Sunday, May 4, 2014

What I've Read Recently

What I've Read Recently . . .

The SpymistressThe Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini -- Historical Fiction

This fictionalized biography tells the story of Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew and her clandestine activities to help the Union during the Civil War. When the secession crisis reaches a boiling point, Elizabeth Van Lew is certain wise heads will prevail and war will be averted. When her beloved Virginia votes to join the Confederacy, she's heartbroken. When fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee takes command of the Confederate troops, Elizabeth knows it's going to be a long and bloody war. Though she's already suspected of being a Unionist by her neighbors, Elizabeth, a wealthy spinster, risks her life and her fortune to help Union prisoners languishing in Richmond's prisons. At first she doesn't succeed, but she won't take no for an answer. Operating under the guise of Christian charity, Elizabeth's activities at first consist mainly of bringing food and books to the prisoners. Soon she discovers how to get messages in and out of the prisons without being detected. She must also avoid her gossipy, spiteful sister-in-law Mary who is a staunch Confederate and won't hesitate to condemn the outspoken Elizabeth. Through the long years of the war, Elizabeth persists, despite discouragement and the belief that all might be lost at any moment.

This is a fictionalized biography and tells a story that I already knew. I absolutely admire Elizabeth for everything she did. She had amazing courage to do what she did and for so long. The author avoids the commonly held belief that Elizabeth acted crazy in order to be allowed to visit prisons. Apparently, there's no historic evidence for that from the actual war years. That makes her activities all the more heroic and Elizabeth Van Lew has become one of my personal heroes. Her friend, Mary Jane, also deserves the utmost respect and admiration for posing as a slave working at the Confederate "Gray House," so she could spy for the Union.
The problem I had with this book was that there was too much telling. I never fully felt engaged in the book as a novel. There was a whole lot of recapping what was happening with the war, which I already know quite well. I felt Elizabeth's activities were also summarized. Maybe because I already knew the story, I didn't feel any heart-pounding moments. There are a few tense moments when I wondered how she would talk her way out of a situation or what would happen to her family, but mostly, the story reads like a biography. If you don't know the story, you will probably enjoy this novel more than I did.

The Author's Note explains how the author chose some real people to populate the stories and others she combined into one fictional character. She also notes a lot of the sources she used for research.

Uncle Fred in the SpringtimeUncle Fred in the Springtime by P.G. Wodehouse -- Historical Fiction/Romance

Pongo Twisleton is in need of cash so he applies to his wealthy friend Horace Davenport. Horace has troubles of his own: first, his uncle, the Duke of Dunstable broke up the sitting-room furniture with a poker and then Horace's fiance, Valerie Twisleton broke up with him because he hired a private detective to tail her while she was on vacation. Next, Horace took his dancing teacher Polly Pott out for a night on the town and found himself in a brawl with Polly's fiance Ricky Gilpin. Polly loves Ricky, despite his jealousy and still wants to marry him. The young couple are in need of money for Ricky is a poor poet. His uncle, the Duke of Dunstable, refuses to help the couple. The Duke takes himself off to Blandings Castle where he decides to take the Empress away! The Duke declares Lord Emsworth is in need of a brain specialist while Lady Constance fears it is the Duke who is in need of help. She sends for one Dr. Glossop to come to Blandings and quietly investigate the Duke. Pongo appeals to his Uncle Fred, fifth Earl of Ickenham, for monetary help, but unfortunately Pongo's aunt holds the purse strings and she is away from home. Never fear though, Uncle Fred to the rescue. He comes up with an ingenious plan that will help everyone. His plan brings all the character, plus Baxter and Polly's father, Claude "Mustard" Pott, to Blandings where the usual highjinks ensue.

This story took awhile to get started. A lot of unfamiliar characters are introduced in the beginning when I really wanted to know more about dear old Lord Emsworth and his prize pig. I didn't really feel the need to keep reading to see how the story would all turn out. It lacked some of the usual punch of Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories. The ending was very abrupt and left some plot points dangling. There wasn't enough of Lord Emsworth or his beloved pig. There's one great scene with the Empress that is great but it's her only major appearance. I just love her and want to read more about her and whatever it is she's eating! The regular cast of characters take a back seat to the new characters. The new characters in this story are largely recycled from previous Blandings Castle stories. As usual, there are the thwarted lovers torn apart by money and jealousy. I didn't care for any of them and wasn't rooting for them to get together. I can't stand these girls who love their men despite his intense jealousy and terrible temper. The young men are bland and uninspiring. Pongo has more brains than Freddie Threepwood though he's in similar trouble. He has potential to be a well-rounded character but mostly he stands there and wrings his hands. We at last meat Lord Boshom, Lord Emsworth's heir. He's not quite as dumb as his brother but he shares his brother's love for drama which causes some very funny moments. Uncle Fred is the main character in this story. He's the one who is "potty"! Lord Emsworth is absent-minded, the Duke is a tyrant but Uncle Fred rivals even dear old Uncle Gally for sheer lunacy. I didn't like him as much as Galahad though. Galahad is done with his wild ideas but Uncle Fred is eager and ready to go. Each scheme he comes up with his crazier than the last. Lies just roll off his tongue and he can come up with a new story at the drop of a hat. I didn't really like him because he didn't seem to have any common sense or a moral compass to tell him when to stop. I cringed as much as Pongo did. I would feel the same way having such a relative. Skip this one if you want another episode in the life of Lord Emsworth and his beloved pig. It's really more about Polly and Ricky and Uncle Fred.

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