Thursday, December 26, 2013

What I've Read Recently

What I've Read Recently. . .

Mrs. Jeffries Sweeps the Chimney by Emily Brightwell -- Victorian Mystery

Inspector Witherspoon's staff and friends are eager for another murder to solve. Wiggins is called away unexpectedly to meet his estranged grandfather who is on death's doorstep. Wiggins doesn't want to forgive the man who callously neglected his family but Mrs. Goodge encourages the lad to make peace with his family. Wiggins goes with the promise that Mrs. Jeffries will send a telegram if they get another murder. Constable Barnes arrives early one morning to inform Inspector Witherspoon they have a case. A clergyman has been found dead on the doorstep of St. Paul's church near the docks. Who is the man and why was he murdered? The dead man leaves a clue leading to a condemned cottage where Inspector Witherspoon and Constable Barnes discover a skeleton in the chimney. The skeleton was a woman between 15-35 years old but no one seems to know who she was for the cottage has been unoccupied for over ten years. Mrs. Jeffries, Smythe, Betsy, Mrs. Goodge, Luty and Hatchet are on the case. As much as it pains him, Smythe has to pay for information once again. Luty's connections reveal much about the dead clergyman but how to get the information to the Inspector? The staff must trust someone else with their valuable information and risk being exposed. Will this be the end of their investigating? I figured out who the dead woman was as soon as the clue appeared. I guessed wrong, actually, but I was on the right track. I would think that Mrs. Jeffries would have thought of the same thing because something similar happened on a previous case. The whodunnit wasn't much of a surprise but the ending was quite surprising and very abrupt. The secondary plot with Wiggins also doesn't come to much of a close. I turned the page thinking there was more but ... nothing. I would have liked one more page to conclude the story. I liked the interaction between the staff and Constable Barnes. He's a shrewd man and more clever than Inspector Witherspoon. There's not much else going on in this story. It's not even an original plot aside from the two mysteries. It kept me turning the pages to see how they figured it out and what happened but it's not super interesting. I still plan to read the rest of the series because I find nice, fluffy books diverting and I have nothing else to do right now. 

Mrs. Jeffries Takes the Cake

Mr. Ashbury was murdered in his own home and since his son-in-law is an M.P., Inspector Witherspoon must handle the case and solve it before it becomes a scandal.  Mr. Ashbury was found in his study with tea laid for two. Was Mr. Ashbury murdered by someone he knew? was it the killer who left walnuts on his plate? It seems that everyone has a reason for wanting Mr. Ashbury dead including his own daughter. She loathes her husband and longs for escape but her father refused to help her. Mr. Ashbury was last seen having words with his son-in-law. The more Inspector Witherspooon investigates, the more tangled the case becomes. No one seems to have witnessed the crime or even heard the shot, except for the footman perhaps but he's gone missing! Never fear, with Mrs. Witherspoon and the rest, the case will be solved. I thought I had this case all figured out twice but ended up being completely wrong. I did figure out one clue though. Mrs. Goodge should have come up with her big idea to begin with and saved a lot of trouble. This story was a bit violent. There's mention of wife beating which I found distasteful. The men in the story are all really nasty which I didn't like. In the course of the investigation, women's rights becomes an issue. That's all the period detail there is. There's a bit more romance between the Inspector and Lady Cannonberry. It's very sweet and cute. If you like this series, you'll like this book. I wouldn't recommend it to those who are especially sensitive to violence because of the aforementioned wife beating.
Mrs. Jeffries and the Silent Knight

When Sir George Braxton is found facedown in a pond of ice with a wound on the back of his head, Inspector Witherspoon is called in. Despite the fact the murder happened in Richmond, the Home Office is involved and wants a professional on the job. The HO is putting pressure on Witherspoon to solve the case before Christmas - that's one week away! As is often the case, Sir Braxton was a wealthy miser who was despised by his own family. The only thing Sir Braxton loved more than money was his cat Samson, who went missing only to return the night of the murder. No one in the house will admit to killing Sir Braxton yet someone must have done it. Murders don't happen every day in Richmond let alone in the middle of winter. Was it one of the daughters? The middle daughter has secrets and the youngest is in charge of the family finances. There's also two house guests, a poor relation and a gardener as suspects. Any other copper would assume the gardener did it and not investigate properly, but not Inspector Witherspoon! With Luty sick and Lady Cannonberry out of town, the servants are short some valuable connections. Inspector Witherspoon and Constable Barnes are largely on their own for this one. They also have to put their trust in Constable Barnes again and hope he understands how to help their beloved Inspector. The plot of this story is so predictable. I figured it all out right from the first chapter, however, as a reader, I had access to information that no one bothered to tell the Inspector. That's sloppy writing on behalf of the author. She shouldn't have put in the murder scene. It makes the mystery too predictable. The other suspects could have done it but I was positive I was right and I was. I also thought they should have figured out how to trap the killer right away! There's a lot more period detail in this story since the victim was of the Quality. It's said he's a baronet and then a knight and then a baron but they are NOT all the same thing! What is he? The editor should have caught that and fixed it. I would have liked more period detail, watching the characters move around and listening to them talk to each other to get a feel for their daily lives. This story lacked a lot of the comic relief from Luty Belle and Hatchet. She is in the story in a few scenes but most of the discussion about her is somewhat sad. Betsy and Smythe are bickering again a bit over what to do about their living situation once they're married. One wonders if they ever WILL get married. There's a tiny bit of romance at the end of the story. As usual, it's very sweet. In the end it sounds as if one of the characters is the one chronicling the cases and writing the stories. That's a cute touch I could do without.

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Miss Delacourt Has Her Day (Miss Delacourt 2) by Heidi Ashworth - Regency Romance

Having returned to London, Sir Anthony and Miss Delacourt are eagerly planning a small, intimate wedding in the rose garden at Ginny's Grandaunt Regina's home in the country. Ginny is trying her hardest to become a proper lady while Anthony misses his shrew. Then Sir Anthony receives a letter from his uncle, a Duke, stating Anthony's cousin has died and Anthony is now the heir. Dismayed, Anthony rushes to his uncle's bedside where his uncle proceeds to harangue Anthony about his choice of bride. A "mere" vicar's daughter won't do for a future Duke claims the Duke of Marcross. He has in mind someone more like Anthony's former flame, the beautiful, widowed Lady Derby who is now very very willing to accept Anthony (now Lord Crenshaw) despite her earlier rebuff. When the Duke comes up with three impossible tasks for Anthony to do in order to earn the right to marry Ginny, Anthony fears his love is doomed. Ginny fears Anthony's family hates her and they will persuade Anthony not to marry her. Her Grandaunt Regina is almost powerless to do anything. Lucinda and Lord Avery show up to complicate matters. This is a very cute and funny sequel. I loved Sir Anthony in this book for the most part. I loved that he was willing to fight for the woman he loves and willing to stand up for her but I hated that he wouldn't talk to her and tell her what was going on. I really liked how Ginny refused to crumble despite meddling relatives. I hated that she cried a lot and tried to turn into a proper Duchess in the beginning. Like Anthony, I missed shrewish Ginny. Lord Avery and Lucinda add a lot of comic relief to the story. Poor Lord Avery! Lucinda is even MORE annoying than ever before. I giggled a lot whenever they were on the scene. The new characters are stock villains. They complicated the plot but didn't have any depth. There are some historical inaccuracies such as people didn't send engagement notices to the paper. Mostly this book could probably take place any time before World War II. There are a few stand-out things that mark this as a story set in the Regency era. Overall, I thought the book was enjoyable and I liked it more than Miss Delacourt Speaks Her Mind.

Mistletoe and Folly by Marian Devon -- Traditional Regency Romance

Jemima Forbes is forced to attend her estranged aunt's Christmas house party against her wishes. Her aunt finally took notice of her impoverished relatives and invited Jemima's beautiful older sister Clarissa to visit for the holidays in order to meet a suitable young man. Unfortunately for Clarissa, she has succumbed to the measles just in time for the holidays. Jemima wants nothing to do with her snobbish aunt or stupid cousin Marcus. She doesn't have any interest in marriage either. Jemima promises to hold her tongue and be polite. Sadly, Jemima's patience is tried by a public coach ride, her maid's illness, an accident, a long walk to her uncle's estate and a rude, wealthy carriage driver who splattered Jemima with mud. Her feathers are smoothed a bit by the kind Mr. Baldwin, a neighbor of her uncle's just out of prison. Mr. Baldwin is persona non grata at Lawford Park so Jemima is left to her own devices. The only one of the party Jemima can possibly bring herself to like is her uncle's crippled sister Jane. When Jemima discovers the rudesby who caused the coach accident and splashed her is the guest of honor, Lord Montague! Jemima can hold her temper no longer and vents her anger on Lord Montague, much to the dismay of her toad eating cousin Marcus. When her head clears a bit, Jemima realizes Lord Montague is hiding something. Could it have something to do with the escape of a political prisoner her uncle's secretary is forever going on about? Soon Jemima's quick mind thrusts her into the middle of a secret scandal and another mystery she can only guess at. She's never had so much fun in her life! Though this book bears a lot of similarities to Miss Osborne Misbehaves, this story is very different. The plot is fairly predictable but fast paced and very funny at times. At first I thought the plot was going to take a different direction but I enjoyed the way it went. It was different and lighter than a traditional Regency romance while still being a mystery type story. The romance is very clean. There are a few kisses, mainly under the mistletoe, but no real sensuality. There's a secondary romance that's very sweet too. It was a bit different and I would have liked another story involving those characters because I found them intriguing. I liked Jemima but she wasn't very proper for a Regency lady. She says and does whatever comes into her head and I think some of her behavior would have caused her to be compromised, much to her aunt's dismay. The dialogue is very witty and amusing. It sounds rather modern at times though. None of the book is from Lord Montague's point-of-view, we don't even know his first name, but one can guess at what he is thinking and feeling. I can only imagine what his internal dialogue must be. His conversations with Jemima tend to be rather amusing on the part of the observer and exasperating on his part. The rest of the characters are all culled from the typical Regency canon: the stuffy, snobbish aunt and party guests and the foppish cousin. Not too interesting there. The villain, if you can call that person a villain, is interesting and a different type of character. It's not someone you would peg as a villain. There's no back story there but I assume this person has their own best interests at heart. This story is a lot better than Miss Osborne Misbehaves. It's similar to other light Regency books like the Miss Delacourt books and other older Regency writers. There's not a lot of substance to the story but it's a nice, light read.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What I've Read Recently: Christmas Edition

What I've Read Recently: Christmas Edition . . .

Christmas Treasury by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Stephen W. Hines; illustrations by C. Michael Dudash -- Fiction/short stories

This book contains Christmas-themed stories by the author of Little Women. Some of the stories are newly collected here and others have been published in other anthologies. 

The Quiet Little Women opens the anthology. It is a story of charity about a girl named Patty, an orphan who longs to be loved and needed. When at last her chance comes to be needed, she remains unloved. She stays quiet and steadfast, grateful for her position; but she secretly writes her innermost woes to "Aunt Jane," her employer's kind sister. It's up to Aunt Jane to make the family see Patty as she really is. This story is one of Louisa's many moral tales. The message is very heavy handed but it doesn't make the story less enjoyable. Patty should be annoying because she's so awfully good but she's so sweet and lonely that I couldn't help but root for her to finally achieve her heart's desire. 

A Hospital Christmas is extracted from Hospital Sketches, Louisa's autobiographical account of working in a Washington, DC hospital during the Civil War. This story is more grim and realistic than most of the stories contained in this volume. The soldiers are suffering and only the good, kind nurse understands them and is able to alleviate their pain. When someone forgets to send their Christmas dinner, Miss Hale attempts to smooth ruffled feathers and make Christmas merry for all. This story brings home some of the reality of the Civil War and showcases the horror of war from the point-of-view of a nurse. This story is quiet and the message is more subtle than the children's tales. 

What Polly Found in Her Stocking a poem about the thrill of opening a stocking on Christmas morning. Sweet and simple, this poem will bring alive the magic of Christmas morning for young and old.

Rosa's Tale is a fantasy piece in which a horse is able to speak at midnight on Christmas Eve. Rosa tells her tale to a kind young lady in hopes of convincing Belinda to not sell her. Rosa's story is similar to Black Beauty and animal lovers everywhere will cringe at this tale. I knew I admired Louisa for her dedication to women's rights but this story makes me love her even more because it seems she was also interested in animal welfare, a cause near and dear to my heart! 

Mrs. Podgers' Teapot is one of the few stories to feature adult protagonists. Mrs. Podgers, a landlady, cherishes a teapot, left for her late husband by his workers as a thank you for his charitable giving.  The pot was left on the doorstep on the day Mr. Podgers died and Mrs. P keeps it as a reminder that her late husband had a hidden good side. She promised him she would never remarry and the teapot also serves as a reminder of her promise, much to the dismay of a Mr. Jerusalem Turner. This story has some unexpected twists. It's a predictable Christmas story but the plot was a bit different than I expected. It highlights the suffering of the wretched poor but it's also a sweet romance. As an adult story, the message is subtle and I really liked this story.

Peace From Heaven, a poem, brings alive the feeling of Christmas day. The rhyming meter is very simple and the classical imagery a bit trite. It's sappy and a bit too sweet but it does capture the feeling of watching small children on Christmas morning.

A Country Christmas is a young adult story along the lines of An Old Fashioned Girl. Sophie Vaughn, a wealthy socialite, is staying in the country with her Aunt Plumy and family for the holidays. She invited her citified friends Emily and Randal to visit for Christmas. Emily is polite, but Randal is aghast at the primitiveness of country life. His cynical writer's eye is convinced there is good material for a story here. He clashes with cousin Saul over what it means to be a man and how to write a proper book. Sweet Ruth seems to hero-worship Randal, but as always, there's a moral to the story. There are some predictable moments and some unexpected ones. I really liked this kind of story when I was younger and it reveals a lot about Louisa May Alcott and her personal beliefs. Stories like this must have influenced Lucy Maud Montgomery because the story reads like one of hers. If you like those, you'll like this one a lot.

Gwen's Adventure in the Snow is a fun tale about a sleighing party of girls and boys who get lost in a snowstorm. They're forced to bunker down in their summer house during a howling snowstorm. being stranded brings out the best and worst in people. I would probably not know how to survive like Gwen. I found the story very interesting. I liked this story because it lacked the same charitable giving moral that appears in most of the stories in this anthology.

A Christmas Dream, and How It All Came True is similar to A Christmas Carol. A spoiled young girl named Effie is tired of Christmas. She doesn't want anything except one large gift and one small one to remember some very nice person by. She even thinks it would be better to be a beggar girl. After reading A Christmas Carol, she falls asleep and has a strange dream in which her wish to be a beggar girl comes true. A beautiful angel shows her the meaning of Christmas. When she awakes and related the dream to Mamma and her nurse, it inspires Mamma to create the best Christmas Effie has ever known. This is a sweet moral tale. Effie is a very REAL little girl. She's spoiled, bratty and bored with her comfortable life. She's easy to relate to. The Christmas surprise is so sweet and heartwarming. 

A Song is another Christmas poem about a Christmas tree. It's nice but not very memorable.

A Merry Christmas is adapted from Little Women and begins with the March sisters opening their Pilgrim's Progress books and ends with Mr. Lawrence's surprise.

What Love Can Do is similar to the other moral tales about charitable giving. Two poor young ladies and determined to make Christmas special for their younger siblings. A neighbor in their boarding house overhears their plans and plans her own Christmas surprise. Soon the whole household is involved. The plot is interesting to see how the surprises would come off and how the characters would react. There's even a little romance. This is a nice story, but I doubt that anyone thinks or acts like any of the characters. 

Tessa's Surprise is unique because it features an Italian-American character living in New York instead of the typical Yankee child in New England. Tessa thinks to use her sweet voice to earn some money for Christmas. She accompanies her friend Tommo, the harp boy out onto the streets. It's cold and difficult work. Those with money are reluctant to part with it and many are too busy to even stop and listen until a group of nursery children overhear Tessa singing and implore their mother to pay her. This sets in motion a chain of events that will surprise and astonish Tessa and her family and make the best Christmas ever. I loved reading about an Italian-American character. The story is sweet and sappy. The Christmas surprise sounds like fun. I do not think this story is realistic. Italians are SUPER proud. They don't beg for money and Christmas wasn't really celebrated as it was in the English manner. It's the food and family that's most important and not the tree and presents. At least that's the way it was for my family. I don't see my grandmother or her sister or their mother or grandmother acting like Tessa. They were poor but worked hard. Louisa betrays her ignorance of Italian culture and/or reveals exactly who her audience was.

A Christmas Turkey is another story of charitable giving similar to the previous one. Kitty and her brothers Tommy and Sammy are anxious to make Christmas merry for their baby siblings. Father always comes home cross with a headache and with only part of his wages (i.e. hungover) and Mother is so weary. The three children endeavor to work for their money. Kitty and Tommy try sales and Sam goes to shovel walkways. He's small, but scrappy which earns him much respect and helps bring about the Christmas surprise. This story is kind of cute but the moral is ridiculous. I think children will like this story and relate to the children trying to earn money in the only ways they can. The story is very firmly rooted in the beliefs of the Temperance movement when people believed alcoholism was a moral failing. The plot reveals Louisa's political beliefs which is always interesting. 

Becky's Christmas Dream This story is nearly identical to The Quiet Little Woman. It requires suspension of disbelief and/or belief in magic. I believe in talking animals but not talking inanimate objects. I think children would like it and empathize with Becky. 

Kate's Choice is rather a different sort of story. Like Rose in Eight Cousins, Kate is recently orphaned and come to live with her mother's family in America. She's to live with each of her uncles and their families in turn. Each family has their reasons for wanting her but only one family loves her for who she is and not for her money or social position. Kate misses her grandmother who raised her back in England and is surprised to discover she has another grandmother still living but no one bothers much with the crippled old lady. Kate is determined to see her grandmother and bring some cheer back to the old woman. This is a sweet, predictable story. I can sort of relate because my grandmothers are very important to me. Kate's choice was predictable but the right one for her. This is one of my favorite stories in the collection.

Bertie's Box is another story of charitable giving. Bertie, a small boy from an affluent family, overhears his mother receiving a letter for her charitable society. The woman writes that though poor and in need of everything, all she wants is small presents for the children. The adults are skeptical and reluctant to help but Bertie realizes it's up to him to play Santa Claus for those poor boys who haven't any clothes or toys. Bertie gathers his fine things in a box to send all the way to Iowa. This is a sweet story. The moral is similar to A Christmas Story. I found Bertie very charming and I loved his big heart. I can see my younger niece acting just like Bertie. He must be around the same age for he lisps and has an innocent heart. This is one of my favorite stories in the collection.

A New Way to Spend Christmas is a different story. It's not for children and is told in first person. The main character, who doesn't name themselves, travels to Randall's Island in New York where they visit the poor orphans, the sick babies in the hospital and the school for "retarded" children. This story betrays the time in which it was written. It reveals the beliefs of inherited moral and physical defects in the poor. The treatment of the so-called retarded is actually quite decent for the time period but the attitudes are still a bit off-putting. The character moves through the various buildings but there's no real plot. The narrator tells the story in a rather detached manner. The moral of the story is one of charity, of course. I didn't like this story very much.

Tilly's Christmas is another moral tale for Children. Three friends on their way home from school are looking forward to Christmas, even Tilly who will not be getting any presents at all. She's so good, she even feels kindly towards the rich neighbor who doesn't lift a finger to help his poor neighbors. The children discuss their Christmas wishes and set out to find a lost purse so they'll have money to buy the things they want. When Tilly finds an injured bird in the snow, she feels the bird is her best gift despite the sneers of her friends. Virtuous Tilly is rewarded for her kindness and has the best Christmas she could ever imagine. Tilly is too good and virtuous to be realistic. Real children were undoubtedly supposed to take away a lesson from her but I imagine they probably hated her for being so awfully good. I liked her though because she was kind to animals. The plot is predictable and the moral is strong. It's similar to The Quiet Little Woman and the other moral tales. 
This is a nice anthology to add to any Louisa May Alcott collection. Small two-tone illustrations are placed throughout the book. They don't add anything to the stories but they're very lifelike and pretty. The cover is gorgeous and made to look like a red morocco leather and gilt engraved book of the 19th century. It's actually regular hardcover boards but I love that it looks period. My only complaint about this volume is that it doesn't include a bibliography. I'd like to know when and where each story was published.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What I've Read This Week Part I

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

The Wife Campaign (Master Matchmakers 2) by Regina Scott -- Inspirational Regency Romance

This story is set in the same world as Regina Scott's Zebra Regencies. Ruby mentions characters from the previous novels. The Barnsley School is in Mistletoe Kittens and La Petite Four. It's mentioned in The Irredeemable Miss Renfield, Utterly Devoted, and Secrets and SensibilitiesThere are no major spoilers for those books.

Miss Ruby Hollingsford is furious at her father for tricking her into a trip to Derbyshire. She thought they were going on business but her father reveals they're to attend a house party given by the Earl of Danning. Ruby has no use for the snobby nobs and even less interest in marriage. Whitfield Calder has come to Fern Lodge to fish and enjoy the peace and quiet and visit with his cousin Charles. 99% of his time is given over to duty and only on his rare fishing outings can he be free to relax. He has no interest in marriage at this time which is why his old friend and valet Peter Quimby has organized this house party unbeknowst to Whit. Whit is dismayed to find his holiday interrupted by two marriage-minded misses and their scheming parents. The guests include the bluestocking Henrietta Stokley-Trent and her parents plus Lady Amelia Jacoby and her mother, Miss Hollingsford and her father. Whit is at loose ends and has no idea how to go on but with Ruby by his side, he thinks he can manage a house party and find time to escape the eager parents and fish. He discovers that his flirtatious cousin is a good distraction but perhaps a little too friendly with one of the guests. Whit finds in Ruby a true friend and companion. He thinks she would make the perfect Countess, but he has always dreamed of a marriage built on love, such as the one his parents shared. Their relationship is hampered by a series of strange accidents and Ruby suspects someone is trying to kill Whit. He refuses to believe any wrong of his guests. As Whit struggles to figure out his feelings, Ruby must learn to trust before she can figure out the Lord's path for her. 

This story is a lot more overtly Christian than the previous Love Inspired titles. You can't ignore or take out the Christian content. There are times when the events of the plot mirror the spiritual journey and some metaphors for Faith. Ruby questions whether God oversees the affairs of nations or whether God takes an interest in individuals. I really didn't like that very much not being Christian. The story would have pleased me more if the trust issue were solely secular. It's been done before. Also, the story goes on way too long partly because of the Christian element and partly because of the mystery plot. Congratulations Regina, you ALMOST wrote a book without a villain! I would have liked the story better without the mystery plot. The mystery slows down the plot too much. The mystery doesn't even begin until more than halfway through the book. I was left wondering who the villain was and when that part would happen. The villain serves a purpose but I think the characters could have worked things out on their own. So please, next time, listen to your editor and write a straight romance! Also, the epilogue isn't necessary. It sets the stage for the next story but I think we can figure that out on our own. The story is excellent otherwise. As usual, Regina Scott has created memorable characters and develops a wonderful relationship between them. I loved Ruby. She's a kick you-know-what character. She's no Society miss, she's had a tough life and knows how to protect herself. She seems a lot older than she really is because of her difficult past. I really admired her strength and I felt her insecurities were justified given her experiences. I did NOT like Whit. He's sooo boring! His whole life, since the age of 15, has been about duty. He's very proper and correct. I prefer a bit more spark in my heroes but I can see most women falling in love with Whit. The relationship develops nicely for a time but then I just wanted to bang their heads together. Their dancing around their feelings gets annoying about 1/2-3/4 of the way through. There are a couple of kisses but nothing more. I liked the story despite my feelings about the Christian content and the unnecessary mystery. I learned a lot about the seedier side of Regency London and about Derbyshire. There's an interesting side plot about the mineral Blue John that I liked too. I would recommend this novel mainly to Christian romance readers. This one is a good place to start for those wishing to get into the Love Inspired line. It's the second of a new series but reads as a stand alone. 

Mrs. Jeffries Pleads Her Case by Emily Brightwell -- Victorian Mystery

The servants are brooding because there hasn't been a murder to solve in awhile. Then, the Chief Inspector calls in Inspector Witherspoon to investigate a death that had been ruled a suicide. The Chief Inspector's old nanny, now a landlady, is convinced her tenant would never kill himself. As a favor to her, the Chief Inspector promises to reopen the case. Inspector Witherspoon discovers the investigation was hastily concluded, thanks to his nemesis Inspector Nivens. Why would a brilliant engineer kill himself at the peak of his career? Was it a suicide or was there a more sinister motive? The Inspector's staff investigate and discover many details about the company the deceased worked for. The lower classes are reluctant to speak to the "coppers" but with Mrs. Jeffries and staff on the case, the mystery will soon be solved. Smythe and Betsy are eager to begin their married lives yet reluctant to leave off investigating. Will this be the end of the road for the lovebirds? There are other romances blooming on the horizon and the staff at Upper Edmonton Gardens won't be left out. This mystery was difficult to figure out. The outcome didn't really make a lot of sense. I was surprised at whodunnit. Like Mrs. Jeffries, I had my suspicions, but I ended up being wrong. There are some period details in this story: industry, women's rights, and the inner workings of the Victorian police force. Were Victorians really that dumb? There's a lot of things happening in this story that require a suspension of disbelief. I'm glad others are finally in on the secret. It doesn't make sense for the servants to be on their own. I also liked the little bit of romance. I want more of the Inspector and Ruth!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

Mrs. Jeffries Weeds the Plot  by Emily Brightwell -- Victorian Mystery

Betsy is approached by another maid, Martha, on behalf of her mistress Annabeth Gentry. Miss Gentry believes someone is trying to kill her and keep her out of her new home but her family thinks she's crazy. She wants some help to find the truth. Martha assures Miss Gentry that Betsy can help. Betsy is shameful that she was caught investigating but the others don't hold it against her. It seems Miss Gentry's problems began when her Bloodhound, Miranda, dug up a dead body. The staff are eager to begin the investigation. They decide to see if there's a link between the attempts on Miss Gentry's life and the dead man. Then the Inspector lands another murder case. Stanley McIntosh was the caretaker of the recently closed school behind Miss Gentry's house. Could the cases be connected or is Miss Gentry's family trying to scare her into giving up control of her recently inherited fortune? Mrs. Jeffries hopes she can figure it out before it's too late. This mystery is OK. I really liked Annabeth and her dog Miranda. I'm a crazy old dog-loving spinster myself so I identified with her right away. Betsy and Smythe are engaged and finally stopped arguing every five minutes. It's nice to see them affectionate with each other.The other characters are quite complex.  We never really learn what it was that Annabeth's brother-in-law did to land in disgrace which is disappointing. It became increasingly obvious who the murderer was and I had an idea why they targeted Miss Gentry but the mystery turned out to be more complicated than I expected. It also ended on quite a gruesome note. I really didn't like the evidence they found. It was too grisly and ghastly for this sort of novel. There aren't many period details in this story. The characters sort of exist in a bubble in this one except for Smythe who goes out into the East End investigating. His scenes involve a bit more period detail. I liked the story well enough but it's not my favorite of the series so far. 

Mrs. Jeffries Pinches the Post  by Emily Brightwell -- Victorian Mystery

Mrs. Jeffries et. al are eager to solve another mystery. Luck is with them when the Inspector lands the case of Harrison Nye, a wealthy businessman who was found stabbed to death on the doorstep of an empty home. It seems that a Mr. Daggett knows something he's not telling. His maid has been missing since the night of the murder when Mr. Daggett sent her out to deliver a letter. Could there be a connection? Inspector Witherspoon is on the job and he thinks he can solve this one.  Mrs. Jeffries feels the case is more complex than the good Inspector realizes. Finding answers to this one won't be easy even for the staff of Upper Edmonton Gardens. This plot isn't all that complicated. There are secrets that need to be revealed and little clues that need to be picked up on before the case is solved. I suspected who the murderer was very early on but since the reader witnesses the murder, the reader knows that the case is a bit more complex than the Inspector understands. I wasn't surprised at the reveal. I liked the interaction between the characters in this book. Betsy and Smythe are in love and understand each other now. I also liked how Inspector Witherspoon interacts with his staff. We're told what a kind man he is but it's nice to actually see it happen. He's so innocent that he doesn't understand he's not normal. It was great to see him in action and starting to figure things out for himself. The staff plus Luty Belle and Hatchet provide some lighthearted moments. This story exists in a bubble like the previous one. The characters go out and interact with working class people from butlers and maids to shop people but there's very little in the way of period details. I liked the story but I don't feel it's a stand out of the series.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

What I've Read This Week Part II

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

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella -- Women's Fiction

Lottie goes out to lunch with her long-time boyfriend dreaming of a romantic marriage proposal. What she gets is an awkward lunch where her boyfriend fails to propose and even balks at the suggestion. Lottie is left with a broken heart but to save face, she pretends SHE broke up with HIM in order to focus on her career. Then an old flame from her gap year in Greece calls and when Lottie meets Ben again, the sexual tension sizzles between them. Lottie wants this relationship to succeed so she decides to do the opposite of what she's done with her previous boyfriends... NOT sleep with him until they're married. Great but Ben can't wait and neither can Lottie which leads them to registry hall and a honeymoon in Ikokos in Greece where they first met. Lottie's older sister Fliss is going through a bitter divorce. She can't let go of her ex's failings as a husband and father. He unceremoniously dumps their seven year old son Noah on her during a busy moment in her career. When she learns of Lottie's planned elopement she knows it's one of Lottie's Unfortunate Choices that typically follows a breakup. Fliss is determined to stop Lottie from making the biggest mistake of her night even if it means sabotaging the honeymoon, at least until she can arrive and talk sense into her sister. Fliss heads off to Greece with Noah in tow and discovers that she isn't the only one stalking the newlyweds. Ben's friend Lorcan is also headed to Greece to keep Ben from selling his company to an unscrupulous businessman. They're joined by an unexpected person who has their own reasons for wanting to find Lottie and Ben. Meanwhile Lottie and Ben are hampered by sexual frustration (warning: this book has some very raunchy moments) and a longing to return to their youth. So what if there's a lot that Ben seems to remember that Lottie doesn't. That year changed her life forever and she knows that she made the right decision. The plot of this novel kept me guessing. I couldn't put the book down. At first I thought I knew what was going to happen or what I hoped would happen. Then I wasn't sure. I changed my mind a few times on how I wanted it to end and I was mostly satisfied with the conclusion. I preferred Fliss's plot to Lottie's though. Lottie is downright crazy. She has issues and needs to see a therapist. I giggled a bit at her antics but really, I didn't like her very much. She's 33 years old but acts a lot younger. Fliss too has issues but her plot is better developed and more mature than Lottie's. I liked her a lot, probably because I am a big sister. However, I wouldn't go about ruining my sister's life the way she does! My sister is an adult. She didn't listen to me, made her own decisions and now she has to live with them and I thought Fliss needed to realize that early on. She also needs to see a therapist about her divorce and her son's issues. Noah made me laugh a lot but I felt sorry for him and worried about him. I liked Lorcan. He comes across as a Mr. Darcy type and the beginning of his relationship with Fliss is sort of about pride and prejudice. His development happens too suddenly though. It's tacked on at the end and so his plot is concluded rather more quickly than I would have liked. I was hoping for a slightly different ending but the way the characters failed to develop, they need to work on their issues more. (Yes I know it's fiction). I hated Ben from the beginning. His character doesn't really develop much. I liked Richard the best, however, I felt that he was a fantasy created by a woman and didn't seem very realistic. I thought that the concept was more mature than some of Sophie Kinsella's earlier books. The plot offered some interesting social commentary on marriage and relationships. I'm not married and maybe I'm reading something into the book that wasn't intended. It does have some more serious undertones than the Shopaholic series. It's also a lot longer than her earlier books. I liked the book a lot but it's not my favorite of Sophie Kinsella's books.

Miss Osborne Misbehaves by Marian Devon  -- Regency Romance

Miss Eliza Osborne is traveling on the Brighton stage - alone - the folly of which Mr. Garrick Slaughter demonstrates to Eliza on more than one occasion. Mr. Slaughter has just been released from Newgate and is traveling in Eliza's direction. After the journey together, she's certain she can trust him. When she discovers from her aunt that Mr. Slaughter is the illegitimate son of Lord Wenham and was imprisoned for stealing her ladyship's diamond earrings, Eliza is certain Garrick was framed. Who framed him? Could it be his younger half-brother, a crippled young man who stands to inherit everything except a freehold willed to Garrick? Perhaps it was Lady Wenham who has always been jealous of her husband's attention to his older, perfect son; or maybe it was her mother, Lady Cheselden, a cantankerous old lady who tries to bully Eliza. Eliza won't stand on ceremony with any of the Wenhams. Her uncle-by-marriage is a poor relation and her family is respectable. Eliza's hot temper and quick tongue may get her into trouble with her elders but it earns her the friendship of the Wenham brothers. Then the lovely Juliet appears and both brothers seem to be in love. Garrick thinks Eliza is perfect for Jared but his mother has him practically engaged to Juliet. Eliza is bound up in a tangle of mysteries, romance and prejudice. She feels it's up to her to untangle the knots, but where does she fit into the story? High sticklers beware. Eliza is a very modern heroine. I didn't really like her very much. I thought she was rude. I would never dream of speaking that way to anyone outside my family even today. There's no way a well born girl of the 19th century would lose her temper the way Eliza does. She spends a lot of intimate moments alone with Garrick (in an innocent way) and again I wouldn't ever behave the way she does with a virtual stranger. In the beginning she doesn't have much choice but once she arrives in the country, she spends a lot of time alone with one brother or the other. It's perfectly obvious who the villain was and perfectly stupid that anyone would believe Eliza over that person. That didn't make much sense. None of the characters actually behaved the way they should. Lord Wenham is given an excuse for his behavior and we also learn about Lady Wenham's motivation. The behavior of the characters just didn't seem period correct and ruined my enjoyment of the story. We learn a lot about the Wenham brothers. We see Jared's real personality first hand but Eliza and Jared are told something important about Garrick second hand that shapes his character. Even though he's sort of enigmatic, I liked Garrick and I felt bad for him. As usual, the period details are delightful. I especially liked the description of the smells and the grime that make it realistic. There's rather too much of a scene set at a boxing match but again it shows the author's attention to detail and research. The story made me chuckle a bit at times but I just couldn't love this one. It's not Marion Devon's best.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

What I've Read This Week Part I

What I've Read This Week Part I . . .
Friendship and Folly: The Merriweather Chronicles Book 1 by Meredith Alladay -- Regency Romance

This book is too long and complicated to fully explain the plot or lack thereof. I'll give a few highlights only. The heroine, Julia Parry, is the granddaughter of an Earl on her mother's side and the daughter of a former East India Company employee. Her family is very close and very pious. They don't believe in all the superficial goings on of the haut ton but when Julia's grandfather insists she have a Season, Julia doesn't demur. There are museums and things she wants to see in London. The whole family heads off to the metropolis, even the nursery and schoolroom children. They are accompanied by their semi-invalid friend Ann. The Parrys can do no wrong in Ann's eyes and she seems to be the omniscient narrator of the story. In London, the beautiful, kind-hearted Julia is beset upon by "Greenlings" young men of little or no substance who love her for the wrong reasons. They disappear as Julia begins to eschew the social whirl. A young, simple minded Irish baronet, Sir Warrington Lenox. Julia, taught to be nice to simple minded people, allows Sir Warrington to pay her court. She meets with the disapproval of his younger brother Mr. Lenox for no apparent reason. Ann assumes the younger brother disapproves of the elder marrying at all. She ascribes the motive of jealously; Mr. Lenox being angry at losing what he thought was his rightful place when his long lost brother returned. It could also be because Julia has no intentions of marrying his brother. Or it could be something else entirely because things aren't what they seem. Julia's younger sister Kitty is in despair at the idea of her sister leaving the family fold. HER ideal husband for Julia would be her grandfather's heir. This story takes FOREVER to get to the point. We're told Julia's entire family history before she is even introduced. Then we're told Julia is the heroine but she disappears from the story for several chapters. Various characters come and go and appear again so long after that I forgot who they were. I needed a family tree to keep them all straight. Many characters and situations don't serve much purpose and all and some of them are very very long winded. The narrator is also extremely long winded and steps away from the main plot to relate certain incidents happening elsewhere or in the past. The action is all summarized. I kept waiting for the plot to begin and it doesn't begin until about halfway through. There were several instances where I couldn't put the book down but it took me 4 days to read it because I kept falling asleep. Finally we learn that everything has been leading up to the romantic plot. It's a very subtle romance. I picked up on Julia's love interest right away though at first I thought perhaps he was going to end up as the love interest of another. It's obvious when Julia falls in love yet the romance plays off page for the most part. There's lots of meddling and misunderstandings that drove me crazy. The characters don't appear on page long enough to really get a good feel for them. We're told endlessly of this or that or what that character thinks but the story never gets inside anyone's head. The romance doesn't develop on page and more time is dedicated to other characters and plots than the romance. There's not even a kiss or even a real declaration of love. This was obviously intended to be some sort of Pride and Prejudice style story. The hero is very much a Darcy type. I kind of liked him at first but found him too noble and self-sacrificing towards the end. I found Julia too perfect and bland to be interesting. Ann had potential to be interesting but she comes across as sycophantic at first and then self-serving. Kitty is the most obnoxious character. She's too pious, too nervous and weepy and just so annoying! I really wanted to slap her. Mrs. Lenox is the most horrible unnatural mother. She's maybe supposed to be a Lady Katherine type but she's cruel and heartless. Even Lady Katherine could extol upon the virtues of her daughter. The only character I felt I knew and liked was Sir Warrington. Since this book is free on Amazon, I would recommend it to Jane Austen and Jude Morgan fans but I wouldn't pay for it. I do appreciate the author's attempts to publish the manuscript she found in her grandmother's trunk but this book is badly in need of Jane Austen's editor and that lady's wit and good sense. 

The Invention of Sarah Cummings (Avenue of Dreams 3) by Olivia Newport

Sarah Cummings is tired of being in service. Her father always promised her the world and she knows she deserves better. She's tried to find employment elsewhere but with the depression, it's hard to find work. She's stuck but she knows she's going to find her way out. When the opportunity comes to reinvent herself, she takes it. As Serena Cuthbert, a wealthy, independent young woman, Sarah befriends Lillie Wagner, who has recently moved to Chicago. As Serena, Sarah can move in high circles and meets the handsome Brad Townsend who seems to like her very much. Lillie is lonely and longs for a true friend and is thrilled she's found one in Serena. She can confide her feelings for her beau Paul Gunnison, her desire for more independence and her longing to do more to help the unfortunate orphans at St. Andrews. Sarah tries to discourage Lillie's interest in St. Andrews because the director, Simon Tewell has asked her to teach sewing to the older girls. The last thing Sarah wants is to go backwards but she reluctantly agrees.  Simon knows Sarah is hurting. She was a loved only child one day and an orphan the next. He believes she's longing for love and has only to accept God's love and then she may be more willing to accept Simon's love. It's not easy managing to be two people at once. Sarah is on the verge of getting everything she's ever wanted and she'll stop at nothing to get it. This book is interesting because is has a very unlikeable protagonist. I didn't care for Sarah any more than I did in the previous book. She's three years older and bit less stubborn but no less unlikeable. I admire her desire for a better life and her willingness to go after what she wants but not the way she executes her plan. I found her deception repugnant and was actually rooting for her to fail. I figured out what would happen in the end but still the book kept me guessing how it would turn out. The biggest failing of this novel is the relationship between Sarah and Simon. Simon loves Sarah but I'm not sure why and when she realized it. He can apparently see something in Sarah that I can't. I find it a little creepy because he's an employee at the orphanage and she was once an orphan. Simon is a man of compassion and deep Faith. He talks a lot about God's love but I felt that it was randomly tossed in the story and didn't really make sense in terms of the story. Sarah's revelation comes so quickly, it's kind of jarring. It doesn't connect up to Simon's plot very well either. The end of the novel felt really disjointed like it was a rough draft and something in the middle was missing. The period details are once again amazing but there's too much of the social whirl and too much commentary on the economic crisis and politics. I studied history and I remember some of what was happening at the time but found it boring and not super relevant to the story. There's so much mention of politics and Brad';s interest but it never really comes to a point. The author does a great job setting the stage but she seems to have difficulty executing her plots. I found Lillie's story more interesting, though she's wealthy. She's almost too kind and trusting but I liked her a lot. I didn't like Brad much from the start. He's very stereotypical. The Bannings seem to have softened a bit and have become more likeable. I also enjoyed seeing Lucy and Charlotte again and knowing how their lives have turned out three years later. I'm still puzzled as to why Lucy always gets her own way in her parents' home and how she's able to change her family's opinions but I like her a lot. I really learned a lot about 19th century Chicago from these books and I enjoyed the period details very much. The plots leave a little to be desired but they're not terrible and I think even non-Christians can read and enjoy the books. Christians looking for more of an Inspirational message or the importance of Faith will be disappointed.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

What I've Read This Week Part II

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

Perfectly Flawed (A Gentlemen of Worth Book 2) by Shirley Marks -- Regency Romance

Now that Lady Augusta Worth is happily married, the gentlemen of the ton flock to the country to court her younger sister Charlotte. When Charlotte realized all the gentlemen in London have come to see her she can't figure out a way to determine which one to marry. Her youngest sister Muriel has a plan to weed out those who only love Charlotte for her looks. Her plan is slightly complicated by the arrival of Sir Phillip Somerville, Exquisite. Sir Phillip travels without a valet and only one small leather trunk yet he always manages to dress impeccably and Charlotte is immediately smitten. Muriel refuses to have this fop as a brother-in-law so she'll just have to factor him into her plans. The best laid plans go to waste though and Muriel may have to revise her plan to see her sister happily wed. Perfectly flawed is an apt title for this novel because that's what it is. I don't even know where to begin. I'll start with the perfectly dreadful writing style. I thought perhaps it was meant to be a gentle joke poking fun at Regency novels. The style tries to mimic what writers think people sounded like back then. The period speech comes and goes; the characters sound pompous. The writing in no way resembles the polished, careful writing of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. The characters call each other by dreadful nicknames the whole time. I got tired of reading "Char-Char" and "Moo" every few sentences. It was really nauseating. Now let's discuss the characters. They're all very two-dimensional. Charlotte is even more annoyingly perfect than Jane Bennet. She's sickly sweet and less of a good judge of character than Jane. Muriel is a bluestocking and very prejudiced against men for some reason. Sir Phillip comes across as a fop but there are hints that he's not revealing his true self. We hear a lot about him from other characters but don't get to know him very well. There's only a small amount of interaction between him and the Worth ladies. Aunt Penny is hardly a worthy chaperone letting a strange man stay with them and allowing the girls to be alone in a room with gentlemen. She's hardly in the story at all. The plot didn't make much sense. Why exactly are all the gentlemen leaving London to see Charlotte? Are they under some kind of a spell? They act like it. Muriel has the right idea but the wrong way of executing it. I didn't like her plan but I don't have a better solution except let Charlotte decide for herself. Muriel is entirely unlikeable. Sir Samuel shows up near the end and presumably he was in the first book of the series but his character isn't developed here at all. I was left confused by the introduction of a new character so late in the story and have two baronets in one story was confusing. I just didn't like this silly story very much and wouldn't recommend it to those who love good, well-written literature. It's pure fluff and nonsense and I certainly wouldn't PAY to read it but I might read more by the author if the library has any. 

Miss Delacourt Speaks Her Mind by Heidi Ashworth -- Regency Romance

When Sir Anthony Crenshaw's Grandmama, the Dowager Duchess of Marcross, asks him to accompany her grandniece Ginny to the country and check on her roses, he smells a marriage plot. He can't say no to his formidable grandmother and her formerly pious, romantic niece is now a beautiful young woman. A little harmless flirtation never hurt anybody and he'll be back in London by tomorrow. Ginny may not be a school girl any longer but she knows all about London gentlemen and wants nothing to do with any of them, including Sir Anthony. She suspects there's more to him that the icy polite mask he wears in public. She's determined to goad him into revealing his true self before they arrived at Dunsmere. The trip doesn't go exactly as planned what with highway men stealing their carriage, a case of chicken pox and being quarantined with a buffle headed young lady and an equally idiotic young poet. Not to mention the young lady's parents who may have a thing or two to say about her future. Sir Anthony's patience quickly unravels but he tries to keep his calm. If only a certain young lady wouldn't try his patience so much! This comedy of manners story is very much in the line of the old Signet and Zebra Regencies. It's nice to see that drawing room comedies and clean romances are still being published. The writing quality isn't quite as good as some of the Heyer wannabes who wrote back in the 80s and 90s. It's not terrible though. At least the author refrains from attempting to sound like Jane Austen. The story is amusing; I even giggled at parts. It's cute, it's light and fluffy and the heat factor is close to nothing. (A couple of kisses, including a passionate angry kiss). The romance develops over the course of less than two weeks but because the characters were forced to spend 24/7 together, it's mostly believable. Plus, Ginny and Sir Anthony already knew each other. I liked Ginny because I value speaking my mind, however, she is not very period correct. The whole story hinges on Sir Anthony giving up his code of honor in a time period when a strict social code prevailed. Giving it up would mean social suicide and Sir Anthony would be an outcast. We see evidence of that in Ginny so why she would encourage anyone to go against the social code, I don't know. If you're not a high sticker and enjoy the light drawing room comedies of Marion Devon, Emily Hendrickson, etc. you will like this novel. I'll read the sequel though it's not necessary.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What I've Read This Week Part I

What I've Read This Week  Part I. . .

A Change of Fortune by Jen Turano -- Historical Romance

Miss Eliza Sumner is posing incognito as a governess to a wealthy New York family. She's on a mission to find the man who stole her father's fortune and ruined his good name. When she's pressed into service to round out the number at dinner because the eldest daughter Agatha is shirking her duty again, Eliza hopes her disguise will be enough to keep people from asking too many questions. Unfortunately, she's seated in between two of the most eligible bachelors in New York: Mr. Hamilton Beckett and his brother Zayne, who are on hand when mishap befalls Eliza. Hamilton is intrigued by this mysterious young woman but he had enough of mystery with his first wife and isn't interested in more mystery. When next the Becketts meet up with Eliza, she and Agatha are in the middle of a scrape and once again the gentlemen are on hand to rescue the ladies. Eliza has to decide if she can trust Hamilton with her secrets and whether or not they should work together to find the men who set out to ruin their respective families. Hamilton rescues Eliza from one more scrape, introducing her to his two rambunctious children and his matchmaking mother. While Mrs. Beckett is on the matchmaking path, pride and mystery get in the way to keep her plans from flowing smoothly. Eliza and Hamilton are both determined to ignore the sparks flying between them as they clash and come together in search of a villain. Eliza has to rediscover her faith to figure out God's plan for her. I really really wanted to like this novel. It starts off very funny but unfortunately humor is all it has going for it. The writing is very poor and filled with cliches. The plot starts and then scenes end abruptly where there should be more action. I found there was too much emphasis on God's plan and not enough on characters taking action and responsibility for their own lives. I absolutely hated this about Eliza. She doesn't do anything at a crucial moment until she hears from God. The romance is also cliched filled with misunderstandings and miscommunication. There was also way too much going on in the story for such a short book. I have mixed feelings about the primary characters. Eliza doesn't act like a proper young Englishwoman of the 19th century and Agatha is completely off the charts unrealistic for an upper class girl. Their adventures are amusing but Agatha's constantly changing personality and her deep faith made her really annoying. Eliza is spunky one minute, the next she's a watering pot and then she's spunky again. She seems to lose herself whenever she's around Hamilton. She's alternately argues with him and tears up around him. Hamilton is not a very appealing hero. He's a good father and a kind man but he's proud and quick to jump to wrong conclusions. The secondary characters are largely two dimensional. Gloria's actions seem unrealistic for a doting mother and grandmother. Why would she try to fix her son up with someone she doesn't even know? The two children, Piper and Benjamin, made me laugh despite the fact I can't stand children. They remind me a lot of my sister's children who will be just like Piper and Ben in two years. The references to God and Faith seemed very random and tossed in wherever the author felt like it without much rhyme or reason. I don't think many upper class people were that deeply religious at that time. I know of a few but most didn't think about God's plan before doing something. This book seems like a poorly written knock-off of the old traditional Regency romances. It's funny and it's clean so I rate it higher than I would normally rate something this poorly written.

The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow (Avenue of Dreams 2) by Olivia Newport -- Historical Romance

This follow-up to The Pursuit of Lucy Banning is about Charlotte Farrow, the maid with a secret. Charlotte lives for her son Henry. She plans for the day when they can at last be together. That day comes sooner than expected when Mrs. Gavin, his foster mother, must leave town unexpectedly on an emergency and may not be able to return. Charlotte is left with her young son and big dilemma. When the lazy new maid, Sarah Cummings, sees the baby, she jumps to the conclusion that it is an orphan like herself. The household decides that the baby was left there for Lucy and whatever Lucy (now married and on her honeymoon) would want is what they should do. Sarah is placed in charge of the nursery and Charlotte must stand idly by while an incompetent, indifferent girl cares for her beloved son. Everyone has plans for the baby that don't include Charlotte. When the person she most fears reenters her life, she has to make a choice. Artie, now promoted to coachman, knows Charlotte has secrets and worries. He wishes she would confide in him so he could help ease her burdens. God has a plan for Charlotte and Artie is sure she isn't making the right decisions. Meanwhile, Sarah is determined to get out of service and bring the perfect Charlotte down a peg or two. Set against the backdrop of the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition, this book is full of details about life in Gilded Age Chicago. The story takes place mostly "downstairs" from the perspective of the servants. It's very Downton Abbey with the starchy butler taking pride in serving a great family and the young maid who dreams of a better life. I liked seeing the Banning family from the servants' perspective.There's also descriptions of the World's Fair and the Ferris Wheel and what was happening with the labor movement at the time. However, the historical detail leaves little room for plot. This book is really slow moving and nothing happens. When the would-be climax of the story comes it's let down with a whimper. I was left wondering if that was all or if something else was going to happen. I was really surprised by the twist in the story and wish the author had developed the story more. Everything that happens after that is rushed. I really felt for Charlotte in this novel. To Sarah she comes across as subservient and a dutiful maid but the reader watches her struggle to do the right thing for her child and feels her love for him. It's difficult to know what Charlotte should do and I felt her original solution was the right one. Downton Abbey handled this topic much more realistically and interestingly. Charlotte reveals her own story at the end which is far too late. We have an idea who she is running from but never really learn why. I wish that had been revealed in the beginning and developed over the course of the story. There's a quiet, slow burn romance developing in the story but it can't develop because of the circumstances. When it does happen, it happens too quickly. I didn't like Archie pushing Charlotte. He cared about her but didn't really understand what she was going through and wasn't very sympathetic. He kept pushing her to do what HE wanted without considering her needs. I thought Archie and Sarah would have made a better couple. I hated Sarah for most of the novel. She grows at the end but it's too sudden. I have her novel on hold at the library but find it difficult to believe I will like her as a protagonist. The maid who wants more out of life was again done much better in Downton Abbey (Gwen not Ethel) where the character was likeable and sympathetic. This novel could be much better with some reworking. I recommend it to Downton Abbey fans for the period details but don't recommend the plot for people who like well written novels.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Theater Review

Theater Review

Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary National Tour

I went out with the parents to an evening at the theater to see the national touring production of Phantom of the Opera. Walking into the theater was magical because the theater, an old movie palace, splendidly suits the atmosphere. 

I sort of knew what to expect for the show, having seen the marvelous 25th Anniversary special from the Royal Albert Hall that aired on PBS but didn't know what to expect from the tour. It did not disappoint!  Even though I've seen the show 4 times live (and the movie and the 25th anniversary TV special), this production was the best I've seen. 

For the 25th anniversary they have added new sets that really make the show even more special. The proscenium comes and goes when necessary but you also see inside the backstage area, Christine's dressing room, the managers' office, the cemetery, the rooftop and the Phantom's newly redesigned lair. Heading down to the lair there's a labyrinth and inside his lair he has his organ, some candles and a bed. It looks like a nice Victorian parlor and not a gloomy dungeon lair. There's a fake curtain that sweeps back and forth during the opera scenes. It opens to reveal the sets. There is also a little bit of scene projection. I really liked the glimpses into the world of the Opera Garnier in the late 19th century. The sets really make you feel like you're there. The Masquerade scene now takes place in a hall of mirrors and the costumes are regular fancy dress or military inspired with masks instead of the fantastical costumes of the original. I missed the original costumes. It makes the scene spookier not knowing who is who.

The staging is a tiny bit different from the original production. I especially liked the prologue. As Raoul holds the monkey and sings his soliloquy you get to glimpse the past a bit. Then when the overture plays, you can see what was happening on the stage in the late 19th century instead of staring at the curtain. Don't be alarmed if you've heard there's a major change, it's not true. SPOILER ALERT: the chandelier still drops and it breaks off a piece and sparks when it hits the stage.There's a major change to the staging of the final scene. My jaw literally dropped when it happened. You will be left in complete shock and wonderment. There's a lot of pyrotechnics in this show and at one point the smell was very strong. It smelled like fireworks. There was some problems with that last week so be aware of it and don't be alarmed.

The libretto is basically the same with a few tweaks here and there, hardly noticeable at all except towards the end when Carlotta's lines are omitted following the aftermath of "Past the Point of No Return." Some of the lyrics sounded different from the ones I remember from the original cast recording but nothing major. the signature tune has been tweaked a bit to sound a little less 80s rock. It sounds richer and fuller this way and not as MTV.

The cast was very good. Julia Udine as Christine was absolutely incredible! She's the best Christine I've ever heard. Her voice is divine. My only complaint was that the music drowns her out when she's singing the scales for the Phantom. It was hard to hear her beautiful voice. The women really outshine the men in this production. Jacquelynne Fontaine as Carlotta also has an amazing voice. My only quibble with her is that she's too young and thin to fit my image of Carlotta. Carlotta is supposed to be an aging Diva. She did look corseted into her costume though fitting the period look so maybe that explains Carlotta's thinness? Also she spoke her lines with a very heavy Italian accent and was difficult to understand. It adds to the comedy but I've never had a problem understanding Carlotta before.

I wasn't crazy about Ben Jacoby as Raoul. He came on too perky and jerky (overacting). It seems like the actor is used to more traditional musical theater. He settled down a bit later on. 

Mark Campbell plays the title role. I found him good but not spectacular. His voice is strong but he didn't really move me. My parents disagree and they really felt for Erik and were rooting for him. Unfortunately from where I was sitting, I couldn't see his face. I had opera glasses for the second act but they're old and not very powerful. I could see his head but not his face. With the mask on, the Phantom looks very young and handsome. I found him almost too pretty.

I loved the show as always and I highly recommend going to see if if it comes to a city near you. If not, get a copy of the 25th Anniversary DVD or wait for PBS to air it again. You won't be disappointed!

Merchandise review:
I didn't buy ANYTHING! They hardly had any merchandise at all. They had a few t-shirts, a phone case, the original cast recording and a few other things but no program. I'm so disappointed because I collect them. It's fitting though because I don't have a program from the first time I saw the show at the same theater!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

What I Read This Weekend

What I Read This Weekend . . .

Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse, read by Sarah Jones, and with Harriet Hope -- Young Adult Historical Fiction

Told in Karen Hesse's trademark blank verse, this story is the collective story of the Aleutian people who were "evacuated" from their homes in the Aleutian Islands during World War II "for their own good." In the beginning of the story Vera leaves her home in Unalaska village with Alexei and Fekla, the elderly couple she helps to visit her mother and friends in Kashega, a smaller village southwest of Unalaska. Vera's mother has forgotten the old ways but Vera loves spending time with her mother at Solmon's store. Vera runs with her friends Pari and Alfred as they enjoy the long summer nights. Then our government comes and informs them the Japanese have invaded the Aleutians and the Aleut people must be sent away. The Aleut people are taken away from everything they've ever known - away from the fish and the seals, away from their homes and into a damp, dark forest that breeds sickness along with mold. Vera is strong and determined to survive against all odds. This shocking story is one I've never heard before and it was quite surprising. I didn't know anything about the Aleut people so I really enjoyed the details of their daily lives and culture. I liked the contrast between the two villages and was a bit surprised to discover how modern their homes were (more than many lower 48 homes at that time and even some today). The story was difficult to get through but I had to know what happened to the characters. I had a hard time really connecting to the characters because of the poetic style. I think straight prose would have worked better. As it is, Vera tells the collective story and not much about herself. There isn't much character development except for what we're told is happening and what people are feeling. Though this story is heartbreaking, the will of the people to survive is incredible. I can't even imagine how horrific the situation was and how confused the Aleuts must have been. The mark of a good historical fiction novel for me is when I learn something new and this story accomplished that. I especially enjoyed the oral history interview with Harriet Hope at the end. Though she was only five years old at the time, her memories are sharp and clear. She has been told stories by her older siblings and her mother. Her father, being non-native, was allowed to remain. This makes the evacuation even more shocking. The interview was almost more interesting than the novel. I liked Sarah Jones, the narrator. She sounds like a young girl and when she quotes the elders, she puts on an elderly voice. She didn't have a lot to do except read the text but her voice is pleasing and makes the story flow smoothly. I  highly recommend this book to everyone in 7th grade up through adults. It's a story that needs to be told.

"When Did You See Her Last?" (All the Wrong Questions) by Lemony Snicket and Seth -- Middle Grades Fiction

Young Lemony Snicket is alone in trying to solve the mystery of the missing Ellington Feint, Hangfire and the Bombinating Beast. His chaperone S. Theodora Markson wants to solve the mystery of another missing girl, a Miss Cleo Knight who is a brilliant scientist. Lemony picks up on the fact that her parents seem oddly unconcerned and only the maids are worried about Cleo. Lemony reconnects with Moxie to attempt to solve the mystery of the missing Miss Knight when he stumbles across clues that lead him into a terrifying adventure. This books is much better than the first in the series. I couldn't put it down and I want more NOW! It astounds me how clever Mr. Snicket is. The plot had more twists that I'm sure I can pick up on. There may be references to other things that happened in his future during the ASOUE events. There's also references to his siblings Kit and Jacques. Kit has a subplot featured in this novel. Snicket's trademark vocabulary-building is amazing as usual. I'm very well educated and had no idea what half the words here meant. I also loved the literary references. As for characters I liked seeing Moxie again but she's only in it briefly. She's named Moxie for a reason and it shows in this book. Ellington's character is developed a bit more. She's very complex and I like that. What I don't like are the adults in the story. The kids don't have anyone they can trust because all the adults are really clueless. I know the story is written for kids and I guess kids who feel like they can't trust adults but the evil in this story is too great for children to fight alone. The action sequence at the end is terrifying. The art is different from Bret Helquist's style but it suits the book quite well. It's sort of a film noir throwback. I loved this entry in the series. Fans of ASOUE will too. 

Books identified in the text:
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Wolfe
Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret and Nobody's Family is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Iliad by Homer
others I'm not familiar with

Special bonus: photos of Lemony Snicket's associate Daniel Handler at a recent local appearance. He's quite a character and it was worth the two hour wait to meet him. 
Mr. Snicket was supposed to appear but ...

He sent his "associate" Daniel Handler instead

Mr. Handler is quite the character

Mr. Handler is authorized to sign his name to Mr. Snicket's books

Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey by The Countess of Carnarvon -- Biography

Catherine Wendell grew up in New York and Maine as part of Gilded Age high society. Upon the sudden, tragic loss of their family finances, her father attempted a second career but tragically died before he could recover their fortune. Left on the fringes of respectable society, Catherine's mother took the family off to live with her sister in England. Catherine met Lord Porchester, son of the Earl of Carnarvon in London during her season. She found him charming and irresistible. He found her innocence and freshness delightful. They married and went off with Porchey's regiment to India. Before they had a chance to really be properly married, the Earl of Carnarvon died and the young couple had to return to England to take over Highclere. Catherine took delight in her two children that followed and enjoyed socializing with the Duke of Kent and other close friends. Her husband increasingly turned to the pleasures of London in the Roaring Twenties ignoring his young wife. Catherine, feeling lonely and isolated, because increasingly unhappy. The story that follows is not a happy one. It involved infidelity, divorce, depression, and the drama of war. Keep in mind this is NOT a novel and the story is supposed to share a bit of information about the beautiful American-born Countess as a parallel to the TV series. I liked the first few chapters that dealt with Catherine's childhood and early married years. As time went on, the narrative became bogged down with way too many historical figures, most of whom I didn't know and had nothing to do with Catherine's story. The narrative also got dragged down by way too much description of World War II. If I wanted to read about the war, I'd read a book about WWII. There really wasn't enough material on Catherine to fill a whole book. I cared about her and felt sorry about her but got the impression that she wasn't entirely a victim as she appears here. I was more interested in her personal life than the external drama that was happening around her. The Epilogue tells us what happened following World War II and briefly mentions Catherine's death. That should have been a larger part of the story.  My advice is to skim this book or read the beginning and the end.