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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.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Joy's Challenge Wrap-Up

I actually finished the reading for this challenge several weeks ago, but I didn't want to write a wrap-up until I had all the reviews written. Now that I've finished that task, I can say finis. I chose Level 2: A Walk in Hyde Park, which meant I read four books for the challenge. Started out with quite a list of possibilities, but as it turns out only two of the books I actually read were on that list. So, the best-laid plans and all that . . . .

Here's what I read, with links to reviews:

  1. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
  2. Angels & Insects, by A.S. Byatt
  3. The Master, by Colm Toibin
  4. The Valley of Fear, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I'm also noticing that while all my books were set during the Victorian era, none was actually written then – something of a disappointment. Guess I'm just a modern girl at heart.

I enjoyed all the books, although of the four I think The Valley of Fear was one that didn't really live up to my expectations. My favorite was without a doubt The Age of Innocence – it's now on my list of all-time best reads, and it's inspired me to go back and give Wharton's House of Mirth another try, after abandoning it many years ago.

I want to thank Alex for coming up with the idea for the challenge and hosting, and all the other participants for all those great reviews and blog posts. This was a wonderful idea – I only wish I'd had time to read a little Trollope. Well, maybe next time.

[Cross-posted on my blog, Joy's Blog.]

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Brittanie's Wrap-Up Post

I finished the Victorian Reading Challenge in the nick of time. I really enjoyed it. I did not read most of my original list. I have a TBR list of books set during this period now. Some came from reading others reviews. I did not finish Silas Marner because I was bored and it left me feeling cold so I may go back to it one day. I have not done reviews for all the books yet. I will probably do mini reviews this week. I do not have a favorite. I liked but did not love them. I look forward to a Second Victorian Reading Challenge.

Reading Levels:A drink at Whitechapel: 3 books
A walk in Hyde Park: 4 books
A tour of the British Museum: 5 books
A visit to Buckingham Palace: 6 books

I am going all the way with a visit to Buckingham Palace:6 books
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens or Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
3. Silas Marner by George Elliot or Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
4. Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott
5. Heidi by Johanna Spyri
6. Dracula by Bram Stoker

What I actually read:
1. And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander
2. Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn
3. Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn
4. Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn
5. Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott (reread)
6. Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott (reread)
7. Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Book Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre cover

Jane Eyre has none of the advantages that an ordinary girl might hope for. Plain, orphaned, poor, and friendless, she is dependent upon the scant goodwill of relatives by marriage who never wanted her. One thing she does have is spirit, and after showing it in spectacular fashion she is dispatched by her Aunt Reed to the bleak school at Lowood. Among the strict rules, freezing weather, and the miserable food, she finds friends and a home for the first time in her life.

Eight years later, having risen to the post of teacher, Jane feels it is time for a change; and common sense dictates that the way to effect one is to advertise. A letter arrives in response from a Mrs Fairfax, seeking a governess to take up residence at Thornfield Hall. The Hall is everything Jane could wish: a fine house with beautiful grounds, run by a kindly housekeeper, and with an affectionate if frivolous charge in Adele Varens. The one discordant note is the unwelcoming servant Grace Poole, and the spine-chilling laughter that comes from her rooms on the third floor. But what is one unfriendly face in a house whose master is Mr Rochester, who likes to hear Jane talk and make her laugh?

Jane knows that she could never be so lucky; that he must marry status and fortune like those possessed by Blanche Ingram. Still she cannot help but hope, until a surprise event forces her to decide what she truly wants.

It’s been way too long since I last read this. Actually, it’s been sitting in my TBR pile ever since I heard there was going to be a new adaptation. (Better late than never . . .) It was just as good the second time as the first. I liked Jane from the start - how can you not love someone who would rather curl up in a window seat with a book than go for a winter walk? And my fondness for her increased as the book continued. She is a heroine of firm principles and sticks to them regardless of what other people might think of her. She will always be one of my favourites, because that quiet strength is something I could realistically aspire to emulate.

All the hallmarks of the gothic are there: isolated heroine, old house in the middle of nowhere, mysterious owner, sinister servant, strange dreams and things which might defy explanation. It has its unnerving moments, such as Jane’s midnight encounter with Richard Mason, but it feels more like a novel with gothic overtones than an actual gothic. Jane has too much sense to let her imagination run away with her, or let Thornfield Hall’s oddities assume greater importance than her relationships with the people it contains. Chief amongst these is, of course, Mr Rochester, whose past might not be much to boast about but who at least has better intentions for the future. (But you know that they say about good intentions . . .) He might be devoid of looks and possessed of the habit of deriving amusement from other people, but I envy Jane her finding of someone to appreciate her for her mind above all else.

Yes, there’s a too-convenient stroke of coincidence in Jane’s meeting the Rivers siblings. And I felt that the religious aspects of Rochester’s acceptance of his fate didn’t ring quite true (though that is perhaps the confirmed atheist talking). But really, I don’t care. It’s a wonderful book, one which more than any other love story holds out the tantalising promise of a Prince Charming out there for even the poorest and plainest. (It also has the ever-interesting St John Rivers, who raises the concept of duty to a whole new level.) And it will not go another who knows how many years without a re-read.

Rating: A

End of the challenge

I'm a day late but I wanted to officially end the Victorian Challenge. Since some people told me they were way behind with their reviews (I still have my last one to post also) but they had already read all the books they planned to, I thought we could extend the posting until the 15 July.
I wanted to thank you all for participating and sharing with all of us your reading experiences. It's was a wonderful journey!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Lady Slane spent her entire life as a politician's wife, raising six children. In the wake of her husband's death she finally has time and space to attend to her own desires. At age eighty-eight Lady Slane chooses to move to her own home, and surround herself with persons of her own choosing. And what Lady Slane chooses to do is to reminisce about her life, from her marriage in 1860 to the present day. Lady Slane's children presume that their mother has descended into madness, but she holds her ground, refusing to become the doddering widow her children expect. In this novel we learn Lady Slane's history: her thwarted dreams of becoming an artist, her love for her husband, and the restrictions incumbent on Victorian political wives. The book culminates as Lady Slane faces an awakening of unexpected passion. This is a dark and contemplative novel, though there are elements of comedy as well. The Slane children all fit into comic stereotypes, and perform their allotted roles to the point of ridiculousness. These comic elements are necessary, they allow Lady Slane to be sensible, rather than cruel, in cutting herself off from her children at the end of her life. Lady Slane's long life spans the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and if the hallmark of the Victorian era was change, than Lady Slane is certainly a good model thereof. She lived through modernization, the growth of empire, and in her reflections we see the long span of her life.

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent (The Dial Press, 1984) ISBN: 0385279760

Miss Cayley's Adventures by Grant Allen

Miss Cayley

Miss Cayley's Adventures is definitely a Victorian novel. Like many works of the period it first appeared in serial form - part one was published in The Strand in March 1898.

But Lois Cayley is definitely not a typical Victorian heroine.

When her stepfather dies Miss Cayley finds herself alone in the world. The obvious thing to do would be to take her friends advice and find respectable employment as a teacher or in a hat-shop. Does she do that? No. Miss Cayley decides to step out into the world in search of adventure, grabbing whatever chances come her way.

The adventures come thick and fast, and the storytelling is quite wonderful.

Miss Cayley travels through Germany, Italy, Egypt and India. And in the course of her travels she becomes a lady's maid, a bicycle saleswoman, a house-sitter, the proprietor of a secretarial agency and a journalist. She foils a robbery, wins a cycle race and rescues an injured mountaineer.

Yes, Miss Cayley is bright, articulate, athletic and extremely resourceful. She is also engaging from the first sentence and so very likeable.

Along the way Miss Cayley makes many friends, a few enemies and she meets her true love.

It is to save him from imprisonment for a crime that she finally return to London. Does Miss Cayley save the day? Is there a happy ending? Well what do you think?!

Miss Cayley's Adventures provide wonderful entertainment from beginning to end!

Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn

This is a wickedly witty Lady Julia Grey mystery. 'There are things that walk abroad on the moor that should not. But the dead do not always lie quietly, do they, lady?' It is England, 1888. Grimsgrave Manor is an unhappy house, isolated on the Yorkshire moors, silent and secretive. But secrets cannot be long kept in the face of Lady Julia Grey's incurable curiosity. In the teeth of protests from her conventional, stuffy brother, Lady Julia decides to pay a visit to the enigmatic detective, Nicholas Brisbane to bring a woman's touch to his new estate.

Grimsgrave is haunted by the ghosts of its past and its owner seems to be falling into ruin along with the house. Confronted with gypsy warnings and Brisbane's elusive behavior, Lady Julia scents a mystery. It's not long before her desire for answers leads her into danger unlike any other that she has experienced - and from which, this time, there may be no escape.

*spoiler alert*

While I really enjoyed the first two books of the Lady Julia Grey mysteries, Silent in the Moor was far from giving me the same satisfaction.

In the final pages of Silent in the Sanctuary, we learned that Lady Julia was going to visit Brisbane’s mystery house, Grimsgrave Manor, with her sister, Portia. The later was invited by the young man to help him set up a more pleasant household on his recently acquired house in Yorkshire. Of course, Brisbane isn’t aware of this sisterly plan and when he sees Julia at his doorstep, he is somehow surprised and reluctantly agrees to shelter them both.

Julia and Portia find themselves living in an old crumbling house with the almost constantly absent Brisbane and the former owners, the Allenbys: Lady Allenby and her two daughters, Ailith (the family beauty) and Hilda (the tomboy). If in the beginning they enjoy their visit, they quickly see that appearances can be very deceiving…

While I think Julia is coming out of her shell since book two and we see now how much easily she makes her own decisions and knows what she wants, I can’t stop wishing she would kick Brisbane times to times. The man is completely obnoxious! I do understand why he doesn’t want to have someone in his life, even if I find the reasons exaggerated, but after a while I stop believing he actually cares for Julia and he is, in fact, enjoying being hunted.
It’s easy to understand that while she wants to show him she cares for him, his unjustified absences and rejections would try the patience of a saint. I admired Julia to pursuit what she wanted and cheered her up when she decided it was enough.

I have to admit I was much more interested in Portia’s relationship with Jane. They are both very warm characters and this turn of events was quite a surprise since they always seemed in perfect harmony. Hopefully, Raybourn will give their relationship another go.

The atmosphere is very gloomy and sometimes made me think of Wuthering Heights even if that never really works for me.

The mystery was very predictable and, at some point, I was asking myself how they could not see what was going on. You can feel since the beginning there are many skeletons in the closet of the Allenby family, their relationship is strained and in the point of breaking… The comments and attitudes of the servants and even the family about the late Sir Redwall and then Lady Julia’s discovery of two small mummies among the family Egyptian antiquities lead us to a well known story.

Also, after the Grey sisters arrive to Grimsgrave Manor everything seems to drag and slow down. The mystery part could have been solved quickly, just as the reason of Brisbane absences.

A pleasant read recommended to the fans of the series.

Grade: 3/5

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

This is Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, a widely acclaimed work based on the actual murder, in 1831, of a progressive mill owner. It follows Mary Barton, daughter of a man implicated in the murder, through her adolescence, when she suffers the advances of the mill owner, and later through love and marriage. Set in Manchester, between 1837-42, it paints a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

Mary Barton is Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel. I adored North & South and immediately tried to find all her other books.

I have to confess that I was slightly disappointed with Mary Barton Maybe my expectations were too high and this was, after all, a first try by the author. But don’t get me wrong, this was still a good story with many positive aspects.

This book is all about the city of Manchester during the Industrial Revolution. It‘s our main character and Gaskell follows beautifully its growth. We assist to the first struggling of working classes and the unions or even the harsh daily life of so many families who faced poverty and death. I was entranced during these parts that were described vividly and in a very human way.

The love story between the young Mary Barton and Jem Wilson is sweet but that’s all. Somehow, the young couple seemed to be completely swallowed by the events who took place around them. I can say exactly the same about the murder of the son of a factory owner. We know since the beginning who was the responsible and the trial and final revelation are not a surprise at all.

Gaskell is a wonderful writer and a true storyteller. Her style is catching and despite some flaws, I found myself craving for more.

Grade: 3.5/5

Book Review: Cousin Phillis and other stories by Elizabeth Gaskell

Victorian Challenge #5

In “Lizzie Leigh” a new widow finally has the chance to go to the city in search of her lost daughter. “The Old Nurse's Story” is a woman’s recollection of the strange events in the first house she worked in. Years of regret and repression come to a head in “Half a Life-time Ago.” The historical story “Lois the Witch” shows how even bad ideas can take hold of a community, fuelled by fear and self-interest as much as by belief. A family struggle to deal with a good-for-nothing relative in “The Crooked Branch.” “Curious, If True” is a fairy-tale maybe-dream of a gentleman lost in the countryside. And “Cousin Phillis” is the story of a young railway worker's friendship with his newly-discovered cousin and the simple mistake that changes both their lives.

This was the only collection of short stories on my Victorian Challenge list, and I enjoyed all of them. Gaskell tends not to do what you might expect; if you think you know what will happen you’ll have to think again. What can be expected, if you’ve been around this blog for a while, is that the second story was my favourite. I love my ghost stories, and this one was nicely eerie and strange. I’ve made a mental note now to get hold of whatever other spooky tales she's written.

Another favourite was “Lois the Witch.” The spread of the witch-hunting fervour through Salem made me think of the modern climate doomsday hysteria - it’s a similar pattern of a notion taking on a life of its own as it spreads, and being adopted and believed for a variety of reasons, not all of them well-intentioned. I liked Lois and the persistent common sense she showed in the strange new world in which she found herself, and the chaos which soon surrounded her. Also I was impressed by the clarity with which Gaskell showed how the witch craze started and was accepted by otherwise rational people.

If you want to get started on the classics but feel daunted by the size of some of them, these tales would be an excellent place to start. Short as they are, they’re divided into chapters, so you can take your nineteenth-century wordiness in small doses (and Gaskell is nowhere near, say, James or Dickens in the wordiness stakes). Gothic, historical, fantasy, quiet lives in the English countryside - there’s something here for everyone.

Rating: B+

Monday, June 29, 2009

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

I've always been intimidated by Dickens, having heard so much about his legendary wordiness and trenchant prose. This was my first attempt to seriously read Dickens, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how readable this book is. I did notice Dickens's wordiness for approximately the first two pages, but after that I was drawn into the story. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that Dickens writes with a witty sarcasm- so much for the humorless Victorians. The story of a desperately poor orphan, Oliver Twist offers a deep and complex plot, and plenty of emotional engagement. It's hard not to feel sympathy for suffering young Oliver who, by his own admission, "hasn't a friend in the world." This novel is a book about morality, and is clearly a work of social criticism. Dickens reserves his criticism not for the wealthy, who might seem the obvious target, but for social strivers. Those attempting to raise their social standing, such as the sycophantic Bumble, and the criminal miser Fagin receive the sharpest pricks of Dickens's pen. The truly wealthy are the kindest characters in the book; they are the ones who rescue Oliver and show him true kindness. Dickens kept my attention throughout this novel, I will definitely be exploring more of his canon.

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (Wordsworth Classics, 1997) ISBN: 1853260126

Barchester Towers

Trollope, Anthony. 1857. Barchester Towers. 528 pages.

In the latter days of July in the year 185--, a most important question was for ten days hourly asked in the cathedral city of Barchester, and answered every hour in various ways. Who was to be the new Bishop?

Barchester Towers is the second novel in Trollope's Barset series. The first in the series, The Warden, I reviewed several months ago. What characters carry over to the second one? Mr. Harding, the former warden, and his two daughters: Susan, married to Dr. Grantly, the archdeacon, the son of the very recently deceased Bishop, and Eleanor Bold, a (somewhat-recent) widow and the mother of young Johnny Bold.

Barchester Towers is about how complicated and convoluted relationships can become. It's not just about church politics. It's about social relationships as well. Though church politics does capture much of it. Who will be the new Bishop? Who will be the new warden of Hiram's Hospital? Who will be the new Dean?

The novel is a romantic comedy of sorts. Eleanor, a widow, is quite the catch and there are plenty of men in the neighborhood who would do almost anything to win her heart. But not all of them are worthy of it. And some of them are more interested in her money than in her. Her three suitors are Mr. Obadiah Slope (boo, hiss if you like, trust me he deserves it!), Mr. Bertie Stanhope, and Mr. Francis Arabin. Two of the three are church men. Mr. Slope is chaplain and in the employ of the new bishop, Mr. Proudie. And Mr. Arabin is the vicar of St. Ewold. Mr. Stanhope is a gambler mostly, an idle man who thinks only of living in the moment. Does Eleanor want to be courted? Is she looking for a second husband? A step-father for young Johnny? Whether or not this is the case, it can't be denied that the men in the neighborhood are looking at her.

I said Barchester Towers is a comedy, and that is very much the case. Comical characters abound in Barchester Towers! Mr. Slope. Dr. Proudie. Mrs. Proudie. Those three can get into so much trouble all on their own! I feel a bit sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Quiverful and their fourteen (living) children, a family that gets caught in this tug-of-war power play. Will he or won't he be named the new warden? And those are just a handful of the characters we meet in this second novel. There are the Stanhopes (including the married and attention-grabbing Madame Neroni), the Thornes, and the lower-class sort including the Lookalofts and the Greenacres. I believe Miss Thorne's party is the delight of the novel--spanning about eight chapters.

The order of the day was to be as follows. The quality, as the upper classes in rural districts are designated by the lower with so much true discrimination, were to eat a breakfast, and the non-quality were to eat a dinner. Two marquees had been erected for these two banquets: that for the quality on the esoteric or garden side of a certain deep ha-ha; and that for the non-quality on the exoteric or paddock side of the same. Both were of huge dimensions—that on the outer side was, one may say, on an egregious scale—but Mr. Plomacy declared that neither would be sufficient. To remedy this, an auxiliary banquet was prepared in the dining-room, and a subsidiary board was to be spread sub dio for the accommodation of the lower class of yokels on the Ullathorne property.

No one who has not had a hand in the preparation of such an affair can understand the manifold difficulties which Miss Thorne encountered in her project. Had she not been made throughout of the very finest whalebone, riveted with the best Yorkshire steel, she must have sunk under them. Had not Mr. Plomacy felt how much was justly expected from a man who at one time carried the destinies of Europe in his boot, he would have given way, and his mistress, so deserted, must have perished among her poles and canvas.

In the first place there was a dreadful line to be drawn. Who were to dispose themselves within the ha-ha, and who without? To this the unthinking will give an off-hand answer, as they will to every ponderous question. Oh, the bishop and such-like within the ha-ha, and Farmer Greenacre and such-like without. True, my unthinking friend, but who shall define these such-likes? It is in such definitions that the whole difficulty of society consists. To seat the bishop on an arm-chair on the lawn and place Farmer Greenacre at the end of a long table in the paddock is easy enough, but where will you put Mrs. Lookaloft, whose husband, though a tenant on the estate, hunts in a red coat, whose daughters go to a fashionable seminary in Barchester, who calls her farm-house Rosebank, and who has a pianoforte in her drawing-room? The Misses Lookaloft, as they call themselves, won't sit contented among the bumpkins. Mrs. Lookaloft won't squeeze her fine clothes on a bench and talk familiarly about cream and ducklings to good Mrs. Greenacre. And yet Mrs. Lookaloft is no fit companion and never has been the associate of the Thornes and the Grantlys. And if Mrs. Lookaloft be admitted within the sanctum of fashionable life, if she be allowed with her three daughters to leap the ha-ha, why not the wives and daughters of other families also? Mrs. Greenacre is at present well contented with the paddock, but she might cease to be so if she saw Mrs. Lookaloft on the lawn. And thus poor Miss Thorne had a hard time of it.

And how was she to divide her guests between the marquee and the parlour? She had a countess coming, an Honourable John and an Honourable George, and a whole bevy of Ladies Amelia, Rosina, Margaretta, &c; she had a leash of baronets with their baronnettes; and, as we all know, she had a bishop. If she put them on the lawn, no one would go into the parlour; if she put them into the parlour, no one would go into the tent. She thought of keeping the old people in the house and leaving the lawn to the lovers. She might as well have seated herself at once in a hornet's nest.
Anthony Trollope is fast-becoming one of my favorite authors. I am just falling in love with him. His style, his wit, his humor, his characterizations. The way he can talk about anything (and everything) and make me care. Even the bad guys. Trollope develops these scummy characters with such grace and charm that even though you know they're no good, you enjoy spending time with them.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronté

Orphaned Jane Eyre grows up in the home of her heartless aunt, where she endures loneliness and cruelty, and at a charity school with a harsh regime. This troubled childhood strengthens Jane's natural independence and spirit - which prove necessary when she finds a position as governess at Thornfield Hall. But when she finds love with her sardonic employer, Rochester, the discovery of his terrible secret forces her to make a choice. Should she stay with him and live with the consequences, or follow her convictions, even if it means leaving the man she loves? A novel of intense power and intrigue, Jane Eyre 1847) dazzled and shocked readers with its passionate depiction of a woman's search for equality and freedom.

Jane Eyre is my final book for the Victorian Challenge. I know I read this book in my teens but my memory was fuzzy at best and I must say that if not for the 2006 TV adaptation I probably wouldn't have been compelled to reread it.

It is interesting to read about Jane from childhood, she makes a compelling heroine even when she is a child. She is so focused and so serious in her views and descriptions that we can't help but to want to know more. I have to say though that the book really comes alive for me when Rochester enters the scene. I really enjoy reading about him and Jane matching wits. Jane is always described as a very plain heroine and while I understand that Charlotte Bronte wanted her to shine only through her intelligence and resourcefulness it was a bit too much to have most of the character referring to her like that, after all beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The story is, of course, a wonderful Gothic, we feel Jane's pain and unhappiness though her childhood, even her relationship with Helen Burns ends in tragedy, and we know, because she says so, that she was never as happy as in Thornfield which she comes to consider her home. However there's always a powerful foreboding sense hanging over them that reaches its high point when Jane and Rochester are about to be married. It is no wonder that she runs away from him, if there's something that is with Jane from beginning to end it’s her strict moral code. While Rochester was a great brooding and mysterious hero there's no way she can accept what he wants and she runs away.

I felt the story slowed down a bit after that, or maybe it was that I wasn't that interested about St John Rivers. Although Jane is as morally irreprehensible as he is she is passionate about what she believes in and has a fire that the preachy St John never manages to achieve.

Bronte wrote a mysterious dark tale and I was quite happy to see things coming together for Jane in the end. Her reunion with Rochester promises her happiness at last. The book approaches many of the social problems of the time, through Jane Eyre's status and worries Charlotte Bronte shows that women had choices and could be independent but that it wasn't easy.

Grade: 4.5/5

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit
For years I loved Dickens' writing but I struggled to get through his books. Fortunately though, I have recently found a way to read that works for me. Short installments over a long period of time. Which makes sense when you remember that much of Dickens' work was originally published in serial form.
And so I made a resolution - to read one of the big books every year. And this year's big book is Little Dorrit.
At the heart of the book there is a simple story of two characters.
Amy Dorrit: The titular heroine. A young women, thinking the best of and doing her best for everyone, and resident with her father in the debtor's prison where she was born.
Arthur Clennam: A middle-aged man recently returned from working aboroad in his family business: He sees signs that his family is responsible for the troubles of the Dorrits and determines to uncover the truth.
Their stories are woven into a much bigger framework. Indeed Dickens presents a panoramic portrait of Victorian London. And through a wide range of characters he explores many of the problems of Victorian society. His primary target is the debtors prison. And then there are bureaucratic government bodies, greedy landlords. powerful bankers..... Themes that still resonate today.
The characterisation is superb, the settings are wonderfully evoked and there was not one moment I considered putting the book down until I reached the end of its 1070 pages.
Little Dorrit is not without problems. The plot sometimes gets a little lost when Dickens is hitting his targets and a few of the sub-plots and characters are not as strong as the others - maybe even a little superfluous.
But when it works it is superb, packed with incident and provoking an incredible mix of emotions.
And certainly it is a book that I am glad I made the effort to read, and one that I know will stay with me.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (audio)

The Woman in White is a very engaging Victorian mystery by Wilkie Collins. I listened to an audio version dramatized by Beverley Cooper and was hooked. I wanted to listen to it constantly to find out what happened. Good thing I was able to make it to my meeting today instead of sitting in the car trying to finish the book.

The novel starts with a bang when Walter Hartright is on his way to his new commission as an art teacher when he runs into a mysterious woman dressed from head to toe in white. He helps her to escape to London only to find out later that she had in fact just escaped from a lunatic asylum. Walter arrives at his new post at Limmeridge Hall and meets his new students, half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie. Laura is a beautiful heiress. Walter and Laura soon fall in love. Unfortunately, Laura is betrothed to another, Sir Percival Glyde. She promised her father on his death bed that she would marry Sir Percival. With misgivings, Laura marries Sir Percival and soon finds out the truth about the mysterious woman in white. I will not say more on the plot except that it is a thrilling read!

I liked the format of the book. It gave the story from multiple sources and view points, which I read that Collins used because of his legal training. This novel is also one of the first detective stories as Walter Hartright tries to solve the mystery of the woman in white and of what happened to Laura Fairlie.

I also loved the forthright Marian Halcombe, the “ugly,” but sharp half-sister of Laura. She is a great character and I found her more interesting than Laura who was slightly one-dimensional. I also liked the feminist aspects of the novel – it really points out the flaws in the laws during Victorian times when it came to women inheriting an estate.

Another interesting note is that as a young man, Collins had his own run in with a mysterious woman in white, who later became his mistress. I read this in the forward to my novel and was intrigued.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Woman In White - Wilkie Collins

A mysterious figure in white appears on Hampstead Heath, before the
narration moves to a large North Country house. Sections of the storyline are taken up by a variety of characters, through whose eyes we experience events in this romantic, gothic thriller.
I had read The Woman in White in my teens and now I had only a vague idea of the plot so I decided to read it again.

Wilkie Collins writes an intriguing and engaging story. From the moment when Walter Hartright meets a mysterious woman in white running away from a private asylum and helps her, we are drawn into the puzzle of who she is. After Walter arrives at his next employment, it becomes apparent that there must be some relationship between the woman and Laura Fairlie, for whom Walter falls in love. And after Laura married the man her late father had destined to her and Walter leaves the country to forget her it seems apparent that Laura’s Husband and his friend Count Fosco are involved in a mystery of their own.

As soon as Laura marries Sir Percival Glyde and they return from their honeymoon to live with her sister Marian Halcombe it is apparent that Sir Percival’s main interest is his wife’s money and he will do all in his power to get it, dutifully aided by Fosco.

I think one of the main attractions is how the story is written. It is presented as a series of letters by some of the most prominent intervenients in the action so the point of view differs according to who is remembering the events. While it was sometimes frustrating to read how easy it was for the conspirators to fool everyone it was also an interesting exercise to read about everyone’s thoughts and how they had different voices.

I must say that I found Marian to be the most appealing character; she is strong, sensible and determined where Laura always seems too distant. While she and the woman in white are the key to the whole conspiracy she seems more like an object of adoration up in its pedestal than an active participant. Marian and the sinister Count Fosco are definitely the characters that I most vividly remembered after closing the book. Wilkie Collins is great at plotting and keeping us in suspense until the end when everything is revealed.

Grade: 4.5/5

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Under the Greenwood Tree

Under the Greenwood Tree, published 1872

Under the Greenwood Tree begins as a humorous and somewhat charming look at a simplistic group of church musicians who are about to be disbanded to make way for an organ. Along the way the story morphed into the strange and still often humorous love story between Dick Dewey and the village's new school teacher, Fancy Day. As a couple I found the pair rather mismatched but it did lead to some fun reading.
This is my first Hardy novel and I was surprised at how humorous and light the story was. It is my understanding that most of his major works are much more dark and not so happy. None the less, I found myself laughing and enjoying myself quite a bit, especially the parts with the choir, a group of men who were prone to get drunk before doing anything.
In the end I am just left wondering if Dick and Fancy could really have been happy together? She's so concerned about being modern and is a bit pretentious and he is such a simple working man. Then, of course, there is that secret Fancy is keeping from Dick...

Becky Reviews Middlemarch

Eliot, George. 1871/1872. Middlemarch. 791 pages.
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
Who is George Eliot? Mary Ann Evans, a woman writer in the nineteenth century who published many novels including Middlemarch, Silas Marner, Adam Bede, and A Mill on the Floss. Middlemarch is a long novel, quite a chunkster, and it does require commitment from the reader. It's a complex novel with many characters and many story lines. There isn't necessarily one story line that outshines all the others. I think how readers explain what it's all about has more to do with them than with the book in a way. If you're looking for a romance, you'll find the makings of it in Middlemarch, but it is so much more than a romance. If you're looking only for romance, you'll probably find it a bit boring. It addresses the complexities of the time in which it is set--the 1830s--we've got politics, economics, and society--especially society. To sum it up, Middlemarch is a novel about characters who have made really foolish choices and are having to learn to deal with them. Some adapt and change with grace and dignity. Others don't. Other's won't. Some let the weight of their mistakes drag them down. Of course, that doesn't quite describe all the book or all the characters.
Dorothea Brooke makes a big mistake in marrying a much older man, an incompetent scholar, Edward Casaubon, who transforms into a cruel, controlling, jealous man.
Fred Vincy makes a big mistake when he can't pay his debts. He convinces Caleb Garth, the father of the woman he loves, Mary Garth, to agree to pay his debts if and only he can't come up with the funds. Of course, his intentions are that the Garths won't be stuck paying off his debts. But well, you know what they say about good intentions...
Tertius Lydgate makes a big mistake when he marries Rosamond Vincy, a vain, shallow woman who's selfish to the core. I don't know if her selfishness can compete with let's say Scarlett O'Hara, but she's a horrible wife for this doctor!
Will Ladislaw makes a big mistake when he falls in love with Dorothea (she's married to his cousin)...and yet because he can't have the woman he loves...decides to fall into a flirtatious affair with Rosamond Vincy (another married woman).
And then there is poor old Nicholas Bulstrode. But that's a whole other story.
My good friend, Anonymous L, asks, "What did you think about the last lines of Middlemarch?"
I liked the bit about "the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." I think it is very true.
Sandra asks, "Did you enjoy it? Is Middlemarch worth my time or is it just another book about women and romance?"
Yes and no. Don't let the 'and no' scare off potential readers. I thought the text bogged down here and there. It's hard for all readers to find all story lines of equal interest. And there were some chapters that bogged down (for me) in politics. Some characters had back stories that were complex and detailed. And not every chapter furthered the plot, in my opinion. That being said, there were moments where it was pure fun to be reading this book. Some of the best characters, in my opinion, were the minor characters. I liked Mrs. Cadwallader, Celia Brooke, and all of the Garths. And I rather liked Mr. Farebrother.
This isn't strictly speaking a romance though people do fall in love. It's more about what comes after. What happens after the wooing is over. What happens when the people you profess you love, disappoint you. What happens when you're sick and tired of being married and tied down.
It's a novel about expectations (ideals) and reality. And how reality has a way of slapping you in the face.
It's a novel that focuses just as much on men as it does in women.
Rebecca asks, "Is it worth the time and energy? What kinds of readers would be most likely to enjoy it?"
I think it depends on your timing. I think this one can be absorbing and draw readers in. And I think it can be intimidating in parts as well. I'm glad I read it. I liked parts of it. But I didn't like every part of it. I think patient readers will enjoy it. I think folks who are more into character-focused novels will enjoy it. It's a slower-paced novel. I think folks who already have an interest in classics would be more likely to enjoy it.
Eva asks, "Do you enjoy that device [of authors making interjections and asides to the reader] in novels...or does it snap you out of the narrative?"
I like it in certain novels. I think it can add a lot to some books. I didn't notice it as much in Eliot as I have in other novels I've been reading lately. (Though many of the lines I underlined were like this.) But I am love, love, loving it in my Anthony Trollope novels!
Jodie asks, "Is Middlemarch the first book by Eliot that you have read? How were the female characters in the book portrayed?"
I've also read and reviewed Silas Marner. I hope to read more of Eliot in the upcoming years. As for how female characters were portrayed, I think there were diverse representations: all classes of women (lower, middle, upper). I hate to use the word 'types' but for lack of a better one...there were maternal types, pure-and-true-and-faithful types, understanding stand-by-my-man types, gossip-loving types, romantic and idealistic types, mean and spiteful types, shallow, vain, and selfish types. Some of the women characters were intelligent conversationalists, and others were more in the shadows of their husbands. Some women wanted to wear the pants in the family, others not so much. No doubt they'll be some characters you dislike. But you'll probably find some characters to like as well.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Review: The World Before Her

Author: Deborah Weisgall
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008
Genre: Fiction
Hardback 273 pages

From Google book search:

A stunning novel about two women and two marriages -- George Eliot at the end of her life, and another woman a century later.

The year is 1880 and the setting is Venice. Marian Evans -- whose novels under the pen name George Eliot have placed her among the famed Englishwomen of her time -- has come to this enchanted city on her honeymoon. Newly married to John Cross, twenty years her junior, she hopes to put her guilt to rest. Marian lived, unmarried, with George Henry Lewes for twenty-five years, until his death. She took a tremendous risk and paid a high price for that illicit union, but she also achieved happiness and created art. Now she wants to love again. In this new marriage, in this romantic place, can this writer give herself the happy ending that she provided for Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke?

The parallel story of a sculptor named Caroline Spingold brings us to Venice one hundred years later, in 1980. Caroline’s powerful, wealthy older husband has brought her to the city against her will, to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. Having spent a perfect childhood summer in Venice with her parents, before her father left her mother, Caroline had vowed never to return.

In alternating chapters linked by the themes of art, love, and marriage, The World Before Her tells of these two women -- and their surprising similarities. In a city where the canals reflect memory as much as light, they both confront desire, and each assesses what she has and who she is. At the heart of this sumptuously and evocatively written novel lies the eternal dilemma of how to find love and sustain it, without losing one’s self.

My Thoughts:
The book starts with Marion Evans and then each chapter alternates thereafter. I thought that would be confusing but the length of the chapters is perfect. Just enough information about the woman and her particular situation before pausing for the other woman's installment.
Although these women are separated by 100 years, they are experiencing the same situation. Their marriages have 20 year age differences, and both have learned things about their spouses that causes them to reflect on their lives and choices. A great deal of introspection and reflection on their joyous pasts, both of which include a previous gloriously happy trip to Venice. Not so this time around.

In Marion's story, we learn tidbits of her life with George Lewes, which include hanging out with Clara Schumann and Liszt. We also get a glimpse of her marriage to George, and the consequences of that union. With respect to Caroline, we witness her growing up in both her thought process and actions. She learns to see the world as it really is, and acts accordingly. Something Marion could never really do given the constraints of Victorian England.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing was lovely and the chapters were done perfectly. The descriptions of Venice and its beautiful treasures of art were excellent and transported me to both 1880 and 1980. I could smell the canals.

I must admit I did not know who Marion Evans was, and my feelings went out to her. Caroline too, but more so for Marion because she was trapped in her situation. Middlemarch was already on my tbr, but I will be moving that up. All in all an excellent book, which completely surprised me.

My Rating:
97/100 I really liked it.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Half Moon Street.

Half Moon Street by Anne Perry.

An Inspector Pitt Novel.

Set in Victorian England this novel chronicles the investigation of a murder. Inspector Thomas Pitt leads a polce hunt around central London after a body is found manacled to a punt. The body is male dressed in women's clothing.
The Inspector's wife, Charlotte is on holiday in Paris with relatives and his children are enjoying a break by the sea. With plenty of solitude at his disposal the Inspector delves into the murky underworld of the capital in order to solve the murder.
As he progresses there are revelations of his wife's family. Family secrets hidden for many years, causing much anguish, are eventually aired , bringing with them much shock and horror.

'Grandmama could hear her own heart beating. She was holding her breath, as if that could somehow stop him from answering. This was her worst nightmare come back no longer a dream...'

With this disclosure of family secrets the story highlights the differnce between the older Victorian generation and the young people of the age and consequently passions are inflamed in many circles.

'You may have the maid bring my dinner upstairs to me. You would be well advised to spend the rest of the afternoon considering your behaviour, and your loyaties to the husband you have elected to marry. Not that you ever took advice!'

As his enquiries lead him further into the back streets of London Pitt finds himself drawn into the world of theatres and artists and through much searching discovers a solution to the murder in a most unlikely place.

This novel had a good ending ; an unexpected ending. It was a good read. I read this book as my final choice in the
Victorian Challenge.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

«Let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.
These ominous words, slashed from the pages of a book of Psalms, are the last threat that the darling of London society, Sir Edward Grey, receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, Sir Edward collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests.
Prepared to accept that Edward's death was due to a longstanding physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggests that Sir Edward has been murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers the damning paper for herself, and realizes the truth.
Determined to bring her husband's murderer to justice, Julia engages the enigmatic Brisbane to help her investigate Edward's demise. Dismissing his warnings that the investigation will be difficult, if not impossible, Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.»

While throwing a dinner party for a few guests, Lady Julia Grey sees her husband collapse at her feet. Though still a young man, no one is particularly shocked to see him die a couple of hours later, due to a chronic family infirmity that had always plagued him. Trouble begins when she receives a surprise visit from Sir Nicholas Brisbane, who was apparently working for her deceased husband as an investigator, trying to discover who was sending him death threats. Lady Julia cannot believe that someone had anything against her husband, London's society sweetheart could not have been murdered, as Sir Nicholas suggests. But one day while finally cleaning out her husband's study she's horrified to find, hidden within his desk, one of the mentioned death threats. So Lady Julia concludes that maybe Sir Nicholas wasn't entirely wrong, maybe there was indeed someone who wanted to murder Sir Edward Grey. Who could it be? And why?

This book grabbed me right from the first sentence, "To say I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.". What a magnificent way to start a mystery book, I thought, but the problem was the rest of the story didn't live up to that very first sentence. Lady Julia comes from a liberal family, her mother died when she was a young girl and her father believes in giving women their independence. While her sister's are all interesting and distinct characters, especially Portia, one of the best secondary characters I've met in a while, a woman who has the courage to expose to the world that she is gay and lives with another woman. Lady Julia, our heroine comes out as plain, uninteresting, too innocent almost to the extreme of stupidity, while the author tries to tell us she's an independent and intelligent young woman, no one as intelligent as she was described would let herself be drugged on purpose or ask her butler's permission to search her own house.

If Lady Julia left me indifferent, Sir Nicholas was quite the opposite, I took an immediate dislike to his character, he seemed cold and arrogant, and while those characteristics can be attractive on certain heroes, this wasn't the case. To me, the author tried too hard to make him mysterious, to give him that dark aura that is sometimes seductive, at times I thought I was looking at a cheap copy of Sherlock Holmes, he even plays the violin for Pete's sake. Oh and that "secret" thing was a tiny bit overboard, not very realistic and completely out of place.

The mystery was mildly interesting, though it takes second place to Lady Julia's life, thoughts, doubts, problems, maybe if she did something instead of just roaming around playing dress up, we could have a better story. Even the resolution was anticlimactic, I was expecting a family secret, someone wanting the family's money and murdering everyone for it, I don't know, something that made it worthwhile reading 600 pages for, I'm sorry to say that was a poor excuse for a villain.

I've heard the second book is a lot better and I'll probably give it a try, but I sure hope it has a lot more scenes with Portia and the crow or I'll be very disappointed! :-P This was my first book read for the Victorian Challenge, still two more to review and three others to read. I'd better get to it!

Rating: 3/5

Review also published here.

Murder in Nob Hill by Shirley Tallman

The year is 1880, the place San Francisco. Intelligent, outspoken Sarah Woolson is a young woman with a goal and the fortitude to achieve it. She has always dreamed of becoming a lawyer. The trouble is, everyone believes women belong in the home – that it is not only unnatural, but against God’s will for them to seek a career.
When Sarah finagles an interview with one of the city’s most prestigious law firms, no one thinks she has a prayer of being hired. Except Sarah. Using her brains and a little subterfuge, she not only manages to become the firm’s newest (and only female) associate attorney, she also acquires her first client—a lovely young society matron suspected of brutally stabbing to death her wealthy but abusive husband. Sarah is sure of her client’s innocence, but the revelation of the woman’s secret lover may make that innocence impossible to prove.When four more victims fall prey to the killer’s knife,
Sarah fears she has bitten off more than she can chew. Bucking her boorish employer and the judicial system, Sarah finds herself embroiled in shady legal maneuvers, a daring Chinatown raid, and a secret and very scandalous sex club in this irresistible blend of history, romance, and murder.

Sarah Woolson is the younger daughter of a prominent family of San Francisco. Her father is a respected judge and she always wanted to follow his footsteps and practice law. While having all the requirements, a woman attorney was not a common thing in 1880. But Sarah is not easily put down and with the help of her brother, she manages to get an interview with Shepherd, McNaughton and Hall (a renowned law firm). There she meets Annjennet Hannaford, a young widow and a client of the firm but who gets a patronizing answer to her economical concerns caused by her husband’s murder. Sarah’s attention is immediately caught and she offers her services to Annjennet, to great despair and annoyance of Shepherd.

Sarah is one of those heroines I can’t help admiring. She’s intelligent and brave, nothing stops her until the murder is solved. Even if pampered and protected by her father, she knows how privileged she is and that awareness grows during her dangerous investigations.

My favorite moments are the bickering scenes between our heroine and Robert Campbell. It’s hilarious when she calmly and logically explains something to her stubborn and quick temper colleague.

I also enjoyed the glimpses of the town’s Chinese community, something I don’t often read about. The mysterious Li Ying is a wonderful character and I truly hope to see more of him in Tallman’s future books.

Not only the portrait of 19th century San Francisco caught my attention right away but the fast pace mystery keeps you guessing until the end.

Grade: 4/5

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Victorian Home: The Grandeur and Comforts of the Victorian Era in Households Past & Present by Ellen M. Plante

The Victorian Home is a fantastic guide to the history of the uses and decorations of each room in a home during the Victorian period from 1837 to 1901. This book gives a brief overall history of interior design and furniture styles during the “early” and “late” Victorian periods and then breaks into chapters about each room. Chapters included:

1. The Proper Parlor
2. The Dining Room
3. The Library and Sitting Room
4. The Victorian Kitchen
5. The Victorian Bathroom
6. The Victorian Bedroom
7. The Victorian Porch

The end of the book also includes a glossary of terms and lists where to buy authentic and reproductions of Victorian furniture and decorations.

Each chapter gave an intriguing history of that room in a Victorian house and further detail on walls, floors, window treatments, furniture, lighting, etc. during different periods in the Victorian era. It also gave detail on how to bring this Victorian interior design to your modern home.

The book included wonderful pictures throughout to illustrate design examples. On a negative, the pictures were all from very large houses that were probably mansions. There were not very many pictures of smaller rooms or more middle class Victorian homes.

Overall this book gave a great overall impression of what it would be like to live in a Victorian home during the Victorian time period. Now when the library or dining rooms are mentioned in a Victorian novel, I will know how to envision them.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

Book: Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim
Finished: March, 2009
Pages: 250
** 18th & 19th Century Women Authors Challenge
** New Author Challenge
** Read and Review Challenge
** Read Your Name Challenge
** Themed Reading Challenge
** 20 in 2009
** Victorian Challenge
** Winter Reading Challenge

First Sentence: "May 7th--I love my garden."

Last Sentence: " I do sincerely trust that the benediction that is always awaiting me in my garden may by degrees be more deserved, and that I may grow in grace, and patience and cheerfulness, just like the happy flowers I so much love."

Synopsis (from Barnes and Noble)

Elizabeth and Her German Garden was the first book published by author Elizabeth Von Arnim. Originally published in 1898, the semi-autobiographical novel written about a rural idyll became a highly successful book which was subsequently reprinted twenty-one times within its first year. This witty and sacrcastic novel has kept the attention of readers for over a century, and once you read this title for the first time, you will be unable to stop rereading it for many years to come.

This was delightful. The author offers up doses of wit and sarcasm as she exposes her observations of human nature as well as sharing her love of her beautiful garden with the reader.


(written on September 15th): "There is a feeling about this month that reminds me of March and the early days of April, when spring is still hesitating on the threshold and the garden holds its breath in expectation."

(frustration at as a woman being prohibited from actually doing the physical labor of gardening and being forced to hire a gardener) : " It is not graceful, and it makes one hot; but it is a blessed sort of work, and if Eve had had a spade in Paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business of the apple."

The Awakening

Book: The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Finished: February 2009
Pages: 180
** A-Z Challenge
** 18th & 19th Women Authors
** Read and Review
** 20 in 2009
** New Author
** Winter Reading
** Victorian Challenge
** Themed Reading Challenge

First Sentence: " A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That's all right!"

Last Sentence: " There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air."

This is a classic, first published in 1899. It is considered a precursor to the modern feminist movement. Edna, our married protagonist, feels herself falling in love with a young man not her husband while she and her family summer vacation at a small seaside resort. She senses he has awakened in her new feelings and thoughts she has never discovered about herself before. When she returns home she proceeds to re-discover herself by systematically walking away from the trapping of her adult life: her social position, motherhood and her role as a wife, by moving herself to a small little cottage. After being away for several months, her young lover makes an appearance back into her life, only he is not able to come to terms with her new found freedom and seems to be caught in all the traditions found in "polite" society. Unable to commit to Edna, she becomes hopeless.

Definitely not a cheery little book. But a book which takes us back to the days when women were still considered property and tools to help bring more success to the husband. There were no choices for a woman to make in society and if one did not fit into the "box" society created for women, they would naturally be left to lead a life of frustration and hopelessness.

A quote from page 259:

"It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier's (the husband) mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world."

From Wikipedia:
Immediately after its publication, reviewers frequently denounced the "unwholesome" content of this book, while simultaneously acknowledging that the writing style was outstanding. It was also condemned due to its sexual openness. The harsh reaction to the book probably was the determining factor in the publisher's decision to stop publication after only a single printing.

After its "rediscovery" in 1969, the book has been often praised for its treatment of women's issues, and for its lyrical style.


Book: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Pages: 212
Finished: May,2009
** 18 & 19th Century Women Writers
** Victorian Challenge
** Casual Classics
** Spring Reading Thing
** tbr
** Read and Review
** New Author
** Themed Reading

First sentence: "In the first place, Cranford is in the possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women."

Summary from Amazon:
Novel by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, published serially in Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words from 1851 to 1853 and in book form in 1853. Basing her tales on the village in which she was reared, Gaskell produced a gently comic picture of life and manners in an English country village during the 1830s. The novel's narrator (a young woman who periodically visits Cranford) describes the small adventures in the lives of two middle-aged sisters in reduced circumstances who do their best to maintain their standards of propriety, decency, and kindness. Using an intimate, gossipy voice that never turns sentimental, Gaskell conveys the old-fashioned habits, subtle class distinctions, and genteel poverty of the townspeople. Cranford quickly became one of the author's best-loved works.

"Cranford is a charming imaginary town filled with chatty females, most of them old spinsters, gossip and nostalgia, loves unfulfilled and remembered, and loves that find a place and a home at last."

My Thoughts:
I am not normally a great lover of classics---actually, when I manage to read them I find that I enjoy them. It is just that the act of reading them can be a chore at times. I am a lazy reader in that I don't like to have to look something up which I don't understand--in the middle of reading! That said, I tend to shy away from tackling this genre more often.
Cranford! Ah Cranford! What a genteel and slow paced life is led in Cranford. I found the story delightful and the characters, (largely comprised of spinsters and widows) to be delightful in their own quirky ways also. Miss Matty is the most sweet of them all, and it is no wonder that everyone in Cranford loves her so and rallies to support her in her hour of need. Although men are noticeably quite absent throughout most of the book, the topic of the vulgarity of men occurs amongst the ladies of Cranford. Men and marriage do find their way into the novel-and what kind gentlemen they are!

This is not a plot driven novel, but rather a character driven novel as we are transported back to a simpler time--proper behavior is expected and observed down to the very details of when it is proper to call on one another and what style of clothing to wear during that calling time. Gossip abounds, as well as sweet time spent reminiscing as we come to understand these old ladies through the remembrances of their youth.

Passage that made me laugh:

"My next visit to Cranford was in the summer. There had been neither births, deaths, nor marriages since I was there last. Everybody lived in the same house, and wore pretty nearly the same well-preserved, old-fashioned clothes. The greatest event was that the Miss Jenkynses had purchased a new carpet for the drawing-room. Oh the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless window! We spread newspapers over the places, and sat down to our book or our work; and , lo! in a quarter of an hour the sun had moved, and was blazing away on a fresh spot; and down again we went on our knees to alter the position of the newspapers. We were very busy , too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper, so as to form little paths to every chair, set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet. Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London."

Twelve years after publishing Cranford, Gaskell has kind words for her most prolific work. "It is the only one of my books that I can read again; but whenever I am ailing or ill, I take Cranford and - I was going to say, enjoy it! (but that would not be pretty!) laugh over it afresh!"

Here is a great little biography of Elizabeth Gaskell.

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