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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

«Amelia Peabody is Elizabeth Peters’ best loved and brilliant creation, a thoroughly Victorian feminist who takes the stuffy world of archaeology by storm with her shocking men’s pants and no-nonsense attitude!
In this first Egyptian mystery, our headstrong heroine decides to use her substantial inheritance to see the world. On her travel, she rescues a gentlewoman in distress – Evelyn Barton-Forbes – and the two become friends. The two companions continue to Egypt where they face mysteries, mummies and the redoubtable Radcliffe Emerson, an outspoken archaeologist, who doesn’t need women to help him solve mysteries – at least that’s what he thinks!»

England, Victorian Era. Amelia Peabody, a middle aged spinster and somewhat of a scholar, just inherited a considerable amount of money from her deceased father, seeing this as her opportunity for freedom, she decides to travel to Egypt and explore all the places she’s been reading about in books. Armed with her parasol and a unique personality, Amelia ventures into a world of men, who don’t take lightly to being ordered about by a woman, especially one as eccentric as her.

Meeting a stranger on the way and learning about her unfortunate story, Amelia takes Evelyn under her wing and together they explore Egypt’s monuments and sail down the Nile, constantly battling against the crew’s ideas of what a proper visit should be. When reaching Amarna’s archaeological dig, little do they know that their trip is at an end, the Emerson brothers, their recent acquaintances, are facing serious problems, Radcliffe has been struck down by illness and the workers are becoming superstitious. Not one to flee in the face of adversity, Amelia sets to saving Racliffe’s life while taking over the excavation, that is, until he recovers and tries to put her in her place. They both seem to have found their match!

This cosy mystery is the start of a series that I have the feeling will fast become one of my favourites, Amelia Peabody is almost like a female Indiana Jones, she’s witty, smart and isn’t afraid of anything, plus she’s a threat to anyone with her parasol. Radcliffe Emerson is the perfect hero, handsome, dark sense of humour, strong and sure of himself with just the right touch of arrogance. The mystery revolves around the appearance of a mummy and its apparent interest in Evelyn, but the gist of the story is Amelia and Emerson’s relationship, we soon clue in to the culprit and his reasons, but we still enjoy ourselves due to their fights and constant banter.

Despite this first volume having been published in 1975, the story and tone are still up to date, Elizabeth Peters has managed to create a timeless series that will surely continue to win fans for years to come. I for one am reading the second volume and am thrilled there are still 16 to go and one in the works. :-)

Rating: 5/5

Review also published here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander

«For Emily, accepting the proposal of Philip, the Viscount Ashton, was an easy way to escape her overbearing mother, who was set on a grand society match. So when Emily’s dashing husband died on safari soon after their wedding, she felt little grief. After all, she barely knew him. Now, nearly two years later, she discovers that Philip was a far different man from the one she had married so cavalierly. His journals reveal him to have been a gentleman scholar and antiquities collector who, to her surprise, was deeply in love with his wife. Emily becomes fascinated with this new image of her dead husband and she immerses herself in all things ancient and begins to study Greek.
Emily’s intellectual pursuits and her desire to learn more about Philip take her to the quiet corridors of the British Museum, one of her husband’s favorite places. There, amid priceless ancient statues, she uncovers a dark, dangerous secret involving stolen artifacts from the Greco-Roman galleries. And to complicate matters, she’s juggling two very prominent and wealthy suitors, one of whose intentions may go beyond the marrying kind. As she sets out to solve the crime, her search leads to more surprises about Philip and causes her to question the role in Victorian society to which she, as a woman, is relegated.»

England, Victorian Era. Lady Emily Ashton, newly wed, has just lost her husband to a raging fever while he was on an African safari with a couple of friends. Having married him to escape her mother’s rule, she’s not as grief stricken as she should be, Philip was a stranger to her and she almost feels relief at his departure. But oddly, after a while, through his friends and acquaintances, the books he liked to read and the antiquities he collected, Emily perceives a side of her husband she didn’t know existed and as shocking as it is, he seemed to actually be in love with her.

Seduced by this unknown facet of the man she married, Lady Emily starts to take interest in the same things he did and slowly falls in love with him, finally feeling the grief of his loss. But as she digs through the past she uncovers facts that were better left untouched, not everything is as it seems and maybe Philip wasn’t such an honest and trustworthy man after all. Who was the real Philip and what actually happened to him in Africa?

We accompany Lady Emily in the pursuit for the truth and can’t help but fall in love with her, we watch her grow as a person and especially as an independent woman who isn’t afraid to stray from the norm and start studying Greek and drinking Port instead of Sherry like every other respectable lady. She makes new friends, such as Cecile du Lac, a French widow who collects husbands, Lady Margaret, an independent American who prefers books to suitors and Colin Hargreaves, her deceased husband’s best friend who is our dashing hero. I felt that Emily changed and grew throughout the book and in my eyes became real and believable, as opposed to Lady Julia Grey, Deanna Raybourn’s heroine, who always stays the same and doesn’t seem to learn anything in Silent in the Grave.

Although there’s a mystery to be solved here, its resolution is somewhat predictable, but it doesn’t spoil our enjoyment of the story, our focus is always on Emily and her life, the mystery is just an added bonus. I do have one complaint regarding this book though, we don’t get to see as much of Colin Hargreaves as I’d like, the author seems to tease us with his quick scenes and leaves us wanting more. Not fair! :-P

So, if you like cosy historical mysteries with a touch of humour and romance, then this is the right series for you, don’t hesitate to pick up And Only to Deceive, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!

Rating: 4/5

Review also published here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Challenge Wrap-Up

I keep forgetting to post this on here. Sorry for the lateness. Anyway, I went for A Drink at Whitechapel and these were the books I read for the challenge, with links to my reviews.

  1. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens (06.24.09)
  2. North & South – Elizabeth Gaskell (06.30.09)
  3. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (02.01.09)
I'm quite glad I only went for three books. It's not easy reading classics :)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters

When Lady Baskerville's husband Sir Henry dies after discovering what may have been an undisturbed royal tomb in Luxor, she appeals to eminent archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and his wife Amelia to take over the excavation. Amid rumors of a curse haunting all those involved with the dig, the intrepid couple proceeds to Egypt, where they begin to suspect that Sir Henry did not die a natural death, and they are confident that the accidents that plague the dig are caused by a sinister human element, not a pharaoh’s curse.

Since I read A Crocodile in the Sandbank, I became a big fan of Amelia Peabody. She’s unlike any other sleuth heroine I ever read about before. Amelia is one of a kind!

The second book, The Curse of the Pharaohs starts 4 years later after the end of the 1st book. Amelia and Emerson are quietly living in Kent with their son William, nicknamed Ramses. After his birth, his parents felt they couldn’t continue their career as Egyptologists until he had grown and could accompany them to Egypt.

While they are trying not to get bored with their smooth English life, they follow in the newspapers the story of Lord Baskerville and how he possibly died of a curse after digging some pharaoh’s tomb. They are immediately interested and both surprised when Baskerville’s widow pay them a visit and asks Emerson to finish the work of her husband. If he refuses, not wanting to leave his wife and son in England, Peabody, knowing how excited he is for a new adventure, convinces him it’s for the best if he accepts the mission. In no time, they are both ready to leave for Egypt.

When they arrive, they are faced with many problems and treats that make their work even more difficult and feed even more the rumors of an ancient curse. Tired of this situation, the Emersons finally decide to get involved in this investigation and find the responsible behind the mystery.

The second book of this series is as delicious as the first one. Amelia Peabody continues to exude intelligence and sharp humor. Her reflections about her son are hilarious! The child is a little genius and develops very quickly to the amazement of both his parents. Peters does an excellent job describing him and I can perfectly imagine the little boy’s “chilling and calculating look” when he tries to manipulate his parents. I get the feeling this little Ramses is going to have some extraordinary adventures!

The chemistry between Peabody and Emerson is intact. All their dialogues, conversations and disputes produce sparks. It’s like watching an extraordinary final at Roland Garros. They know each other well but they still can surprise each other.

The story is fast-paced and the descriptions of the Egypt of those times are magnificent, making you feel as you were present during the events.

Highly recommended to any reader who enjoys a good mystery and must-read to all Amelia Peabody fans.

Grade: 4.5/5
And this would be my final review of the Victorian Challenge. :)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Laura's Challenge Wrap-Up

I aimed to visit Buckingham Palace by reading six books, but I only took a tour of the British Museum with five books. I forgot just how long it takes me to read a Dickens novel and assumed I would read two books in June instead of just one. Now I know not to leave too much for the last minute … or that I should aim lower and then exceed that goal!

My original list was as follows:

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
2. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole
3. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
4. Framily Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
5. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
6. Victoria Victorious by Jean Plaidy

1. Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
2. The Woman in White by Wilie Collins
3. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
4. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

I actually ended up reading:
1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
2. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole
3. The Victorian Home: The Grandeur and Comforts of the Victorian Era in Households Past & Present by Ellen M. Plante
4. The Woman in White by Wilie Collins (audio)
5. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

I didn’t exactly stick to my original list by my addition of The Victorian Home, but I really enjoyed that book. Overall I really enjoyed this challenge and hope that there will be A Victorian Challenge Part 2 so I can finish up reading the Victorian novels on my stack!

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was one the most popular (if not the most popular) novelist during the Victorian period. He published The Old Curiosity Shop in his weekly serial publication “Master Humphrey’s Clock” from 1840 to 1841. I have always heard the story that Dickens’ American fans storms the piers of New York City shouting to sailors arriving from England, “Is Little Nell alive” to find out the end of this story. It’s amazing to think about so much excitement for a book. (Actually I guess it sounds like the parties awaiting the arrival of the new Harry Potter novels.) I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about.

The Old Curiosity Shop is the story of a beautiful, sweet, and innocent girl named Nell and her grandfather. They live in the titled Old Curiosity Shop, but not for long. Grandfather has a gambling addiction. He wants to make money to ensure that Nell will not have a life of hardship, but instead he gambles away all of his money as well as extensive amounts of money that he has borrowed from the shady “dwarf,” Daniel Quilp. After losing it all, Little Nell and her Grandfather wander through England. The book is the story of their journey as well as of cast of other characters left in London such as Kip, their servant; Sampson and Sally Brass (Quilp’s lawyer and his sister); Richard Swiveller (Little Nell’s brother’s friend), and others.

I loved Dickens’ detailed characters. They were all so interesting – especially to see that the way people have not really changed over time. Gambling addiction is not a new problem. I do have a problem with his female characters, they seem rather one dimensional. Sally Brass is a smart woman that works at law with her brother; therefore she is a subject of ridicule. Little Nell is a bit “too perfect.” I didn’t love her as much as I think Dickens’ meant the reader too.

The treatment of servants in the book was also interesting. The “Marchioness” doesn’t have a name and lives locked in the Brass’ basement. She is hardly given any food and somehow exists like this. I found this more than a little disturbing!!!’’

I read a book-of-the-month club edition. It has the original illustrations, which I really enjoyed looking at while I read. I also loved the description on the right-hand page on top of the current action, such as “Bank-note gone.” One wonders if you can get a quick summary of the book by only reading the headers!

SPOILER ALERT. I did not like the entire ending chapter of Little Nell’s death. It was (dare I say it?) rather sappy actually. It would have been more striking to not go on and on and on about it and her angel spirit floating away and such. Also her death didn’t really seem to serve the story that well. She hadn’t been mentioned for 100 pages or so, while we were with Kit and the others in London.

Overall, I liked the book, its world, characters, and descriptions a lot. But I don’t think I would have been waiting at the pier to find out what happened to Little Nell. This was a good Dickens novel, but not as good as my favorites (David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities).

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Laurie's Challenge Wrap-Up

It's official! I completed the Victorian Challenge! I read four books, two written during the Victorian period, one during the Edwardian period, and one in the 1940s. My final list was:

Charlotte Yonge, The Clever Woman of the Family
Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

It was important to me that at least some of the book I read were actually written in the 19th century. Victorian literature has always daunted me, so tackling some of it at the source was a significant reason why I undertook this challenge. My favorite book of the challenge was Oliver Twist. I didn't find any of these books unpalatable, but my least favorite was likely Lark Rise to Candleford. Looking at my choices, it's perhaps a bit unfair of me to pick favorites. Oliver Twist is by most critics' assessments a work of great literature, and Lark Rise to Candleford makes no pretences to literary greatness. It's a very descriptive book, in modern parlance we might call it 'cozy.' The greatest surprise of the challenge was how easy I found it to engage Dickens. I had always been daunted by his works. This is the first I read seriously as an adult, and I found it a very rewarding experience. I will likely dig deeper into his canon. The least Victorian of these selections was All Passion Spent. I selected it based on the back cover synopsis, which suggested that the book was entirely about the Victorian period. As it turns out, it's about half and half. Overall, this has been a very rewarding challenge experience. If it happens again next year I will surely participate, and my goal will be to select and read only books written during Victoria's reign.

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