From Trafalgar House to Knightsbridge

After reading Jane Austen’s unfinished last novel, Sanditon, for the Austenprose read-along, I was left with the need to know more about the characters that populated that quiet seaside resort town. I had put off reading Sanditon for that very reason–I knew that when I read it, I would be left wanting more and there would be no more to be had. Like the last bite of a wonderful desert, I would cherish the sweetness of that last bite but would be left unsatisfied. Like Austen’s other novels, Sanditon offers a look at the little dramas that mark small-town living. However, this time, Austen takes her readers away from the country to the coast when the observant Charlotte Heywood is invited to stay with the Parkers in their home in Sanditon, a budding seaside resort town that Mr. Parker hopes will become as lucrative as the more well-known bathing spots. In Sanditon, Charlotte is introduced to a fascinating cast of characters, from hypochondriacs to impoverished, but highly romantic wards. Sadly, we only get to know these characters briefly before the fragment ends.

However, in 1975, Marie Dobbs, under the pen name “Another Lady,” took up the challenge to complete Austen’s Sanditon and the result is a delightful and satisfying treat. Another Lady takes up her pen where Austen left off and continues the tale. There is no jarring shift in the narrative style, Another Lady adopts the language and style of Austen, developing the plot and characters in a careful and believable manner. Her Sanditon has all the fun and novelty of Catherine Morland’s adventures, Fanny Price’s astute observations, and the eventfulness Emma’s of close-knit town life.

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After finishing Sanditon, I was in the mood for another social comedy, so I took up Ada Leverson’s Love’s Shadow (received from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program). A close friend of Oscar Wilde’s, Leverson’s style and tone is similar to Wilde’s biting, quick wit. Love’s Shadow offers an engaging look at the ludicrous things we do for love. Like Wilde, Leverson offers a meddlesome cast of characters whose actions only serve to confuse one another. At the heart of the story are the Ottleys, Bruce and Edith, a very ordinary middle-class Edwardian couple wishing for a little more excitement in their very ordinary lives. Edith’s friend, Hyacinth Verney has all the excitement and independence that Edith craves, but only wants for the attention of Cecil Reeve, a young man who only has eyes for a much older woman who refuses to indulge his fancy.

Love’s Shadow is a fast-paced, amusing romp, Leverson revealing the foibles of her characters in a series of vignettes. It almost reminds me of Colette’s Claudine and Annie, particularly the dissatisfaction that seems to accompany love as experienced by Edith and Hyacinth.

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We Three Fossils

After watching the BBC film adaptation of Neol Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (2007), I was very eager to read the novel.

Ballet Shoes is the story of three special Fossils–Pauline, Petrova, and Posy–orphan girls adopted by an adventurous fossil collector.

When Great-Uncle Matthew, Gum for short, sets off on his latest adventure, his niece Sylvia and her Nana expect that he will break his word and send more fossils to their already cluttered home, but they never imagined that those fossils would arrive in the form of baby girls. Pauline, the eldest, was rescued from a shipwreck and delivered by Gum to the house on Cromwell Road. Petrova was found in Russia, the daughter of a poor man who was unable to care for her; she was sent by post, as the reaction to Pauline’s arrival decided Gum against any more personal deliveries. While Posy, the daughter of a poor dancer, is delivered with a pair of dainty ballet shoes. Left to their own devices, Sylvia and Nana do the best they can to raise the girls while their guardian is away, finding ways to keep the girls happy, healthy, and educated with the money left to Sylvia in trust.

When money becomes scarce in the Fossil household, Sylvia decides to take in boarders to supplement the household income, but the ragtag group of strangers soon becomes a family. The girls soon find themselves the object of everyone’s concern when they enroll as charity students at the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, where Pauline and Posy soon find their niche, though Petrova would rather be a mechanic than a dancer. Vowing to put their names in the history books (because it is their own and no one can say it is because of their grandfathers), Pauline, Petrova, and Posy find that sometimes it takes hard work to make your dreams come true.

Ballet Shoes is the sort of book that I would have adored growing up. It has everything that I loved in children’s stories–girls facing great odds and coming out on top, orphans (oh boy, did I read a lot of books about orphans), acting and dancing, and the idea that children can learn to be themselves without their parents telling them what to do. This was such a fun read; in many ways the Fossils reminded me of the Mortmains in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (one of my favorites), though slightly less dysfunctional. A great read for little girls and little girls at heart.

A Question of Faith

Last week, I received The Night’s Dark Shade by Elena Maria Vidal for review.

A historical romance set in 13th century France, The Night’s Dark Shade is an engrossing tale about faith, honor, and courtly love.

In the wake of the loss of her family and her  betrothed, Lady Raphaëlle finds herself thrust into a world that challenges everything she believes in. Drawn into an arranged marriage with her cousin, Raymond, the young Vicomtesse de Miramande is placed under the guardianship of her uncle, the Baron de Marcadeau. Hopeful and eager to make the most of her situation, Raphaëlle is disappointed to find that all is not as she believed. Set upon by a band of brigands while traveling to her uncle’s estate, Raphaëlle meets the dashing Sir Martin de Revel-Saissac, a knight of the Hospitaller order. This fateful meeting awakens Raphaëlle’s sense of passion and longing, an awakening that brings with it a restlessness and sudden awareness of her position as a female.

Struggling between duty and love, Raphaëlle is unwittingly drawn into a world marked by heresy and fanaticism. Under the auspices of friendship, Raphaëlle is beguiled by her aunt, the Lady Esclarmonde, a Perfecta of the Cathar sect who wants to ensure that  her son’s marriage will prove advantageous to the Cathar. Unwilling to compromise her Christian faith and wishing to annul her betrothal, Raphaëlle seeks the aid of her cousin Bertrand and Sir Martin, and soon finds herself placed in the custody of Sir Jacques d’ Orly, King Louis IX’s loyal liege.

Braving danger and persecution, Raphaëlle emerges as a strong and thoughtful character, a woman certain of her virtue and moral stance.

This novel drew me in from the very first page and put me in mind of the Lais of Marie de France. Raphaëlle is a charming character whose innocence and strong opinions make her a worthy lady and a wonderful protagonist. The history of the Cathari is fascinating and lends a darkness to the tale that adds a thrilling sense of mystery to Raphaëlle’s journey.

I highly recommend this novel for readers interested in fiction about medieval women’s lives and courtly love.

with cherries on top

Cherry Cheesecake MurderI was in the mood for a light, fun read this week, so I checked out Joanne Fluke’s Cherry Cheesecake Murder–a read as sweet as the desert after which it was named.

The little town of Lake Eden gets caught up in a blur of excitement when a famous Hollywood director decides to film on Main Street. Local baker and amateur sleuth, Hannah Swensen finds herself drawn into the mix when an old college buddy turns out to be the film’s writer. But it seems that the real drama concerns the film’s director, womanizer and perfectionist, Dean Lawrence. When a murder occurs on the set, it’s up to Hannah to put her best snooping skills to use and solve the mystery.

Other than a few Miss Marples, I haven’t read many mysteries. My selection was based entirely on the cheesecake illustration on the cover. I had no idea what I was getting into but the idea of a mystery with recipes was enough for me.

I did not realize at the time that this is the 7th volume in Fluke’s Hannah Swenson series, but I had no trouble becoming familiar with the characters and the main plot did not require continuity within the series.

Overall, the novel was an enjoyable, quick read and just what I expected–a light and fluffy read that made me want to bake everytime I came across a recipe.

Much of the novel explored the relationships between Hannah, her family, her beaus, and the people of Lake Eden, so much of the novel didn’t seem to be a mystery. The whodunit plot was a bit predictable, but no less enjoyable because of it.

What’s your favorite book?

It’s always hard for me to answer when someone asks, “So, what’s your favorite book?” It’s never a matter of not having a favorite, the thing is that I have too many. The idea that someone can have a single favorite book seems sad to me–there are so many wonderful books to experience, how can you possible have just the one favorite? Maybe I’m just a naive bibliophile, but I can’t pick one. I may answer Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion, I may just say that I love Harry Potter, but usually I just answer to get people to stop asking.

Last weekend, my b-chan asked me what my favorite book is and I answered honestly: I don’t have one. But you love to read, he replied. How can you not have one? It’s precisely because I love to read that I don’t, because there are too many to choose from.

Then he asked, Is there a book that you read over and over again?

I suppose this is a better way of asking me what my favorites are; there are many books that I re-read periodically, and these are usually the ones that I cite as favorites when asked. I love Robin McKinley’s Beauty. I’ve read it several times. Part of my graduate thesis was on Beauty, and even after reading it over five times during a six month span, and filling a notebook with notes on every little detail relating to Beauty’s heroism, I still enjoy reading this book.

That said, if it really comes down to it, these are the books that I can call my “Favorites,” if only because I never tire of them.

  • The Austens: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion
  • Beauty by Robin McKinley
  • Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  • The China Garden by Liz Berry
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • the Anne of Green Gables books by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding- always make me laugh
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (I love the series, but I prefer to re-read the first book)
  • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (I’ve been meaning to re-read this one again, it’s been a while)
  • the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

on a quest

I am in the mood for a good fantasy novel, but I have a few requirements that are making the search a bit difficult.

I want:

  • a strong female protagonist
  • a magical element featuring Fae/Sidhe, but not vampires/werewolves. I am not looking for another Twilight
  • High fantasy or urban dark fantasy
  • a love story is fine but I do not want a romance novel
  • general fantasy fiction or YA

I’m thinking something similar to Holly Black’s Tithe or the kind of strong female characters found in Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce’s novels.

I will gladly take all recommendations 🙂

from the ashes

9780312384777I was introduced to the works of Gail Tsukiyama a little over a year ago when I signed up to take a course on character analysis. After reading The Samurai’s Garden, I was eager to read more of Tsukiyama’s works but became sidetracked with other books in the “to read” pile(s). Last week, I finally picked up the copy of The Street of a Thousand Blossoms that had been waiting on my shelf for far too long.

Part of what I love about Tsukiyama’s writing is that she creates a kind of tapestry of lives, her characters becoming entwined and revealing the complexities of the human condition. Tsukiyama’s lyrical prose is bittersweet, capturing the imagination with its balance of joy and tragedy.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms presents a tableau, weaving together the tales of brothers Hiroshi and Kenji, and sisters Haru and Aki. For Hiroshi, the dream of becoming a sumo champion represents the path by which he can restore the spirit of the Japan. Kenji finds peace in mask-making, the art of Noh providing him with the means of expression that he lacked as a child. For Haru and Aki the pride of Japan and tradition take on a different meaning. Haru finds hope after the loss of her mother in the bright green promise of a sapling, turning to nature and botany to find her peace, while Aki turns inward, becoming the silent ghost of the piece as she falls into a deep depression and turns to her mother’s picture for solace. As their four stories become one, the reader is drawn into a tale about honor and tradition, inspiration and regret.

Fairytale ending

After 10 volumes (and several half volumes) Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series has finally reached an end.34102897

Forever Princess is Cabot’s final installment in the series and manages to bring Mia’s story to a very satisfying end.

Returning to AEHS in the final weeks of Mia’s senior year, the story takes an unexpected shift, picking up nearly two years after Princess Mia ended.

Almost eighteen, awaiting to see if her father will win the first democratic election held in Genovia (after all, Mia is the one who introduced democracy to Genovia), trying to publish her first romance novel (under a pseudonym, of course), choosing a college that did not accept her because of her title, and dreading a prom invite from her too-perfect-to-be-true boyfriend, Mia is overwhelmed. A state that is not helped by Michael’s sudden return as a successful entrepreneur and scientist, and Lilly’s suspicious attempts to be nice to her.

Lies become Mia’s form of coping until these become so easy that Mia starts to believe them herself, resulting in a series of bad decisions that only complicate matters further. However, Mia soon learns that, as Dr. Knutz says, sometimes a horse only looks good on paper. Whatever that means.

Like other series that I have been following for years, I really wanted The Princess Diaries to end well and Meg Cabot did not disappoint. I was pleased that the novel picked up two years after the last installment, it made for a nice change and introduced a much more mature Mia, who may still have a lot to learn about being a princess, but is well on her way to becoming a strong, independent woman. That is one of the aspects that I most enjoyed about the series–Mia is no one’s idea of the perfect princess. She is almost never calm and collected, but then her diary would not be half as interesting if she were the perfect model of feminine poise.

drowning in ink

Weren’t all books ultimately related? After all, the same letters filled them, just arranged in a different order. Which meant that, in a certain way, every book was contained in every other!

Cornelia Funke, Inkdeath, US edition p.444

I picked up Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart a few years ago after a friend suggested that it was the perfect book for me – what bibliophile would not be intrigued by the thought of a book about books? My first foray into the Inkworld was slow, it took a few chapters for me to become truly involved with the story, but I ended up loving the story in the same way that I love the promise of magic offered by Narnia.

In found Inkspell, the second in the series, to be just as compelling as Inkheart as it continued to explore the notion of the power of storytelling and the line between the real and the imagined.

inkdeath

Reiterating the notion that words have a power all their own, Inkdeath presents a world where words can determine life and death, and blur the line betwen what is and what can be. Mo the bookbinder still inhabits the role of the Bluejay, becoming more than himself as he is drawn further into Fenoglio’s story. However, Meggie, his daughter and the heroine of the first two books, plays a lesser role in this tale, as Resa, her mother, becomes a crucial player in the Bluejay’s quest to restore the balance between words and Death.

Death is at the heart of this tale both thematically and as a character. Female in form and the one to have the final word, Death is the main agent in this story.

Inkdeath offered a satisfying conclusion to the series, but I found it a bit overwhelming at times. Funke has a way of writing villains who are evil in a way that goes beyond the type of “Big Baddie” generally expected in children’s books. Funke’s main villains — Capricorn, the Adderhead, and Orpheus — rely on psychological torture to torment their victims in a way that surpasses the physical violence that the lesser villains –such as Basta and the Piper — cannot match. Orpheus is an especially nasty character. Skilled in the same art as Mo, Orpheus too can control words and uses them to meet his own ends. There is a particular scene where Orpheus uses language to draw out the Bluejay’s fears, resulting in one of the more poignant scenes of mental torture in the novel.

On a sidenote… I can’t wait for the Inkheart movie as I just read this review which made me feel very optimistic about the production.

a laundress and an heiress

Netflix is usually pretty good about recommending period films for me to watch, more often than not based on books… so I can thank it for a few recent discoveries, including Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and now Catherine Cookson’s The Black Velvet Gown.

After watching the ITV adaptation of the novel, I felt that the film only touched the surface of the tale and left a lot to be desired. Therefore, in a very Hermione-esque fashion, I turned to the library. And there were dozens of Cookson novels, including The Black Velvet Gown.

As I thought, the film did not do justice to what is an engaging and captivating novel about class conflict, the power of education, and the position of women in Victorian England.

Cookson’s novel tells the tale of Riah Millican’s struggle to survive as a widowed mother of four in the Northern English countryside. Born in a seaport town, Riah married an outsider from the coal pits of the North, but wants more for her children than the sea or the pit. Taught to read and write by her husband, Riah and her children possess more education than most of the members of the lower class. Not only are they educated, her children have never been forced to work in the pits. Consequently, most of the other miners frown upon the Millican family, regarding them as snobs and social-climbers. Rejected by her neighbors when her husband dies, Riah is forced to return to the seaside port she so hated as a child, until an opportunity arises that changes her family forever.

Moving to the country, Riah finds employment as a housekeeper in the home of Percival Miller, gentleman and recluse. Initially refusing to suffer the presence of Riah’s children, the master soon becomes taken with Riah’s children, particularly her son Davey, and makes it his duty to further their education. However, it is Biddy, Riah’s eldest daughter, not Davey who takes to the plan, exhibiting an insatiable desire to learn that raises her far above her station, if only in education.

The master’s scheme irrevocably alters the Millican family and allows them to learn the meaning of knowledge and power as Biddy rises from her position as an abused laundress – the lowest member of the rigid hierarchy that exists among the servants at the local great house where she is sent into service – to establish herself as the intellectual equal (and often superior) of the members of the household that she serves.