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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Journal of Dora Damage - Belinda Starling

There are a few plausible ways authors can give women in historical fiction the amount of freedom they need to take part in an interesting plot. Their characters can be born rich or come into money somehow; they can be part of a family where the parents or husband has reasonably progressive ideas for the time they live in; they can live outside of society (for example prostitutes) or they can be required to flout decorum because of poverty. Belinda Starling chose to use this final device in her debut (and sadly last) novel ‘Dora Damage’. It’s intriguing to see how poverty could actually free women in Victorian times as well as trap them, as it required them to work in order to feed their family.

The novel’s heroine Dora has ignored the signs that her husband’s bookbinding business is failing in order to preserve harmony and because she feels that business affairs are her husband’s concern. Of course the collapse of his business has a huge impact on Dora as it is Dora’s job to feed her family, keep the house respectable and keep the creditors sweet without any money. As her husband can no longer work due to crippling arthritis Dora decides that she and Jack, the apprentice, must try to run the business themselves. This, and the decline of her husband as he becomes addicted to the o which soothes his pain, allows Dora a certain amount of extra freedom, which results in a plot that would have shocked the Victorians. Through her work Dora becomes involved with almost everything the Victorians would have publically deplored: working women, pornography, and much more.

‘Dora Damage’ contains a clever mixture of the fear of poverty and the gothic horror found in so many Victorian novels. The fear and the vice soaks the novel in a rich coating of dark imagery which is deliciously satisfying to read. However there was a point in the novel where it begins to feel as if Starling has overburdened her story with transgressions. She crams in everything that would have angered the public face of the Victorian realm, when removing a few of the more inconsequential ones might have allowed readers to focus on those that really matter to the main plot. However all will be forgiven when readers reach her gruesome, final taboo breaking moment, which has the power to stun readers who may think they have been desensitized by their exposure to so much vice throughout the novel.

So that finishes off my official participation in the Victorian challenge (hurrah a challenge finished). I still wish I’d managed to read a novel written in Victorian times, and it’s still my ambition to read ‘Great Expectations’ by the end of the year. I feel that ‘Wives and Daughters’ was not the Gaskell for me right now, perhaps I would have been better starting with ‘North and South’ or ‘Cranford’, but that would mean buying new books (which would be bad, right?). I look forward to seeing those who took on more ambitious goals for this challenge posting reviews up at the blog.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

'The Widow of Windsor' by Jean Plaidy.

This novel continues the life of Queen Victoria , following the death of Prince Albert. December 14th 1861 was the date of Albert's death and Victoria mourned him dearly from then onwards. Her many children were some comfort but her eldest son, Bertie continued to be a trial. His gambling and womanising were a constant worry for the queen. Hoping to end his socialising Victoria encouraged him to marry. A Danish princess, Alexandra , was chosen and the couple seemed very much in love. However it was not long till Bertie's lifestyle intruded into his marriage, but Alexandra(Alix) proved a loving and faithful wife and she bore him six children.
The Queen's other adult children were all settling into married life in various countries;Victoria the eldest marrying the Frederick of Prussia, Alice marrying Louis 1V of Hesse, Alfred married Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, Helena - Christian of Schleswig and Arthur Married Louise of Prussia.
So most of the queen's family were spread far and wide, Leopold, Louise and Beatrice(Baby) were closer.
As the family was spread across Europe they were effected by the conflicts arising at this time.

'The news grew worse. The Prussians were invading Schleswig-Holstein. Vicky's(eldest child)husband had left Berlin to join the forces which were fighting against Alix's father.'

The Queen was concerned about the situation, but refused to return to London from Balmoral. Here in Scotland her favourite servant John Brown had risen in popularity in the Queen's eyes and she felt she could not survive without him. This friendship did not impress her children particularly Bertie. After much persuasion she returned to London.
The book continues with the appearance of well known politicians, namely Palmerston, Gladstone and Disraeli. The Queen did appear to take a more active role although she never completely recovered from the Prince's death.
Bertie's life continued on the same course, with horses, women and scandal .

'Bertie stared down at the paper in his hand. He could not believe it. This simply could not happen to him!How dared they order him to appear in court!How dared they presume...how dared they suggest...!'

This seemed to be a foretaste of the Edwardian years.
Victoria's health was failing, she had reigned for 64 years , a colourful time not only had she seen great changes in Europe she had lost some of her favourite children, and encountered numerous would-be assassins. But in her last few days she pondered all the more about her 'Beloved Being', her Prince Albert. On 22nd January 1901 Queen Victoria died.

'We have lost our beloved Mother', was the cry. 'The Queen is dead. Nothing will ever be the same again.'

Another excellent book from Jean Plaidy. A good history lesson, I learnt much and found it fascinating how her family influenced so many European Royal houses.

'The Queen's Husband'.
'The Queen's Husband' by Jean Plaidy.This novel follows the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Albert, known as Alberinchen was the younger brother in the Saxe-Coburg Gotha family from Germany.His brother, Ernest was a year older. Albert was his mother's favourite and he doted on her. Unfortunately this 'happy' family were soon to disintegrate as their mother's extramarital affairs became known and she was forced to leave the family home. This effected the brothers greatly, particularly Albert who found his father's strict regime difficult to handle. As the two boys grew their grandparents helped in their choice of marriage partners , and so Victoria was presented to Albert as a possible suitor.They appeared to fall in love instantly. They were married in the Chapel Royal by the Archbishop of Canterbury and spent their honeymoon at Windsor.Albert, although happy was not as lively as Victoria . She enjoyed banquets and balls, Albert preferred a more sedate life.

'He feared his dear little Victoria was very frivolous. But this was not the time to attempt to improve her.'

As Victoria ruled the country as best she could, relying on Lords Melbourne and Palmerston , Albert was left with very few duties. Due to the world politics his nationality was not popular and many citizens were uneasy of his status. He decided to help with the running of the household as there were many flaws to correct. In particular when a boy managed to gain access to the palace through a broken window and remain there for several days, Albert knew he had to improve security.So his role as Prince Consort developed and he spearheaded many projects, in particular the Great Exhibition and the renovation of Balmoral Castle.During their marriage Victoria gave birth to nine babies,five girls and four boys. The oldest was Vicky, or Pussy as was her nickname. She was very bright and her father's favourite. A little precocious but highly intelligent. She outshone her brother Bertie, the Prince of Wales,(the future Edward V11) in everyway.Bertie had a difficult childhood, he was rather ungainly and took no interest in schoolwork , this infuriated Victoria and Albert . Consequently a series of tutors and governers were found for him but he showed little improvement.As Bertie grew into adulthood his misdemeanors grew more public,involving parties , drinking and liasons with many women. Counselling by his parents led to no improvement in his behaviour, and left a devastating legacy.

'God save sweet Vic, mine QueenLong live mine little Queen,God save the Queen.Albert is victoriousDe Coburgs now are gloriousAll so notoriousGod save the Queen.'

I enjoyed this novel, the first book I have read about Queen Victoria. In my opinion she was a feisty lady, she was regal and knew her word was law. Albert was her great love and she doted on her family , however Bertie remained a 'thorn in her side' . I wonder if his character was such due to the strict regime his father bestowed on him.
posted by mog/zetor

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Wallflower Christmas - Lisa Kleypas

It's Christmastime in London and Rafe Bowman has arrived from America for his arranged meeting with Natalie Blandford, the very proper and beautiful daughter of Lady and Lord Blandford. His chiseled good looks and imposing physique are sure to impress the lady in waiting and, if it weren't for his shocking American ways and wild reputation, her hand would already be guaranteed. Before the courtship can begin, Rafe realizes he must learn the rules of London society. But when four former Wallflowers try their hand at matchmaking, no one knows what will happen. And winning a bride turns out to be more complicated than Rafe Bowman anticipated, especially for a man accustomed to getting anything he wants. However, Christmas works in the most unexpected ways, changing a cynic to a romantic and inspiring passion in the most timid of hearts.

A Wallflower Christmas is much lighter in tone than Kleypas previous books in the Wallflower series. Besides the main couple there is so many characters popping up that their story lack a bit of depth and development.

It is, however, the perfect sweet Christnmas story. The appearance of all the other Wallflowers and their husbands can't help but being an added bonus for all who enjoyed that series and the fact that have decided to play matchmakers for Lilian and Daisy's brother Rafe just adds to the fun.

Rafe as always been at odds with is father. Now he has a chance to play the good son and be welcomed in the family fold again but for that he has to marry the girl his father chosen. A british young lady. Rafe has no problem's with that since he figures he eventually has to marry and there's no one else holding his attention. The problem is that he can't help but being intrigued by his fiancee's cousin and companion - Hannah - and he finds himself enjoying her company and actively pursuing her.

Most of the story is set in Lilian and Westcliff's country home during the Christmas season and I can see no better setting for a story like this one than a house party. A very enjoyable read where nothing really stands out but it has all the makings of a comfort read with so many cherished characters to revisit!

Grade: 4/5

Saturday, March 14, 2009

This might be of interest...

I wanted to let everyone know about some mini-challenges I'm hosting over at Mini-Challenges Hosted by Becky (unoriginal blog name, I know!)

The Elizabeth Gaskell Mini Challenge (January 2009 - June 1, 2010)
Read and/or watch TWO works by Elizabeth Gaskell

George Eliot Mini-Challenge (January 2009 - June 1, 2010)
The goal of this one is to read TWO of her books.

Anthony Trollope Mini-Challenge (January 2009 - August 31, 2010)
Read and/or watch TWO works by Anthony Trollope

The Morgesons

Stoddard, Elizabeth. 1862. The Morgesons. 264 pages.

"That child," said my aunt Mercy, looking at me with indigo-colored eyes, "is possessed."

Have you heard of Elizabeth Stoddard? I hadn't either. Not until I stumbled across this book while looking for Steinbeck. In the introduction, it explains a bit why this author fell into obscurity although during her lifetime she was compared with such greats as Balzac, Tolstoy, Eliot, the Brontes, and Hawthorne. (If your library doesn't have a copy, you can read it online here.)

Is it an exciting read? a thrilling one? Not really. Not by today's standards. It's about one girl, Cassandra "Cassy" growing up, coming to age. We follow her roughly from the age of ten to twenty. We see her in various environments and situations--home, visiting relatives for extended periods of time, school, courting, etc. She's not an easy narrator to love. She's more abrasive than that. There seems to be friction, tension, strife in almost all of her relationships. Perhaps because her whole family is 'difficult' to get along with. Perhaps because she's stubborn and makes no apologies. She's not meek or mild.

As a reader, I was never sure of Cassy. If she was the one disconnecting from her family...or if maybe her family were the ones disconnecting from her. There never seemed to be a bond between family members. Not with her mother. Not with her sister. And only slightly with her father. And this slight bond is only because he allows his daughter to go off on all these adventures away from home to visit family and friends, etc. He also keeps her well dressed. So I never was sure if she genuinely loved her father. Or if she just seemed to like him best because he was the one who was able to grant her desires. There seems to be a harsh distance, an emotional barrier that prevents Cassy from genuinely loving and being loved. As I said, I'm not sure who is to blame for this.

Cassy seems to attract some strange men to her. Especially true in the case of her cousin, Charles. Though married, though a father, he seems to find Cassandra irresistible. And though it is never out and out revealed, this attraction is mutual. Cassy, still a teen, maybe fifteen or sixteen?, finds herself in love with her cousin, inappropriate as it may be. See, she's come to live with her cousin and his wife, Alice. She's with this seemingly 'happy' family for a little over a year. And his wife, Alice, is aware that there is something going on between the two. But she's so busy being a good and perfect wife and mother that she pretends she doesn't know or doesn't care. What strikes me is one scene where Charles returns home from a business trip, I believe, and gives Cassandra a diamond ring to wear on her third finger. I don't remember if "good" little Alice gets a present as well, and if so, what it might have been. But there's a distinctly creepy vibe from this family.

Other men in Cassy's life are a pair of brothers, Ben and Desmond Somers. Both alcoholics. (They come from one crazy family!) One marries Cassandra. One marries Cassandra's sister, Veronica. Only one sister will get her happily ever after ending. But which one? Can a 'bad' boy ever turn good and mean it?

Though Cassandra seems a bit of an unnatural heroine, I am glad to have read this one. (After all, Scarlett O'Hara is plenty unnatural!)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Silas Marner

Eliot, George. 1861. Silas Marner. Bantam Classics. (My edition was mid 1980s) 186 pages.

In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses--and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak--there might be seen, in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.

Shocker of all shockers: I liked this one. Quite a lot, in fact. Why is that shocking? When I read this little volume--and no, it's not the same copy--in tenth grade I absolutely hated it. Hate is really too kind a word for what I felt. Needless to say, it held the title of most-hated-book until my college days when Jude the Obscure took its place. (It still holds the honor, in case you're curious.) Which just goes to show you that almost without a doubt classics--at least some classics--fail to be appreciated by high schoolers. Maybe that's inaccurate. I'll rephrase, anytime a person--especially a teen person--is required to read a book, no matter how good or great that book is (sometimes they're really bad, I'm not saying all are good) then it's an uphill battle to have him/her have a positive response to it. It just goes against human nature to like something we're forced against our will to read. And its understandable to me. What could a fifteen year old have in common with Silas Marner, a middle-aged weaver obsessed with gold? He's old (relatively speaking at least!). He's strange. No one likes him in his village of Raveloe. He's an outsider, it's true, a loner. And arguably some teens could see themselves in that way. But is that enough?

Silas Marner, in case you've never been subjected to it, is the story of a man, a weaver, who takes refuge in Raveloe after escaping his unfortunate past. He is living only for himself. The money he makes from his trade, he hoards. He loves his gold. Treasures it. He's not the only one keeping secrets in the village. There's a man, Godfrey Cass, who has quite a secret. Something in his past that he's willing to do just about anything, pay just about anything to prevent from coming to light. His brother, Dunstan Cass, is blackmailing him. He'll tell all to their father--Squire Cass--if Godfrey doesn't do things his way. Why does Godfrey care? really really care? He wants to marry Nancy Lammeter. The secret? He already has a wife, a wife his father would never approve of, a wife he's ashamed of, a woman he'd never claim in a hundred million years. Dunstan (and Godfrey) are in need of money, Silas Marner has plenty. Put the two together and you've got a robbery destined to happen. But things don't always go according to plan, Dunstan disappears the same night as Silas' gold. But that's just the beginning. Silas doesn't know it then, but things are about to start looking up! His life is about to change for the better! Why? His "gold" will be returned to him--providentially according to Silas and his friends--in the form of a golden-haired baby girl whom he names Hepzibah (Eppie) whom he adopts and raises to the satisfaction of all but one....Godfrey Cass.

This one had themes that I couldn't even begin to grasp as a sophomore. And the language? the style? I didn't appreciate the little things. The phrases. But here's the thing. I can now. Everything that I missed then, I can appreciate now. Here is one of my favorite passages:

I suppose one reason why we are seldom able to comfort our neighbors with our words is, that our goodwill gets adulterated, in spite of ourselves, before it can pass our lips. We can send black puddings and pettitoes without giving them a flavour of our own egoism; but language is a stream that is almost sure to smack of a mingled soil. There was a fair proportion of kindness in Raveloe; but it was often of a beery and bungling sort, and took the shape least allied to the complimentary and hypocritical. (77)

I liked the characters--some more eccentric than others--too. I came to appreciate the flavor of this one.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Mary Barton" - "Books such as this cannot fail to be of value"

The above epigram from Victor Hugo's classic novel, "Les Miserables," could also apply to Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel. Set in the city of Manchester during the industrial revolution, "Mary Barton," is as MacDonald Daly points out in the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition, really two novels. The first tells the story of the radicalization of John Barton as he watches his fellow mill workers and their families suffer as factory owners watch with indifference, if they watch at all. The second part is more of a melodrama as the reaction to a terrible crime threatens to engulf "Jem Wilson," Mary Barton's lover, as well as Mary herself. Gaskell apparently wanted to call her novel, "John Barton," but her publisher forced her to change the name.

There was certainly plenty of drama in the second part which easily held my attention, but in my view it is the description of the plight of the workers and their families that makes "Mary Barton" an enduring work. Gaskell shows clearly, if not graphically, how poverty and death were omnipresent for these families. Ironically Daly seems to feel that Gaskell does not go near far enough in proposing solutions to these problems. Ironically because the book was apparently not well received by the Manchester mill owners and leading families who made up the congregation where Gaskell's husband was an assistant minister. That kind of contemporary reaction illustrates the importance of books like this in their own time. The Victorian reading public would have consisted primarily of those in a position to do something about similar situations in real life. The book could also have sent a message to the workers themselves, but my guess is that they were both less literate and less able to afford books.

The book's relevance to its own time does not, however, guarantee relevance for future generations. That relevance can, I think, be seen in how "Mary Barton" helps keep things in balance for those of us who love Victorian fiction. Many, if not most, of the leading novelists of the time concentrated on the upper and middle classes with the working classes somewhat invisible. Reading "Mary Barton," like much of Dickens, gives us a better sense of the larger picture. As a direct descendant of the Winder (Worcester) and Proctor (Audley) families, this balance is especially important to me on a personal level. Reading this book reminds me that the working class characters are my ancestors in a literary or symbolic sense. Certainly the late 19th century members of those families did not cross the ocean by boat because things were going so well in England. The struggles of the workers in "Mary Barton" gives me a better sense of what my ancestors lives were really like.

I am very glad that I have read this book and look forward to reading the rest of Elizabeth Gaskell's work. After that is, I finish the Victorian Challenge by reading Anthony Trollope's "The Way We Live Now."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Book Review: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Victorian Challenge #2

When Bathsheba Everdene inherits her uncle’s farm, she decides to fire the untrustworthy bailiff and run the place herself. The other farmers in the district soon become accustomed to seeing her buying and selling alongside them, but a woman with a face and presence like Bathsheba’s can’t avoid trouble for long. A thoughtless prank, born of recklessness and vanity, earns her the notice of her neighbour Farmer Boldwood, whose interest swiftly turns into obsession. Guilt and a sense of duty compel her to accept his courtship, and leave her torn when she meets and falls for the dashing Sergeant Troy, who has reasons for pursuing her that have nothing to do with love. When circumstances bring about a renewal of Boldwood’s addresses the scene is set for a tragedy.

Through her vagaries of fortune Bathsheba has one true friend on whom to rely. Gabriel Oak was once, in a small way, a farmer himself, before ill luck reduced him to the position of shepherd on Bathsheba’s property. Dazzled by her at first sight, he hasn’t let her refusal of his clumsy proposal deflect him from his course of quiet devotion. Patience is a virtue, and his might just be rewarded not only with one of the local farms, but with Bathsheba herself.

It’s been six years since I first read this, and in that time I somehow managed to forget almost everything about it. How could I? I love this book. Don’t let the fact that it’s Hardy put you off. There is an element of tragedy, but it by no means dominates the book, which is for the most part a rural idyll and a thoroughly charming one at that. Weatherbury is a place where the pace and habits of urban life have not intruded, and the plot unfolds in a suitably leisurely manner. (In fact, Henry James criticised it for being slow and overpadded with words, which is a bit rich coming from him - he was far more long-winded than Hardy ever was.) It covers a span of some half a dozen years, but it feels like less; the fictional time slides by just as its real counterpart is prone to do. The impression is reinforced by the fact that the chronology is off - Bathsheba doesn’t age as she should.

Bathsheba Everdene has one of the best entrances in literature - perched atop her worldly goods on the back of a wagon, using the driver’s temporary absence as an opportunity to admire her reflection in a looking-glass. This unconventional spirit carries her through her establishment of herself as an independent woman conducting her own business; but it also brings her suitors who aren’t good for her, and only after time and tribulation quieten her does she land the one who is, which is perhaps a further tragedy. Bathsheba at the end of the book might be older and wiser, but she is also more subdued and less independent. (And in further answer to a recent Weekly Geeks - while her experience doesn’t completely match that of her biblical counterpart, the name is very apt.) She’s a memorable character and surely like nothing the denizens of Weatherbury had ever seen before - it’s no wonder she had her admirers so spellbound.

You can’t really blame her for the events regarding Boldwood. She acted without thinking, but the results were beyond what anyone could have foreseen. The life of ease and worship he offered her would never have suited her active temperament, but I still felt so very sorry for him; and though his obsession with Bathsheba paved the way for her own contentment I wished he could get over her and find someone else with whom he could be happy. Nor can you condemn her as an idiot for being swept off her feet by Troy, a dashing cad á là Wickham whose charm is embellished by a red coat and a handsome face. Unlike Wickham, however, Troy does have a heart - it just happens to be disposed elsewhere. And really, without these disasters would Gabriel ever have stood a chance?

He’s the least prepossessing of her suitors, with neither face nor fortune but only his character to recommend him. And it’s that character that makes this such a lovely book to read. He loves her in spite of her faults, looks after her as best he can, makes her see sense when possible, and lets her make her own mistakes when he must. Romantic devotion and pragmatic logic seems an odd combination of traits, but they suit Gabriel perfectly.

All the other villagers who feature are appealing - in fact Troy is the only person it’s hard to like. From the ancient and toothless maltster, to the self-effacing young man with a shrewish wife who’s forever known merely as ‘Susan Tall’s husband,’ to the boy named Cain because his mother got her Bible characters muddled up, they’ll leave you with a smile and the same warm feeling that induced me to sign up for the Classics Challenge after finishing.

Rating: A

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Those Who Hunt The Night by Barbara Hambly

Those Who Hunt The Night
Barbara Hambly
Rating 5 stars
340 pages

Synopsis: Someone - or something - is killing the vampires of London while they sleep during the day. Don Simon Ysidro, the oldest of the London vampires, hires Dr. James Asher, a retired member of the British Secret Service, to find this killer. Asher, who accepts this job for the price of his wife (Lydia)'s life, delves into the shadowy world of the vampires to find a killer that increasingly seems to be one of their number.

My Review: I loved this book. I only wish, A-I would have read this much earlier instead of letting it languish on my TBR shelf, and B-I would not have chosen to read it with my back in an uproar with a pinched nerve as I feel I would have enjoyed it even more:)

This Vampire fantasy slash historical mystery set in late Victorian (or early Edwardian-1906) England is a brilliant thinking man's Vampire novel. The three leads of the story-James Asher, his wife Lydia, and the Vampire Ysidro-are all mental giants, each brilliant in their own specialty. Asher, a former British agent, is sought out by centuries old Ysidro, a Spanish Vampire whose undead roots go back to Queen Elizabeth's time. Ysidro needs Asher's help in discovering who is killing off the vampires of London. To do so, he lets Asher know that not only his life, but Asher's brilliant wife Lydia's life hang in the balance if Asher cannot find the killer. Lydia, an unconventional Victorian Society woman is a great female lead. A woman who chose a career in medicine and Science over an advantageous Society marriage. Will her choice save or destroy her life?

Hambly's writing style is fast paced yet intelligent. Her knowledge of the period shines through and any aficionado of Victorian Fiction should try this book, even if they are not fantasy or Vampire fans.
I'm looking forward to reading the second book in the series, Traveling With The Dead, and Ms. Hambly's website states she's in talks for a third, long awaited book in the series.
Highly recommended-5 stars.

Silent in The Sanctuary - Deanna Raybourn

Fresh from a six-month sojourn in Italy, Lady Julia returns home to Sussex to find her father's estate crowded with family and friends-- but dark deeds are afoot at the deconsecrated abbey, and a murderer roams the ancient cloisters.
Much to her surprise, the one man she had hoped to forget--the enigmatic and compelling Nicholas Brisbane--is among her father's houseguests… and he is not alone. Not to be outdone, Julia shows him that two can play at flirtation and promptly introduces him to her devoted, younger, titled Italian count. But the homecoming celebrations quickly take a ghastly turn when one of the guests is
found brutally murdered in the chapel, and a member of Lady Julia's own family
confesses to the crime. Certain of her cousin's innocence, Lady Julia resumes
her unlikely and deliciously intriguing partnership with Nicholas Brisbane,
setting out to unravel a tangle of deceit before the killer can strike again.
When a sudden snowstorm blankets the abbey like a shroud, it falls to Lady Julia
and Nicholas Brisbane to answer the shriek of murder most foul.

Since I already had this one in the TBR pile when I finished Silent in The Grave I decided to pick it up immediately after. I’m happy to report that I found this one much better.

Lady Julia Grey returns from Italy where spent some time with two of her brothers. Now one of the brothers has married without informing their father and having known that the father orders them all home. Besides a new sister in law Julia also takes home an Italian count that has been paying court to her. They arrive a few weeks before Christmas to find that Julia’s father has quite a few guests at home including Nicholas Brisbane, of whom Julia has heard nothing for the past months but that she has been unable to forget.Unfortunately Julia and Brisbane’s reunion isn’t a happy one, none of them is expecting to meet the other and Julia suddenly finds herself facing Brisbane’s fiancée, which is quite a surprise. Julia’s father seems to be behind this odd plan to reunite them but one is left thinking how devious is his mind to plot this when Brisbane is betrothed.

I was unable to determine whether Julia is consciously avoiding the truth or if she is just hopeful but it seems she immediately decides that the betrothal must be a scheme and decides to investigate what really is going on. Also in the house are Julia’s penniless cousins, Lucy and Emma, Lucy’s fiancée with his secretary and the Vicar and his Curate among others.

When one of the guests is found murdered and a family member is found to be the obvious suspect Julia and Brisbane decide to conduct a private investigation to discover what was behind the crime and who actually committed it. At the same time someone else disappears and Julia is still determined to find out about Brisbane’s betrothal at the same time that one of her brother’s shows a less than innocent interest in the fiancée.

It seemed to me that there were even more plot twists in this sequel than in the first book but this time they worked perfectly and I was kept interested and curious about what was going on. To tell the truth I couldn’t stop reading it to find out who had done what and when. There are a lot of characters mentioned but they all seemed to add something and contribute to the final climax. Unlike my reaction when I finished Silent in the Grave I now can’t wait to get my hands on Silent on The Moor.

Grade: 4.5/5

The Victorians (BBC One)

Is anyone watching The Victorians (BBC One) presented by Jeremy Paxman? The first episode aired February 15th and I really enjoyed it. I know this blog is about a book challenge but I thought it might be interesting to share this information, even if I'm sure most of you already know everything about this series.;-)

For more information you can read this article from BBC News.

Poisoned Season by Tasha Alexander

London’s social season is in full swing, and the Victorian aristocracy can’t stop whispering about a certain gentleman who claims to be the direct descendant of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But he’s not the only topic of wagging tongues. Drawing rooms, boudoirs, and ballrooms are abuzz with the latest news of an audacious cat burglar who has been making off with precious items that once belonged to the ill-fated queen.

Light gossip turns serious when the owner of one of the pilfered treasures is found murdered, and the mysterious thief develops a twisted obsession with Emily. But the strong-minded and fiercely independent Emily will not be shaken. It will take all of her considerable wit and perseverance to unmask her stalker and ferret out the murderer, even as a brewing scandal threatens both her reputation and her romance with her late husband’s best friend, the dashing Colin Hargreaves.

Those who enjoyed Tasha Alexander previous installment – And Only to Deceive - will certainly like this one as well. I must say that Lady Emily Ashton’s series is getting better and better. I can hardly wait to get my hands in Fatal Waltz.

Emily is an intelligent woman. She loves Greek culture, is interested in antiquities and she spends most of her time learning the most she can about both subjects. If And Only To Deceive is mostly focused in her failed relationship with her deceased husband and the mystery surrounding his death, in The Poisoned Season, she moves on, becomes more independent, more sure of herself. Lady Ashton has a brain and has no problems showing it, even if some society members (including her mother) are scandalized by her reading in a public place.

This time the mystery concerns a descendent of Marie Antoinette, Charles Berry, or so he claims. After his arrival to London, some of his ancestors personal objects are stolen from their owners. Meanwhile David Francis, a ton member, is poisoned and someone steals from his house something belonging to the tragic French queen. The mysterious thief is also sending some strange notes in Greek to Emily…

While I enjoyed the mystery part immensely, sometimes I had to suspend my disbelief about the thief’s antics. It really seemed a bit too much but nothing that makes you less curious about his identity.

Colin Hargraves is also making a patient court to Emily. He doesn’t want to scare her or rush her into anything she would later regret. Her previous disastrous marriage is something she doesn’t want to repeat and it’s obvious Colin understands Emily’s need to make a life of her own and decide when and if she wants to marry again.

Tasha Alexander not only easily creates a Victorian feeling but the historical detail is rich and delightful, even if sometimes too slow paced. Highly recommended for those who want a light and well written story.

Grade: 4/5

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Life and Times of Victoria by Dorothy Marshall

Ever since I wrote my 8th grade research paper on Queen Victoria, I've been a bit obsessed with her life and that time period.

Example One:

Me with Queen V in Windsor, July 2008

Example Two:

Victoria Regina and I- Back of Buckingham Palace, July 2008

I've read several biographies on Queen Victoria, and I really enjoyed Marshall's book. It was descriptive and factual, without being flowery and boring. If you would like to know more about Queen Victoria's reign, Marshall's book is an excellent place to begin.

I also enjoyed these biographies on Queen Victoria:
Queen Victoria by Walter L. Arnstein
Persons of consequence: Queen Victoria and her circle by Louise Auchincloss
Queen Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold M. Packard
Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria by Carolly Erickson

This DVD was also good: Victoria and Albert

Happy reading.

The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins (Jackie's Review)

The Moonstone was first published in 1868, and is considered to be the first detective novel ever written. Many people site The Moonstone as the longest piece of detective fiction in existence. I’m not an expert on this, but I do know that it took me a long time to read it! At 464 pages it only just classes as a chunkster, but I feel no guilt in counting it towards the Chunkster Challenge as the type was tiny!

The story takes place in an English country house, in which a rare diamond is stolen over night. The suspects are therefore limited, and a famous London detective is called in to investigate the crime.

The writing was easy to follow, but it was very dense, and so it was a slow read. For the majority of the book this wasn’t a bad thing, as I loved the descriptions, but there was a slow section in the middle, which I found hard to get through. It picked up towards the end though, and the it was very well plotted. I didn’t see any of the twists coming, and I liked the realism of it.

There were also a lot of other issues raised during the book. SPOILER! Highlight text to read. I loved the beginning and ending in India, and the way Wilkie Collins challenged racial stereotypes by portraying the Indians as mysterious thieves, when they were the good ones all along.
I also found the opium factor interesting. I had no idea of it’s affects, and have since learnt that Wilkie Collins was writing from experience, as he had an opium habit.

I loved reading it so soon after The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher as I noticed all the similarities between the real murder at Road Hill and the theft of the moonstone. If you’ve read The Moonstone then it is worth having a look at this analysis - I found it very insightful. It contains lots of spoilers, so don’t click through if you’re interested in reading the book soon.

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Moonstone. It was hard work at times, but well worth the effort. As it’s the first ever detective novel I can’t not recommend it, everyone should read it at some point!

Originally reviewed here.

Three Men in a Boat - Jerome K Jerome (Jackie's Review)

Three Men in a Boat is a light read, about a journey along the River Thames during Victorian times. It is full of humor, but most of the time I found myself smiling at them, rather than with them, as the puns are just too obvious:

Then we discussed the food question. George said:
‘Begin with breakfast.’ (George is so practical.) ‘Now for breakfast we shall want a frying pan’ - Harris said it was indigestible; but we merely urged him not to be an ass, and George went on - ‘a teapot and a kettle, and a methylated spirit stove.’

I live just two miles from the River Thames, and know it very well. I loved learning about what it was like over a hundred years ago. It was really nice to see places I visit regularly described in the book:

You pass Oatlands Park on the right bank here. It is a famous old place. Henry VIII stole it from someone or other, I forget whom now, and lived in it. There is a grotto in the park which you can see for a fee, and is supposed to be very wonderful.

I have taken my boys to play in Oatlands Park many times, and have never seen a grotto, so I looked it up on the Internet. I was amazed to find out how beautiful it was. There’s a photo here. Unfortunately it was dynamited in 1948, as people were trespassing on it, and the owners thought this was unsafe. I can’t believe such a special place has been destroyed.

Many other places I recognised were described, and I recommend this book to anyone who knows the Thames well. I can’t see much attraction to other people, as it is just a bit silly.

Originally reviewed here.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson

Written in the 1940s, this semi-fictional account of the Oxfordshire villages Lark Rise and Candleford looks back at the 1880s, a time of transition in the English countryside. Work, social relationships, home life, schooling- all of these things changed in the last years of the 19th c. Thompson examines these changes through the story of Laura, a girl who comes of age in the 1880s and 90s. But truly, in this work Laura's story takes a back seat to description. Thompson is clearly using this book to capture a lost world, and the book includes whole chapters describing the countryside and the traditions of its people. The writing is almost anthropological. While the description is interesting, and it is a very easy read, I found myself longing for more plot, more discussion of what happened to Laura. I also found that the book seemed to romanticize what must have been, by all accounts, grinding poverty. That said, the descriptions Thompson offers are engaging and vibrant, and the book is a quick, and dare I say, relaxing, read.

Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford (Crown, 1984) ISBN: 0140074546

The Rose of Sebastopol - Katherine McMahon

I’m going to say upfront that I was more than a little disappointed by ‘The Rose of Sebastopol’ by Katherine McMahon. When I began the book it was enjoyable, if a little tiresome in places (as I mentioned earlier there are tons of heavy handed allusions to what Rosa hopes to get from her relationship with Mariella). In the later stages the book became rather frustrating, so I burnt through the last hundred pages because I wanted the book to be over. It’s not all bad, but it was often uninspired.

Mariella lives a happy, ineffectual life with her parents, waiting for family friend, and celebrated surgeon Henry to propose. Then her distant uncle dies, throwing her aunt and cousin onto the charity of her parents. Mariella’s world is broadened by her cousin Rosa, who is consumed with attempting to get an education and do something to help the world. When the opportunity arises for Rosa to help the troops by nursing in the Crimea she leaves. Henry also leaves to tend to the troops but falls sick, meaning that Mariella must journey to him. On arriving she finds a changed man, consumed with finding Rosa who has recently gone missing.

My edition of The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon came with questions for reading groups, helpfully supplied by the Richard and Judy consortium. I’m going to use a selection of them to flesh in the rest of my review.

How traditional a romantic tale is The Rose of Sebastopol?

It’s pretty traditional, but there are some areas where it breaks from traditional romance. There’s the first romantic hero, Henry who seems like a good bet but in the end turns out to be a cad. However he’s also the quiet lad from Mariella’s childhood and in a traditional romantic tale that sort of character often turns out to be the undiscovered love. Mariella has already decided that she loves him in early childhood so it’s a pretty safe bet that that will not work out. Henry is also a ‘cold fish’ when it comes to Mariella, and expects her to remain the same as he has always know her. Any kind of repression around the future missus generally means caddish behaviour will follow in traditional romances.

Then there’s the dashing secondary hero, Max who is the traditional rash, intense soldier character. But the dashing young captain always adds to the romantic excitement so I was happy to see him take a bigger part towards the end of the book. He is of course, a man of action. Henry may be a surgeon, so he’s not quite the traditional dreary, paper bureaucrat readers know will get the boot, but he’s still not in the same league as a soldier.

Mariella is the good little virgin, inexperienced in the ways of the world. Quite in keeping with the historical times, and also quite traditional.

Obviously having a lesbian character like Rosa breaks with old romantic traditions (depending on what books you read) but the way the author just drops clanging hints to her sexuality into the story, instead of dragging her feelings into the open is typical of some older style romances. We can also compare her attitude to Mariella, to Henry’s attitude: both want her to remain ‘a constant’, both like to be a little patronising, both like to control her a little. Is Rosa the lesbian version of the unsuitable male suitor, presented in the book?

‘The result of this behaviour was that all eyes were upon her.’ Is this Rosa’s intention in life, or just a by-product of her transparency?

I mentioned before that in my opinion Rosa seems to ‘cry prettily’ and always get her way. Her behaviour often seems suspect, and I came to find her quite a controlling character. However I don’t think it is her intention to have all eyes on her, it is just the fact that she feels and embraces life to an extent that other people in society do not.

Then again it’s hard to get a grip on Rosa. The only information we have about her is provided by Mariella, who is clearly blind when it comes to even the basics about her cousin. So, despite all the details we’re given about her life, and her personality, we never see beneath the surface or discover her true motives. That is why I think the book began to drag, for me, because it clearly wanted to be a book that examines character in depth, but it never penetrates Rosa’s character because all the information comes from unknowing, second hand sources. Perhaps the author is going for an air of unsolveable mystery, all that how much can we ever really know a person stuff, but I found it frustrating to be given a character so full of promise, but then to never be allowed to engage with her.

‘What an odd, turbulent period of history we live in, a clash of conflicting ambitions, great and small.’ How well does The Rose of Sebastopol portray the 1850s?

I have no idea how well the novel portrays this time; I did not study the Victorians or the Crimean war. I do think the book provided an interesting alternative view of the medical set up to that shown in ‘The Great Stink’, but without further reading I couldn’t say which book had the more accurate depiction. I did enjoy the descriptions of the locations Mariella travelled to, they were vivid and drew me in. The development of the different settings and Mariella’s reactions to them was probably my favourite element of the book. It made me want to read No Place for Ladies right away.


The Rose of Sebastopol deals with desire in many forms – some of them secret and forbidden. How far do you see Rosa as a doomed heroine from the beginning?

A really annoying feature of the book was the constant hinting at an extra layer to the relationship between the young women. So many chapters ended with breathy, enigmatic hints at the clearly obvious, if forbidden, love that I think I actually started sighing audibly. How many times have I mentioned that already? It did bother me a lot, I needed maybe two hints to know that there was going to be a lesbian plotline, and after that I would have just assumed it and waited for it to develop.

I wish that a modern novelist hadn’t felt the need to kill off the inconvenient character, just to simplify the romantic ending. It’s to be expected from novelists writing in the Victorian era who would have been able to see no other future for a character like Rosa, once Mariella decides on Max, and who liked to kill of inconvenient females in general (Dickens I’m looking at you). I would have expected more from a modern novelist. It’s true that Rosa and Mariella could never openly have been a couple (in the context of the book, and the context of the historical period) but it seemed like a girl with as much drive as Rosa would have been able to forge a different version of the happy ending. So, yes she’s a doomed heroine as soon as the author decided on dooming her I suppouse.

How satisfied were you with the ending of The Rose of Sebastopol?

Not satisfied at all, not one bit. The entire book is focused on finding Rosa, all action is driven by this search, then at the end she’s found dead and the book abruptly cuts out. Mariella falls for Max but throughout the early parts of the book there’s definite evidence that she reciprocates Rosa’s feelings, or has sexual curiosity about women. Is it just Rosa she feels this way about, or is she interested in women as well as men?

Henry’s crazy mania for Rosa, which is the author’s way of freeing up Mariella for Max, seems to come form nowhere. His obsession is never explained, even in his own illogical terms and what happens to him after she dies?

Oh and I wanted the full story on Nora, as she had clearly had a tragic life, worthy of a plot line.

Finally, I promise, what is the point of the plotline about the sexually abusive uncle? Is it meant to be important in understanding the girl’s characters, or was it just thrown in there as an extra? It’s never dealt with properly, and if it’s meant to be another surprising twist it doesn’t work, as it’s also signalled heavily throughout the book.

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