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The Conquest of Lady Cassandra, by Madeline Hunter

Title: The Conquest of Lady Cassandra (Fairbourne Quartet#2)ConquestLadyCassandra
Author: Madeline Hunter
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 336 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.75 stars

Someday I’m going to read one of Madeline Hunter’s series in the right order. I somehow managed to pick up #2 without having read #1, which I intend to rectify.

Cassandra Vernham is notorious but not quite ruined, thanks to a complicated bit of personal history. Six years ago, she was technically though not properly compromised by a man, and then refused to marry him. That man later got himself stupidly killed in a duel which everyone assumed was over her, further scandalizing her reputation. Estranged from her family thanks to all of this, she spends a few years in Europe with her aunt, then returns home to London and tries to get on with life as best she can. She’s not totally ostracized and still has some friends, but she’s not thoroughly accepted, either, and she tends to end up in vaguely-written items in the gossip columns. Years later, one of her rejected beau’s friends, Viscount Ambury (whose proper name is, tragically, Yates) has taken up private investigation as a bit of a hobby, and is looking into the possibility that some jewels Cassandra sold at auction were stolen — from his own family. Entanglements ensue. Cassandra needs the money because her brother is trying

This one rates just below average for me for a lot of reasons — and it isn’t even that it’s a bad book. It’s just that it left me unfulfilled. I initially gave it a solid 3 stars, but I keep thinking of more things I disliked about it, so I had to knock a bit more off.

The biggest problem is that I just don’t believe in this as a love story. It’s an interesting story, but not a believable romance. I believe that Yates and Cassandra feel attraction and friendship for each other. Once they get over a variety of trust issues, they seem to know how to communicate with each other. But I don’t believe that they feel abiding passion or deep love. The story just plain never gets us there. The heat is sexual but not emotional. Theirs will be a really good marriage of convenience — but it still feels like just that. Hunter never manages to elevate them beyond that point. The title is also misleading. There’s no conquest. Neither Cassandra’s physical nor emotional self is at any point overthrown. She makes a logical decision to preserve her aunt’s future, and she chooses Ambury as the lesser of two evils. It’s all very cerebral, very detached.

I also had issues with some unanswered questions, and while I freely admit some of that might be due to missing the first book in the series, I really doubt all of it is. Ambury’s motives throughout are somewhat vague and mutable. We never really get a good idea of what he does in his moonlighting as an investigator — how long he’s been doing it, how it makes him money, what other cases he’s taken — it’s just sort of a slapped-on detail, not a fully realized character point. The information about Cassandra’s past is sort of annoyingly withheld until very late in the book, and the last-minute turn just seems odd and out of place.

None of that is to say the book is without its advantages. I actually enjoyed the process of reading it, and got through it quickly. The story is compelling — it just isn’t what’s on the tin, you know? Watching Yates and Cassandra negotiate around each other, around their friends, around her brother, is all interesting. I like the slightly different setting (though the publishers need to know not to refer to something set in 1798 as Regency) and the sociopolitical spin that puts on things. And I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the series, because I generally like Hunter’s writing, and I especially like how she interrogates what romance does to friendship. Not a lot of romance authors do that, even if they’re using the conceit to string together a series. Hunter’s romances, on the whole, seem more grounded in reality than others in the genre — which sometimes works for me and sometimes doesn’t. After all, this genre is generally a fantasy as much as anything involving dragons or magic.

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Twelfth Night Secrets, by Jane Feather

Title: Twelfth Night SecretsTwelfthNightSecrets
Author: Jane Feather
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 257 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.25 stars

After Harriet’s brother, an English spy, dies while on assignment in France, the government taps Harriet to find out if his former partner, Julius Forsythe, Earl of Marbury, was the double-agent who killed him. Harriet’s job is made easier since her grandfather invited Marbury to spend Christmas at their country home, along with a flock of relatives. It’s made harder when she starts falling for Julius, who is charming, clever, and good with children.

This book is largely inoffensive, but unfortunately, it’s also not particularly memorable. I also feel like it’s the wrong length. This either needed another hundred pages to be standard romance novel length, so that background information and character developments could have more explanation, or else it needed to be a hundred pages shorter and an entry in a collection rather than a stand-alone, because as-is, it feels like Feather spends a lot of time re-treading material. There’s a lot of reiteration in the middle that doesn’t actually further either the plot or the emotional story.

The book is also mis-sold by its jacket material. This isn’t “spy vs spy”. It’s “spy vs totally inept and inexperienced not-spy”. The back cover tries to sell Harriet as a suave, sophisticated agent of the crown, but she’s… really, really not. She passed on mail from her brother. That was the extent of her involvement. So it beggars belief that the British government would look to her to try and uncover a double agent, and then she pretty well bungles her supposed investigation.

The story is cute enough but the characters lack depth — something else that might’ve been fixed with a longer book and a better use of pages. There is a nice reversal at the end, but mostly, after dragging for a two hundred pages, when things finally do start happening, it all feels rushed. Overall — meh.

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The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

BookmansTale

Title: The Bookman’s Tale
Author: Charlie Lovett
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical mystery
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4.25 stars

The Bookman’s Tale is the story of Peter, an antiquarian bookseller who, in the midst of grieving for his recently-departed wife, finds what appears to be a Victorian-era watercolor of her, pressed inside an old copy of Edmond Malone’s An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers (the book exposing William Henry Ireland’s forgeries of Shakespearean manuscripts). Though he knows the painting can’t possibly be of his wife, he feels compelled to find out the identity of both painter and subject. Hunting down this information leads him to stumble across an early edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the source material for The Winter’s Tale. While this would be an extraordinary find on its own, what makes this particular book even more astonishing is the marginalia: a series of notes apparently written by Shakespeare as he composed his play. Peter thinks that he may have realized his life-long dream to find evidence proving once and for all that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, but he knows enough of the history of forgeries to be wary of deception, and so he sets out on a quest to determine the book’s authenticity. He’s not the only one on the trail, however, and people with a lot to lose if Pandosto proves authentic are willing to kill to preserve its secrets.

The book moves along three separate but interrelated storylines: the first set in 1995, when Peter finds the copy of Pandosto and goes on his quest; the second set in the 1980s, when Peter begins his career in rare books at college, and which also charts his relationship with Amanda from their first meeting to its tragic end; and the third spanning from 1592 through the 1870s, tracking the transmission of one copy of Pandosto through time and through the exchange of many hands. The historical plotline delves into the world of playmaking and printing in the 16th and 17th centuries, showing what a cutthroat business it really could be, driven by rivalries, egos, and personal vendettas. Of the three storylines, the least relevant to the driving plot is the 1980s thread — but that is the storyline which gives this book its heart. It’s what makes you care about Peter, and it’s what makes you feel that his quest matters not only scholastically, but personally as well. It also provides a lot of the connective tissue which ultimately ties the loose ends of the story together, because the reader gets to see Peter learn his trade as well as learn to come out of his shell and engage with Amanda’s family and friends.

I received this book from the publisher, in exchange for a review, and I will freely admit that I had a lot of reservations — and I will just as freely admit that they were all, thankfully, rendered irrelevant. I worried this would be yet another Da Vinci Code knockoff, and while I have nothing against that genre of book in general, the quality can be alarmingly varied. I worried it would have an anti-Stratfordian bent, because I have learned to be leery when I see phrases like “prove the truth about Shakespeare’s identity” on book jackets (as turned out to be the problem with Interred with Their Bones). I worried that the dead-wife angle would make it too maudlin, too Gothic for my personal tastes (as was my trouble with the well-written but not-to-my-preference The Thirteenth Tale). I’m very happy to say that, as it turns out, I had nothing to fear on all three counts.

The biggest problem, I think, is that the summary really doesn’t do the book justice. For one thing, it makes it sound like the book is a lot more about the painting and the Victorian angle, when the far greater focus is on textual transmission and the development of the Shakespeare brand through the centuries. It’s also not nearly as mournful in tone as the jacket makes it out to be, nor is the vaguely paranormal element the jacket hints at as prevalent. Peter is a strong protagonist without needing to be an action hero, and I appreciate him for that. He is, definitely, a scholar and a bookseller, and at no point during the story does he morph into a super-spy or an Indiana Jones. He remains what he is, using his intelligence, his inquisitive nature, and his training in the field of early modern publishing to hunt down the mystery. I also appreciated that Lovett could give us an introverted protagonist with social anxiety problems and still have him be a strong character. Peter struggles a lot, both early in the 1980s storyline and in the 1995 storyline, with social interaction, but the reader gets to see him learn how to deal with that. He finds his safe spaces and safe people. Unfortunately, since Amanda was the one who drew him out to begin with, after her death, he retreats from the world and isolates himself entirely — so a lot of the story isn’t just his quest to find the truth behind Pandosto, it’s about him finding closure with her death and learning to be that more-adjusted version of himself again, even without her. It’s a deeper and more emotionally satisfying angle than I was expecting the book to have, and it strengthens the narrative.

I only have a few minor complaints, most of which didn’t really impede my enjoyment of the book: Some of the twists and turns are a little predictable, but that doesn’t bother me much. After all, as Shakespeare so often reminds us, knowing the plot isn’t the same as knowing the story. The Bookman’s Tale is less a fast-paced thriller and more a historical-psychological exploration with a dash of mystery, and I appreciate that Lovett didn’t seem to feel much need to hammer it into another form. The threat of danger towards the end is the only place it gets a little Da Vinci Code-y, but even there, The Bookman’s Tale strains plausibility far less than other books in this genre. There were only a few details throughout which I found far-fetched, such as a professor of Shakespeare at an esteemed university never having heard of Q1 Hamlet (but perhaps, in the 1980s, that could have been true? I don’t know). The secondary romantic interest felt a little tacked-on and unnecessary. The book definitely would have worked just as well without that aspect, but Lovett also isn’t too heavy-handed about it, so it’s easy to ignore.

I can cheerfully recommend The Bookman’s Tale as a great summer read for any Shakespeare enthusiast, but particularly, I think, for the sort who has a real interest in the early modern world of playmaking and printing. There’s more substance here than to your typical novel of this sort, and a lot more “Easter eggs” slipped in for the benefit of readers-in-the-know. I think those of a scholarly bent will appreciate the attention to detail which Lovett gives the history of textual transmission. The sections set during Shakespeare’s lifetime are full of wonderful details, intriguing cameos, and cheeky off-hand references. Lovett clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the playhouses and the print culture of early modern England. The Bookman’s Tale would actually be a great companion book to Shapiro’s Contested Will, in some ways, because it takes a fictionalized look at the true history of how Shakespeare mania grew over the centuries into a force which spawned forgeries and erroneous theories. It just released this week, so pick it up at your local bricks-and-mortar or on Amazon.

Cross-posted, with some additions and adjustments, from the American Shakespeare Center Education Blog.

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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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The Bride and the Beast, by Teresa Medeiros

Title: The Bride and the BeastBrideandtheBeast
Author: Teresa Medeiros
Year of Publication: 2001
Length: 324 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 2 stars

I know I liked this book once.

It was the first Medeiros I ever picked up, and I certainly liked it well enough to become a regular reader of her novels. But this really may just be one of those places where age and awareness have ruined something for me. And there are clever things about this book. It’s an interesting spin on Beauty and the Beast, set in Scotland following the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. It’s an unusual period for a history, so that attracted me, and the hero has an interesting backstory. There are some good comic bits with his manservant and his cat, and the plot clips along at a reasonable pace (for a romance). As for that plot — the villagers of Ballybliss live in terror of “the Dragon” who lives in the abandoned castle that belonged to their laird before

But what’s really spoiled it for me now is the entire attitude of the heroine. She’s just so Special Snowflake because she reads and has held onto her virginity, and the amount of slut-shaming she heaps upon every other woman in the village, including her sisters, is actually just disgusting. It’s no wonder, really, that they were willing to feed her to the dragon, since she so clearly goes through life actively disdaining everyone around her. Apparently we’re meant to forgive her for this since she feels insecure about her weight and because she likes reading. I can tell, through the way she narrates her feelings about those traits, that she’s clearly meant to be a Reader Avatar, which is perhaps why this book appealed to me when I was a self-absorbed teenager who was convinced the entire world was out to get her because I was so ~tragically misunderstood~. Reading it again as a well-adjusted adult, though, the heroine just comes off as snotty and self-righteous.

Add to that the fact that Medeiros throws every Scottish stereotype in existence at this book, including thorough abuse of accented spelling, and it’s just gotten to be a rather painful read. These are all things I either didn’t notice or that didn’t bother me when I was younger. I hadn’t returned to this book in several years, and I don’t believe I’ll be returning to it in the future.

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An Assembly Such as This, by Pamela Aidan

Title: An Assembly Such as This (Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman #1)
Author: Pamela Aidan
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 255 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 2.75 stars

This book is fanfiction. I don’t say that disparagingly — I’m very positive on fanfiction, as is natural, since I’ve been writing it for fifteen years myself — but that is, absolutely, what it is. It’s not a re-imagining, it’s not “inspired by” — it is fanfiction of Pride and Prejudice. What’s more, it appears to be fanfiction derived more from the 1995 BBC miniseries than from the book itself. Whole chunks of the book read like a narrative of the film, with little augmentation on Aidan’s part.

An Assembly Such as This is the first in a trilogy of books written from Mr. Darcy’s perspective, and it begins just where the film does — with Darcy arriving with his friend Mr. Bingley at Netherfield. From there, we roll through the events of the first third or so of Pride and Prejudice — the country gatherings, Jane Bennett falling ill at Netherfield, the promised ball, etc — getting Darcy’s view on matters rather than Elizabeth’s. There is some interest to this — we get a bit more insight into both the Bingleys and the Darcys as families and about the connections that bind them. We see more of Caroline Bingley’s machinations, and learn more about Georgiana’s troubles. But the main point of switching the perspective — getting more of Darcy’s internal monologues — could use better execution. We do get to see him grapple with his feelings for Elizabeth, but there’s not a lot of depth to his self-analysis. The best word for it is probably “aimless”. Or perhaps “bland” — Aidan doesn’t really fill Darcy in as an exciting, attractive character. He seems rather normal and pedestrian — it’s hard to see from her augmentation precisely what there is to fall madly in love with.

My ultimate verdict is: Inoffensive if uninspiring. If Jane Austen fanfiction fluff is what you’re after — and I say that with no judgment, because sometimes fluff is absolutely what you want to reach for — then this is the book for you. If you want something rather more inventive, well, there are plenty of romance novel authors out there happy to oblige you.

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Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1990 (issues from 1989-1990)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

The Sandman collections are all, in their ways, about storytelling. In the first issue of Volume 2 is where it first becomes so patently obvious, though, as a man in the African bush tells a story to his grandson, as part of his coming-of-age ceremony: a tale of the great queen who once ruled their land, when it was a lush greenland instead of a barren desert, when their tribe, the first civilized humans of all, were wealthy and powerful; and how Dream of the Endless loved her, and how she rejected him out of fear; how he seduced her, but when the sun saw what they had done, it threw down a fireball that destroyed her city and blasted the land sterile; how she rejected him again and a third time, and how he then sentenced her to an eternity of suffering in Hell. We’ve met Nada before, when Dream journeys through hell, and says that he has still not forgiven her. The story itself is enchanting, authentically flavoured and authentically degraded from what the truth might have been, with bits of other parables and creation myths bleeding through, but perhaps most tantalizing is the hint at the end of the issue, that the women of the tribe tell another story. We don’t know what it is — it’s never told to men, after all, and the women tell it in their own private language — but the narrative implies that it may well show a very different side of the story.

This collection also includes one of my favourite stories in the series, “Men of Good Fortune”, which introduces one of my favourite characters, Hob Gadling. In 1389, Death coerces Dream into walking the world for a spell, and they wind up in a tavern on the southside of the Thames, listening to the local folk complain about taxes, the welfare system, the imminent end of the world, etc. They overhear Hob claiming that death is “a mug’s game” and that he’ll have no part of it; and so the Endless agree to grant his wish. Hob Gadling will never age nor die, and Dream will meet him, once every hundred years, in the same tavern, to see how he’s getting on. And so they do, through the years. The artwork in this issue is particularly lovely. Penciller Michael Zulli crafts each scene to show the passage of time without the need for any box telling you “1489… 1589… 1689”. It’s all there visually, in the clothes, in the setup of the tavern, in what the customers drink out of. You see the tavern fall into disrepute and then back up again, as London first grows into it and then changes around it. I also love this issue for a sidetrack in the 1589 meeting, when Dream overhears Kit Marlowe talking with the young and thus-far-unsuccessful Will Shaxberd. What William says about his dearest desire is something that, I think, must echo in the heart of any writer:

I would give anything, to have your gifts.
Or more than anything, to give men dreams
that would live on long after I am dead.
I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon.

(It’s worth noting that Shakespeare speaks in iambic pentameter, and Dream does when speaking to him, though I don’t know if that’s as apparent to ears that aren’t as particularly tuned to that rhythm as mine are, thanks to my job). That moment always reminds me of Schmendrick the Magician in The Last Unicorn, saying that he would write his talent a letter, if he knew where it lived. Well, Dream decides to cut a deal with the man who will be William Shakespeare — to open a gate within him and let the stories through. We’ll be seeing him again, and Hob, and some of the others that the undying man’s path crosses through the years.

These stories are not the bulk of the collection, though. The main thread focuses on Rose Walker, who has become something called a dream vortex — precisely what this is or how it happens is never quite clear, but what it seems to mean is that she can make dreams collide with each other, which could, if left unchecked, permanently damage the subconscious minds of an entire version of reality. Her mere existence sets of a chain of coincidences which really aren’t, leading her to find her unknown grandmother (Unity Kinkaid, who we met in Volume 1, who was raped and gave birth to a daughter, Rose’s mom, while she was comatose from the sleeping sickness) and her long-lost brother, and accidentally leading Morpheus to recover four dreams that wandered off from his realm. Rose also wanders into a convention for serial killers, which Gaiman describes as “utterly banal evil” in the Companion, and it seems especially so right after reading the true horror story of Preludes and Nocturnes.

Overall, though I like Rose, I find her main thread a lot less compelling than the side bits. Parts of it become hugely important later on, but the setup is pretty bumpy. Rose will figure in later, as will other tenants of the house where she stays while searching for her brother. Several of the new dreams we meet will have a farther purpose to play. We meet Matthew, a raven (because the Dreaming must always have a raven), who’s new to this strange form of immortality and still adjusting to his responsibilities. It’s the story of Lyta Hall — who managed to gestate a child in the Dreaming for over two years, — that feels the most weird and forced — two of the rogue dreams kidnapped her (dead) husband and put him in a little bubble dreamworld so they could use him; he’s the Bronze Age Sandman, and it still feels too much like Gaiman’s trying to shoehorn in what was supposedly his base canon. This volume clearly demonstrates that the story does better when he shrugs that off.

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