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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

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