Sunday, August 31, 2014

What I Read in August Part IV

What I Read in August Part IV . . .

The Pigeon Pie MysteryThe Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart -- Victorian Mystery

This Victorian cozy mystery begins with the death of the Maharaja of Brindor. He died in a most scandalous fashion leaving his only daughter, Princess Alexandrina ("Mink") penniless. Mink has orders from the bank to sell her house but she prefers to remain in the home she shared with her beloved father with her pets and her maid Pooki. When she can finally ignore the bank no longer, Queen Victoria offers Mink and Pooki a Grace and Favour residence at Hampton Court. Pooki is reluctant to move in among with catty old dowagers and creepy ghosts, but Mink knows they have no choice. She soon meets her neighbors, a quirky lot if there ever was one, but no ghosts. When the old roue General Bagshott drops dead after eating Pooki's pigeon pie, the Inspector on the case is eager to arrest Pooki. Mink knows Pooki would never murder anyone. While Pooki doesn't behave as she ought, speaking her mind and telling tradesmans' jokes, she has been nothing but loyal and loving to Mink. Mink is determined to find out who killed the General before it's too late. Her search takes her around Hampton Court as she interviews the residents, the workers and tries to dodge the awkward attentions of the local doctor. Could it have been one of the old dowagers eager to keep their secrets and their homes? The weird homeopath who last treated the General? The strange American paleontologist who doesn't seem to have viewed any dinosaurs lately? What about the cranky housekeeper or the maid Alice who was fired from the Bagshotts for stealing?

This story is a little long for a cozy mystery. There's a whole lot of description about the historical background of Hampton Court, the architecture and the backgrounds of the characters. Mink and Pooki travel around Victorian London sharing every detail with the reader. While I love history and historical detail, a lot of this could have been put in an author's note in the back or a list of resources to do research to learn more. While the author does a decent job incorporating the details into the plot or dialogue, they take away from the mystery. The mystery doesn't get started until halfway through and it didn't grab me and make me want to stay up all night. There were so many suspects that it was impossible to know whodunnit. The big reveal of who wasn't too much of a surprise but how and why were shockers. The why ended up as a bit of a let down. The story lacked that heart-pounding moment when the heroine gets into trouble. There's a romance, and it's clean because it's a non-romance essentially. The characters are hardly together and when they are, it's not romantic. I didn't like the love interest very much and didn't find them a good match. While the love story is clean, other parts of the book are not. The way Mink's father died was very crude and some of the doctor's patients have very adult problems. With a little trimming, this book could have been a nice book for all ages 13+ but as is, I'd put it at at least 18+.

The characters are what make this book stand out. They're all so quirky. While they all tend to blend together after awhile, they add a lot of the humor to the story. Some of the ladies and the situations reminded me of Cranford. Mink is a difficult character to like. I wanted to love her because she seemed like a New Woman - physically free and fearless, but she's mostly another bored aristocrat. The story doesn't dig too deeply into her thoughts and feelings. We do learn why she loves Pooki so much and how she came to be very much her father's daughter. The ending of the story leaves her in a position for a possible sequel or sequels (I hope, please?!) so there's more potential for character development. The pets don't play a huge role in the story. I was expecting more but they exist for comedic effect. My favorite character is Pooki. She's so different from English maids. Her feet are huge, her skin is dark and she's superstitious about everything. Pooki is funny, unintentionally, sweet, loving and kind. She also knows Mink better than Mink knows herself and she would willingly die for her beloved employer. I felt for her and I rooted for her to be happy and safe.

I think cozy mystery fans will enjoy this book a lot. I'm hoping for a sequel or two or more... I don't want to let go of the characters.

What I Read in August Part III

What I Read in August Part III . . .

Footsteps in the DarkFootsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer -- Historical Mystery

Siblings Peter, Margaret and Celia, and Celia's husband, Charles have inherited an old priory in the English countryside. Celia tells Charles it's like getting a country house for nothing, but Charles, a lawyer, is skeptical : the house is huge and rambling and lacks electricity. Then there are the rumors of a mysterious and dangerous ghost known as "the Monk" who haunts the Priory. Their aunt, Mrs. Bosanquet, is convinced The Monk is an actual ghost,Charles and Peter are skeptical. When they hear footsteps in the dark, they're determined to get the bottom of it. They suspect a stranger, Michael Strange, whom they've seen wandering their grounds, or perhaps an eccentric neighbor who claims to study moths. Despite repeated warnings, Charles won't leave until he solves the mystery.

I had a hard time getting to the story at first. The characters are really bland and boring. I didn't care much about any of them. Mrs. B provides some chuckles but other than that, they're all pretty flat. Then, as they kept getting closer to solving the mystery and yet not coming any closer, I got sucked in. I couldn't put the book down until the mystery was solved.

It seemed a little fake that the characters were so shocked by the big reveal. They were also surprised by the true identity of someone else that wasn't much of a surprise. I figured out the identity of the Monk pretty easily. The romance was dreadful. It seems to begin and end out of nowhere and is mostly off-page. I found the story rather too gothic for my tastes. The characters are not as well drawn as her Regency characters and the story just wasn't her typical witty style. 

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Val McDermid -- Contemporary Fiction

If you know Jane Austen's original story, you know the plot for this book. The differences being a modern setting, in which Cat Morland, a home-schooled vicar's daughter, goes with neighbors to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. She's excited to her boring village and finally have adventures. At first she finds herself being dragged along with Susie Allen into the exhausting and not super fun social whirl, but when she meets Henry Tilney at highland dance lessons, she finally begins having fun. When Henry disappears from her life, she tries to forget about him, though it's hard. When she's introduced to the Thorpe family, she immediately finds a friend in Bella. Bella introduces her to the Herbridean Harpies series of novels and her boorish brother Johnny. When Henry Tilney finally returns, he brings his charming sister Ellie with him and Cat is eager to make the acquaintance of her crush's sister. Cat finds Ellie a good friend in her own right and is eager to hear more about the Tilney family home Northanger Abbey. When she's invited to visit Northanger, Cat is thrilled, except for when she finds out it's off the grid. What reason do the Tilneys have for being shut off from the world? Why is there no trace of the late Mrs. Tilney? Why are the Tilneys so obsessed with the weather and not going out when the sun is strong? Do they actually have reflections? Could it be... are the Tilneys vampires? It's either that or General Tilney is some kind of cruel monster who abused his wife and could be keeping her locked in a tower! OMG! Cat is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery but her curiosity may jeopardize her friendship with Ellie and her growing relationship with Henry.

Out of all of Austen's books, I think this one is the most easily translated into modern times, except that's where the book fails. The author took each scene and tweaked it and rewrote the dialogue and references to fit the modern setting. I think that created a lot of problems, such as: why would the Morlands let their teenage daughter go off to visit strangers they've never met? My parents would never have allowed it without first speaking to Gen. Tilney. It makes more sense in the smaller social setting of the 18th century when the Morlands would be looking to make an advantageous match for Catherine and probably would have been aware of the Tilneys and Northanger Abbey. Also, why is a grown man with a job still under his father's thumb? I get his and Ellie's sympathy for their father, but that doesn't mean Henry has to put up with his father's martinet ways. Ellie has an excuse, still being dependent on her father for financial support and making her dream come true. Another problem I had with the book is the relationship between Henry and Cat. He's a young adult in his 20s, an up and coming lawyer and he's interested in a 17 year old? It happens but it's a little more icky today than it was in the 18th century when Jane Austen wrote her original story. The reason Gen. Tilney gives for kicking Cat out of the house came as a huge surprise. It was so completely out in left field and didn't make much sense with the rest of the story.

This story also lacks the beautiful language and witty dialogue that marks Jane Austen as a master. It's funny at times, and I especially liked the dialogue between Cat and Henry when they were alone, but it's not completely at the level of Jane Austen. She poked fun at the craze for novels and created a whole new genre of literature. It's hard to match that. I don't feel the story quite manages to poke fun at modern teens but instead serves up a mild message at the end.

The characters aren't really new. Cat is at times a ditzy teenager and a typical young woman of the modern world: constantly on her phone checking Facebook and e-mail, gossiping about hot male celebrities and loving the Twilight movies. She doesn't have any ambition or thoughts beyond the present. I kept groaning and thinking "Oh my god! How can she think that? She's so stupid!" Yet, I kind of liked her because she's polite and she is mildly interested in good literature. She references Jane Eyre (and The Wide Sargasso Sea) and has access to other classics like Dracula. She's intelligent enough to know vampires aren't real, but can't resist letting her imagination run away with her. I liked her character development and how she grows up and learns to think about her future. I especially like what she had to say to Henry Tilney at the end when he comes to apologize. Unfortunately, what she says next made me annoyed with her again. Overall, she's a bit more appealing that her original counterpart.

The Tilneys are slightly different from their original counterparts. I really liked Henry. He's funny and fun to be around for the most part. He's intelligent and well-read, but sees the value in popular literature. I always thought the original Henry was gently poking fun at Catherine but this Henry and this Cat manage to match wits and she understands his teasing. He's a good big brother, an excellent lawyer, yet I disliked how he allowed his father to control him. I wanted him to go for his dreams. Ellie is a sweet girl. She's not well developed but has potential to be the heroine of her own story. I felt sorry for her because Gen. Tilney is almost exactly the same as he was in the original. He belongs in a Jane Austen novel. Freddie is also as Austen described.

The Allens are unappealing characters. Susie is the type Jane Austen liked to make fun of and Mr. Allen isn't much better. They very shallow people and shallow characters without any depth. The Thorpes are exactly the same as they are in the original. Isabella or Bella, as she prefers, is incredibly annoying and self-centered. Johnny is worse and pretty much as Austen wrote him. They're the characters you love to hate.

This book is best read by young adults who can't or won't read Jane Austen. There's some mild swearing but nothing most teens haven't heard or said before.

What I Read in August Part II

What I Read in August Part II . . .

Dear Mr. KnightleyDear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay -- Contemporary Fiction/Romance

This book is an update of the classic novel Daddy Long-Legs in which an orphan is given a scholarship by a mysterious benefactor in exchange for writing him about her progress. That much remains the same, but in the modern world, the reality of the main character's life is much grittier and she's much more deeply scarred. Sam Moore has spent her whole life in and out of the foster care system. She's been badly betrayed and abused by those who should care about her. Now she's finished college and about to age out of the group home where she's been living. Then, a foundation offers her a scholarship to study journalism at Northwestern University's prestigious Medill School of Journalism. For Sam, an English literature nut, this is tantamount to torture. The kindly Father John and the mysterious benefactor she knows as "Mr. Knigtley" push her to leave her comfort zone and try journalism. Sam's love of literature is not just a comfort zone, it's her safety net. She retreats into her favorite characters to keep from revealing her real self and getting hurt. Journalism school is tough with the professor constantly on Sam's case about not connecting. Story of her life. She tries though, at least to make friends with girls she sees at first as Emmas. She even manages to find a boyfriend and connect with a teenage boy who is new to Grace House. She also has the opportunity to get to know her favorite contemporary author, Alex Powell, and through him, his loving surrogate parents Professor and Mrs. Muir. Father John encourages forgiveness and the Muirs encourage finding Jesus. Through it all she writes to Mr. Knightley, her anonymous benefactor, about what's truly in her heart. Will she make survive journalism school and can she do it without her walls?

I didn't realize this was a Christian book from the few reviews I read. It's clear right away from the name Grace House and the character of Father John. I didn't find the book super preachy but it does get a bit preachy towards the end and I was forced to skim parts. I think the author may have been going for a Mr. Knightley=priest/God idea. Sam confesses everything to someone who can't/won't reply. That's kind of a little too weird for a novel for my taste. The overall message is one of trust, forgiveness and letting go but it doesn't quite come out that way in the end.

The plot gets rushed at the very end and it's awkward and there's no good reason for Sam to forgive that person. I think more emphasis should have been placed on forgiving her parents as Fr. John wanted her to. The story drags on too long with too much going on. The subplot about Kyle isn't all that necessary. Sam could have found her voice without him. I knew right away where she could find her passion. That much was obvious. Some of the parallels with the original 19th century novel, especially the end, were just too much of a coincidence. I didn't find the love story icky, it's a parallel to Daddy Long-Legs and Emma, though not as paternalistic.

The biggest problem with this story is that is doesn't translate well enough to make the characters appealing. What I love about orphans like Jerusha in Daddy Long-Legs and Anne Shirley and even Freckles, is their eternal optimism and goodness despite horrible childhoods. Sam's life is far grittier and darker than any of the 19th century classic characters could imagine, except perhaps Jane Eyre. Sam has built up walls and retreats behind her favorite characters and that gets very annoying very quickly. I wanted to shake her and get her to not be so cold. She has trust issues but when her trust should be given, she retreats. When she shouldn't trust someone (that total cliche I saw coming a million miles away. It was so obvious a 12 year old figured it out and Sam choose to ignore that fact) she does trust that person. When Alex opened up to her and showed he trusted her, she should have trusted him back. End of story happy happy, but no... she doesn't and she continues to block her emotions. She turns into a weepy basket case at the most inopportune (and might I say boring and pointless) moment. I felt for her but I wanted her to be happy and knew she could be happy if she trusted Alex. She blew it and I wanted to smack her.

I loved Alex. He was very charming. I would be almost head over heels in love with a man who could match me literary quotation for literary quotation so I'm sort of biased. Alex's lack of trust makes no sense. I'm tired of the once burned, twice shy heroes. Are men really that stupid? Alex's backstory is never fully revealed. He has one big secret he's keeping from Sam and that is obvious if you've read the original. I think I could forgive him eventually but he should have at least dropped enough clues to make her figure it out at the end. It was obvious in Daddy Long-Legs though Jerusha didn't quite catch on either.

I liked Sam's friends but don't know why Ashley is all of a sudden Sam's therapist. I had Ashley pegged right away. She's the poor little rich girl stereotype. I found her more interesting and easier to relate to than Sam though. The Muirs are so kind and loving, I couldn't help but like them. At least until they got preachy and pretty much forced Sam into a situation she wasn't quite ready for.

Overall, this book just really didn't thrill me. It doesn't compare to the 19th century counterparts it tries to mimic. It's too gritty and the characters too flawed to really work well. Skip this novel and go straight for Sam's reading list, include Freckles, Girl of the Limberlost and of course, Daddy Long-Legs. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Historical Food Fortnightly

Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge #6

Seasonal Fruits/Vegetables

The Challenge: Seasonal Fruits/Vegetables

I knew exactly what I wanted to make for this challenge too. I had a request from my family: my grandmother's famous blueberry pie with crumb topping.  My grandmother always used fresh blueberries, stocking up during a sale. She would make the topping and freeze it and used prepared pie crusts. In in the interest of making this a true challenge, I made my own pie crust.

The Recipe: 
Pie crust recipe from my Nonnie (paternal grandmother) with help from The Lily Wallace New American Cookbook c. 1947:

3 heaping cups full of flour
1 handful equal to one stick shortening
1 pinch salt
3/4 c. ice water

Mix flour, salt and shortening by hand. Slowly add ice water and combine by hand. Press into a ball and divide into two parts. Chill and roll out until 1/8" thick. Flour rolling pin and roll dough back onto rolling pin and into pie tin. Gently press dough into pie tin and prick all around with a fork. 

Nonnie's Best Blueberry Pie

2 c. flour
1 stick butter, softened
1 pinch salt 
3/4 c. sugar (mix white and brown or use dark brown)
dash cinnamon
1 pinch nutmeg
Mix with fingers and knead until crumbly

1 1/2 qt. blueberries
3/4 sugar
1 T. butter 
1 drop lemon juice
flour (opt.)

Wash and dry blueberries and place in a large bowl. If very dry you can add 6 T. flour. Add sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Mix. Double tinfoil in pan so pie doesn't leak. Squeeze a drop of lemon juice on the blueberries. Put a pat of butter on top and add crumb topping. Bake at 350 degrees. Check after 15 minutes. Give it another 15 if not done. Bake until crumbs are golden brown. (You will smell it when it's done!) 
The Date/Year and Region: 1950s/60s New England
It dates to post-1920 when my family came to the U.S. from Italy and post-1940s when they opened an Italian restaurant and my Nonnie became the baker. It probably dates to at least 1949 when my Nonnie was a bride. My dad remembers having this pie as a kid each summer on Cape Cod in the late 50s or early 60s. I couldn't document her exact recipe, but I did find this clipping from 1966 that is very close. It's a variation on crumbles, crisps, slumps and grunts that date back to pioneer times, according to 
How Did You Make It: 
Nonnie was one of those old world grandmas who never measured. She had all her recipes in her head. Several years ago I watched my Nonnie make the pie and copied down actual measurements. She used a handful of shortening, a pinch of cinnamon, etc. I followed my own written directions. I originally used half white sugar and half brown from the crumbs but added more brown sugar to the crumbs because they didn't look right with half and half.

Time to Complete:  It took a lot longer to bake than she said it does. I used an electric oven which tends to be slower and I also had a lot of blueberries. We're a big family and we all love this pie.

Total Cost:
I had all the ingredients on hand at the time. Blueberry prices vary but since they're in season, they tend to be on the less expensive side.

How Successful Was It?: 
Very. We nearly devoured the whole pie in one sitting. My dad declared my pie crust better than his mother's (well yes, she used a frozen pie crust in later years).

How Accurate Is It?: 100% but it never tastes the same as when my Nonnie made it.

Sometimes my Nonnie forgot the sugar and the pie was still delicious. When I asked her why it doesn't taste the same she replied: "I bless it!" and pointed to the flavored liquors she had on hand for baking. She didn't "bless" her pie as far as I can remember though. Her cookies are another story...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What I Read in August Part I

What I Read in August Part I . . .

Midsummer Night (A Lady Julia Grey Novel)Midsummer Night by Deanna Raybourn -- Historical Romance

As Twelfth Night approaches, a tipsy Julia pens a letter to her niece Ophelia, a bride-to-be. Julia describes the days before the wedding and the heady daze she felt, yet the wedding almost didn't happen! There were bickering sisters, a hideous wedding dress, a mysterious fire, a temperamental cook and dire gypsy fortunes. What else could possibly go wrong? How about a visitor from Julia's past?

This is a 5 star read for fans of the series. It's all very light and breezy, even the little mystery isn't much of a mystery and handled with humor. Deanna Raybourn amps up the heat factor in the story. Though Julia and Brisbane are not permitted to be alone, they seize every opportunity they can to be together for "interesting interludes." The interludes are clean but sexy. The story concludes with her feelings on their wedding night and the lead up to Dark Road to Darjeeling.

Julia is her usual irrepressible self and Brisbane is not brooding for once. He's mooning though because he loves Julia and her family won't allow them to be alone together. As usual, her zany relatives provide the comic relief and we even get to meet more of Brisbane's equally eccentric family. I love the way Julia deals with them and how everything turns out. Marigold sounds like an interesting character and I hope there's more Lady Julia mysteries so we can see more of her. She sounds complex and I see where Brisbane gets his brooding from.

The only bad part about this story is that it's short and leaves me wanting more Lady Julia adventures.

Silent Night: A Lady Julia Christmas Novella (Lady Julia Grey, #5.5)Silent Night: A Lady Julia Christmas Novella by Deanna Raybourn-- Historical Mystery

Lady Julia Grey and her husband, Nicholas Brisbane, are spending the Christmas season with her family. She's hoping for a cheerful, joyous celebration like the ones she remembers from her childhood. Instead, she arrives to discover doom and gloom: her father is morose, the house is not decorated and they can't seem to keep staff on hand because one of the maids claims to have seen a ghost! When some jewels go missing, Julia is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery - with or without Brisbane's help!

I wasn't sure what to expect from this story. I was a bit worried about Julia after the end of the last novel and wondered how her relationship with Brisbane was going to be. I needn't have worried about anything. Julia is back in all her glory and Brisbane is still sexy as h-e-double-hockey-sticks. They have some very interesting interludes when she's not busy trying to make Christmas or solve crimes. She's still the same as always, and I'm glad, yet I think she should have matured a bit after her ordeal. The mystery is so simple. I figured out whodunnit right away. For once, it's not gothic or dark. The whole story is so lighthearted, it made me grin the whole way through. I especially like the menagerie of pets that accompany the Marches wherever they go. The story hints at past events but doesn't really spoil too much so it can be read as a stand alone, though is best appreciated by those who have read the entire series. I want more! 

Twelfth Night (Lady Julia Grey, #5.6)Twelfth Night by Deanna Raybourn- Historical Mystery

This story follows more closely on the end of The Dark Enquiry than "Silent Night" does. The tone is also a bit darker. I was expecting to read more about the March family revels but instead found a darker mystery. I really didn't like that the baby was Lucy and "Black Jack's" baby. Julia and Brisbane adopting such a baby would be completely out of the question, even for the eccentric Marches. They would be very worried about inherited characteristics and how the baby was destined to be evil like his father. Victorians weren't really interested in adoption to begin with, let alone adopting the child of a well-known criminal, even if he is one's own brother, would be out of the question.

I also had issues with Jane, the Younger. There's a 10 month old infant living in my family's house right now. He is not aware enough to drop his food on purpose (though the dog is eagerly awaiting this trick). He drops his toys but not on purpose yet, though I have known other children his age that did. He is not yet aware enough to cry when he doesn't get his own way. Portia doesn't know what she's doing, but no new mother does. They would wonder about the aforementioned inherited characteristics. Jane, the Younger's father was a bit of a wastrel, if I recall.

The mystery was solved too quickly and there wasn't enough detail in the plot.There's still a bit of humor, especially in the opening scene. I loved Perdita and I wished for more about her. How did she discover what she did about the oysters? The comparisons to her Aunt Julia vs. society's expectations for women was a bit heavy handed. The introduction of the boys who idolize Brisbane was very cute. The one major thing this book is lacking is the actual play. That would have been fun to read about.

What I Read in July Part VII

What I Read in July Part VII . . .

Elizabeth Street: A novel based on true eventsElizabeth Street: A novel based on true events by Laurie Fabiano -- Historical Fiction

Life in southern Italy post-unification is supposed to be filled with promise but unfortunately that turns out not to be the case for Giovanna and Nunzio. The two are cousins and sweethearts and are finally able to marry after Nunzio finishes college in the north. However, there are no jobs for an engineer in the south so Nunzio must go to America, the land of dreams. The women of Scilla see the Statue of Liberty as a puttana (whore), stealing their men from them. Giovanna waits and waits for Nunzio to return as she learns to become a midwife and help women in their village. When tragedy strikes, Giovanna heads to New York. Life in New York isn't any better and is sometimes worse with extreme prejudice against Italians and wicked extortionists from their own 'hood threatening anyone who doesn't obey. When one of her own flesh and blood is threatened, Giovanna will risk her own life and hard-earned success to rescue her loved one.

I really liked some of the details in the story, especially Scilla and Coney Island. I thought the strongest sections of the book were Anna's memories. The writing really shines in those sections. It seems like the author wanted to write a memoir but couldn't without more information. I didn't care for the writing style. It seemed very detached and matter of fact for most of the book and I couldn't connect emotionally to the characters. I finally found myself interested in the story when the action started. It seemed so improbable and I thought for sure it was fiction after I looked up The Black Hand, but the author claims it's true. I learned a lot about crime and all the gritty details of life in New York in the early 1900s but I just didn't really enjoy the story. It was too depressing. I'm colored by my own family's experience which was very positive. The characters in the story are a generation or two older (closer to my great-great grandparents) than my grandmother and my family settled in central Massachusetts. My grandmother's family went from farmers to restaurant owners and much loved and respected members of the community. My grandfather's parents and grandparents probably would relate to Giovanna and her struggles a bit more. My family became almost fully Americanized but maintained allegiance to their traditional Neapolitan foods and went to Mass every Sunday.

I had a hard time relating to Giovanna and Angelina at first. I come from a long line of strong Italian women who did what they had to do to survive and held their heads up. I don't see my great-grandmother or her mother collapsing like Giovanna. They got along without their husbands OK but I know my great-grandparents didn't marry for love and I doubt my great-great grandmother did either, so perhaps they would have reacted like Giovanna. I liked Giovanna much better towards the end of the book when she pretended to be a strega (witch). THAT I can see my ancestors doing. My great-grandmother's mother looks very formidable in the one and only picture we have of her. I liked Nunzio much more and felt bad for him that he was so looked down on because of where he was from. I didn't care for Rocco much at all. Like his wife, I thought he was a bit stupid, but I also thought they were both stupid for letting it go so long. She should have at least told the lawyer. He would know which cops were crooked and if anything could be done. I didn't like Angelina in Anna's memories at first. Anna had the opposite relationship with her Nanny that I had with my Nonnie, I just couldn't believe her. She didn't seem like any of the Italian Nonni I know. Once I found out what happened to her, I understood why she was like that.

This book was just too dark and depressing for me. I'd like to see an uplifting story about an Italian immigrant family!

What I Read in July Part VI

What I Read in July Part VI . . .

Lord Nightingale's Christmas (Lord Nightingale, #4)Lord Nightingale's Christmas by Judith A. Lansdowne -- Regency Romance

The Earl of Wickenshire and his family and friends are gathered at Willowsweep for Christmas. Among the guests are the lovely Lady Alice and her father, the irascible Duke of Sotherland. Nicky's cousin Neil Spelling begs to be invited and this time he promises no more mischief. He's fallen madly in love with Alice and is determined to win her love. It's not easy with her father declaring he intends to marry her to a title and Lord Nightingale declaring "bitevillainbite" every time he sees Neil. Then two other prospective suitors emerge: the dashing Mr. Sayers, on whom Alice had a schoolgirl crush and the mysterious Mr. Duncan, who can not remember his name or who he is. Each of the three men has a selfish motive for coming to Wickensweep and one has a sinister motive. When the guests hear bumps in the night coming from the walls, rumors start to swirl about the Witch of Willowsweep. Will this be a merry Christmas or will danger and broken hearts prevail? Meanwhile, dear little Delight (assisted by some new human friends) plans a very special Christmas surprise for her family. She has big plans for Lord Nightingale's Christmas too.

This story reads a lot like an inspirational novel without the Scripture quoting. The theme of the story is redemption with Alice as the savior. I didn't like the character development of some of the characters. I found it too cheesy and unrealistic. I also didn't like all the extreme coincidences that made the plot rather hokey. I loved Lord Nightingale, as usual. He steals every scene he's in. He is especially funny in this book. Sweet little Delight once again manages to charm her way to center stage. I was more interested in what she was up to than what the adults were doing. It was great to catch up with Nicky and Sera. I found them very annoying in their extreme innocence. Sera is still kind of drippy. I missed Eugenia who is away on her wedding trip. I didn't like Alice all that much. She's too perfect and good. I didn't find her romantic plot realistic or at all interesting. I did like the plot about her family background and the secrets and lies that ate away at her family. I felt sorry for her to be in the middle of it all. If you liked the other books in the series, you should probably conclude with this one.

An Edwardian ChildhoodAn Edwardian Childhood by Jane Pettigrew -- Non-Fiction

This book looks at different aspects of Edwardian childhood. The chapters are: A Child's Place, Nanny's Domain, An Ordinary Day, In the Schoolroom, Pleasure and Pastimes, Out in the Fresh Air, A Visit to the Toyshop, Occasional Treats, High Days and Holidays, Cause for Celebration. Each chapter looks at all three social classes and how childhood became a concept in the Edwardian era. The memoirs quoted all relate happy childhoods no matter how few material advantages the child had. There are many color illustrations and black and white drawings to accompany the text. Some of the images are more Victorian than Edwardian. My copy of the book was missing several pages towards the end but it didn't really take away from my enjoyment of it. I didn't learn anything new but it's a good overview for all ages 10+.

What I Read in July Part IV

What I Read in July Part IV . . .
The Swoop! and Other StoriesThe Swoop! and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse -- Historical Fiction/Comedy

This volume collects early stories by P.G. Wodehouse published in various magazines in England. They show the development of his writing style and humor.

In The Swoop, nine foreign armies conquer England while the public goes on as before. It takes a Boy Scout to figure out how to save England. This is a total nonsense story. I didn't quite understand it. I can see how it's supposed to be funny, especially pre-WWI, but I guess I didn't see the humor in it.

Bradshaw's Little Story is about schoolboys. I couldn't relate to this one at all and found it boring. Thankfully it's very short.

A Shocking Affair tells of further antics by the above schoolboy. This one is actually a little funnier and easier to relate to.

The Politeness of Princes is another schoolboy tale. It's unmemorable.

I skipped Shields' and the Cricket Cup not knowing or caring anything about Cricket or schoolboys.

An International Affair is about American one-stop shopping vs. English mom and pop enterprise. It could be a social satire on Wal*Mart if Wodehouse had lived long enough to see the rise of the big box store. I found it interesting that that sort of store started so early. It may be skewering Selfridge. The story itself is dull and I didn't really understand it.

The Guardian is another tale of two schoolboys. It's slightly more interesting than the earlier stories. It features a different sort of character and plot than the typical schoolboy antics. Neither character is likeable but it's a good story for boys. Boys going off to school could learn something from the story.

Something to Worry About is a light romance that pits the country vs. the city. A young woman is sent to the country to keep out of trouble and ends up creating more trouble. Wodehouse is never sappy or sentimental in his romances. I didn't like this one much because it shows a girl falling for cave man behavior.

The Tuppenny Millionaire is my favorite story of the bunch. Boring old predictable George Albert Balmer inherits a small fortune from a relative and intends to go on with his boring life as before until a co-worker goads him into doing something wild and crazy. This story gets a little zany but features a sweet romance. It's a very cute story.

Deep Waters is another sweet romance set in the theatrical world. It shows Wodehouse's intimate knowledge of the theater and the things people do to drum up business. I wish the story was a bit longer to develop the romance but I enjoyed it a lot.

The Goal Keeper and the Plutocrat is a star-crossed romance. It features satire of aristocrats and millionaires and rugby football. I thought the romantic plot was silly and unrealistic but both the characters are rather dim-witted. The story is infused with sly humor.

The stories in the collection get better as they go along. There's something for everyone in this anthology. 

Pelican at BlandingsPelican at Blandings by P.G. Wodehouse -- Historical Fiction/Romantic Comedy
Clarence Threepwood, Lord Emsworth is tickled to have the Castle to himself for the first time ever. He can relax in his old, worn out clothes and eat plain English food in the library. The Empress is eating well and on her way to being a silver medal winner for the fourth time. Life is good! Not so fast! First, Lady Constance returns,  announcing she's staying for the whole summer and her husband will join her; then she announces
she is bringing a guest and the Duke of Dunstable has invited himself and a guest to stay at the Castle! As if things couldn't get any worse, the Empress refuses a potato, causing Lord Emsworth no end of worry. Galahad shows up for moral support, bringing along his godson, John Halliday, who wants to marry Linda Gilpin, niece of the Duke of Dunstable. (Linda also being in residence at Blandings). As usual there are imposters at Blandings and it's up to Galahad to fix everything to rights, as the last remaining member of the Pelican Club.

This story fell flat. It's the same old story but lacks a lot of the zaniness that characterizes Wodehouse's stories. There are a couple of amusing scenes but nothing that approaches the level of scenes involving Baxter. There's not much of a plot. I was pretty much done with the book before I realized it. I kept waiting for something to happen. Everything is wrapped up too neatly and easily. It was greatly disappointing that the Empress did not play a larger role. It seemed as if she would but then she disappears from the story only to serve as a catalyst for some of the plot in passing.

The new characters are entirely unmemorable. Linda is a nice young woman, though hardly in the story. John is a nice young man but gives in too easily. In short - they're boring. Nothing is fully explained about one of the impostors and I was left wondering what their story was. Wilbur Trout is an older version of the weak young men who frequently visit Blandings. Vanessa Polk is an interesting character. She's the only one with any personality but the outcome of her story seemed a little weird to me.

What I Read in July Part III

What I Read in July Part III . . .

Snobbery With Violence  (An Edwardian Murder Mystery #1)Snobbery With Violence by Marion Chesney-- Historical cozy mystery

Captain Harry Cathcart returned from the Boer War cynical and brooding. He's not socially acceptable to his peers, except for when they need him to do a little snooping for them. Lady Rose Summer is the daughter of an Earl but her sympathies are all middle class. She's notorious for consorting with suffargettes!! Her parents want her married ASAP and Rose seems to have settled on Sir Geoffrey Blandon. Geoffrey seems to be taking too long to come up to scratch so the Earl of Haadshire hires Harry to determine Geoffrey's intentions. With Rose's reputation in tatters, the Earl and Countess must do what they can to find Rose a suitable husband. She is packed off to a country house party at the home of the Marquess of Hadley accompanied by her unconventional maid. When one of the guests dies unexpectedly and Scotland Yard wants to investigate a suspected murder, the Marquess hires Harry to cover up the scandal. Harry's conscience can not allow him to hide a murder and neither can Rose's. She takes it upon herself to investigate on her own, clashing with Harry at every turn. Was it murder or simply an accident? Will the mystery be solved before someone else gets hurt?

This is a cute cozy mystery set in a very Downton Abbey world. If Lady Sybil is your favorite Crawley sister, you will love Lady Rose. She's less real than Sybil though, being rebellious more for the sake of having something to do than because she's a good person. She's very naive and comes across as immature at times. She's also quite spoiled and never truly becomes a sympathetic character, but I liked her anyway. Harry is a brooding sort. He's rude to Rose and doesn't understand her. He's not very likeable but I think he will unbend as time goes on. The other characters are largely flat but represent the Edwardian types very well.

The plot is really good. It kept me guessing. I did figure out whodunnit though. The writing style is pretty simple. The reading level is YA but the story is for adults only! The Edwardians were as crazy as their grandparents in the Regeency era. The story isn't as funny as Chesney's Regencies and drags on a little too long. I enjoyed this story quite a lot though and stayed up late reading it. I plan to read the rest of the series.

Content spoilers:
talk of seduction
Husbands not sleeping with their wives
bed hopping during a house party (sleeping around)
other mentions of the seedier side of Edwardian life

Hasty Death (An Edwardian Murder Mystery #2)Hasty Death by Marion Chesney-- Historical cozy mystery

Lady Rose is bored with her society life. Her parents want to pack her off to India but luckily for Rose, Henry Cathcart suggests she be allowed to go out to work as she wishes. He arranges everything for Rose and Daisy to become typists for a merchant baker. Rose dislikes the make work she's given and Daisy misses the camaraderie and freedom of the theater. The gloominess of winter and difficulty of living on a working woman's wages get to them. One mistake leads to a return to Lord Hadshire's home and the same old society life. Then Rose learns of Freddy Pomfret's death and suspects murder. She's excited to investigate with Harry and Kerridge. Daisy tags along to keep Rose out of trouble and in hopes of seeing Becket again. If only my lady and the Captain would get married. She could be with her Becket and the Captain would be responsible for Rose.

This book wasn't as good as the first. The mystery doesn't start until 2/3 way through and it didn't grip me like the first mystery did. It was difficult to solve but I had a hunch who did it and what it had to do with. I was close. As in the first book Ms. Chesney doesn't shy away from the gritty details of Edwardian life. I learned something new about how working girls lived and what kinds of work they did in the early 1900s. It also contains some information on the Boer War and the atrocities committed by the British. The book also contains a lot about fashion but not an excessive amount.

My big problem with this story is Rose. Unlike her namesake from Titanic, she just wants to be a rebel because she's bored and feels her parents don't love her. The more scrapes she gets in the more attention they pay to her. This Rose is slightly more realistic than Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey. She is very much a product of her environment and upbringing, which means she's snobby, haughty and a spoiled brat. She does know how to speak to people to get information, unlike Harry who is too blunt. I liked Daisy much better. She's had a hard life and is wise to the ways of the world. I don't see why she insists on following Rose except she doesn't really have a lot of choice but I am sure Harry and/or Becket would find her a new job.

Harry isn't very likable either. He's gruff and constantly getting on Rose's bad side. He's rude to her at times yet misses her when she's not around. I don't get why Rose's parents are always asking him for help and why he wants to help. He fixes things in ways I wouldn't at times. I didn't like how he dealt with one big problem. He could have found a legal loophole.

The secondary characters are very colorful. I really liked the vegetarian society and the kooky character who heads it. The other suspects are a bit more stereotypical, especially the woman, but they added to the Edwardian feeling of the book. I disliked Harry's secretary and her mother. They were crazy and I expected that plot to go in a different direction. The direction it did go in was random and unnecessary. Becket is very mysterious and fun. I see why Daisy likes him. I like him better than his master, though they probably have more in common than they realized.

Sick of ShadowsSick of Shadows by Marion Chesney ---- Historical cozy mystery

Lady Rose Summer is engaged to Captain Harry Cathcart, or so she tells her parents and society. It's only a ruse to keep the Hadshires from sending Rose to India. Society is beginning to gossip because Harry spends most of his time working. Rose is humiliated and considers a marriage of convenience to Sir Peter Percey, her frequent escort. She is bored with her life and longs to help someone. She befriends Dolly Tremaine, a country rector's daughter who is new in town. Poor Dolly is having a difficult season: she's beautiful but not bright and doesn't know how to go on in society, then she ends up dead, floating in a boat like the Lady of Shalott. Rose is the one to find the body and instantly becomes a media darling and also the target of a crazed assassin. Harry will do anything to keep Rose safe but Rose chafes at the restrictions he places on her movements. She's determined to solve the mystery on her own.

This story is better than the last but not as good as the first. I guessed who murdered Dolly right away. I was pretty close to being right but second guessed myself as the plot moved on. I didn't like how the author stepped out of the story to explain historical background information. I also didn't like the relationship between Rose and Harry. There were too many stupid misunderstandings. There are some modern Americanisms that creep in - can we get a "What is a weekend?"

I liked Rose a bit better in this story. We get inside her head a bit more. She can still be a you know what at times, but she's getting better. Harry is still brooding but we get a bit more of his motivation. I like knowing characters' feelings. The character I liked best was Aisla. She provides the comic relief. I like her better than Rose because she's smart and capable. The villains are bumbling fools.

I look forward to the next book in the series.

Graphic/Objectionable Content :
violence (more graphic than the previous two books)
homosexuality (Homosexual love scene - no graphic content per se but one of the men suggests something kinky. It's handled with humor and is part of the plot).

Our Lady of PainOur Lady of Pain by Marion Chesney-- Historical cozy mystery

Lady Rose Summer's engagement to Captain Harry Cathcart is back on, but as usual he's too busy working to squire Rose around to various social events. His latest client is a French high-flyer, Dolores Duval, who has been receiving threatening notes. Harry likes Dolores' easy charm but Rose is jealous. How dare her fiance consort with that tart?! Their engagement is one of convenience but still... he's making Rose a laughingstock. Rose has the audacity to confront Dolores and threaten her in front of everyone. The next time Rose sees Dolores, she's lying dead and Rose is the chief suspect. Harry knows Rose didn't do it and he's determined to keep her out of the press and away from crazed murderers. Will she comply this time? Actually, she does want peace and quiet and she seems to find what she longs for in a most suitable suitor but he doesn't rouse her passions the way Harry does. Meanwhile, Daisy and Becket want to get married. They're making plans for their future but will things work out as planned if Rose doesn't marry Harry?

I really couldn't get into this story. The mystery starts and stops and starts again too often. It's too random and disjointed to really follow and I frankly didn't care. I was more interested in the romantic plots. I didn't like Daisy's story. It's too cliched and unrealistic. I wanted more of Rose and Harry. Their plot takes too long to wrap up and it's very hastily sketched out before the story draws to a close. It left me unsatisfied. I liked that Rose showed some character growth finally. She still doesn't know what she wants but she's getting there. Even Lord and Lady Hadshire had moments when they made me like them, but mainly they're as awful as ever. Daisy annoyed me a lot and I didn't like the way she acted. There are a few new characters to add comic relief but they also made me angry and sad for Rose.

I enjoyed this series even though it's not great literature. If you're looking for some good beach books this summer while you wait for the next season of Downton Abbey (if there was such a thing... as far as I am concerned, it all ended with a jolly cricket match!), I suggest picking up this series. If you like Marion Chesney's Regency and Edwardian romances you might like these too, though her Regencies are much better.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What I Read in July Part II

What I Read in July Part II . . .

Jubilee TrailJubilee Trail by Gwen Bristow -- Historical Fiction/Romance

Miss Garnet Cameron has just finished at her fashionable young ladies' academy and now she's expected to marry someone in her New York Society social circle, for it's 1844 and that is all young ladies like garnet are expected to do. Yet, Garnet wants so much more. She wonders at the gaudily decorated theater she sees well-dressed people go into; she wonders what's out there besides New York and longs for adventure. When a prominent local merchant is murdered, it sets off a chain of events that will change Garnet's life forever. First she meets the charming Oliver Hale from California, a place that she's never even heard of and isn't on a map! Oliver is a trader on the trail between Santa Fe and Los Angeles (then a backwater village); he's full of incredible stories and is willing to talk to Garnet like a human being instead of a china doll. When he proposes, she is all too eager to accept. Her parents have reservations, but they want her to be happy and wish her well. Then Garnet begins on a life of adventure that has more in store for her than she ever dreamed. Next, she meets "Florinda Grove," an actress at a burlesque theater in New York. She discovers that Florinda is not at all what she expected of an actress and the two women are fundamentally similar at the core. Then, Garnet arrives in Santa Fe and meets her traveling companions: John Ives, her husband's mysterious business partner, Texas, a drunkard but as true blue as they come and a darn good doctor; Silky, the ladies' man with the twirly mustache and Penrose, a selfish trader. Garnet lives an entire lifetime of experiences before she even gets to California, where she plans to spend a pleasant winter before returning home. What more could be in store for her?

Note: I read this book with a scholarly eye, having taken a seminar on History the West. Though we skimmed the Gold Rush and covered largely the post-Civil War era, I know a little bit about the history of New Mexico.

The dust jacket flap pretty much gives away the entire plot though I think even without it I could have predicted what would happen. The plot is full of standard elements and foreshadowing so I wasn't completely surprised by most of what happened. It needs an epilogue to tell what happens after the book ends at the start of the Gold Rush. Where this book excels is in the details. The descriptions are absolutely incredible. The reader feels like they are on the trail and in California (not the paradise it is considered today) with Garnet. Every hot, dusty, dirty, gritty detail is here in this book. The author leaves you to imagine the sounds and smells but they're described in full detail. She must have done an incredible amount of research.

However, that is also where she failed because she seems to have read only American sources. The story is full of racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices that were common in the 1840s. I found them distasteful and the story biased towards "Good ol' Yankee ingenuity." That didn't take away from my enjoyment of the plot, I just wish I knew more about that time and place. (Must remember to ask my History of the West professor if he knows this book). I think the so-called Diggers are supposed to be Paiute and the Utahs are Utes. The Comanche were busy raiding, trading and capturing slaves in New Mexico/Texas at that time. They were not "harmless" and easily pacified as Oliver makes it sound. Also, there's a gaping plot hole...

Another place where the story excels is well-drawn characters. The author manages to make stock characters into flesh and blood people you can care about and feel something for. I loved Garnet right from her introduction. I empathized with her boredom and longing for adventure. I felt that way at her age too. She could have been a Mary Sue character but she has an adventurous spirit, grit and determination that make her more than just a very good woman. I liked Oliver a lot in the beginning. He and Garnet were so cute and perfect for each other. I also loved Florinda, though she doesn't believe in love. Florinda is an amazing, strong woman. All she has been through has made her who she is and yet she's still developing at the end of the book. I did not like John very much. He's a good man but brooding isn't my type. He is so annoyingly stubborn, especially about a certain emotion he claims is "moonshine."  
The supporting characters Texas and The Brute are also wonderful, especially Texas. I wasn't expecting his story to go in that direction but I just loved him for everything he did for Garnet. The Brute is an unusual character. I've never read about anyone like him before.

I would recommend this book to those who love historical fiction but be sure to read it with a critical eye, understanding the prejudices and biases that color the story.

I did a little bit of research and came up with some information on the Old Spanish Trail, which I think is Oliver's Jubilee Trail.

They started on the Santa Fe Trail

Old Spanish National Historic Trail

The Old Spanish Trail Association

What I Read in July

What I Read in July . . .

French LeaveFrench Leave by P.G. Wodehouse -- Historical Fiction Romantic Comedy

The Trent sisters in Bensonhurst, Long Island, New York are small-time chicken farmers. They get by selling eggs and honey to locals, like Mr. Clutterbuck, the publisher. Then they manage to come into some money - not a lot - but enough to have a grand holiday in France! Jo wants to marry a millionaire and Terry wants to have fun and hopefully fall in love. Practical eldest sister Kate wants to invest the money. The younger sisters head off to France for a gay time, with Kate in tow to make sure they stay out of trouble. First they head to St. Rocque on the Brittany coast, where Jo will pretend to be rich and Terry will pretend to be her maid. Then they will switch roles in Roville. The action of the story takes place largely in Roville where Terry encounters a trouserless mineral water millionaire, a debonair Marquis, a young man who looks like Gregory Peck with a scar on his chin and a host of other characters who will turn her life Topsy-turvey!

I had a hard time getting into this story at first but once the story switched to Roville, it got much more interesting. The plot is full of typical Wodehouse zaniness, especially at the end. It has some cute moments but nothing laugh out loud funny. The epilogue was unnecessary and largely boring until the twist is revealed. That made it much funnier. The big misunderstanding is actually a series of misunderstandings that are rather amusing. The first happens fairly early and I was left wondering how the plot would be resolved with half the book to come, but with everything else that happens afterwards, the story doesn't drag. In fact, it picked up so much I couldn't put it down. Aside from a few references to the war and a few other minor things, this story could be Edwardian. The basic idea is the same. There are a few ethnic slurs about the French that creep into the characters' speech but only in reference to the casino.

The characters are nothing to gush over. They're fairly typical Wodehousian characters. Aunt Hermione could match Lady Constance in the Blandings Castle saga snobby look for snobby look. She's actually a bit worse! Old Nick is an aristocratic French version of Galahad Threepwood's pals. I didn't care for the Old Nick at first. He's arrogant, unethical and completely clueless as to why people don't like him, however, I found myself liking him more at the end of the story. He provides a lot of color in an otherwise bland story. Jeff is a little too good to be true and Freddie is not as clueless as his English namesake in Blandings Castle, but cut from the same cloth. The women are treated better here than in any other Wodehouse novel. They actually have personalities, though each one is a stereotype. I liked Terry very much. She's dreamy, yet practical. She knows she's poor and isn't bothered by it. Jo doesn't appear in the story very much so I don't know if I like her or not. Kate is a stereotypical eldest sister. She's tough and hard and the male characters are rather afraid of her. I didn't really like her much.