Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Lady Never Lies, by Juliana Gray

Title: A Lady Never LiesLadyNeverLies
Author: Juliana Gray
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 311
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This is a historical romance with a unique premise, all the more surprising since it is, in fact, loosely borrowed from Shakespeare. Gray transposes the improbable plot of Love’s Labour’s Lost to 1890, and somehow, it works — largely because she doesn’t feel compelled to hold to it too strictly, allowing the “Little Academe” of Navarre to inspire her work without hemming it in. Phineas Burke, a successful scientist whose inventions have made him quite wealthy, convinces his friend the Duke of Wallingford and the Duke’s younger brother, Roland, to spend a year with him at a remote Italian villa, away from the torments of matchmaking mamas and the evils of over-indulgence. Finn wants to spend the year perfecting the engine for his electric automobile so that he can enter it in a race in Rome.

Enter the ladies. Thanks to a mix-up (or to deliberate interference on the part of the real estate broker?), the three gentlemen have rented the same estate as Lady Alexandra Morley, her sister Abigail, and her friend Lady Lilibet Somerton. Alexandra has fled England ahead of the creditors left to her by her late husband and a nephew with catastrophically poor investment strategies. Lilibet has fled an abusive husband,  with her five-year-old son in tow, and while her circumstances are not detailed yet, I’m sure they will be in her book. Stuck together for the foreseeable future, the two groups make a bet on which will crack and head back to England first. Or which will break their vows of chastity and isolation first? It’s a little blurry just what, exactly, constitutes losing the bet.

There are hijinks worthy of Shakespeare throughout the book, as Finn and Alexandra experience a powerful attraction to each other but have to hide it from the others in the house. Finn expects to hate socialite Alexandra, but finds himself charmed by her forthright nature and startling intelligence. They are both imperfect characters with shady pasts, but their ragged edges fit together nicely. There’s also a charming air of rustic mystery surrounding the story, as the housekeeper and groundskeeper interfere freely with everyone’s business, occasionally dropping hints about an old curse upon the villa that needs to be broken — I can only assume we’ll be hearing more about that later on.

There are a few things that don’t come together, and I honestly don’t know if they’ll get better treatment in the remaining two books or not. The whole concept of the bet is sort of flimsy, as is Alexandra’s decision to sort-of-kind-of-not-really engage in industrial espionage. Turns out some of her nephew’s investments were in an automobile company, and she half-heartedly tries to spy on Finn to get some ideas that might save the company… but you never get the feeling that she actually has strong intent there, and the story swerves away from it pretty quickly. The chemistry between Finn and Alexandra carries us along far better than that abortive attempt at intrigue.

Fortunately, Gray doesn’t pull Shakespeare’s ending stunt on us, so don’t worry that you’ll finish this book feeling as awkwardly interrupted as I always do at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost. My biggest complaint is that I feel it could’ve been longer — the standard 370-380 pages rather than this slightly scant 311 would’ve given a little more room for character exploration. I totally believed in Alexandra’s and Finn’s attraction to and affection for each other, but the initial draw felt a little lacking. It also might have smoothed over some of the leaps in the timeline — the book hops along rapidly, but I could’ve done with a bit more idling, particularly at the beginning, to see them all settle into the house rather than jumping so soon to a month into their tenancy. But — I’m someone who likes world-building a lot, whether fantasy or historical, so I will always permit an author that indulgence. I know not everyone’s patience runs so long, and so many readers might appreciate the rapid pace of the novel.

I found the premise of this story refreshing, both in terms of the time period and the details behind the plotline. Gray does herself some great favours by breaking the mold in those ways, putting us in Italy rather than England (even with English characters) and moving to the opposite end of the century. It gives her more room to play, I think, and she clearly has had a lot of fun with it. She sprinkles the story with as much historical veracity as invention and artistic license, and sharp-eyed history buffs will enjoy the cameos.

I also appreciated that Gray didn’t give away everything with regards to the other couples. We sort of see them dash in and out as teasers, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of overlap in what scenes Gray chooses to show us in this book. I believe that will help this series escape some of the problems I had with Julia Quinn’s Dukes of Wyndham duologyA Lady Never Lies was a fun read, unusual for a historical romance but not in ways that were distracting or disturbing, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Title: Wolf HallWolfHall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 608 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

Another book I’m honestly not quite sure how I feel about. I know that it’s the sort of book I should’ve eaten up with a spoon — one of my favourite historical eras, told from the perspective of a “side character” with a fascinating story of his own — and yet, somehow, it just didn’t take for me.

Wolf Hall tells the story of Henry VIII from the viewpoint of one of his most trusted advisers, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell begins the story as the much-abused son of a Putney blacksmith who leaves home to bounce around the Continent for a while before returning and somehow landing a position with the then-triumphant Cardinal Wolsey. After the prologue section showing Cromwell’s early life, Mantel dives right in to the sequence of events that will eventually lead to the English Reformation. King Henry VIII is dissatisfied — with his position on the world stage, with his inability to get an heir, with his once-lovely but now dour and dumpy Spanish wife. He sets Wolsey to fixing all of his problems, as Wolsey has done pretty much since the start of Henry’s reign. Attached to Wolsey’s household, Cromwell’s fortunes also rise — but as Wolsey starts to fall, when he can’t accomplish Henry’s wishes fast enough (and when he makes an enemy out of Lady Anne Boleyn), Cromwell finds himself in a difficult situation, not wanting to betray the man to whom he owes so much, but not wanting to crash and burn, either. Watching Cromwell nimbly navigate the turbulent waters of political intrigue — particularly when the Boleyns start getting involved — is most of the excitement in this book.

But what I like best about it is instead its depiction of life in London as a member of the middle class during Henry’s reign, since so many books focus only on the royal court (excusable, since what a court it was, but still). As Cromwell bounces back and forth between the two worlds, we get to see the contrast. We also watch Cromwell build a home and a family, things that are more important to him than he generally lets on, cultivating the public image of a hardened and devious Machiavel. But he cherishes his home life, and the losses he suffers all too frequently affect him deeply. The economy and status marks of Londoners are wonderful to observe as well — how they aped the court and gossipped about them, but frequently held a different moral standard. Cromwell there stands in stark contrast to Thomas More, another up-jumped adviser to the king, whose home life is supposed to be a model of ideal Christian lifestyle, with a reality that seems almost unendurably cruel.

So, in that regard, it was a compelling novel. But there were some things that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not a fan of historical fiction told in the present tense. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of present-tense fiction in most instances, but for some reason, in historicals, it bothers me more significantly. It didn’t help that Mantel’s pronouns had unspecific antecedents often enough to be a major distraction. So often she would jump from talking about one character to offering Cromwell’s viewpoint or experience, but without any transition — and if both characters were “he”s, as was typically the case, it was jarring and made the narrative a little disjointed.

Hall also includes a lot of historical rumours that were either known to be completely unfounded in their own time or else were inventions of later centuries looking back on the Tudor era. It’s hard to tell whether Hall means this to be indicative of the rumour mill of 16th-century England — or whether it’s a flaw in her own historical knowledge, if she’s buying into the hype without stripping away the falsities. I honestly don’t know which is the case, and that’s the problem. I want to believe it’s the former, that she’s presenting a semi-satirical commentary on the transmission of information — but since I can’t tell for sure if that’s what she’s doing, then I have to consider it a flaw in the writing either way.

I am also just, personally, a big fan of Anne Boleyn. And of Catherine of Aragon. (The two opinions are not as necessarily mutually exclusive as you might imagine). This book isn’t a fan of either. Anne is a complete shrew, Catherine a dullard. None of the Boleyns come off well, really — brother George is a fop, father Thomas is a pompous grasper, and Uncle Norfolk has a hot temper and a viciously inventive vocabulary (he’s hilarious, though, and he may be my favourite character for that alone). Sister Mary fares a little better, more a pawn than an agent and at the mercy of her sister and father, but she still displays a pragmatic streak that Mantel paints in a less-than-flattering light. Queen Catherine appears infrequently and never to good effect, and Princess Mary is generally described as weak both of body and mind — hugely unfair to them both, since they were both pretty incredible women, whatever their faults. Nor is Wolf Hall a fan of Thomas More, though I’m okay with that, having always thought him a bit too much of a pompous stick. And it’s far too forgiving of Henry, who I, frankly, view as the villain in this entire story. That, at least, I can understand, from Cromwell’s point of view — though you would think that a man as keen and calculating as Cromwell wouldn’t be quite so mentally permissive of his king’s really obvious foibles. Mantel makes some gestures in that direction, with Cromwell musing on how “you choose your prince” and then stick with him, but ultimately, there’s still just a little too much adoring glitter thrown on a man I’ve always seen as self-deceptive to the point of total immorality. I think, with all of the above characters, Mantel falls into the same trap: in attempting to flesh out Cromwell, she ends up flattening everyone else.

On the whole, this book definitely has some great stuff in it, and I love getting to see the story from a new viewpoint. I think the technical merit of the work leaves a lot to be desired, however. I understand that she’s continuing this as a series (presumably through Cromwell’s fall and death), and I don’t know whether or not I’ll pick up the others.

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The Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr Cavendish, I Presume, by Julia Quinn

Title: The Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr Cavendish, I PresumeLostDukeofWyndham
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 371 pages / 370 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 3 stars / 2.5 stars

Another double-header! These books are so closely interlinked that it just makes sense to review them as one — and, honestly, that’s the biggest problem with them. Julia Quinn chose to tell the same story twice, from different viewpoints — and while I admire the effort and like the idea, the execution was a little lackluster. The second book repeats far too much information and too many conversations. I think these stories better could’ve been combined into one slightly longer book, still exploring both couples, but unfortunately that’s not the way the romance novel publishing industry works.MrCavendish

So how do we end up with these two intertwined stories? Thanks to the heroes. Jack Audley is a highwayman who waylays the Dowager Duchess of Wyndham and her companion, Grace, on their way home one night — trouble is, the Dowager recognises him as the spitting image of her second son, who died traveling from Ireland to England years earlier. Her first son having also died without issue, the title is currently held by Thomas, the son of her third son. Thomas is engaged to marry Amelia, a neighboring daughter of an earl, but has sort of been dragging his feet on the matter. In order to figure out which of the two men is the real Duke of Wyndham, the Dowager insists on dragging everyone to Ireland to find out if John’s parents were legally married, which will settle the matter. So, there we are: two heroes, two heroines, one story.

I like Jack and Grace’s story better, though I don’t know if that’s because Thomas and Amelia’s story comes second, and thus it always feels like retread. Jack and Grace have a charming “love at first sight” dynamic. I think, for modern readers, that concept can often fall flat if not handled properly, but Quinn weaves them through it rather well. There’s a tenderness to them, along with the magnetic passion that you would expect from such a sudden attraction. Jack’s emotional journey is an interesting one, as we get to explore both the circumstances that led to him becoming a highwayman and his knee-jerk reaction to reject the life of entwined luxury and responsibility that the dukedom implies. Grace, too, has bounced up and down the social ladder in her life, and it’s one of the things that matches them nicely. It’s also a lot of fun to watch Grace deal with the decidedly unpleasant Dowager Duchess (such a contrast to JQ’s favourite dragon, Lady Danbury). The Lost Duke feels, on the whole, to be the stronger book.

The trap that JQ falls into with Mr Cavendish is in not spending enough time with Thomas, who does know what’s going on, and instead leaving the reader more often with Amelia, who is totally clueless for two thirds of the book. She’s assuming the reader knows what’s going on, as I imagine most do, but it’s still odd to be put into the head of someone so utterly out of the loop for the bulk of the story. What’s amazing there is that, rather than filling the gaps with new incidents, JQ still manages to repeat so much material — generally conversations with Grace or conversations Amelia overhears. The story between her and Thomas also just feels less genuine to me. I could believe their growing to attraction if, say, he’d been engaged to her yet never actually met her — but clearly he sees her all the time. So why does the spark not get set off till now? It doesn’t help that Thomas is a reserved, detached sort of person, and that doesn’t change much when we get inside his head. He isn’t a bad person, but he isn’t tremendously likable, either, and that makes his part of the story more difficult to enjoy.

So, ultimately, I don’t think this experiment in storytelling format worked as well as JQ intended it to. I’m not against the idea on principle, but the approach needs to be different, offering truly divergent perspectives on the same events. I agree with other reviews I’ve seen suggesting that the two books not be read back-to-back, as was probably my mistake with this re-read, because you really will feel the retread quite keenly. But, then again, I don’t know that they improve all that much with greater separation, either.

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Darcy and Elizabeth: Days and Nights at Pemberley, by Linda Berdoll

Title: Darcy & Elizabeth: Days and Nights at PemberleyDarcyElizabeth
Author: Linda Berdoll
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 448 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read: Re-Read, though clearly it stuck in my mind very little
Rating: 2 stars, barely

Unfortunately, while Berdoll’s first Pride and Prejudice sequel was at least entertaining, if flawed, the follow-up falls completely flat. This book was badly in want of better editing. The first one hundred pages are a recap of the previous book — far too much time to spend catching readers back up, and poorly orchestrated, at that. Berdoll jumps to and fro in her own timeline without any solid anchoring, such that it becomes difficult to follow the sequence of events. This problem persists throughout the book. Berdoll frequently jumps back months or even years to visit other characters, and while this narrative device can work, her efforts are far from seamless. It becomes particularly distracting when she bounces back to investigate in greater detail something she already talked about once or twice before in the “main” narrative thread, but offers contradictory information as to the sequence of events. The jarring shifts are worst at the very end of the book, when she inexplicably interrupts the climactic sequence (involving George Wickham, back from presumed death and more dastardly than ever) not once but twice to go check in on other characters. If Berdoll meant this to build suspense, it fails, building only frustration.

Characterization suffers in this book as well. Though Darcy is much the same as ever, Lizzy hardly ever rises to the spirited nature we’ve come to expect from her. She spends the first half of the book hesitant and unsure of herself, and while on the one hand I appreciate the realistic treatment of a woman’s post-pregnancy bodily concerns, it went on for far too long and made Lizzy far too much unlike herself. The new characters added to the narrative mostly feel like retreads from the first book — unsurprising, since half of them are relatives or otherwise connected. In some places, it feels like Berdoll actually wanted to write a book about the experience of the lower classes during this period, but thought that no publisher would take that on, so she stuffed the material into something that she knew had a market. I appreciate the desire to show, as she did in the first book, a world outside that of the gentry, but the interplay between the stories here lacks finesse.

Berdoll also fails in the premise of a family focus for this book. None of the children, by any set of parents, are granted the chance to have a personality. They are admirable props while infants, rendered invisible once they’ve grown enough to speak. Jane’s and Lydia’s children remain entirely off-screen, and are referred to so infrequently that I often wondered precisely where they were and who was looking after them. If you read this novel hoping to see much of the Darcys as parents, you’ll be disappointed in that as well; the children don’t age above a year, and there’s precious little beyond breast-feeding and knee-dandling going on with them. Family life has no depth in this book, no nuance. The fecundity of the various characters is a plot device and no more, which I found disappointing.

There are enjoyable episodes in this book, but ultimately, the total muddle Berdoll makes of her own timeline and her haphazard manner of storytelling make it difficult to enjoy them. I see that she published a third installment to the series in 2011, but I feel no compulsion to acquire it.

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