Friday, July 31, 2015

Book Review - Lauren Willig's The Other Daughter

The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: July 21st, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Rachael Woodley has spent seven long years on the continent away from her beloved mother working as a governess. Rachael wanted to take a typing course and work as a secretary but her mother thought that was too modern. Perhaps if Rachael had been a secretary she would have gotten to her mother's sickbed in time to be there when she died. Rachael is unmoored by her mother's passing. They had a poor if peaceful life after Rachael's father died and they moved to the little village of Netherwell. But now that life is forever shut to her. The landlord wants Rachael gone, yet where is she to go? In her mother's sickroom she finds something perplexing. It's a clipping from a recent newspaper showing her father. But not her father as she remembers him, but her father as he would be now if he had never died. That isn't possible! Her father died, he's not Lord Ardmore, the man escorting his daughter Olivia, but a botanist who died an ocean away. But it looks like him... and she can't let it drop. Going to her only relative, her cousin David, she learns that it is indeed her father in the clipping. He has another life and she is nothing more than a by-blow. David asks his friend, the gossip columnist Simon Montfort, to escort the by now distraught Rachael to her train. Instead Rachael and Simon concoct an elaborate plan wherein Rachael will infiltrate the ranks of the Bright Young Things as a Vera Merton in order to accost her wayward father. But things rarely go as planned and soon the glittering world Rachael has been thrust into is a welcome distraction from the truth of her life which she would sooner forget.  

Having spent the better part of the last year re-reading Lauren's oeuvre, I think I'm uniquely qualified to praise her third stand-alone. While I won't say it's my favorite of her books, that would be too hard to choose, I will unreservedly say that I think The Other Daughter is Lauren's most accomplished book to date. While I was one of Lauren's readers championing her use of a modern framing device in her Pink Carnation series, I think that carrying this device into her non-Pink books had made the these new books feel too much like the rest of her writing. While there are many authors who have never broken free of this convention, Kate Morton comes to mind, I feel that this framing had become a crutch for Lauren and was holding her back. By getting ride of this prop she has freed herself to concentrate all her energy on the one story. This made her narrative stronger and gave her the ability to have more depth, insight, and heart. I'm not trying to denigrate her other books, which I love, but sometimes a story is best served by just living in the moment and not thinking about what the future holds. Often a modern narrator limits the ability of the storytelling by being the definitive end point. The story must end in such and such a way because we've seen the future. Sometimes not knowing, sometimes having the happily ever after be a ship sailing off into the sunset is what a story needs, instead of ancestors picking over the past.

The 1920s have always fascinated me, but as for the literature of the time and the people who characterized this bright, young, and lost generation, my wheelhouse was limited to those in the Mitford circle, thus including Evelyn Waugh and his cronies. Having spent "Jazzy July" reading the books that sparked Lauren's imagination I now have this new insight into the 1920s and its trailblazers. What is wonderful about Lauren is she knows her history and knows when to tweak it. But she also knows how to artfully drop in a cameo or two without having it overpower the narrative. Brian Howard, Evelyn Waugh, even Tallulah Bankhead make amusing appearances, but they are limited to fully realized furniture. They add to the experience but never take over the plot. But more than that, they also don't feel gratuitous. Sometimes a historical cameo can feel trite. Here's Tesla just because I wanted Tesla to wander in. Lauren over the years has developed a knack for just how the historical cameo should work in her writing, and I can think of no better example than here. The pinnacle of her achievement is at the famous Impersonation Party of 1927, where people all came as each other. Not only do we get the cameos, but the swirling whirling world that Rachel has been moving in is captured perfectly in this one scene that while historically accurate could also be straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

Reading so many books of this period makes you realize the flaw in this generation. They burned bright and fast and if someone was left by the wayside, well, they burned out and were forgotten. There was a pain that was masked and glossed over. The majority of these people were too young for the Great War, but they lived ever in it's shadows. Instead of acknowledging this pain, instead of self-analysis, they just partied harder and louder. I can think of no better example then the two startling deaths that happen in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. Two characters die, rather horrifically, one by his own hand, and never once do the characters mourn. They just party on. This, more than anything, made it hard for me to connect to some of the books. I am not callous. If someone dies, even in fiction, they should make an impact. And not to put too fine a point on it, Evelyn's work was nothing more then writing what he saw, so those deaths did happen, that callousness did exist. And that's what makes The Other Daughter so much more. Comparing Lauren's book to the literature of the day you see the depth and insight, you see that Lauren isn't masking the pain, she is exploring it. Simon suffered horribly during the war and his unburdening himself to Rachel is such a real and true connection in a time of shallow characters that you connect to these characters and this book in a way you never could to other books of that period. Lauren has taken a shallow world and made it lush and dimensional.

Looking to the zeitgeist of the 20s I can think of no better way to sum up this generation then by saying these are people who have never grown up. They haven't and won't take on responsibility and therefore live in a suspended childhood. Waugh chose a quote from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There to begin Vile Bodies. Though Waugh's reason for choosing it had more to do with the logic of the set he found himself it. The nonsensical parties, the backward logic, that is what Waugh saw in this book. But I dearly hope that he was aware of the other implications this quote gives, that of people forever trapped in childhood. Lauren expands on this other aspect of this generation not just by quoting Carroll, but by bringing in other fairy tales and children's stories. "Hansel and Gretel" is the fairy tale that is most alluded to. This story is not only appropriate for the Bright Young People, but for Rachel as well. Hansel and Gretel were set loose in the wilderness by their father and wicked stepmother because of the poverty they found themselves in. Before Rachel has all the facts of her situation this is exactly how she views her life as she now knows it. She was abandoned for money. Her father unceremoniously tossed her aside to get the better wife with the rich coffers and the two perfect heirs. You can see the appeal to Rachel to go back to a time when she didn't know the truth, back to a childhood of happiness. That is why she is able to slip in among the Bright Young People so well, she has the same desires, but in the end knows she must grow up.

Much like Lauren's previous stand-alone, That Summer, The Other Daughter is about finding your place in the world, a place to belong. Your family isn't necessarily the one you are born with but the one you find. Rachel's childhood, while missing a father, wasn't sad, she made a family in her small town with the Vicar and his daughter Alice. But on discovering what she knew to be a lie Rachael needs to build a new life for herself. She needs to find her new family, and much of that is tied up with Simon. Simon is a refreshing hero. For once I was very happy not to have access to his inner workings. I didn't want to know what he thought, I liked him as a little bit of an enigma. He has a past that must be uncovered so that he can grow and be willing to return to his family. Because the truth about families are they are messy. No one is perfect, as we see with Rachel, she wants revenge, she wants to hurt her father, even though she knows it's wrong. As we work through this with her we see that she is building the future she will inhabit. She inspires Simon to fix his life and then there's a place for her there. I don't think it's so much the shock of her father being alive that jars Rachael, it's that she had her place in the world and this knowledge changes that. She must struggle through this new information to find the place where she now belongs. We all struggle to find that place. The greatest thing fiction can do is show us that this is possible.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review - Paula Byrne's Mad World

Mad World by Paula Byrne
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: 2009
Format: Paperback, 384 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

"Does anyone else have the Tears for Fears song stuck in her head?

Whether or not the Lygons and their home, Madresfield Court, truly served as Waugh’s model for Brideshead Revisited, this book is a lucid and highly entertaining window into the same small segment of society I needed to understand in order to write The Other Daughter.

Since novelists are inveterate borrowers, it seemed only right to borrow elements of Madresfield (“Madders”) for Rachel’s father’s estate, Carrisford (“Caffers”). Any similarities are more than coincidental." - Lauren Willig

Evelyn Waugh was one of the writers who immortalized the 20s generation of "Bright Young People" through his books. But his book, Brideshead Revisited, more then any of his other work, was a touchstone for a generation and one of the greatest books of the 20th century. Yet the story didn't emerge fully formed from his conscious, it was inspired by his relationship with the Lygon family. They lived in a great old pile, Madresfield, where the three sons and four daughters grew up in bucolic bliss till their family was rocked by scandal. The Lygon patriarch, Lord Beauchamp, was exiled from England upon divorce proceedings initiated by his wife for his homosexual tendencies. The children blamed their mother for this rend in the family and started to live a life devoid of parental control. Into this world Evelyn Waugh appeared. Bringing his signature wit and style he befriended the family and came to fall in love with them all, rumors had it that back at Oxford he was more then a little in love with the second son, Hugh. Hugh would become the basis for Sebastian Flyte, and the entire Lygon family and their life was to be immortalized in Waugh's magnum opus. But did they have any say in the matter?

If you want to keep your well held belief that Evelyn Waugh is a genius and Brideshead Revisited is one of the most original masterpieces of the last century, I urge you not to read this book. If, on the other hand, you always suspected that Waugh wasn't that nice or that Brideshead Revisited was a boring plotless book, well, you probably won't read Mad World, but know that your opinion is validated a thousand fold. While I always suspected that Evelyn Waugh wasn't that nice, never did I think that he would so carelessly use his friends and family as fodder for his books. Yes, I did know that he satirized those around him, much as Nancy Mitford did, but this book brought it home as something more. Waugh was a user. He lived an itinerant life travelling from one friend's home to another and then using what he saw there to create his books. He lambasted friends who couldn't use the world around them as fodder for their books and needed to do research, yet he used the lives him around in a cruel and flippant ways in his work. He was a leech, and not a very likable one. The thing that mystifies me is that Byrne claims that Waugh's friends didn't blame him for capitalizing on their pain, that mockery was part and parcel or being Waugh's friend and that he was easy to forgive. Yet Byrne says this, she doesn't show this. How am I to believe this? Because it sounds like Waugh hurt a lot of people to get to where he got in the literary world and that the wounds struck his friends deep but they just put on a brave face for him.

Mad World boils down all Waugh's books, his entire literary cannon, to thinly disguised roman à clefs. Byrne, while obviously a fan of Waugh, did a disservice to him in writing this book because it takes away the magic of that lost generation captured in Brideshead Revisited. Why is the magic gone? Because Waugh just used the Lygon family and transferred their lives into another medium. While the book still captures this lost generation of halcyon Oxford days, it narrows down the universality of the book. It makes it one family's history, not an archetypal history. It also shows that Waugh, while able to spin a wonderful phrase, didn't have an original bone in his body. He was more historian than writer. All his books, not just Brideshead Revisited, are rooted in reality, almost painfully so. Each character has a real life counterpart, each adventure is centered on a story in his life. While writers do take inspiration from the world around them, it feels like Waugh was a hack. He could ONLY write the world around him transmuted into a book. And while Brideshead Revisited was a loving portrayal of the Lygons, unlike some of his vicious parodies hidden in such characters as Anthony Blanche, did Waugh's friendship with them give him carte blanche to write this story? No it didn't. He used them and moved on.

But what disturbed me most about this book was that while the book was cleverly supposed to be a dual history of Waugh and the Lygons, which is why I was interested in this book, it became more and more a single-sided story where we were just given Waugh's POV. We read his copious letters to the Lygon sisters, and how they were transmuted into the Flytes, down to even phrases excised from Waugh's letters to them and then used in the book, but we never hear their voices. We never get a feeling as to who these sisters were. Was their relationship reciprocal? Did they actually write to Evelyn as much as he wrote to them? Why don't we have any of their letters? Was Waugh perhaps a venal man who carried on single-sided correspondence with the great and the good making more out of a friendship then it really was? I'd say this is quite possible and without any evidence or letters to the contrary, this is the only conclusion I can reach. The Lygon sisters where barely more than props to Evelyn who used his connection to them to puff up his ego and used his experiences with them to make a name for himself with his writing. And while Byrne states that after the sisters left Madresfield forever Waugh kept up a correspondence with them that lasted the rest of his life, but that isn't what it looks like. It looks like he wrote Brideshead Revisited, made a true masterpiece and dropped them. He'd occasionally look in but he had no use for them and his old itinerant lifestyle so, much like the props they appear to be, they were placed in storage only to be occasionally let out into the light.

The subject matter and how it's handled wasn't the biggest downfall of the book. The biggest downfall was the haphazard way that Byrne decided to keep some facts and omit others. By redacting parts of Evelyn's life, how can I actually believe anything this authors says in her stilted and amateurish writing style? She skips over things that I think are rather important, like Evelyn working as a gossip columnist. Not only did this feed into his writing style but it was a common experience with his friends and contemporaries. Why omit this? Because if it was to show him as a superior writer, well, everything about this book portrays him as a hack, so why not a hack journalist? Then Byrne's lack of adherence to naming conventions drove me batty. In a time when everyone had three nicknames, just choose one please? I seriously don't know which is which Lygon sister due to Byrne randomly choosing a different nickname or occasionally their real name. Just stop. But worst of all was the repetitive nature of the book, the reliance on only a handful of quotes used over and over again. Did Byrne have any editor at all? My guess is no as in the way she's string quotes from different sources with clunky "and this" "and then" "and now." This kind of sloppy writing was beaten out of me in high school and here is a published author trying to write a discourse on Brideshead Revisited that wouldn't pass muster with the most generous of teachers.

As for the most disgusting aspect of this book? The general acceptance of pederast culture. Wherein any pretty young man was viewed as fair game, even if they were underage. Teacher's quite literally using their students, in particular a nasty story about one of Evelyn's friends having a student sodomize him with his foot, and Lord Beauchamp using every able bodied and attractive male as a possible sexual conquest. I'm not saying this shouldn't be addressed or omitted. This happened and a discourse needs to be had. What I am saying is that it shouldn't be treated with such a laissez-faire attitude. Using a position of power for sex is something that should NEVER be acceptable. Yes it happens, but it's this acceptance by people like Byrne that allow it to continue. That this happened should incite a revolt! It shouldn't be a joke in one of Waugh's letters. Some talk about the culture of the time would have been considerate. But making a point that this is unacceptable needed to be said, and Byrne didn't. She even seemed to find it all a little piquant, especially when discussing Beauchamp and his servants. It's not piquant, it's repulsive.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: July 28th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.

Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.

Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.

Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain’s powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit."

I am a sucked for all things Kenya, especially during this period. I should note though that Out of Africa is the exception to this rule. I hate that book.

The Complete Chi's Sweet Home Part 1 by Konami Kanata
Published by: Vertical Comics
Publication Date: July 28th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 480 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Chi is a michievous newborn kitten who, while on a leisurely stroll with her family, finds herself lost. Seperated from the warmth and protection of her mother, feels distraught. Overcome with loneliness she breaks into tears in a large urban park meadow., when she is suddenly rescued by a young boy named Yohei and his mother. The kitty is then quickly and quietly whisked away into the warm and inviting Yamada family apartment...where pets are strictly not permitted.

The Complete Chi's Sweet Home collects Chi's Sweet Home vol 1, Chi's Sweet Home vol 2 and Chi's Sweet Home vol 3 and includes never before translated comics from Konami Kanata in a new larger trim size!"

I adore Chi so much, this little kitty is infectious in her awesomeness. This would be a great edition to anyone's library who hasn't checked her out yet.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Published by: William Morrow
Publication Date: July 28th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The #1 New York Times bestselling author’s ultimate edition of his wildly successful first novel featuring his “preferred text”—and including the special “Neverwhere” tale “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back.”

Published in 1997, Neil Gaiman’s darkly hypnotic first novel, Neverwhere, heralded the arrival of this major talent and became a touchstone of urban fantasy. Over the years, a number of versions were produced both in the U.S. and the U.K. Now, this author’s preferred edition of his classic novel reconciles these versions and reinstates a number of scenes cut from the original published books.

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young London businessman with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he is plunged through the cracks of reality into a world of shadows and darkness—the Neverwhere. If he is ever to return to the London Above, Richard must join the battle to save this strange underworld kingdom from the malevolence that means to destroy it."

Sentimentally my favorite Gaiman book. Also I'm very excited that the short story about the Marquis is included.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Pink Carnation Spotlight - Reeve Carney (Lucien, Duke of Belliston)

Lucien just might be the easiest character I have ever dream cast from Lauren Willig's oeuvre. The second I heard of this supposed prince of darkness I instantly thought of Reeve Carney who plays the mysterious Dorian Gray on the always fabulous Penny Dreadful. In fact, I'd say Dorian and Lucien might have quite a bit in common, except for the fact that one is evil and the other... well, you'll have to read The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla to know for sure.

Name: Reeve Carney

"Dream" Character Casting for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Lucien, Duke of Belliston

First Impression: Penny Dreadful all the way. This show is so stylish and is such an interesting combination of literary characters in the demimonde. How could I not love it? Plus, Reeve brings something sexy and enigmatic to the character of Dorian Gray, something that is really lacking from Oscar Wilde's book. Yes, I said it. Dorian Gray as a book isn't very good.

Why they'd be the perfect actor for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Firstly, just look at him! He's got the overly long hair, the mysterious air, and a smile just quirking the corner of his mouth as if he's trying to hold back from laughing at whatever Sally has just said. Also, at least in Penny Dreadful, he has an interest in botany, much like Lucien's mother. But more importantly, he feels a combination of British and other, probably because he is American, or immortal, and therefore I think an ideal candidate for Lucien; he can't be too British after spending so much time down in New Orleans! Also, the accent is totally working in his favor!

Lasting Impression: Penny Dreadful. Seriously folks, one and done for this actor. Rarely does an actor so capture me the first time I've seen him, but everyone on Penny Dreadful, including those actors, like Reeve, who I'd never seen before, were truly memorable. In other words, WATCH PENNY DREADFUL PEOPLE!

What else you've seen them in: Reeve has been more into music than acting, see the Taylor Swift "I Knew You Were Trouble" music video. Yes, I just said Taylor Swift. But he has had an interestingly varied career from a young turn on Dave's World, you all remember that show based on Dave Barry's life right, to being in Julie Taymor's The Tempest, which I was way too cowardly to watch after the memorable impression that her version of Titus made on me.

Can't believe it's them: And speaking of things that I can't believe and Julie Taymor, Reeve was the star of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark! Seriously, I will never be able to get this hilarious information into a proper place in my brain where it makes sense. He was in the most lampooned Broadway show like ever! And he was the star! Oh, I wonder how many limbs he broke...

Wish they hadn't: Seriously, I'm not getting off this Spider-Man thing ANYTIME SOON! Though it looks like he didn't break any limbs. Still, can't stop laughing.

Bio: Reeve was born in New York and from the beginning performing was in his blood seeing as his great uncle was the wonderful actor Art Carney. His family moved to California where he attended the Academy of Music at Alexander Hamilton High School where he met his future band mates. In fact by the age of fifteen he was playing guitar professionally at B.B. King's night club in L.A. Though he continued his education majoring in college in studio jazz guitar, not forsaking study for fame. His first band opened for such groups as Arcade Fire and U2. While still doing music it's his acting chops on Penny Dreadful that are really getting him noticed. Mmm, Penny Dreadful.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Pink Carnation Spotlight - Eleanor Tomlinson (Sally Fitzhugh)

The casting of Sally was one of the universe aligning in perfect harmony. I was re-reading The Mischief of the Mistletoe over Christmas two years ago and I was musing on Sally, because she does tend to steal the spotlight whenever she can. Simultaneously, the much waited for adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley was airing on consecutive nights and there was Sally, going by the name Georgiana Darcy for some reason... well, whomever she was pretending to be, I knew it was Sally.

Name: Eleanor Tomlinson

"Dream" Character Casting for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: Sally Fitzhugh

First Impression: I first saw Eleanor in Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, a lackluster adaptation of a fun book series by Louise Rennison. Eleanor wasn't at all how I had pictured the character of Jas, but nowhere near as bad as the casting of Georgia, and Alan Davies surprised me in how much I didn't feel like killing him. I have Alan Davies issues. But needless to say, this blah movie made me notice a good actress.

Why they'd be the perfect actor for the Lauren Willig Miniseries: She has such an amazing range, from the romantic heroine to the fierce independent woman to a pawn to the greater forces, she is believable and relatable in every single role I've even seen her in. Plus, you get this feeling that while weary of the world around her she still finds the humor in it. And I think she could really wield a stoat. Oh, and I think she could easily be described as a "gilded beanpole."

Lasting Impression: The White Queen, totally. I mean, yes, I've seen her in practically everything she's been in, but her portrayal of Isabel Neville in the addictive miniseries The White Queen made you have a real, human connection with someone who is just a name in history. Plus, you realize what serious acting chops she has.

What else you've seen them in: Um, you might have heard of this show everyone is obsessed with, it's call Poldark... I'm telling you, if she doesn't get an Emmy nomination for her work, I will weep. I mean, I turned into the show for Aidan, I mean, come on, it's Aidan, but I really stayed for Eleanor. Each week she makes you more and more invested in Demelza and Ross's relationship. But more then that, the depth of emotion. Seriously, she is going to be a big star, she's only twenty-three afterall! She's also been in the aforementioned Death Comes to Pemberley, an episode of Poirot, and a few big budget movies, like Jack the Giant Slayer and The Illusionist.

Can't believe it's them: The Sarah Jane Adventures! I am excused though because, seriously, look at all that makeup! But what amazes me more is that this two part episode "The Mad Woman in the Attic" is easily my favorite story arc on this show all because of the character Eleanor played. She was able to make an alien so very human and vulnerable and up the quality of a show that is usually pandering crap to something worthy of the Doctor Who canon.

Wish they hadn't: Alice in Wonderland. But then it's my belief that this Tim Burton, Johnny Depp monstrosity should never have been made. It is horrid. It is unbearable. It is getting a sequel? What the hell people!

Bio: Eleanor was born when I graduated 8th grade, making me feel very old. She comes from a family of performers, her mother is a singer and actress, while her father and her brother, who is ironically (in my mind) named Ross, are both actors. She was born in London and grew up in Yorkshire, getting her first acting gig at thirteen, by basically strong arming her father's agent into representing her. She seems to be a pretty private person, which I strongly applaud her for, seeing as she's in the limelight a lot. But what IS known is that she's a dog person and, instead of falling for Aidan Turner, she fell for his stuntman on Poldark. Ah romance.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Review - Dorothy L. Sayers's Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death (Lord Peter Wimsey Book 3) by Dorothy L. Sayers
Published by: Harper Torch
Publication Date: 1927
Format: Paperback, 264 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

"Any excuse to read Dorothy L. Sayers!

If I’m being honest, though, before Other Daughter, Unnatural Death was never a re-read for me. I tended to skim over Whose Body, Unnatural Death, and so on and skip straight to Strong Poison and the introduction of Harriet Vane.

But Unnatural Death had been written at exactly the right time and set in the right place—the London of summer 1927. There could be no better guide for daily life, slang, customs, places. It’s all what a professor of mine used to call “accidental evidence”. So I read it. And I read it again. (And I borrowed a block of flats while I was at it.) Sayers is a wonderful mystery novelist, but she’s also a great chronicler of the manners and mores of her time and I’m so very grateful to her for it.

Unnatural Death is now one of my favorite Wimsey mysteries. If you’ve never read Sayers before, it’s an excellent place to start. (And keep an eye out for that block of flats. You’ll know the one I mean.)" - Lauren Willig

One night at dinner Lord Peter and Detective-Inspector Parker are talking and a man at a nearby table overhears them and tells them his sad life story. He was a well placed Doctor, but after the death of an elderly patient with cancer his insistence that it was murder, not natural causes, resulted in his ostracization and his having to leave the small town where he had set up his practice, attempting to reestablish himself in London. The Doctor gives no names, but Lord Peter is so intrigued that he sets off to solve this "crime." Because Lord Peter is sure there is a crime. The only problem is means and motive... but he's sure once he starts poking around he'll find something.

The problem is, that while there were indeed odd goings on in Leahampton, the deceased, Miss Agatha Dawson, died quite awhile back and will or no will, the only person who would inherit was a great-niece, Miss Mary Whittaker. So why would she kill her "Auntie" if she was guaranteed to inherit? Once Lord Peter starts to intervene, secreting an old lady, Miss Climpson, in Leahampton as his agent on the ground, the bodies start to pile up. If the murderer of Miss Dawson had left well enough alone they would have gotten away with it because their was no proof. The ever growing stack of bodies is all the proof Lord Peter and Detective-Inspector Parker needed to know that their suppositions were right. Can they catch a killer before Lord Peter's conscience gets the better of him?

Two summers ago was my "Golden Summer" which I "created" solely with the intent to read all the great Golden Age mysteries which I had been remiss in not reading. I devoured Christie and Sayers, Allingham and Milne, Tey and Berkeley, getting lost in plot twists and dallying with dangerous killers. Some of the books I loved without question, others, others I had problems with. Sayers was one of those authors that was problematical. While reading only three of her books so far is more a sampling then an in-depth analysis, I'm not the biggest fan. Whether the books are parroting her own beliefs or just a product of the times, some of her views are quite racist and that doesn't sit very well with me. Interestingly enough my mother who was a big Sayers fan back in the day re-read the books with me and felt that they didn't retain the magic they had once possessed and that they are rather offensive.

So how do I justify so many people I know who love and admire Sayers? Well, actually it's quite easy. I mentioned in book club the other day that I had just finished a massive re-read of all Michael Crichton's books, to which a resounding why was asked. Because they are special to me because of the time I read them and how they made me love reading. Yes others might look down on them but to me they are sacred, along with the Star Wars novelizations of Timothy Zahn. That's what Sayers is to certain of my friends. A touchstone to a certain time, a certain way of life that they go back to again and again, remembering and loving what is best but glossing over that which might be objectionable to someone reading it for the first time. Certain books are in our DNA, Sayers will never be in mine.

I have to say that my first reaction to Unnatural Death was holy time jump Batman! This book starts out with an odd little biographical note that brought confusion galore to me and I had to go look up online to see if I was really reading book three. The thing is the note is written from the future date of 1935 by a Paul Austin Delagardie, a relative of Lord Peter's we've never met... yet. In actuality the book was written in 1927 and takes place in that year. So why was I forced to read all this weird spoilerish information about who Lord Peter marries (though I have always known that) and has a child with and that Parker would eventually succeed in wooing Peter's sister Mary? Gathering from some reviews online, this might be an addition to the book... again, I ask why? As one review I read said "I can't imagine why Sayers would include it in this book since it makes reference to any number of events in the lives of Lord Peter and his friends and family that haven't happened yet." So shame on you Dorothy L. Sayers, I shall now send River Song to beat the shit out of you for trying to mess with the linear narrative of Lord Peter's life.

Now I will get to the actual plot, not the preface of the book. Spinster Sleuths. Or spinsters that are sleuths and occasionally murderers. Apparently this book was originally titled The Singular Case of the Three Spinsters which I think captures the themes in the book far better then Unnatural Death. The question is... who came up with the first spinster who decided to put aside the knitting and start asking some rather pointed questions. I was going back and forth between Sayers and Christie, I mean, this book came prior to Miss Marple, but Miss Marple was based on another character of Chirstie's that came out prior to this book... looking into it, apparently it's neither! Apparently it was an American author named Mary Roberts Rinehart with her book The Circular Staircase. So there goes my theory of rivalling writers. But it's nice to give the spinsters some love. Or at least writers giving the spinsters some love because they aren't getting it elsewhere. Though Sayers seems to kind of hold them in contempt and uses them as a punching bag while viewing their lifestyle as a little too "outre," dropping one too many hints of lesbianism. Which I'm guessing she's against. Sayers has pretty well established her racist card in earlier volumes, so her being a homophobe wouldn't really surprise me.

As for the method of death. Anyone who is anyone will figure out that an undetectable injection that kills has to be an air embolism. I mean, they use this constantly as a trope in fiction, be it television, film, or book. Apparently this was Sayers idea, at least my googling hasn't proved otherwise. Yet critics weren't too kind about this new method of murder. "In Unnatural Death, she had invented a murder method that is appropriately dramatic and cunningly ingenious, the injection of an air-bubble with a hypodermic, but not only, in fact, would it require the use of an instrument so large as to be farcical, but Miss Sayers has her bubble put into an artery not a vein. No wonder afterwards she pledged herself 'strictly in future to seeing I never write a book which I know to be careless'." So, the question is, if this was so unpopular with critics then (and with me now) how did it ever become a trope? Sigh... sometimes I will never understand books.

Yet the nail in the coffin for this book is the fact that everything hinges on obscure British law... didn't I say I hate this? Didn't Dorothy get my memo I sent back with The Doctor? So what that the Law of Property Act of 1925 changed certain inheritances? I DON'T CARE! Yes, it's interesting, mildly, that some law passed by the government would spur a murderer to act, but... really, is it really that interesting? No! But then again, apparently I'm just having many issues with Dorothy L. Sayers that will never be resolved. Why have stupid quotes from books that no one has ever or will ever read at the beginning of each chapter? They don't even relate to the subject material at all! Also, writing it as three parts? Was this supposed to be that "epic" of a story that parts were needed? Still, there's a little bit of irony I love. Lord Peter says, "it isn't really difficult to write books. Especially if you either write a rotten story in good English or a good story in rotten English, which is as far as most people seem to get nowadays." The thing is, Dorothy L. Sayers... neither can be said of you. It's a rotten story in rotten English, I guess it is more difficult to write books then you think. Well, I guess that's pretty obvious by now.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Book Review - Angela Thirkell's High Rising

High Rising by Angela Thirkell
Published by: Virago Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1933
Format: Paperback, 276 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

"If you haven’t read Angela Thirkell yet, you’re in for a treat! I’ve always described her books as a cross between Waugh and Wodehouse. They have the kindly good humor of Wodehouse and the satirical eye of Waugh. What they really do brilliantly, though, is showcase a timeless (and idealized) image of village life, in which vicars are always daydreaming over their pipes and muddling over the annual fete, the bossy grande dame of the village throws amateur theatricals, young men just down from Oxford go into sulks, and everyone, in the end, goes merrily on their appointed ways.

There are aristocrats in Thirkell’s Barsetshire books (Lord Pomfret, for one, or Lady Emily, for another), but it isn’t primarily an aristocratic world. This is the province of the gentry, of gentlemen farmers, lady novelists, schoolmasters in tweed jackets, and rising young barristers. It’s a very restful and charming sort of world and provided the foundation for my image of my heroine, Rachel’s, childhood in just such a small village." - Lauren Willig

Laura Moreland is off to her cottage in High Rising with her son Tony for the winter holidays. Her three other boys are all grown up and flung to the far reaches of the earth after she ably raised them alone as a widowed author. In fact she ended up with quite a following for her fun and frivolous tales told in the world of high fashion staring Madame Koska. In fact many of her fans are right on her doorstep, with her assistant Anne Todd being a neighbor who nurses her ailing mother but has a penchant for couture. Fellow author, though of a historical and biographical bent, George Knox lives in nearby Low Rising with his daughter Sibyl. In fact the holiday season is bound to be interesting by a new arrival at the Knox's house, because it's sure not going to be enlivened by Tony's litany of train facts. George Knox has a new secretary, a Miss Una Grey. Miss Grey, while competent, seems to have her eye on her employer for a precipitous rise in her station. The locals aren't having any of this and soon the gossip over this "Incubus" has both High and Low Rising talking. But George Knox is an honorable man and he can't send a poor, defenseless orphan out into the world, no matter how ambitious and amorous her attentions. Though perhaps Miss Grey isn't as she has presented herself and that might just turn the tables and perhaps give Laura an idea for a new book.

How would it feel to write all your books in a world created by another person? I guess a good author to ask would be Gregory Maguire whose "Wicked Years" are set in the world created by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Though Maguire expanded and parodied the world that Baum created making it very much his own. The reason I bring this up is that most of Angela Thirkell's books are set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire created by Anthony Trollope in his six book series that make up The Chronicles of Barsetshire. I'm of two minds with this. One is that it's an interesting experiment freeing the author in this case from onerous worldbuilding. The other mind is going: lazy, plagiaristic hack, and seeing as she often quoted from other authors without attribution, leaning towards plagiarist. But I knew I'd have to come to a conclusion on my own by reading the books, despite the enthusiastic recommendations of my many friends. And seeing as they are set in a world created by Trollope, I felt I'd have to read those first. It's not like I have anything against Trollope, in fact I quite love him, I just wasn't enamoured of his first Barsetshire book The Warden. But having at least nominally dipped my toe into the world created by Trollope I felt I could take a plunge into this world that Thirkell expanded on.

What struck me most about this book is why did she bother to set it in Barsetshire? This could have been any little small British town anywhere, so why did she frame it within someone else's work? Was it her desperate need for a map? Maps are easy to come by, you pick them up anywhere. Get them while you get your gas! It's not like there was a wicked witch with green skin that needed to be her antihero, so why do it? Because, in all seriousness, by co-opting the world of another author she is doing a great disservice to herself and her work. Going into the book I had prejudices against it's originality because of this. Yet it is so original, minus the county. There's a freshness to it, a world weary snark that spoke to me so deeply that I just wanted to be a part of this story. High Rising has an honesty that makes the misanthrope in me happy while at the same time creating a cast of characters that are in a happy place; which makes me wonder if it was maybe love versus laziness that made Angela Thirkell set her books in Barsetshire. Maybe she loved the world so much that deep down in her bones she didn't want to leave and set out to spend her life there? If this is the case then perhaps her books are some of the very first fan fic there is. Now that would be an interesting topic for a dissertation, "Angela Thirkell, the Origins of Fan Fiction."

The character of Laura Morland is now my literary heroine. I seriously adore her. In a time when parents are always PC in books and television shows like The Slap make headlines it's so refreshing to have a heroine who loves her children but knows that they are annoying brats. Laura will willingly hate on her child, but not vindictively. She points out that which aggravates one in the young but never is mean spirited about it. Ah, to have children in a book that aren't precious or precocious! Laura is just honest. She knows herself, she knows the world, she just seems to know everything, including the perfect put-down for an ill-advised yet ardent suitor and seriously, can I be her when I grow up? She is not deluded, she knows she's not the best writer in the world, she knows where she belongs. To read about a person who knows their place in the world so well is interesting. Because so often the world doesn't make the least sense and we can never quite fit, always feeling like the last puzzle piece that obviously doesn't go where it is supposed to. Yet here comes Laura, self assured, self deprecating, self reliant, and true to that self. So many books are about characters finding their place, trying to fit in, the struggle is all, to read a story with a heroine who is past all that is a luxury. To me, this is the ultimate comfort read. I, like Laura, will chose my bed and a gruesome book over King Lear any day.

Another aspect of Laura that I love that extends outwards to the whole of High Rising is this love of the literary, books within books. We have a handful of authors as our main characters and they run the gamut from poets to scholars to cozy mystery writers. I love how Thirkell is able to convey their personalities through their chosen mediums. Adrian Coates was a published teenage poet, and has therefore the right level of demureness coupled with a desire to forget his opus that you would expect of a languishing poetic soul. George Knox is verbose and preachy, which you would expect of a historian. Laura, well, Laura I think is the author in disguise, all honest about her work being their to pay the bills. Laura in fact shares a kindred spirit with another of my favorite literary character, Ariadne Oliver, who, as anyone knows, is Agatha Christie in disguise in her own Poirot mysteries. Perhaps there's just something about authors "secreting" themselves into their own stories that lends something extra, something jovial to the story that is addictive. The ability for anyone to laugh at themselves is key to a good personality, in my mind, so therefore an author who can do the same and then incorporate that into their work, well, that just tickles me. It is rare to find a book that so tailors with what I value in life and in literature, and High Rising is definitely a book written for me.

The most interesting fact of this entire book is even the character I hated, aka Miss Una Grey, aka the Incubus, I loved to hate, and rarely have I hated a character more. I totally disagree with Alexander McCall Smith's statement in the introduction that Miss Grey should have our sympathy. Doesn't he see that she is a total sociopath? She's not a poor lonely girl who is misunderstood, she is a lying, manipulative, she-devil. Yes, sure, occasionally working with someone you might develop feelings, but she takes it to stalker levels. In fact she takes everything too far. She does her job flawlessly, but this is balanced by her doing her crazy flawlessly too. Everything is done to the perfect extreme. When I tried to think of other characters that you are meant to love to hate, Caroline Bingley, Blanche Ingram, Loki, yes, I had to work Tom Hiddleston in somehow, never have I had such a visceral reaction where I longed for the moment everyone would have the definitive proof of her wrong doing and she would be sent packing. This was up there with the childish glee I got when watching The Parent Trap for the first time and the upstart Vicky was sent packing, bear cubs and all! I almost want to re-read the whole book again just to see Miss Grey get what's coming to her.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: July 21st, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Raised in a poor yet genteel household, Rachel Woodley is working in France as a governess when she receives news that her mother has died, suddenly. Grief-stricken, she returns to the small town in England where she was raised to clear out the cottage...and finds a cutting from a London society magazine, with a photograph of her supposedly deceased father dated all of three month before. He's an earl, respected and influential, and he is standing with another daughter-his legitimate daughter. Which makes Rachel...not legitimate. Everything she thought she knew about herself and her past-even her very name-is a lie.

Still reeling from the death of her mother, and furious at this betrayal, Rachel sets herself up in London under a new identity. There she insinuates herself into the party-going crowd of Bright Young Things, with a steely determination to unveil her father's perfidy and bring his-and her half-sister's-charmed world crashing down. Very soon, however, Rachel faces two unexpected snags: she finds she genuinely likes her half-sister, Olivia, whose situation isn't as simple it appears; and she might just be falling for her sister's fiancé...

From Lauren Willig, author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Ashford Affair, comes The Other Daughter, a page-turner full of deceit, passion, and revenge."

Seriously, you better be picking up this book! I might not talk to you otherwise.

The Novel Habits of Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith
Published by: Pantheon
Publication Date: July 21st, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The insatiably curious Edinburgh philosopher and amateur sleuth Isabel Dalhousie returns, taking on a case unlike any she’s had before—this one with paranormal implications—in the eagerly anticipated new installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s beloved and best-selling series.

Through a mutual acquaintance, Isabel is introduced to a six-year-old boy who has been experiencing vivid recollections of a past life, which include a perfect description of an island off the coast of Scotland and a house on the island where he claims to have lived. When the boy’s mother asks Isabel to investigate, Isabel naturally feels inclined to help, and so she, her husband, Jamie, and their son, Charlie, set off for the island. To their great surprise, they actually locate the house that the boy described, which leads to more complicated questions, as Isabel’s desire to find rational explanations comes up against the uncanny mystery unfolding before her. It’s an extraordinarily delicate situation that will require all of her skills, as both sleuth and philosopher, to solve.

Back home, as she begins to prepare the next issue of the Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel confronts a threat to her professional well-being in the form of two visiting academics—Lettuce and Dove—who she fears will be a destabilizing influence on her cozy perch in enlightened Edinburgh.

But no matter the trials she faces, Isabel is blissfully content in her personal life, which is centered on her young son and devoted husband. Readers will be filled with happiness as they once again spend time with their beloved heroine and the people she holds dear."

And some Isabel Dalhousie for you as well.

The School for Good and Evil: The Last Ever After by Soman Chainani
Published by: HarperCollins
Publication Date: July 21st, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 672 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In the stunning conclusion to the New York Times bestselling School for Good and Evil trilogy, everything old is new again, as Sophie and Agatha fight the past as well as the present to find the perfect end to their fairy tale.

Former best friends Sophie and Agatha thought their ending was sealed when they went their separate ways, but their storybook is about to be rewritten—and this time theirs isn't the only one. With the girls apart, Evil has taken over and the forces of Good are in deathly peril. Will Agatha and Sophie be able to work together to save them? Will they find their way to being friends again? And will their new ending be the last Ever After they've been searching for?

Soman Chainani delivers action, adventure, laughter, romance, and more twists than ever before in this extraordinary end to his epic series."

This one is for my friend and fellow book clubber Flavia who has been telling me to read this series for what seems like forever. Perhaps I was just waiting till the final book came out? I say innocently.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Review - Carla Kelly's Marrying the Captain

Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly
Published by: Harlequin Historical
Publication Date: December 1st, 2008
Format: Kindle, 288 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

"One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn’t belong…. 

A Regency romance in a list of 1920s and 30s novels? It may look out of place, but there’s a reason, I promise. Bizarrely enough, this Carla Kelly novel is where The Other Daughter began. Way back in spring 2013, as I was great with child and finishing up revisions on That Summer and vaguely contemplating beginning The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, I took a break by reading a novel my friend Vicki had just sent me. It wasn’t meant to have anything to do with my own work. It was just for fun. But the book happened to be about the illegitimate daughter of a viscount, living in poverty with her grandmother, who discovered, rather belatedly, that she had sisters.

I couldn’t stop my mind churning over it. How would it feel to learn, out of the blue, that you were the daughter of a viscount? How would that affect your idea of who you were? What would it be to be, by blood, the highest of the high, but, by birth, the lowest of the low? And how would it feel to suddenly learn that you had siblings? What if the viscount wasn’t evil? What if it wasn’t the Regency, but the 1920s? What if….

The next day, I sent an email to my editor, telling her I knew what I was going to write next. And here we are!" - Lauren Willig

Nana and her grandmother are just scrapping by running an inn in Portsmouth. Not located directly on the water, they rarely have guests and it's even more rare that they have full stomachs. Nana could have had a comfortable life, she was educated at a private academy in Bath by her father. But little did she know that this education of his by-blow was so that he could sell her off to the highest bidder when she was of age. He doesn't know why she would choose a life of penury instead of being a well placed mistress. But Lord Ratliffe is still curious about his illegitimate Nana. Perhaps she just might be desperate enough now that it's been a few years to agree to his original terms and as an added bonus help with his debts. To judge the lay of the land he asks one of the Captains in the Royal Navy who reports to him, Captain Oliver Worthy, to stay at Nana's inn while he's in Portsmouth waiting for his ship to be overhauled. He agrees and Captain Worthy's arrival heralds a new dawn and new prosperity for the inn. It also signals a change in Captain Worthy, the one man vowed never to marry least he brings sorrow to someone he loves. It is a harsh life at sea, and during a time of war it is even more dangerous. He falls hard for Nana and she for him. But will their love be thwarted by Napoleon, by Lord Ratliffe, or by the vicissitudes of fate? Only time will tell.    

I'm not a straight up romance girl. This has happened, more likely then not, by being around two women my entire life, my mother and paternal grandmother, who loved mysteries and if they veered even a little into romance they would deride the book till the end of days. NEVER get my mother started on J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts. Therefore I've never delved into romance, I've skated around the edges with historical fiction, but this was my first foray into a book published by that behemoth of the romance genre, Harlequin. And it is not what I expected. At All. It wasn't bodice ripping and corsets being flung to the floor. I mean, yes, it had sex, but nothing that racy. It was escapism in the extreme with everything being seen through this rose tinted haze where even poverty wasn't that onerous. Marrying the Captain was all about wish fulfillment and fantasy and this was just something I couldn't take. This unreality that jarred me so much went beyond saccharine. Everyone was just so dang good and earnest and unrealistic that there was no way I was buying any of it. I am not the kind of person who can read a book that is so completely fantastical, even fantasy has to have that harsh underlying of reality to make a connection with me. Really, a unicorn wandering the streets of Plymouth would have been more realistic then half of what happens in this book. By the end of the book my teeth hurt from this sugarcoated story and unless someone tells me this book is an aberration in the romance genre I don't think I'll be picking up a Harlequin book in the near or distant future.

Oddly enough, despite my dislike of the ludicrous plot, that wasn't what annoyed me the most. Let's talk about names. Names are important. Very important. To a fairy a name could be your or their undoing. To a reader, a bad name can be the game changer between a good book and a laughable book. This, this isn't a good book, which I think I've already established. Therefore we are left with a laughable book. Why is it so laughable? Well, perhaps because the heroine's name is Nana. Um, yeah. So, you're writing a romance book and you think, what's a good name? Nana should NEVER be on this list. NEVER. And it REALLY shouldn't be used when that heroine lives with her grandmother. Because, really, it sounds like there's two grandmother's in the house, or inn in this case. Plus, Nana screamed out in passion? Laughable. Maybe Kelly was trying to be atypical, but if this was the case, it's not working. Or maybe she was trying to go for a name that conveyed the heroine's personality, Nana is short for nursery maid, and Nana nurses Oliver back to health... OK, I'm stretching credulity, I can't even buy that and I just wrote it. I think Kelly is the Australian version of "nana" to use this name in her book. So you don't have to look it up, that means crazy. Plus, Nana's full name, Nana Massey... don't impugn the name of the greatest Miss Marple ever played by Anna Massey! Just don't.

To continue with the naming of characters I want to talk about seeing my last name in print. My last name is Lefebvre. Rarely do I see it used in books spelled the EXACT same way as I spell it. Needless to say, I know a lot about the history of my last name and it's very obvious that Kelly does not. In fact, I'd say she's completely ignorant about the name Lefebvre and that she did absolutely no research whatsoever and yes, this is me calling her out! Just because she wanted to make a link to the less important French general Lefebvre-Desnouettes doesn't mean she can then do no research on the name Lefebvre! In fact, I think it means she must do research, or at least the basics. The first big ugh moment was when the painter Henri Lefebvre told Nana how to say his name. "Le...feb...vre...Ah, yes. You purse your lips as though you were going to kiss some lucky gentleman." NO! No no and no! Firstly, the "B" is ALWAYS SILENT! ALWAYS! Even said with a French accent it is silent. Either it is Americanized and said "le...fave" or it's said as it is in it's country of origin, which is "le...fev...rah." Do you see a freakin' "B"? Because I sure as hell do not. And when you say it this way are you pursing your lips? NO! I dare anyone who reads this to try to say "Fave" or "Rah" while seductively pursing your lips. It can't be done. Especially on the "Rah" which is more a war cry then anything else. If I had liked or bought into anything previous to this incident in the book I would have been alienated instantly by the authors ignorance, which actually goes even further if you can imagine it. She states that Lefebvre must be a very uncommon name in France and therefore Henri and the French general must be related. While yes, most Lefebvres are related, the name Lefebvre is basically Smith. Would you call Smith an uncommon name? Nope.

Now I just want to rant about something in this rather ranty review that has always bothered me and is a plot point in this book, and that's women's hair. Why is long hair in woman so important? In The Gift of the Magi the cutting off of her long luscious tresses is something akin to a crime and is seen as the final marker of how desperate she is. Even Jo in Little Women has her hair wept over. Seriously, it's just hair people! IT GROWS BACK! It doesn't contain a magical life force! In fact, I like my hair short. Long hair is annoying and oh so very very heavy. When my hair is long it literally weighs around six pounds. Six pounds pulling on my head. Why would anyone want this? Is this more male bullshit that they like long hair? Because then it's just another standard of beauty that I just can't get behind. You know who needed my hair more then me? That kid with Cancer who I donated my hair to. Plus it's hot in summer and gets in the way if you want less altruistic reasons. Also, I want to make a bigger point beyond women being defined by their hair and that historically short hair was coming into vogue at the time this book is set. Therefore Nana's short hair wouldn't have been all that tragic. In fact it would have been chic. Instead we get everyone talking about it's loss and that very creepy scene where Oliver goes to the wigmakers and fondles her cut locks. Women shouldn't be defined by hair and they definitely should avoid men who fondle their hair when it's no longer attached to their scalp. This isn't romantic, this is pathological. This is serial killer in the making. This is creepy.

Finally, let's talk about sex. Sex is quite common in books nowadays. So it makes it easier to judge a good sex scene from a bad one. Nana and Oliver's wedding night should be romantic, tender, sweet, it should, going with the rest of this book's saccharine sweetness, instead it's perfunctory and all about male fulfillment. I'm sorry, say what? There's only one deduction that can be taken away from this and that if this book is female wish fulfilment incarnate then all women want to do is satisfy their men and their needs don't matter. Um, again, a resounding no. Is this book secretly written by a man? Because the sex scene sure doesn't come across as written by a woman with a woman's needs. One of the reasons for years I think I shied away from Harlequin books was this idea that all it would be is sex. For me books need many layers and sex is just one of them. But apparently I had nothing to be worried about. If this is the standard of love making, well, I can get racier stuff in fiction... and far more satisfying if that's what you're looking for. Marrying the Captain though is just one big tangled mess of dissatisfaction. Disgruntled reader and reviewer here, please send quality reading material STAT!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book Review - Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
Published by: Chicago Review Press
Publication Date: 1958
Format: Paperback, 342 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"What do you say about one of your favorite books of all time? I first stumbled on Nine Coaches Waiting when I was in Middle School. It was the library paperback, slim and battered, with a seventies era governess in short skirt and high boots on a narrow path with the bulk of the Chateau de Valmy looming above her. I read it and fell in love: with Linda Martin, the innocent but sensible governess who becomes young Philippe de Valmy’s bulwark against his evil relations; with Gothic novels; with French chateaux; and with enigmatic heroes named Raoul.

Those of you who know Nine Coaches Waiting as well as I will have noticed hints at it in my other books, bits of borrowed lines or names. “No, no, and no.” “Soit.” “Darling, don’t be so Sabine about it.” There was a time when I could recite Nine Coaches chapter and verse and bits and pieces of it still bubble up from my subconscious from time to time.

The Other Daughter was a very conscious invocation of Nine Coaches Waiting, both in the details—my heroine, Rachel, is a nursery governess in France—but also in other, less obvious ways. In writing The Other Daughter, I followed what I think of as the Mary Stewart Rule (also the Nine Coaches Waiting Rule): no matter how absurd or dramatic the situation, the character must be aware of that absurdity and behave with a basic modicum of common sense. If I made my Rachel Woodley half as sensible a character as Linda Martin—in equally absurd circumstances—then I am very well pleased." - Lauren Willig

Linda Martin was born in France and lived their till her parents died suddenly in a plane crash and she went to an English orphanage. Years passed, filled with hard work and loneliness. When an opportunity arises to go back to France as a governess to the Comte de Valmy, the nine-year-old Philippe, Linda doesn't scruple to pretend she is English to Philippe's Aunt Héloïse in order to secure the position. The Château Valmy is located in a remote valley in the Alps and is breathtaking, despite it's seclusion, or maybe because of it. Linda and Philippe connect instantly, both being lonely souls orphaned at a young age. She is a surprisingly adept and forward-thinking companion for Philippe and saves him from a few dreadful accidents that might have happened if not for her. While she worries for Philippe's safety at the hands of his mysterious uncle and her boss, Léon de Valmy, Linda is in for a far greater predicament when she finds herself falling for Léon's rapscallion son, Raoul. Her love for Raoul blinds her to what is obviously going on in the Château and when she realizes the danger that she and Philippe are in it might just be too late... hurry, hurry, hurry — Ay, to the devil!

For many people, including myself, Mary Stewart is known for her Merlin series. Growing up in the 90s when I did surrounded by geeks who spent all their spare time discussing The Lord of the Rings in detail or playing Dungeons and Dragons or memorizing "Jabberwocky" in German, Mary Stewart was the female T.H. White. In fact, it wasn't until years later that I learned that Mary Stewart didn't only write about Arthurian Legend. To those in the "know" Mary Stewart was a writer of contemporary Gothic romances. I didn't learn about this other side of her till after high school when I started reading Austen and Bronte and developed a passion for historical fiction. Due to the enthusiastic following of these books by Stewart and in no small part to the reviews in the Bas Bleu catalog I started to pick up a book here and there over the years as the Chicago Review Press re-released them till I have now amassed a fairly comprehensive collection of Stewart's works. But alas, they have mainly just been sitting on my bookshelves looking pretty. Every so often I would look at the books and think, soon. I've been thinking this for awhile now and still they languished. The one interesting fact of waiting this long is not just the number of people who keep recommending Stewart's books to me over and over again, but that one book was recommended more then any other. That book was Nine Coaches Waiting. Seeing as this book's pushers usually dwell on Lauren Willig's "Weekly Reading Round-Up" I figured the confluence of events with "Jazzy July" meant the time was nigh. So Nine Coaches Waiting is waiting no more.

What I thought was very interesting about Stewart's writing is that she is able to take an idea that might be very gimmicky and spin it into something that works. At the beginning of the book Linda thinks of the quote from the play The Revenger's Tragedy about "Nine coaches waiting — hurry, hurry, hurry — Ay, to the devil!" Besides serving as the title of the book it serves as how the book is broken down into chapters. Each chapter is a different "coach" with nine coaches, or chapters, total. Though Stewart means this more literally then you might think. In each chapter Linda takes one vehicle somewhere, to Geneva or just down the road. But it's only a car that Linda has been in that counts. So the cars act as a literal drive for the book, because unless Linda gets in a car and is getting ready to get in another there won't be another chapter to start. This is one of those ideas that hangs around that cool/looking like a dickhead place on the fashion scale, only I'd quantify it as clever/lame gimmick on the storytelling scale. It's such a clever conceit that it could easily come across as smug that the author was "oh so clever" to have thought of it in the first place. But that's what I really like about Stewart, she never comes across as smug. She gets what she's doing but does it in a way that makes it fun and self-referential. Her ability to laugh at herself and give her readers a nod and a wink makes what would be conceited actually quite endearing.

This endearing quality continues into the Jane Eyre jokes. They are nicely playful without being self-satisfied and smug. As you're reading you're thinking, oh, how Jane Eyre, then Linda thinks it, and you're like spooky, but then her very Mr. Rochester boss, Léon de Valmy, says what both you and Linda are thinking and it's spooky but also amusing all at once. Like a nervous laugh that dispels the tension. Mary Stewart doesn't take herself or her narrative too seriously and you become complicit in the fun, and this, more then anything else, made the book for me. The Bronte allusions didn't hurt either. But there's one author you really can't help comparing Stewart to, and that's another fan of the Brontes. I'm talking about Daphne Du Maurier. Both are masters of the Gothic romance, but, well, Mary Stewart loses something of the Gothic sensibility in the modernity of her storytelling that Du Maurier was always able to hold onto. Nine Coaches Waiting is just not as Gothic as I expected it to be. Moreover, there are times when Stewart reaches beyond her ability as a writer and the results are painful. Stewart has problems with descriptions of her surroundings. Not only do her compass points shift and turn till you're not quite sure what the orientation of the valley and surrounding areas are, but her attempts at lyricism as to the beauty of her alpine surrounds is totally beyond her grasp. The descriptions fall flat and are just a pale imitation of Daphne Du Maurier, especially when you think of the verdant and lush growth that surrounds Manderley. Sometimes a writer needs a little reminder of what they do best and what will fall flat in the face of superior talent.

As for those Alpine surrounds, what is it about governesses and the alps that go together like a hand and a glove? While The Sound of Music wasn't a musical till a year after Nine Coaches Waiting, the Trapp family's story was well known thanks to their music, and the film The Trapp Family, as well as Maria's autobiography, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. So I'm sure that Stewart, in her comedic self-referential style, was fully aware of the connotations she was making in her readers minds. How could it be avoided with a governess in the alps!?! What mystifies me is the hold The Sound of Music has on so many people. So many authors, especially ones who like to write about governesses, site this movie as an important touchstone. I get the cultural impact, but the love? I seriously do not see it. The songs border on the annoying and once they're in your head they just never leave. Plus, despite how well Julie Andrews can hold a tune, I really didn't see the Captain falling for this upstart with a bad pageboy haircut. I understand the lure of the romance, but still. Perhaps it's that every time I think of The Sound of Music I'm back in 6th grade laying on the couch with the chicken pox watching the movie on Christmas Day. I don't think we knew it was chicken pox yet, but I do remember being wrapped up in a blanket on the couch, watching the whole movie, being tucked into bed, and promptly vomiting all over myself. Therefore it's best if I'm not reminded of this incident, in any way, shape, or form.

Speaking of vomit... yes, interesting segue that, but some of Linda's thoughts made me want to vomit. Let's look at her actions first, she is a competent governess, doesn't let on that she speaks French fluently and in fact speaks it badly on purpose, teaches and helps Philippe, saving his life several times by her forethought, including a late night flit into the wilderness. In other words, Linda kicks ass. Yet her inner monologue is just a little too self-hating. She thinks of herself as being a "silly woman" with her fears when what she does is seriously awesome. She is willing to give up true love and safety forever to protect one little child and she does it without a pang. Yet she'll go on about her thoughts being irrelevant or herself being worthless. I'm sorry, but firstly, no. No one is worthless. Secondly, she has proven time and time again that this is totally not the case. More importantly, this is just showing how much culture has always pushed women to undervalue themselves as second class citizens. Yes, I could argue that what Linda does versus what Linda thinks makes her a more interesting character because it shows how people have self doubts even while facing down tremendous odds, but I won't argue that. Mary Stewart is a female writer who knows better. Linda is strong and should be lauded, not second guessed by her own little grey cells.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: July 14th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 288 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"An historic literary event: the publication of a newly discovered novel, the earliest known work from Harper Lee, the beloved, bestselling author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right."

THE BOOK of this summer. Seriously, there is no other must read book probably of the last five summers or more. READ IT!

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: July 14th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"1883. Thaniel Steepleton returns home to his tiny London apartment to find a gold pocket watch on his pillow. Six months later, the mysterious timepiece saves his life, drawing him away from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard. At last, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori, a kind, lonely immigrant from Japan. Although Mori seems harmless, a chain of unexplainable events soon suggests he must be hiding something. When Grace Carrow, an Oxford physicist, unwittingly interferes, Thaniel is torn between opposing loyalties.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a sweeping, atmospheric narrative that takes the reader on an unexpected journey through Victorian London, Japan as its civil war crumbles long-standing traditions, and beyond. Blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, it opens doors to a strange and magical past."

And apparently any book with "watch" in the title must be released this week. 

The Suspicion at Sanditon by Carrie Bebris
Published by: Tor Books
Publication Date: July 14th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Suspicion at Sanditon, a new adventure in Carrie Bebris's award-winning Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mystery series takes Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy to Sanditon, the setting of Jane Austen's final work. There, accompanied by their friend Miss Charlotte Heywood, they encounter an array of eccentric villagers and visitors. Among Sanditon's most prominent residents: Lady Denham, a childless, twice-widowed dowager with a fortune to bequeath and a flight of distant relations circling for a place in her will.

The Darcys have scarcely settled into their lodgings when Lady Denham unexpectedly invites them to a dinner party. Thirteen guests assemble at Sanditon House--but their hostess never appears. As a violent storm rises, a search for Lady Denham begins. The Darcys, like most of their fellow attendees, speculate that one of her ladyship's would-be heirs has grown impatient .?.?. until the guests start to vanish one by one.

Does a kidnapper lurk in the centuries-old mansion, or is a still more sinister force at work? As the night grows short, the dwelling's population grows thin, and tales of Sanditon House's storied past emerge, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy find themselves leading a desperate effort to discover what has happened to Lady Denham and the missing guests, before they all--perhaps even Elizabeth and Darcy themselves--disappear.

The Regency era's answer to Nick and Nora Charles, the Darcys once again demonstrate their quick wits and signature wit as they search for the truth--universally acknowledged and otherwise."

And then a little Jane Austen to round it all out. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Book Review - Nancy Mitford's Highland Fling

Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1931
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"I first came to Nancy Mitford my freshman year of college via her later books: Pigeon Pie, In Pursuit of Love, and Love in a Cold Climate, in that order. When I finally got my hands on Highland Fling, in grad school, I was deeply disappointed. The characters all struck me as deeply unpleasant; the writing was snide; and nothing really happened. (Other than a fire. There was a fire. But unlike a proper Gothic fire, where mad wives are immolated, here people just sat around in their pajamas and watched it burn, or ran in to rescue the odd Victorian knick-knack.)

Re-reading Highland Fling after a crash course on the 1920s was a very different experience. I still don’t love it as a novel, but as a testament about the mood of a certain group at a certain time, it’s incredibly telling, particularly vis a vis the clash between the generations and the self-imposed alienation of the younger, artsy set (while, of course, still taking advantage of things like wealthy relatives and free stays in castles).

It’s instructive to read Highland Fling in conjunction with In Pursuit of Love and Vile Bodies in conjunction with Brideshead. Both Mitford and Waugh got out, so to speak. They managed to rise above their Bright Young Origins, take a longer view, and mature into novelists who took a big picture view of their world. One gets the sense that many of their colleagues didn’t, that they remained trapped in a very small and recursive world.

What did you think of Highland Fling?" - Lauren Willig

Albert Gates has been in Paris making a name for himself as an artist. He is only returning to England, the land of creative blocks, because he has a show opening in the fall and he wishes to see his dear friends Walter and Sally Monteath as well as the venue for his exhibit. Turns out Walter and Sally are having a cash flow problem due to Walter's impecunious nature wherein he doesn't feel a lack of money should impact his good time. It doesn't help that his occupation is a poet, so there's not much cash coming in at all even when he gets work. Walter is trying to convince Sally and Albert to go on vacation to the Lido, an expense Sally says they can do without, when Sally is given a great opportunity.

Sally's Aunt Madge and Uncle Craig Craigdalloch, the Lord and Lady of Dulloch Castle, spend every August at said Castle entertaining a hunting and shooting party. But sadly Uncle Craig has been asked to go to Rhodesia and they are desperate to have someone host the house party, because cancelling it is out of the question. Sally agrees to play hostess, mainly because by living in Scotland for a few months her and Walter's outlay will be nothing, and by inviting Albert to entertain Walter and her friend Jane Dacre to entertain herself, it will be a jolly holiday. The bright young things don't quite mesh with the old horse and hounds military folk and their wives, but they do have quite a time making fun of them. Plus, to an artist and Victorian fanatic like Albert, the attics of the castle are strewn with fascinating relics that he can't wait to discover, of course with the help of the lovely Jane Dacre. It is quite a fun time in Scotland till the house starts on fire, but no one could have guessed that that would be the result of this jaunty trip.

My love of the Mitford sisters has lead me to read much on their diverse and odd lives. But reading nonfiction isn't quite the same as reading fiction, no matter how much that fiction may walk the line between reality and invention. I felt a profound relief in sinking back into my first love, Nancy's writing. In her writing Nancy has taken the bones of her life and made it into humorous fodder. Her writing is a light and breezy roman à clef. There is a bite to her wit, but there isn't a depressing darker side, there aren't sad family separations or miscarriages, just people jaunting about a castle in Scotland and watching men throw cabers, but viewed with a jaundiced eye.

The highlands were part of Nancy's growing up. Being shipped off to Scotland during various times in her life for holidays and hunts to sit in damp locales waiting for the guns to go off. While Nancy was born and raised a country girl, she really loved the glittering world of London into which she emerged after what must have felt like years of exile with her family. She was a bright young thing, and bright young things have a humorous take on this other life they are a part of, this horse and hounds set. Mockery is easiest to achieve with something that you love or have loved, hence teasing your family is so easy. Highland Fling is a loving tease of all that is Scotland and a hunting holiday, and it lightened my heart and made me wonder, once again, why so many of Nancy's books have been out of print for so long in the United States.

My favorite part of this book is a poem about the history of the tower that is part of Dulloch Castle called "The Lament of Lady Muscatel." Of course, the poetic history of Scotland is in the hands of Robbie Burns. Everybody knows Robbie Burns even if they don't realize it. The phrase "the best laid plans of mice and men/often go awry" is a modernization from Burns's poem "To a Mouse" which said "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley." Don't believe me? Just go ask Eddie Izzard. Well, I have a love hate relationship with Robbie Burns. Back in 2005 I had this kind of weird experience where I felt I was being stalked by Robbie Burns, and in the end it kind of relates back to Eddie Izzard. During the spring of 2005 I was traveling on the east coast, New York to Halifax. For some reason poetry was in the air, we wrote an ode to the town across the harbor from Halifax, Dartmouth, because of a lost wallet. This must have somehow summoned forth Robbie, because from then on out he was everywhere.

One rainy day I was wandering around Halifax with my friend Orelia and we found a statue to him in Victoria Gardens. On the drive back to New York we listened to The Proclaimers, and there were Burns references in their songs... then on the poets walk in New York, Burns again! The final appearance of Burns was on the drive home to Wisconsin while listening to every Eddie Izzard live show available and Burns reared his mousy head. Needless to say, I was a little sick of Robbie and have never quite forgiven him for haunting my every step. Therefore, Nancy, taking the piss out of him with her refrain "The pibroch i' the glen is boony/But waley, waley, wheer's ma Ronnie?" brought tears of joy and laughter to me. Also, the word waley entertains me to no end. But I think the fact that the poem is actually well done helps maintain that tease just right with a little love on one end and a little hate on the other.

The other aspect of the book I found fascinating is that the younger generation is obsessed with the Victoriana of their parents generation, ie the tat their parents hate. Albert, oh such an appropriate name, is so obsessed with the Victorian clutter that has been hidden away in Dulloch Castle that he goes about excavating everything he can lay his hands on from the dusty attics and moving it into the billiards room so he can document and photograph it for a little pamphlet he's writing. While this book was written in the thirties, it has a universal truth. The fact is style and taste is cyclical. When I was younger I remember loving sixties fashion, which my parents just hated, because they had had to live through it. I had a similar reaction when the eighties came back, and even more now that the nineties are. There's a nostalgia for the near past that we ourselves didn't live through. I personally had never thought much on this, thinking it was more a recent trend, but Nancy shows, without a doubt, this is something that has probably always been going on. And from a personal point of view we have to really feel for Lady Craigdalloch who views the destruction of the house as a good thing because at least all the horrid old Victorian tat is gone... she is not well pleased when she learns that Albert saved it all.

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