce the number of servants and add a heavy dose of fiction to their reality. Margaret tells her story as if she was dictating it to someone younger. She shares facts and sometimes intersperses her personal comments. I had a hard time accepting Margaret's one main goal. It wasn't surprising given the time period and all she went through, but it's difficult for a modern woman to accept. I wasn't totally surprised at how thoughtless and cruel her employers could be or that the servants gossiped about their employers but I did learn a lot about exactly what a real kitchen maid like Daisy would do. I know I could never do any of it! If Daisy is your favorite character in Downton Abbey, or you're curious about the life of a kitchen maid and cook who honestly wrote how she felt, then this book is worth your time. It's not a salacious tell-all or even akin to a novel, but an honest portrait of a hard working woman.

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

Chihuahua of the Baskervilles (A Tripping Magazine Mystery) by Esri Allbritten-- Cozy Mystery

Charlotte Baskerville loves her Chihuahuas. She runs a small dog  high-end clothing business and has made quite a bit of money from it. When her late Chihuahua Petey makes a ghostly appearance, she believes he's trying to tell her something. Her husband thinks she's crazy and wants to have her committed. He feels threatened because he once lost the family fortune and now his wife has made it again. The newly formed staff team of Tripping Magazine heads to Manitou Springs, Colorado to investigate the mystery of the Bakserville's Chihuahua and look at some other quirky macabre events in town their readers might like. When another appearance by Petey leads to a shocking event, everyone has more questions than answers. Cynical Michael believes that someone in the house must be behind the haunting. Is it Cheri, the alcoholic granddaughter; Ivan, the Russian circus performer turned dog trainer; the Acai berry obsessed neighbor; or Ellen, the clothing designer? Angus, the magazine editor, wants to stick with the paranormal explanation, but when the police get involved, the Tripping staff have no choice but to cooperate and share their evidence. This story is much cuter and a little lighter than the Portrait of Doreene Gray. I love dogs and was happy to see the Chihuahuas play important roles in this story. The characters are unique and well-developed. The secondary characters provide a lot of comic relief from a plot that could be dark. The plot kept me guessing the whole time. I never ever guessed anything and stayed up late to finish the book. I liked the incorporation of some of the other events in Manitou Springs. It sounds like it's Halloween 365 days a year there. This is a light, fun read to pick up for Halloween for those who aren't into scary horror movies, zombies or vampires. It's good, simple fun. I hope the author writes more mysteries with Chihuahuas.

Movie Review

Movie Review 

From Prada to Nada

starring Camilla Belle and Alexa Vega

Sisters Nora (Camilla Belle) and Mary (Alexa Vega) Dominguez live a lavish life in Beverly Hills with their adoring and energetic dad. When he dies unexpectedly, family secrets are revealed. First, Nora and Mary have an illegitimate half brother Gabriel and second, their father left them with nothing. Gabriel and his greedy wife Olivia buy the Dominguez family home and allow the sisters to live there until they're ready to move, as Fanny Dashwood does in the original. When the situation becomes intolerable, the girls move in with their aunt in East LA. East LA is a world apart from Beverly Hills and at first the girls feel uncomfortable. They don't speak Spanish and the culture of the hood is very different from Beverly Hills. Nora adapts quickly and enjoys helping the poor immigrants fight corporate America with the help of her handsome boss and sister-in-law's brother, Edward Ferris (Nicholas D'Agosto). She tries to fight her growing attraction to Edward and stick to her 10 year career plan. Mary wants nothing more than to go back to Beverly Hills. She fears Bruno (Wilmer Valdereama), a local boy (alias Colonel Brandon) who is always hanging around (wearing hoodies instead of flannel waistcoats). She sees her chance to get her old life back with her sexy literature TA. She gains a new appreciation for Mexican culture through the poetry Rodrigo teaches but still thinks she can have it all until one fateful night that changes everything.

I can't really comment on the plot without spoilers so be forewarned. Jane Austen would not recognize this story. Her story really doesn't translate well to a direct plot to plot retelling. This movie cuts out the subplot about Eliza and Lucy is introduced after Edward declares his feelings for Nora. The girls are not so much sense and sensibility as nerdy and ditzy. Mary is in the model of Cher from Clueless while Nora is intelligent and career-driven. Normally I would rejoice in a heroine like Nora, but contrasted with Mary she becomes dowdy and awkward. She's boiled down to a stereotypical nerd with more interest in books than boys. I would have liked her to be sexy and smart and have Mary not be so stereotypical Beverly Hills socialite. I do like how Mary grows and learns to be more like Nora, but in the short time allotted (the movie is under two hours), her development is very quick. Edward is a great character but not developed very well either. He's a perfect hero in every way until he meets Lucy. Then there's a gaping plot hole that doesn't make any sense whatsoever and isn't even explained. Rodgrigo is easy to pin down for anyone who knows the story. I wondered how they would handle him and I guessed his secret. Bruno is the Colonel Brandon character. He reveals hidden depths but his character isn't developed enough and the romance at the end is too rushed to make a lot of sense. 

I like the Mexican culture aspects, but it seemed very stereotypical to me. Beverly Hills is also portrayed stereotypically. Maybe LA actually is like that?

This is a cute, fluffy movie that's good for a flight or a fun summer date with the TV. I wouldn't pay to watch it.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Babycakes (Cupcake Club 3) by Donna Kauffman -- Contemporary romance/women's fiction

Kit Bellamy has come to Sugarberry Island, Georgia to start fresh after losing her family business. With some help from her business friend Charlotte and Charlotte's friend Lani, Kit will help start a mail order cupcake business. Also new to the island is Morgan Westlake, scion of the family that helped ruin Kit. Morgan is the black sheep or white knight of his family. He has bucked tradition and come to the island to raise his newly orphaned niece, Lilly. The little girl needs to be close to both sides of her family and have some stability and comfort in her life. She finds joy in helping at a sea turtle sanctuary where she and Uncle Moggy meet Kit who has come to volunteer. Kit's heart warms to the kind and gentle man and the sweet little girl, but she's wary of trusting someone new since her greedy brother-in-law stabbed her in the back. Her friends are pushing her towards something she may not be ready for. Can she take a chance on love? Morgan knows Kit is THE ONE almost from the moment he sees her. For some reason she seems to have an aversion to him. He's determined to pierce her armor and make her see they belong together. I loved the small town charm of this novel. The characters are interesting for the most part and somewhat quirky. I haven't read the first two books in the series and I don't feel I have to. This book introduces those characters and summarizes their relationships. I loved Alva, the Betty White of Sugarberry. I also loved the cupcakes because who doesn't love cupcakes?! This book needs to come with a warning label: May cause serious cupcake cravings! (Luckily, my mom already planned to order some for my graduation party next weekend) There are even recipes included in the back for the Bellamy family recipe for peanut pie and some of the cupcakes mentioned in the novel. The hero and heroine are decent for modern characters. I felt really bad for Kit but at the same time felt she was a bit whiny and underdeveloped. Morgan is too good to be true. Do men like him actually exist? He truly is a white knight and easy to fall in love with. I kept waiting for some more depth but he remains 100% perfect throughout. Lilly is a little unrealistic in the beginning but once fairies are introduced, then she becomes a typical 5 year old. I know an almost 5 year old who is obsessed with fairies (princesses, ballerinas and romantic pretty clothes, too) who asks a million questions so I felt Lilly became more normal as she became more comfortable on the island. I usually don't like children in novels but she managed not be too obnoxious. That's the good... now for the bad... the romance is a little silly. The characters fall in love at first sight but it takes 3/4 of the novel for them to admit it. What happens in between is very slow moving with lots of dialogue. I like when characters talk to each other but this book has way too much dialogue and it's repetitive. The story drags on for what seems like forever and it could have concluded several times before it actually does. After the first kiss, there are a couple of semi-graphic love scenes and a few more issues to get through before the conclusion. I would have ended it with the first kiss and made it a very sweet romance. Those who enjoy sweet romances should end the book after the first kiss. The love scenes aren't too bad, the first one is kind of sweet, and they do help break down some of the trust issues Kit has but aren't really necessary. I'm interested in the series enough to read the next one but not the first two. 

The Portrait of Doreene Gray: A Chihuahua Mystery (A Tripping Magazine Mystery)
by Esri Allbritten -- Contemporary Cozy Mystery/Paranormal Mystery

The staff of Tripping Magazine, a paranormal travel magazine, heads to Port Townsend, Washington, a sleepy Victorian town, to investigate the mystery of a portrait that ages while the owner grows younger. They crash a press conference when they learn that Doreene Gray is about to sell the infamous portrait her twin sister Maureene painted of her many years ago. Doreene and Maureene won't talk to the press, but Doreene's Brazilian boy toy Renaldo is scared of the portrait and believes it is evil. The housekeeper/cook Lupita, is also worried about spirits of the dead and a strange man is hanging out in a white Imapala outside Dorreene's home. Angus, the founder of the magazine, smells a paranornal mystery he can't wait to put in the magazine, but Michael, the chief writer, is skeptical and believes in a logical explanation. Suki, the sarcastic, goth photographer, is just interested in snapping pictures and making sure Gigi, Doreene's Chihuahua is taken care of. The trio can't help but get involved when strange things start happening and someone ends up dead. Their nosiness may help the police get to the bottom of the mystery, but do they really want to ruin the fun for their readers? This is a quirky, unusual sort of book, very different from my usual fare. I was attracted by the literary allusion to Oscar Wilde's story The Picture of Dorian Gray, but mostly I liked cute dog on the cover. Unfortunately, the dog plays a minor role in the story. She mostly just dances around and whines and does dog things without being an active player in the story. That was very disappointing to me. I love a good, well-written doggie companion/sleuth. None of the characters are likeable. The magazine trio are like paparazzi, not caring what happens as long as they get the shot they want and a good story to tell. The other characters are selfish and mean which don't endear them to the reader. Renaldo is a stereotype of a stupid and gullible but extremely sexy young Latin man, and he is the only one of the characters, besides Gigi, I had any sympathy for. The mystery was so interesting, I couldn't put it down! I had no idea where it would end up and stayed awake far too long trying to finish the book. It's hard to tell you how I felt about the story without spoiling it, so read at your own risk! I was a little bit disappointed in the outcome of the mystery. I was expecting something much different from family secrets and lies (though I guessed one of the secrets and I don't even LIKE paranormal stories). The story is somewhat darker than I expected from the reviews on the cover. I liked it enough to want to read the first one and it made me wanted to read Oscar Wilde's original story.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Road to Pemberley

The Road to Pemberley:

An Anthology of New Pride and Prejudice Stories

Edited by Marsha Altman


This anthology of short stories from well-known and up and coming fan fiction writers features stories about the Bennets and the Darcys. There are "what ifs", sequels and alternative points-of-view all in one volume. 

The Pemberley Ball by Regina Jeffers picks up where Pride and Prejudice left off and lets us see how two strong personalities can come together as one. I didn't like this story because there were far too many bizarre things that happened to Elizabeth that stretched my credibility. The relationship aspect seemed realistic. I think Darcy would probably kill me if we spent more than five minutes in each other's company and I can see how Darcy would have a hard time dealing with Elizabeth's spirited personality. However, I like happily ever after endings and I'm satisfied with what Jane Austen tells us at the end of the novel and feel no need to have these extra chapters.

But He Turned Out Very Wild by Sarah Hoyt is Wickham's story. At first it seems rather shocking to see Wickham claim to be a good guy and Darcy a bad guy, but by the end of the story, I actually really enjoyed this retelling! It's unusual and may not be to everyone's liking, but I enjoyed the twists and turns that made this story interesting and who doesn't love a happy ending? 

A Long Strange Trip by Ellen Gelerman is a what-if chapter set during Elizabeth's stay at Netherfield while nursing Jane. Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley and the Hursts eat tainted mushrooms causing some serious breaches in impropriety and unruly behavior.Only Caroline Bingley is left to look on in a mixture of jealously and horror. I really didn't like this story. It stretched my credibility too much. Cook should have known which mushrooms were safe to eat. I didn't like what happened between Lizzie and Darcy. His solution to makes sense but not for him at that point in the story. This whole thing is just too bizarre for me. Warning: subtle sensuality.

An Ink-Stained Year by Valerie T. Jackson is a unique sequel of sorts. It focuses on Caroline Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Following her brother's marriage and the dashing of her hopes for landing Mr. Darcy, Caroline is sent to London to be a companion to an elderly relative. There she meets Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is in London on medical leave/business for his father. Caroline corresponds with her brother and Jane while Colonel Fitzwilliam writes to his cousin.The letters are well written and incorporate some sly nods to other fan fiction stories. The growing relationship and will they/won't they between the main characters is nicely drawn out and realistic given the etiquette of the period. This is my favorite story in the collection. It's different but it fits within the canon nicely. 

The Potential of Kitty Bennet by Jessica Keller is Kitty's story. In the year following Elizabeth and Jane's marriages, Kitty becomes the only child left at home. She chafes at being the unmarried daughter, yet she can't figure out an identity of her own. Upon a visit to Elizabeth, she declares her intentions of marrying a wealthy man who can keep her in style. Elizabeth of course, counsels her younger sister to marry for love. Kitty confides her growing pains to the handsome young clergyman, Mr. Denton. He's not rich, but he's kind and a good listener. Then Kitty's head is turned by an old schoolmate of Darcy's. She thinks she is on the verge of getting everything she's ever wanted, yet it doesn't feel right. It takes a near tragedy and a dashing rescue for her to realize what her heart wants. I liked this story a lot. The author did a nice job of capturing the growing pains of a teenage girl. The plot was painfully obvious as it was copied from Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and every Regency from Georgette Heyer onwards. The obviousness of it all made this story a bit difficult to get through but I liked seeing Kitty grow and come to discover who she is. 

A Good Vintage Whine by Tess Quinn is a "what-if" scene set after Bingley's proposal to Jane and Darcy's return to Netherfield. Bingley is hosting a dinner party for his in-laws and gets locked in the wine cellar with Mr. Darcy. After consuming numerous bottles of wine, Darcy loses his reserve and confesses his love for Elizabeth to his dearest friend. This is a cute what if story. I can sort of see it happening. I liked watching Mr. Darcy unbend a bit and confide and confess to Bingley. This story is a bit of frivolous fun.

Georgiana's Voice by J.H. Thompson is Georgiana's story and her version of the events of Pride and Prejudice. This story never really gets off the ground. It's largely a retelling of events from Georgiana's point-of-view. I liked the relationship between the siblings and Georgiana's sly meddling. I don't get the impression from the original novel that she would dare to do that though, so I don't really think her characterization is consistent. This story is largely unmemorable. Those interested in Darcy's backstory and how he came to be the man he is will like this one because it fills in some of the blanks. 

Secrets in the Shade by Bill Friesema reintroduces Wickham after the events of Pride and Prejudice. Darcy and Lizzie are happily married with a young family when Wickham returns, supposedly to mend the relationship. Darcy has his suspicions, however, especially when Wickham claims he doesn't want money. Wickham has a shocking secret he reveals to Darcy that could threaten to scandalize the family and ruin them if the truth is not found out. Darcy travels to London to uncover the secrets of the past. Wickham is SO obvious, I knew exactly what he was going to claim before he said it. I think Darcy probably would have been wise to Wickham by that time and already figured it out. The mystery kept me reading too late into the night to find out the truth. The story is a bit short so it's long on the rehashing of events and introducing new characters and short on the relationship between Darcy and Lizzie. This is an interesting and plausible what-if that fans of traditional Regencies will enjoy.

A View from the Valet by Nacie Mackey is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of Darcy's valet. It's boring and slow. It's not even a real story, just observations on what is happening. I didn't like how Mr. Darcy loses control in this story and starts muttering to himself. He doesn't seem like that type of person. The valet never takes on a fleshed out personality but remains a ghost in the background telling us what's happening. If you want a great valet story, try the Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman chronicles by Pamela Aidan. I just adore Fletcher and he's a tough act to follow.

Beneath the Greenwood Trees by Marilou Martineau is both a prequel and sequel. A pregnant Elizabeth wanders up to the attic and finds a toy sword. She longs to know more about her beloved husband's youth, but he's reluctant to share. Finally, he reveals his happy summer days playing Robin Hood with his cousins under the Greenwood trees and how his childhood came to an abrupt end. The events of this story help shape the Mr. Darcy he is today and the father he will become at the end of the story. I rather liked this filling in of Mr. Darcy's story. My romantic side doesn't like the harsh bitterness of the end of Darcy's childhood, but I think it sounds accurate for the time period. The author has done lots of scholarly research which appeals to my nerdy side. I especially like the incorporation of old Robin Hood ballads into the story. Mr. Darcy lovers will really like reading about this period in his life and seeing how it shaped his own perceptions of what a good father should be like. 

Father of the Bride by Lewis Welchel is Mr. Bennet's observations and feelings on his own darling Lizzie's romance with Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bennet is unhappy over losing his favorite daughter, yet he'll do anything to make her happy. I found this story rather dull. It didn't seem to coincide with the timeline of events in the original story. I always thought Elizabeth and Jane had a double wedding. I also didn't like how Elizabeth felt insecure from her mother's neglect. This story is largely unmemorable and doesn't add anything interesting to the Darcy and Lizzie story.

Pride and Prejudice Abridged by Marsha Altman is a hilarious, shortened version of the story told in dialogue form (in modern lingo) between the characters. It reduces the story to about 4 pages. Those 4 pages will keep you laughing. However, it does point out that the original story doesn't make a lot of sense realistically and has a lot of flaws. It's so funny, I can forgive that. I only wish it were a bit longer.

The title of this book is misleading because it sounds like these stories are brand new when actually they were posted in some form on various fan fiction sites around the Internet over the years. If you're an avid fan fiction reader and haven't read these stories before, then this book is worth the money. I'm not a big fan of fan fiction and though I don't like reading stories online on my computer, I feel as if this book was not worth buying. The stories are mediocre and don't really add anything important to my life. This is not one for the keeper shelf.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What I Read Last Weekend

What I Read Last Weekend . . .

Ashenden: A Novel by Elizabeth Wilhide -- Historical House Fiction

Charlie, a middle-aged photojournalist and American transplant and his sister Ros have inherited a crumbling, derelict old English mansion from their late aunt. The house will cost an enormous amount of money to fix and Charlie thinks selling is probably the best option, but Ros isn't so sure. Ashden was built in the Georgian era for Sir Frederick More of Bath stone by the famous architect James Woods. Woods loved the designing and the building of the house. The house changed hands many times before Aunt Reggie and Uncle Hugh purchased it in the 1950s and lovingly restored it with antiques from all over Britain. The house longs to be lived in again but with today's economy being what it is, that may not be possible. This book is a collection of memories about a fictional house through 250 years of history. The chapters are short and episodic, telling of one family's time spent in the house over a chapter or two before moving on to the next occupants. I really didn't like this style of storytelling. Just when I became somewhat attached to the characters, wondering what would happen to them, they were dropped. Any sort of coherent plot was overlooked in favor of many, may architectural and restoration details. Some of the characters seem to be introduced randomly but a few are connected in the end. I found Charlie to be an annoying character, too obsessed with his young wife and his sister was even more annoying when she bothered to appear in the story at all. I would have liked to have met Reggie sooner and learned more about her at the beginning of her life and tell her story interspersed with the story of the house with more of a plot. She was so important to Charlie but the reason really failed to come through in the plot. Some of the characters seem to be introduced randomly but a few are connected in the end. I found Charlie to be an annoying character, too obsessed with his young wife and his sister was even more annoying when she bothered to appear in the story at all.If you like antique archeology, home restoration, architecture and touring historic houses just for the architecture and collections, you'll enjoy this book. I enjoy the stories about the people more than the architectural details and so I did not really like this book. I found it rather boring. It is not for Downton Abbey fans. 

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin -- Historical Fiction

Young Cora Cash, the only daughter of Winthrop Cash, son of the flour king, is the prettiest, richest girl in Gilded Age society, probably even the world. Everyone wants to attend Mrs. Cash's lavish parties in Newport and New York. Cora, however, feels stifled by her mother and longs to be free. The day after her coming out party, Cora and her mother are sailing for England to find Cora a titled husband. Cora hopes for help from her friend Teddy Van Der Leyden but he would rather run off to Paris and become an artist than marry Cora. A hunting accident soon after her arrival in England, throws Cora into high society when she's rescued by Ivo Maltravers, the Duke of Wareham. He's handsome and single and most importantly, in need of Cora's cash. The Duke and his ancestral home soon seduce Cora into falling in love with Ivo. They begin married life blissfully, but Ivo's mother is determined to make life difficult for Cora. Cora is an outsider and she doesn't understand the rules of English society. She thought Ivo loved her for her forthright nature, but then he prickles up when she goes against tradition. If only she has friends to help her through. She tries to befriend her dowdy stepsister-in-law, Sybil and Charlotte Beauchamp, her hostess at the hunting party that day. The Prince of Wales seems to enjoy her company, but her only real confidante is her maid, Bertha. Bertha, a colored woman from South Carolina has risen to unexpected heights being lady's maid to a Duchess. She is torn between her roots and her future while she attempts to make a home in England. She sees and hears things belowstairs that force her to confront what she wants out of life. Over the course of a year, Cora too is forced to grow up and discover that there are some things in life money can not buy. This story reads like Edith Wharton fan fiction. Take one naive heroine, marry her off to a Duke with a domineering mother and stir. However, I actually liked this story more than the Buccaneers. The Bucaneers was a difficult read knowing that disaster lay ahead. This story has more nuances and complications. There are also less characters to keep track of. The ending was unusual and not what I expected or would have written but it worked for the plot. I was glad Cora made the decision she did even though it may not have been the choice that readers wanted or expected. I was hoping... SPOILER ALERT Cora and Ivo would work on their marriage. I don't think he loved her but he wanted to and I think he could come to. I liked Cora, even though she was a spoiled, naive girl. I felt for her because of her innocence. Some things were painfully obvious and she was left in the dark and I truly felt sorry for her. She wanted happiness so badly and her mother was so awful that she deserved a happy ending. I did not like Ivo. He's moody, brooding and sometimes cruel. He's enigmatic and we never really get to know his real personality. I thought he was needlessly cruel to Cora at times. He married her for her refreshing personality but also expected her to know how to carry on like a Duchess. In many ways he was worse than the indifferent husbands of The Buccaneers. I wasn't crazy about Bertha either. She seemed to forget where she came from for awhile and she seemed to deliberately naive at times. Her character experiences a lot of growth though and she becomes a better, stronger woman at the end but I think more time could have been spent developing that aspect of her life rather than her romance. Downton Abbey fans wishing for a prequel will love this look at how Robert and Cora Crawley's early married life may have been. The historical details are wonderful. I could easily pinpoint all the Newport homes and society people San Souchi and the Cashes were based on. Though the plot is a bit somber, this book is a fun read for Downton Abbey fans. Those who love the lavish Gilded Age lifestyles will also love this book. Edith Wharton fans may also like this book.

Monday, May 20, 2013

What I've Read Recently

What I've Read Recently . . .

Midnight Waltz by Barbara Hazard -- Regency Romance

Miss Constance Ames has come to stay in London with her aunt, Lady Moreston and stepcousins, the mysterious Lord Moreston and the temperamental Louisa. Louisa's temper tantrums and outrageous behavior are quite shocking to Constance who is used to a quiet life in the country with her uncle. It's a wonder Louisa is accepted anywhere. While visiting a new friend, Lady Beech, Constance meets Mr. Hugh Carlyle, one of Society's most notorious eccentrics. He seems to enjoy the company of the forthright Constance, but can she really trust him? Someone has been sending threatening notes to first Constance and then to Louisa. Constance can hardly believe it could be the handsome, charming rogue she has come to care for, but when evidence seems to point his way, she has to confront her fears and risk breaking her heart. This story is rather long in places but the mystery kept me guessing. I thought I had it all figured out but there were some twists that I didn't see that complicated matters. Someone could probably easily figure out who but the rest is a bit difficult. The story is a little dark for a Regency romance. It seems to be modeled on Georgette Heyer's Cousin Kate in places. The characters are a bit difficult to like. Constance is practical and kind but she's somewhat naive which makes the story a  bit frustrating. The rest of the characters are unlikeable, even the hero. I liked Carlyle well enough until the big misunderstanding. That went way above and beyond what I would be willing to tolerate and I lost any sort of positive feelings for him and then proceeded to loathe his high-handed, egotistical personality. I wouldn't recommend this novel to those who like the comedy of manners stories or even traditional Regencies. This one is for those who enjoy more Gothic stories and don't mind heroes who change personalities in the middle of the book. 

Henrietta Sees it Through: More News from the Home Frony 1942-1945-- Joyce Dennys -- Historical Fiction

Henrietta continues her newsworthy letters to her old friend as World War II encroaches upon her little Devonshire village. She still longs to help the war effort, but she's needed to support Charles who is busier than ever. There's danger all around: German planes are flying overhead, bombs are dropping nearby and food rationing is beginning to take it's toll on Henrietta and her friends. This story is more somber than the first volume. The war is more of a reality so Henrietta's news is less breezy. As in the first volume, Henrietta's letters are accompanies by charming sketches. I liked the comic relief parts the best, especially the dog show. I also liked being able to compare British and American war time experiences and attitudes. The illustrations really add to the humor of the story. I would have combined both volumes into one omnibus edition since they're so short. Despite the darker tone, it's still a fun, light read.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Along Came a Dog by Meindert DeJong -- Middle Grades Classic/ Newberry Honor Book for 1959

It's spring on the farm at last. The hens have been stuck inside the chicken coop in the top of an old horse barn all winter. When the man comes to let them out, the little red hen is especially glad to see the man and get out in the barnyard. The man has made something of a pet of the last little red hen, so when he discovers her feet froze off in the winter, he decides to disobey his boss's orders to kill the hen. He tries hard to protect the hen from the attacks of the rooster and his harem of white hens and from the big black dog that has wandered onto the farm. The man does all he can to ensure the hen's safety, including taking away the dog, but she has a habit of getting out of where he's stuck her. The man can't figure out how the hen is staying safe. What he doesn't know is that the dog has appointed himself the little red hen's protector and though he has little food in the barnyard and must hide from the man, he sticks around to protect the little red hen. As spring turns to summer and threats increase, the little red hen tries to survive with the help of her dog. This story is sort of the anti-Charlotte's Web. The animals are not given human characteristics, or even names. They behave as animals are supposed to in their natural environment which causes a lot of violence. For this reason, I would not recommend the story to sensitive children. This story is best for older readers who read below grade level. Though the main characters don't have names or talk in human speech, I cared for them anyway. I wondered what would happen to the hen and the dog but not enough to want to continually read this book in one sitting. I think adults will appreciate the well-written prose and the heartwarming ending, but I'm not certain kids will enjoy this story. I liked it but it's not one of my favorites. All the animal violence really turned me off even though I know "survival of the fittest" rules the natural world. This book really makes me feel better about eating chicken...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What I've Read This Week Part II

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

The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson -- Historical Fiction

This English village novel picks up where The Two Mrs. Abbotts left off, with Archie Chevis Cobbe's wedding. Archie and his bride only play a minor role in this story, however. The main characters are the Grace sisters, daughters of the vicar in Chevis Green. There's the eldest, Sal, strong and proud; outspoken Liz; Addie in the WAAF and shy Tillie. Does that sound like four other sisters you may know and love? Similar to Little Women, this story is about the daily lives of the four sisters during World War II as they work hard to keep their father comfortable, their home running smoothy and do their part for the war effort. Their father is a bit absent-minded, but they love him terribly and don't want any more change to come to the vicarage. Change does come however. First, a soldier comes calling all too frequently for Tillie's taste. Then, a clumsy Roman scholar arrives and works his way into the hearts of the Graces. When bossy, annoying Aunt Rona comes to stay from London and turns the household upside down, the Graces are at their wits' end. The girls fear Aunt Rona has designs on Father and will never leave. Whatever shall they do? Outside the vicarage, the villages queue up for fish at the market; take in refugees and fight over petty differences - in essence, a typical English village novel. I adored this sweet, simple story. In many ways it reminded me of a Lucy Maud Montgomery story with adult characters and also Little Women at times. It's sweet and funny at the same time. There's not much plot, yet I found myself reading all the way to the end in one setting. I didn't mean to, but I was so captivated by the charming world of Chevis Green that I just had to keep reading. This is exactly the type of comforting read I like before going to sleep at night. If you love English (or Canadian or American) village/small town stories then hurry off to your local library to find a copy of this book!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What I've Read This Week Part I

What I've Read This Week  Part I. . .

Without a Summer (Gamourist Histories 3) by Mary Robinette Kowal -- Historical Fantasy

Lady Jane and Sir David Vincent have returned to England after their adventures in Belgium. The talented glamourists have caught the notice of the Prince Regent, who has knighted Vincent. When they receive a commission in London from the Baron of Stratton, they decide to bring Melody with them to reduce her ennui and introduce her to eligible gentlemen. When they arrive in London, they discover the city in chaos. The temperatures remain cold even into summer and the superstitious public are blaming the coldmongers for the weather, causing riots throughout London.
Melody finally finds a gentleman she connects with, but she doesn't trust her own feelings. Jane fears the gentleman is unsuitable and connected to something dangerous. Vincent's father, Lord Verbury is also in London, attempting to make amends with his son. Vincent isn't certain what his father's motive is but he can't forgive and forget his childhood easily. When Jane accidentally overhears bits of conversations, she realizes that something dangerous is about to happen. Jane and Vincent risk their lives for England once again.

This is another thrilling adventure following Glamour in Glass. The author balances the magic, the history and the relationships nicely. I liked learning more about glamour, what it can do, who uses it and why. I knew about the volcano in Indonesia that exploded and caused a giant ash cloud that created freezing temperatures across the northern hemisphere, but the popular explanation as it appears in the novel is very creative. It makes sense from a historical perspective. Amateur historians will also like learning about the impact of the Industrial Revolution on Britain. Again, I liked the magical twist in this story. The plot kept me reading far too late in the night. I finally had to put it down but it was hard. By the time I got to the last third of the novel, I was gripping the book tensely, wondering how it would turn out. I liked how the adventure was woven into the glamour and relationship plot and not the other way around. The plot works as a stand-alone book for those who may not have read the first two, but I highly suggest that readers read the books in order. Most of all, I loved the characters. Jane and Vincent have such a wonderful relationship. They are so comfortable with each other and so caring. I think the portrayal of their marriage with it's ups and downs is very realistic, though I have never been married. Jane overreacted to something from Vincent's past and I was surprised that she cared so much. I'm not sure I would have been so upset in that time period, but of course now, I would be angry too. I also like the sibling rivalry between Melody and Jane. They just don't understand each other no matter how hard they try. Melody really develops as a character in this novel. I didn't exactly like Jane in this book. She jumps to a lot of conclusions without checking her facts. She's modeled after Jane Austen's Emma, a character not many people like. I just didn't feel that it was very much like the intelligent Jane we had met before. The relationship between Vincent and his family is something new. We've had hints in the past two novels about his previous life but this time he comes face to face with his past. It's a dark subplot and difficult to read. I'm not entirely positive the attitudes towards masculinity are accurate for this early in the 19th century. That part of the plot would make more sense for the Victorian era. That was my only nitpick about the plot. The cover, while beautiful, just doesn't portray the characters. Is that supposed to be a glammed up younger Jane and Vincent or Melody and who? I highly recommend this series to Traditional Regency lovers ages 16+.

Monday, May 6, 2013

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

Bright Island by Mabel L. Robinson with decorations by Lynd Ward-- Children's Classic/Historical Fiction

In 1937, Bright Island off the coast of Maine is uninhabited by anyone except the Curtis family. Thankful Curtis would have it no other way. With her older brothers grown and off the island, she can swim and sail to her heart's content. A tomboy, Thankful resists her sisters-in-law attempts to civilize her. Then, Thankful's parents decide she must attend school on the mainland. Thankful tries to rebel, insisting her place is on the island, but she learns it was her beloved grandfather's wish that she go. So off to school she goes, to Blair Academy where her roommate Selina is a rich snob, the boys are mysterious (especially the handsome Robert) and the classes are tough.  Though she longs for home and the open sea, Thankful is determined to succeed to show everyone she can do it. On vacations, there's her beautiful island home she desires to share with her new classmates and her good friend Dave, always there despite his rapid promotion in the Coast Guard. Thankful experiences extreme joy and heartache before the year is done. Through it all, she remains true to herself and her island. This Newbury Honor classic from 1938 is similar to the Anne of Green Gables series in that Thankful and Anne both love and long for their island homes while away at school. Sadly, this book lacks the charm and warmth of the Anne series. I was rooting for Thankful to stay true to herself and her island, but at the same time, I found her a bit too obsessed for my liking. She's stubborn, proud and resistant to change. If I were here, I wouldn't want to be suddenly told I had to go away to school either but I think I would long for higher education and a place off the island. Thankful is a bit prickly and difficult to like due to her single-mindedness. She doesn't develop any outside interests or anything to make her a well-rounded character. Her schoolmates are more interesting because they're not the stereotypical boarding school snobs. Her teachers too are more than stock characters. I quite like Orrin Fletcher and wanted to know more about him. The plot is slow and episodic. A lot of events are summarized and told in passing which I didn't like. There's way too much technical description about sailing that I didn't understand or care for. Some of the story is repetitive, especially the adjectives describing Thankful. The descriptions of the island are the real stand-outs and I could easily see it in my mind's eye. The island is the most developed and important character in the whole novel. The drawings are nice but are a bit difficult to really tell what they're supposed to be, at least in the paperback version. Overall, this isn't my favorite classic novel. It didn't leave me with any warm, fuzzy feelings or shouting huzzah or anything like that.

Henrietta's War: News from the Homefront 1939-1942 by Joyce Dennys -- Historical Fiction

World War II consumes the thoughts of the residents of a small village in Devon. Henrietta chronicles the daily lives of her family and neighbors as she writes to a childhood friend serving on the Western front. She relates their eagerness to be a part of the war effort, something she is really too busy to do supporting her busy doctor husband. The ladies are also eager for Hitler to invade so they can give him "what for. Henrietta's stories are charming, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes more poignant. This story reminded me of an update of Cranford. I could easily see Miss Mattie and co. behaving the same way as Henrietta and friends. I loved this English village novels and this is no exception.  First published as magazine stories during the war and then in book form in 1985, this story is fresh and fun. The characters are so well developed that I am positive they must be real, though the author insisted they were made up. Each letter is illustrated with Henrietta's drawings (done by the author) which add to the comic adventures. I fully intend to read the sequel because this was way too short. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

What I've Read Recently

What I've Read Recently . . .

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon -- Historical Fiction

In 1899, land values have plummeted and British aristocrats must make their money by marrying into it. Lord Robert, the Earl of Dilberne married the illegitimate daughter of a coal baron, whose wealth sustained the family for a time. They are happy partying, gambling with the Prince of Wales (who is a carbon copy of his great-uncle George) and whoring - for the most part. Son Arthur enjoys tinkering with steam powered motor cars and daughter Rosina has declared herself a New Woman and is against everything her parents stand for. Still, life goes on as normal upstairs, supported by the downstairs staff. Now it seems some unpleasant business in South America has put the family in difficult circumstances. Robert owes money to Mr. Eric Baum, a Jewish financier. Eric is willing to forgive the debt, for the price of an invitation for his wife to a social gathering. Lady Isobel is horrified at the idea and decides a better solution is to marry Arthur off to an heiress. Her maid Grace is sent to compile a list of eligible ladies and comes up with one Minnie O'Brien, an American-Irish meat-packing heiress. Grace, jealous because she once had a fling with Arthur, tries to discourage the match but Lady Isobel is determined. Minnie has come to England to recover from a scandal which left her reputation and her heart, in shatters. Her overbearing mother is determined to marry her off to a title, if she doesn't cause a scandal with her loud-mouth ways and uncouth manners. Arthur is reluctant to marry and leave off his mistress Flora, but thinks there may be some way to save the family and keep Flora satisfied. When he meets Minnie, he begins to think marriage isn't such a bad idea after all, but his meddling sister may derail all his plans by spilling secrets never meant to be shared. 

This story claims to be for fans of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs but is hardly comparable. It made me realize why I fell in love with Downton Abbey in the first place - the well-drawn characters that made me care for them. Sadly, this book is lacking in appealing characters. They are all cardboard stock characters that embody every single bad cliche of the late Victorian era. They are all selfish and unappealing. At first I liked Rosina, but she proved to be petty and just as fluff brained as the rest of the family. I did like Minnie and I cared about what happened to her but she appears cold at times. The characters are obsessed with s-e-x. They think about it, talk about it and do it all the time. (There's a shocking scene with Arthur, Flora and another man.) The downstairs characters aren't fleshed out enough to care anything about. They flit around in the background, aside from Grace, who appears as a minor character. The story is told from first person limited jumping between the thoughts of each character not giving the reader time to come to know any of them well. The plot is ridiculous and ends abruptly with a twist that didn't fit what had just happened in the previous chapter. There are some inaccuracies : the characters are referred to as gentry when they are actually aristocrats and I think there are some other mistakes, not to mention the inaccurate characters. I think Mrs. O'Brien was supposed to be modeled after popular portrayals of Molly Brown but Americans were actually more stuffy than their British counterparts. Needless to say, I just didn't enjoy this novel at all and won't be reading the other two in the series. I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who claims to enjoy well-written stories.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Size 12 and Ready to Rock by Meg Cabot-- Mystery/Women's Fiction

Heather Wells is feeling great. She's back down to a size 12, secretly engaged to Cooper Cartwright and she's been taking classes towards her B.A. Then she discovers that a film crew is illegally filming her ex Jordan and his new wife Tania for a new reality series. They've chosen the penthouse apartment at Fisher Hall because the paparazzi are after Tania following the accidental shooting of her bodyguard.  Then Tania moves her new teen rock camp from the Catskills to Fisher Hall. Can Heather and co. deal with a residence hall full of teenage divas and their stage mothers? Cooper gets assigned to Tania as her new bodyguard and he feels she knows more than she's letting on about the so-called "accidental" shooting and encourages Heather to get Tania to talk to her. Heather provides a comforting presence so Tania latches on to Heather.  What Tania confides shocks everyone. Can Fisher Hall finally escape their reputation as Death Dorm? Heather also has a secret she's keeping from Cooper that may affect their future plans. 
 This story is far darker and more mature than any of the others in the series. Instead of stumbling onto a crime scene in her dorm, Heather actively gets involved with permission and discovers horrific secrets. The mystery involves adults and teens. The revelations are surprising and sad. Heather's secret is also a mature secret and not her usual fluff brain silliness. There's less emphasis on her size in this book as well. I couldn't put the book down until the end. I wasn't entirely surprised by the ending but it was thrilling anyway. I especially liked the new, mature Heather. I think she should become a professional counselor. People confide in her and she's a sympathetic listener. She seems to have enjoyed Psych 101 so I think she's on her way. I hated the part where Heather reveals her secret to Cooper. Meg unnecessarily hits the readers over their heads with her personal opinions. She did that in Queen of Babble and I didn't like it then either. I happen to agree with her opinion, but I'm an adult and I don't need to be told what to think. This book works fine as a stand alone or as part of the series. Meg Cabot's younger fans may not enjoy this book as much because of the darker tone but adult fans will like it. The P.S. interview reveals at least one more Heather Wells mystery will be released this year.

The Sinister Spinster by Carolyn Madison -- Traditional Regency Romance

Elizabeth Mattingale hates working as a companion to the capricious Lady Derrings. If the Duchess isn't ordering Elizabeth about, her youngest son and his horrible cronies are after her for a bit of sport. To make matters worse, the Duke has forbidden Elizabeth contact with her father who is deep in enemy territory in Richmond, Virginia. Elizabeth has her ways, however, and when her beloved father asks her to choose between her country and her father, she has a difficult decision to make. Adam, The Marquess of Falconer, is visiting the Duke as a spy for the Home Office. He needs to know what the Russians, who will be at the upcoming house party, are up to. Meanwhile, Adam becomes furious with the younger men for their behavior. He feels protective towards Elizabeth for some reason. Elizabeth can't stand the Marquess's overbearing behavior and cold manner but slowly, she begins to see he has a heart after all. When some of the Duke's dispatches go missing, Elizabeth is accused. She stands to hang if someone doesn't come clean or if Adam can't clear her name. The evidence is stacked against her though and he fears the worst. He calls in his friend the Duke of Creshton and the Duke's intrepid daughter Elinore to help clear Elizabeth's name. When someone ends up murdered, the stakes become even higher. Adam can't help but admire the way Elizabeth handles herself through her ordeal and though he tries to deny it, he's madly in love. One lady rejected his offer once, will Elizabeth do the same? 
This story takes place during the peace talks in 1814 while England was at war with America. Though the reader knows, or thinks they know, the answer to the mystery, the story is exciting and kept me reading until the very end. The romance, on the other hand, is horrible. There's no connection between the hero and heroine at all. There are some sensual kissing scenes so I suppose there's physical attraction, but there's no real relationship development. I was intrigued by the Marquess in The Scotsman and the Spinster, but here he's overbearing, rude and way out of line. I could not condone his behavior at all. He had no reason for it. Elizabeth is a good heroine. She's intelligent, brave and has a firm conscience. All this makes her a little too good though. She's almost unrealistic in the way she calmly deals with everything that goes on around her. I found Elinore a far more interesting character. There is a hint of future romance for her but it doesn't seem as if the author wrote Elinore's story. Despite a mystery with a plot twist to keep me interested, the romance didn't work for me so I just didn't enjoy this book much and wouldn't recommend it.