Tag: Historical Fiction

Review: Andrea Penrose’s MURDER AT THE ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS (Wrexford & Sloane Mystery #5)

Murder_Royal_Botanic_GardensContinuing my journey to reader-recovery (see my previous two posts), I read the latest in another favourite historical mystery series, Penrose’s Regency-set Wrexford and Sloane, Murder At the Royal Botanic Gardens. I read it steadily over the past two days (yet one more way to stave off the reality of returning to work after a gloriously idle summer; with major de-cluttering, but still). I love this series for the same reason I read others: the characters, the characters, the characters…and their relationships.

Set in a time of rigid class divisions, Penrose’s series is a wonderful fantasy of cross-class found family. At its heart are the Earl of Wrexford, dark, brooding, powerful, volatile at the series start and Lady Charlotte Sloane (aka skewering cartoonist A. J. Quill), disinherited, disgraced, and thus free of social convention; this, she and Lord Wrexford have in common, which is why their growing love is as much built on a shared upholding of justice, defending the underdog, and prizing people’s worth on merit, not birth as attraction, compatibility, shared purpose, and companionship. Along the way, they have picked up and created their found family, as Charlotte notes in the present volume “love was the true bond that tied all of her odd little family together”: valet and co-sleuth Gideon Tyler; formidable “housekeeper” McClellan; two adopted “guttersnipes”, “Weasels” Raven and Hawk; brilliant mathematician Lady Cordelia Mansfield; “coroner” Basil Henning; Bow Street Runner Griffin; Wrexford’s friend and Cordelia’s business partner, Christopher “Kit” Sheffield; and my favourite, Charlotte’s Aunt Alison, the dowager Countess of Peake. Together they band to expose baddies, putting themselves in mortal danger and always coming through for each other.

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Once more: audiobook review of Audrey Magee’s THE COLONY

ColonySince Magee was nominated for the Booker Prize, I thought I’d re-post this audiobook review of the nominated title.

I didn’t know what I was getting when I started listening to Audrey Magee’s The Colony and, to be honest, I was leery, having read “somewhere” that her prose is lyrical and breaks down, in a good way I assume was suggested, from the weight of her weighty themes. What I listened to, however, was less experimental, more compelling and thought-provoking. Because listening doesn’t come as easily as silent reading, I workd hard to follow the events and understand the characters. Stephen Hogan’s narration was excellent, clear, articulated, and with a particularly engaging gruffness to Magee’s Englishman painter, known only as Mr. Lloyd. (more…)

Mini-Review: Jennifer Ashley’s DEATH AT THE CRYSTAL PALACE (Below Stairs Mystery #5)

Death_at_the_Crystal_PalaceI’m glad to be caught up with Ashley’s Below Stairs mysteries with Death At the Crystal Palace in anticipation of #6, The Secret Of Bow Lane, whose premise sounds most intriguing and is set to be out next week. As always, Ashley’s amateur-sleuth-below-stairs-cook, Kat Holloway, is a wonderful heroine, but as with most mystery series I follow, it’s also the ensemble of characters around the central figure I love. This is no less true of Kat and her crew of sleuthing “aides”.

In this latest volume, there are two mysteries, tenuously connected, and somewhat half-baked, both of them. In Death at the Crystal Palace, Kat is tasked with discovering who is poisoning Lady Covington, the Bywaters’ neighbour where Kat is cook, all the while becoming embroiled in Daniel McAdam’s “police work” trying to bring to light who is bankrolling Irish rebel assassins. But it’s the friendships and potential love interests that see me love and follow the series, and especially because Kat’s “crew” are all infused with goodness, care, and the desire to bring justice (Kat, who never sees a wrong she doesn’t want to redress, address, or redeem). (They’re also quite funny.) Kat always finds the good in others, even when they’ve committed evil deeds and, were is just for that, Ashley has penned a wonderful heroine. (more…)

Review: Allison Montclair’s THE UNKEPT WOMAN (Sparks and Bainbridge Mystery #4)

Unkept_Woman…and possibly my favourite of the series (#1 is marvellous too). Montclair takes the narrative threads set up in book one, The Right Sort of Man, and brings them to some resolution. In The Unkept Woman, Iris Sparks finally reckons with her past and Gwen Bainbridge gains in strength and resolve, which go a long way to bring her closer to regaining custody of her finances and son (as we learn from book one, Gwen had what would be deemed in post-war England a “nervous breakdown” and was declared “incompetent” [legal term] losing custody of her son, Ronnie, and finances, given over to her conservative, draconian in-laws. Gwen’s emotional collapse came at the death of her husband, Ronald Bainbridge, in WWII). But in the latest volume, Sparks’ past returns: she is the eponymous “unkept woman”, having broken off from the married man she’d been having an affair with, on and off, during and post war-time intelligence training and action. But things are more complicated than what I’ve described so far. (more…)

Review: C. S. Harris’s WHEN BLOOD LIES (Sebastian St. Cyr #17)

When_Blood_LiesI’m elated C. S. Harris continues to give us a St. Cyr mystery annually and that I can devote uninterrupted time to reading it because it’s summer holidays for this schoolmarm! And #17, When Blood Lies, did not disappoint; au contraire! I think it’s one of the best of the series, mainly because Harris finally arrives at completing certain story arcs she’s carried over the entire series. And, in her clever way, still leaves us with unanswered questions and the possibility of further revelations. Nevertheless, it still felt like we arrived at a new place for one of our favourite investigating couples, Sebastian and Hero, his wife. Be warned: if you haven’t read the series and wish to, some of the discussion to follow may spoil it for you, so read from book #1 and come back! (more…)

Audiobook Review: Audrey Magee’s THE COLONY

ColonyI didn’t know what I was getting when I decided to listen to Audrey Magee’s The Colony and, to be honest, I was leery, having read “somewhere” that her prose is lyrical and breaks down, in a good way I assume was suggested, from the weight of her weighty themes. What I listened to, however, was less experimental, but more compelling and thought-provoking. Because listening doesn’t come as easily as silent reading, I had to work hard to follow the events and understand the characters. Stephen Hogan’s narration was excellent, clear, articulated, and with a particularly engaging gruffness to Magee’s Englishman painter, known only as Mr. Lloyd. (more…)

I Read Jo Baker’s LONGBOURN

LongbournI’m almost scared to write another gushing review: what is happening that I can’t discern anything negative in my last five reads, stellar all?!

Jo Baker’s Longbourn, the story of Pride and Prejudice‘s barely-glimpsed servants, manages to stay true to Austen’s romance and create a world, characters, and stories running parallel to the original and yet wholly unique. It is quite the achievement, both homage and uniquely itself, beautifully written and with only, at most, one forgiveably faltering section.

One of Longbourn‘s greatest strengths is its rich characterization of servitude’s silent shadows: Mrs. and Mr. Hill, the two housemaids, Sarah and Polly, and footman, James Smith, how their lives intertwine in profound and interesting ways, how fully-formed their stories are, for example, the as lovely-if-quieter romance between Sarah and James as the ones occurring “upstairs”. I also loved how Baker made Wickham more villainous than he appears in P&P, but in keeping with what we learn about him via Austen. Ultimately, however, it is in the richness, the tragedy and joy, of the servants’ inner lives and relationships that the novel’s strengths lie.     (more…)

“Not waving, but drowning…”, Stevie Smith said it best…

It’s been ages, dear friends and readers, since I wrote a blog-post. I played with the idea of shutting down the blog entirely. Life has been dealing lemons and I had a hard time making lemonade: nothing utterly shattering, just the slow erosion of my house and caring for an aging parent. Add a full-time demanding job and the spinster’s lot to carry it all and the result is not much reading and certainly no blog-posting. None of that is going to change any time in the near-future, so I thought a tiny post with a paltry number of books and even fewer thoughts about them was better than continued silence. So, here it goes. I read two whole books since April: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast and a more disparate reaction to two books I haven’t had in ages. (more…)

Having Read Amor Towles’s A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Gentleman_In_MoscowI read Towles’s Gentleman In Moscow on the recommendation of two friends whose reading opinions I value. They did not steer me wrong: Gentleman is a wonderful book about a wonderful man, a “gentleman” by birth and a “gentle man” by temperament. It was an opportune time to read Towles’s novel: with Russia playing strongman and all of us emerging from endless lock-downs…what better book to read than one about a Russian character, Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced to a life-time’s house arrest in the Metropol Hotel overlooking Red Square? Yet there isn’t much of the topical in Towles’s Gentleman: to start, the timelessness of the Count’s setting, a storied old hotel which keeps its character through history’s vagaries, offering elegance, steadfast grace and service, comfort and civility to its guests as its denizens. History happens “out there,” in Red Square and beyond: revolution, war, famine, oppression, genocide, injustice, while the hotel carries on. Nevertheless, the snake is never far from the tree: cruelty and evil worm their way in, but in the inimitable characters of the Count and his friends, the Metropol’s loyal staff or devotees, we read about the circumvention of malevolence via cunning goodness, the heart of the novel’s theme. As such, Towles’s Gentleman is a comedy in the Fryian sense, moving toward possibility, towards, as the Count would agree, faith, hope, and love (with his charmingly, parenthetically exclamatory and the “greatest of these is love!”).

From the back-cover-blurb, some of the plot’s detail: “When, in 1922, thirty-year-old Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel near the Kremlin. An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov must now live in an attic room as some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold. Unexpectedly, the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry into a world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships with the hotel’s denizens. But when fate puts the life of a young girl in his hands, he must draw on all his ingenuity to protect the future she deserves,” bringing us from that 1922 tribunal to 1954 and the Count’s 65th year as we turn the final page.   (more…)

Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s HAMNET

HamnetIt has been a long time since I read literary fiction and the opening pages of O’Farrell’s Hamnet reminded me why: because of style over substance, meandering non-plots and vague characterization. Always, at the forefront, the author’s writing and never being able to be absorbed in, or by, the narrative. O’Farrell’s Hamnet proved me wrong; it was absorbing, moving, and contained sharp, delineated, compelling characterization.

I have loved William Shakespeare since the day my grade 7 teacher handed me a tiny, hard-bound copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have taught him every year of my more than 30-year teaching career and I have, with a few exceptions (sorry, Troilus and Cressida), read his plays and sonnets many times over. I have trekked with students and friends to the Shakespeare festival at our Canadian Stratford and watched, enthralled, characters who rave, rant, quip, orate, harangue, roar, bellow, pun, banter, declaim, sob, and sing. His language has always washed over me to say everything I fail to articulate.

I was scared O’Farrell would flatten Shakespeare to idealized genius, but I got something alive and interesting and much more than I wasn’t expecting. I knew going in that the novel would focus on Shakespeare’s son and play and I knew, from years of teaching, that his son had died, young, and that he wrote Hamlet some time after both his son’s and father’s deaths. But at the centre of Hamnet is the woman we know next to nothing about, except she was Shakespeare’s wife, bore him three children, lived apart from him until the last years of his life, and became his widow. (more…)