Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

As a penniless young widow, Viola has the unpleasant misfortune to be forced to live with her husband's family.  The Wither family have a miserable existence in a dull and oppressive house.  Mr Wither is an obsessive miser, his wife is a snobby routine freak and their two middle aged daughters, Tina and Madge, are equally unattractive.  Tina is in love with the chauffeur, Saxon, and manipulates her father into agreeing to driving lessons to allow her to spend more time in his company.Viola makes some effort to fit in but yearns for a more exciting life which to her is defined by the glamorous Spring family who live on the other side of the hill.  Victor Spring is wealthy and has the best parties, but that life is shallow and meaningless for his cousin, Hetty, who longs for a more realistic and literary lifestyle.  The charity ball is the only glimmer of excitement to Viola but is Victor the answer to her disappointing life? 
It's a vague variation of a Cinderella story, poor Viola with Victor as her Prince Charming.  Written in the late 1930's it's very much of it's time - the looming war, class distinctions and dashed expectations.  The style is rather arch and it has a knowing and rather dismissive humour.  I did enjoy it and found it particularly interesting from a historical aspect and as a comedy of errors.  However, the characters are not likable and don't earn any sympathy, I didn't warm to any of them...they are all grasping and self seeking, even the ones that end up having their "almost happy ever after".  Viola is weak and childish, Victor shallow and arrogant...I actually wanted them to have a gruesome end rather than a happy resolution...but maybe that reflects more badly on me than the characters?!!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith

Another No1 Lady Detective story, with Precious Ramotswe and all the usual characters. With this being (I believe) the tenth of the series, there’s no surprises and by now you should know just what you’re getting…a gentle, slightly old-fashioned meander through a slower and more moralistic way of life.
Mma Makutsi’s fiancé is tempted by the hussy Violet Sephotho who tries to seduce the financially secure Phuti in his Double Comfort furniture store. There’s a failing football team and the “death” of Mma Ramotswe’s little white van.
I’ve rated it as 4 star as it’s light and enjoyable. Not a lot happens in these books, but it’s written with humour and is a bit of a comfort read – easy, non-threatening and relates a world where the good always conquers evil or greed.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

How to Marry a Marquis by Julia Quinn

Elizabeth Hotchkiss lives with her younger siblings in gentile poverty; she is Lady Danbury’s companion, an irascible widow who rarely shows her softer side. Elizabeth decides something must be done about their situation and then amazingly she somehow stumbles across a small red book titled “How to marry a Marquis”.  Despite being embarrassed by such a find it meets her needs and her sister Susan quickly decides to use the book to help Elizabeth entrap a suitable suitor.

Lady Danbury requests her nephew James Sidlow, the Marquis of Riverdale to come to her house in disguise as her estate manager to investigate some letters trying to blackmail her.  James has considerable experience in undercover work through his previous experience as an agent for the war office.  James is intrigued by his aunt’s companion and when he discovers Elizabeth's secret plan he agrees to help her attract a husband.  However their practise and his teaching methods set off an attraction between them both.
Despite finding love and rescuing Elizabeth from the attentions of a dishonourable man, James is unable to resolve the issue of who the blackmailer is.  He decides to take matters in hand and to sort all both his aunt’s and his own personal problems out by taking a brief visit to London. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is forced to attend her Ladyship's masked ball and makes a new best friend in Caroline Ravencroft (nee Trent) this leads to Elizabeth discovering James’s true identity.
Elizabeth is horrified that a real Marquis has been making fun of her marriage intentions but both of the lovers’ friends and family conspire to bring them together. This book has an appearance from Caroline and Blake from the previous “spies” book
I really did like James in this book, he was far more appealing than the miserable Blake in the previous “spies” book and it was good to see him taking a larger role as in the earlier story he was merely a convenient matchmaker and constantly complained that the couples arguing was giving him a headache! He has much more humour but also brings a bit of “worldliness” to the quiet and rather dull life Elizabeth leads. It’s also great to see more Lady Danbury, who I loved in the Bridgerton books too – so this appealed on many levels for me, as I’m sure it does for other readers of Quinn’s books.
As a heroine, Elizabeth is a bit wet, there’s only so much wandering around rose gardens a girl can do and she really needs to get over herself and just admit that James is wonderful, despite being a Marquis! The idea of a regency version of “The Rules” is slightly bizarre, as is the everyone descends on the cottage scene - but overall this is one of the Quinn books (other than the first two of Bridgerton series) I enjoyed the most!

To Catch an Heiress by Julia Quinn

Caroline has only six weeks until she inherits her fortune, so far she’s had a succession of miserable guardians all after her money and she finally runs away when her vile cousin tries to compromise her into marriage on the orders of her guardian. She’s nowhere to go, but she’s a resourceful young woman and anywhere is better than the alternative.
When she is captured by Blake Ravenscroft, who mistakenly believes her to be the Spanish spy Carlotta De Leon, Caroline decides it’s a pretty convenient way to wait out for her twenty-first birthday. Blake has worked as an agent for the War Office for many years, but this is his final mission before he settles into a quieter life. Due to his personal demons he’s determined to bring the traitor to justice. As he tries to get to the truth, Caroline’s common sense and positive attitude comes to the fore and he has to fight a growing attraction to the unusual but disarming “spy”. However, when he and James Sidwell (his friend and colleague) discover Caroline’s true identity things become even more complicated.
Despite the unconventionality of her developing friendship with Blake and James, Caroline is the happiest she has ever been, she tries to make herself useful around the house and befriends all Blake’s staff to the detriment of his meals. She even manages to make the best of a bad situation when she has to live in the bathroom for a week to prevent detection when Blake’s sister, Penelope, makes an unannounced visit.
Again, it’s all frivolous and silly, but still enjoyable good fun, partly because the daft situations that the characters find themselves in are well written and are genuinely funny. Blake and Caroline squabble throughout the book and it still manages to maintain the pace throughout. Caroline is very entertaining and provides the fun that the rather morose and self-indulgent Blake needs in his life and he gives her the security and care she’s never had. As a hero, I did find Blake a bit lacking and preferred James, but he get’s his chance is the next book (review coming soon!)

Splendid by Julia Quinn

American heiress to a shipping company, Emma Dunston stays with her London relatives and plans to have a fun season before returning home to convince her father that she really can look after the business. However, when she meets the Duke of Ashbourne under bizarre circumstances which leads him to believe she's a kitchen maid, his interest is provoked, can the notorious rake be considering marriage?

This was Julia Quinn's debut book and it's taken me a while to get around to it. In an author's note she says that although it maybe isn't as polished as her later books it does have and exuberance about it, and I think that's true. Yes, the story is fairly insubstantial and there’s all the usual complications created by long standing prejudices and misunderstandings, but the characters (especially the more minor ones) are engaging and it doesn't take itself too seriously.
It's no secret that I rely on Julia Quinn as my "comfort reads" - when the world seems a nasty and demanding place, I find fluff and humour in her regency romances...no, they're not thought-provoking or improving, but provide warmth and an easy pleasant read with a happy ending!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Charming the Prince by Teresa Medeiros

So, I was pretty scathing about a previous Teresa Medeiros book a few days ago…in my defence, I got this one at the same time, and although I was expecting more of the same, it does pain me to give away books before at least giving them a go.  So I gave it a go!

It is more of the same really (and I won't bother with any more by this author - they're just not for me) – this time, it's medieval England and Lord Bannor returns from the wars in France to find he needs a mother for his huge brood of unruly children.  He sends out his friend Hollis to find a suitably maternal woman, who he won’t be attracted to (so he doesn’t have more children!)  Unfortunately for Bannor, Hollis returns with the beautiful Willow, who has been used as a skivvy by her evil-stepmother. Both Willow and Bannor are instantly attracted to each other, but spend most of the book fighting and squabbling, until they get their happy ending!
That’s really all I can say – it’s written as a fairy tale for grown ups, it’s silly, ridiculous romantic fluff and that’s fine, but the characters are one dimensional and there’s no surprises or twists to keep you interested.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Painting Mona Lisa by Jeanne Kalogridis

The assassination of Giuiliano de Medici and the vengeance of his brother Lorenzo create the backdrop to the story of the young Lisa Gherardini. She is the daughter of a wool merchant and his beautiful but haunted wife. When her mother dies in tragic circumstances, Lisa is drawn into the life of the powerful Medici family and the artists they patronise.
When I picked this book up I expected it to be a historical romance based around the painting of the Mona Lisa...what I got was a very in depth historical account of fifteenth century Florence (which I openly admit I'm pretty ignorant of) the downfall of the Medici family and the rise of Savonarola. The historical aspects are fascinating but somehow I remained pretty unmoved by the circumstances that Lisa finds herself in. It may be due to the main narrative being in first person from Lisa. Through the book she goes from a girl to a young, twice married mother, but that didn't really come across to me. Her feelings seemed to lack depth and emotion and so I was left feeling a bit cold. My other grizzle is that Leonardo (obviously he has to appear!) is a bit bland - yes, he's artistically brilliant in the novel but he main role is spy and runner for the Medici’s - maybe this was to emphasise an "everyman" aspect of his character, particularly when Lisa’s true parentage is revealed, but there was little acknowledgement of his sheer genius.
Interesting, but slow and heavy going in some sections, this was not helped by weak character development in Lisa

Friday, 9 April 2010

Love Letters by Katie Fforde

Laura has managed to reach her mid twenties without too much excitement...she has her ideal, but poorly paid job in an independent book shop, which is due to be closed. She meets the flamboyant agent Eleanora who convinces her to help her niece organise a literary festival which includes convincing her favourite Irish author to take part. Throughout the story she spreads her wings but also falls in love with the elusive Dermot. Will she find her own happily ever after?!
Okay - I loved Katie Fforde's early books which were witty and didn't rely on stereotypes...sadly, I've found her last couple of books to be (dare I say it?) dull.  One of the main problems is that Laura is soooo boring. Here's a girl who's read and ironed her way through university and although she assures us she had friends, there's no evidence within this book. She's clinging to her virginity due to lack of opportunity, has no life experience whatsoever, a terrible wardrobe and no social life...Fforde relies on the chick-lit favourite of gay best friend to try and add interest, but it doesn't wash. As Laura is losing her job she takes on the challenge of organising a literary festival, this expands her horizons to going to Ireland to convince the famous but reclusive Dermot to take part. That whole affair seems a bit sordid and the addition of her drunkenness just makes it worse. The repeated reminders of her naivety and lack of worldliness becomes a real drag.
However, through the festival Laura gains the confidence to talk to school children, help in a writing course, introduce speakers and attend meetings – I didn’t feel that the range of experiences that made her more “confident” actually worked…lets face it, it’s not that unusual for women to do these things as part of everyday life!
Dermot has his moments as a romantic hero, but is fairly thinly drawn and disappears for large sections of the book. From the early parts of the story I also imagined him to be at least mid forties, but then it's thrown in that he's only thirty-five! That just jarred with the descriptions of him. Throw in a minor stately home, girlfriend with "wacky" pink hair and corresponding personality, unsupportive parents and an amazing dream job handed on a plate and that sums up the whole plot.
The only character of interest was Eleanora, who is a mere plot device to make Laura's life work, but had the potential to be so much more. The book does describe what happens in literacy festivals very well, but I really didn't care. Everyone involved in the festival was just too minor and uninteresting to engage with

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Bride and the Beast by Teresa Medeiros

I'm going to keep this one short...I'm off work and it's a retelling (again) of Beauty and the Beast! By now if you've been keeping up with my whims, (and I know there’s at least two people out there who do!!) Firstly, I tend to have indulgent, silly reads when I'm on holiday and secondly, I can't resist any reworking of my favourite fairy tale! (So that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!)
However, this has to be one of the most ridiculous - the story set in old Scotland, the beast is a self styled Laird with a thirst for revenge and our Beauty being a pretty but slightly overweight, mouthy girl with a mad father and three sisters who keep the male population of the village entertained! It's bad, but did make me smile at certain points, and it was a swap - so I didn't pay more than postage for it - so it just scrapes two stars – and I’m being kind!

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn

Julia Grey takes a huge risk and decides to go uninvited with her sister, Portia to Nicholas Brisbane’s new estate, Grimsgrave Manor. Her brother is horrified at her lack of decorum but after having no contact from him since their last investigation, this is her last chance to see if Brisbane is going to act upon his obvious feelings for her.
When they finally arrive in Yorkshire, things are not as she expected. The estate is falling into ruin on a bleak and inhospitable moor; surprisingly it is also occupied by the aloof women of the Allenby family. Brisbane remains secretive and elusive and quickly disappears shortly after her arrival, but it becomes clear that Brisbane and the Allenby’s have a long and bitter history. Danger, mystery and local legend intrigue Julia but she remains confused about her future with Brisbane.
This is the third in the series, and probably my least favourite...
Unfortunately it’s all a bit too Bronte for my taste (never been a huge fan of Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff is NOT brooding, he’s just barbaric!) yes, the wildness of the moor and the insular atmosphere of the Manor is very well done, but it made for rather dull reading at times, particular when Brisbane is out of the picture and the story relied on the Allenby’s. The mystery was pretty easy to suss but also quite dark and sinister, again fitting with the atmosphere, but not especially engaging.
Due to the isolated setting I missed the March family and their humour, I though Bellmont’s fury at the opening was very well done, but Julia seems to become less interesting when not surrounded by her quirky family. Sadly, Portia (due to her own problems within the plot) was also reduced to a shadow of her former personality and so didn’t provide any spark!
Brisbane had flashes of brilliance, but his insistence on trying to push Julia away and the constant issue of not marrying without his own fortune became a bit wearing. I’m surprised a writer with such energy and skill would rely on such a cliché as the main character declaring the extent of her love on the hero’s deathbed, too. (Or maybe I just read too many books with similar themes?!!)
Overall, I’ve given it 4 stars – but only just! I hope the resolution of the romance between Julia and Brisbane doesn’t mean this is the end of the series, as I do want to read more…it’s just the general tone of this was a bit too solemn and lacked sparkle for me.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn

The second in the series about Lady Julia Grey. This time the story moves on from the terrible house fire caused when she confronted her husband’s murderer. She's had a relaxing few months in Italy with her brothers, Lysander and Plum and their charming friend Alessandro. They are ordered back to England for Christmas by their father when he hears of Lysander's unexpected marriage to the beautiful and fiery Violante.
They arrive back in the midst of a large pre-Christmas house party where the guests include large numbers of her family but also the intriguing Nicholas Brisbane and his new fiancée. Julia can't deny she's still attracted to him, but the murder of the local curate, the confession by her cousin and her father's insistence that she assists Brisbane in the investigation take precedence.
Lady Julia seems a more complete character in this book and amongst her bizarre and beguiling family seems more natural, relaxed and the author doesn't have to create too many of the "clever, spiky" conversations that dotted through the first book. There's far less emphasis on her looks, clothes and personal foibles that makes her even more likeable and engaging.
Her family are great...and as I hoped they are developing into far more rounded and substantial people. Portia remains a gem and long may she appear alongside Julia. The bizarre and slightly bitter Aunt Dorcas added humour as did the image of what she got up to when she left the house! Sadly, Aquinas didn't appear as much, but I still have great hopes for him!
Nicholas Brisbane, again, is easier to like in this book as there is less emphasis on his many skills and virtues. I appreciate as the first in the series the author wanted to set her stall out and give a lot of information, but although he remains a very attractive hero with small aspects of the "man of mystery" being revealed. The ongoing, “will they, won't they” romantic aspect is fine with me and allows the focus of the book to be on the characters and their motives for murder. Sadly Alessandro, although beautiful to look at could never be the romantic interest for Julia.
The actual mystery within the novel is less dark and convoluted than in the first one and again, I think this suits the house party setting and a more relaxed Julia.
Due to all the above I've given this one an extra half star as I thought it was more enjoyable and fun and I'm on with reading the third in the series already. I had great hopes of it filling the gap left by Amelia Peabody and I hope it remains in that style just without the Egyptology aspect.