Why would you apologize for what you read for pleasure? Every book read for pleasure should be celebrated. And novels that celebrate love, commitment, relationships, making relationships work -- why isn't that something to be respected? - Nora Roberts

I Tweet not, neither do I Like. OK, so now I Tweet. So sue me.

Here we may criticize the book, but never the one who reads it.

Proud supporter of the Oxford comma, and any other comma I can wedge into a sentence.

Authors: You are welcome to comment here, on the review of your book or any other post.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Kiss for Luck: A Novella (Sweetest Kisses Book 0), by Grace Burrowes (contemporary)

Kiss and Tell was so much fun that I picked up this freebie novella also. What a change of pace. We see this in historicals: woman flees with her child in the middle of the night, tries to set up new life in little town far away in order to escape villain husband or lover. In historicals, there's always a kindly vicar or doctor or local landowner/minor nobility who helps her and is the hero. This story, unfortunately, is all too modern and true. I have no doubt that Ms. Burrowes has seen this kind of thing over and over in her own legal cases. Heaven knows I've seen it over and over.

Sadie writes (designs? not sure of correct verb here) computer games, good ones with worthy themes, strong men and women, no violence against women, no running people over with cars or through with flaming swords. Her games are used in hospitals and clinics to help people with brain injuries or emotional trauma. This is how she sees her world, seeing potential fun but therapeutic games in everything.

She and her sister and grade-school age nephew have just moved to this smallish town. It becomes clear that the sister has sustained significant physical and emotional trauma during an abusive marriage and horrific divorce, and that the ex-husband is on the hunt for them with a goal of taking away the child permanently. Sister and nephew have their own place, Sadie her own apartment (not sure why, but that's how it's written).

On moving-in day, Sadie runs into Gideon, non-practicing attorney, now a private investigator, who is in an apartment temporarily while his farmhouse is being renovated. They meet, they share (three guesses here) lemonade (of course), and there is a spark. Gideon has a new client who has a suspiciously common name and came up with the retainer quickly enough but is being very slow about providing personal information, and isn't quite passing the sniff test. Meanwhile, Gideon and Sadie heat up the very air, and eventually, the sheets.

It's a short novella, it says 148 pages, but I'm not sure. It ends at the 59% mark on my Kindle with teaser chapters from other books filling out the document. So I'm not going to tell you much more. If you've read any romance to speak of, you can take the plot to its logical conclusion. There is a happy outcome, and no cliffhanger.

Ms. Burrowes likes to write stories about strong (but often exhausted) women being assisted by strong, nurturing men. It's appealing. I read this too soon after reading the other novella, and her tics were more apparent to me for that reason, I suppose. The darned lemonade, brownies, people calling one another by their full names all the time, people so in tune that they read each other's minds and start armchair analysis after knowing one another for 10 minutes. Still and all, I got sucked into the story and rode along happily to the end, never checking to see what page I was on. The ending was a little rushed and pat, but endings often are in novellas. Only so much space, I guess. Some of the phrasing was kind of awkward, needed editing.

Kindle formatting adequate, grammar fine. Moderately steamy sex, detailed but not clinical, more emotional and I actually read most of it. No violence on page, but indications of past domestic abuse, and the child has emotional residuals. There's a really good dog (large, black, old dogs get a rescue shout-out) and it's safe to love him. Characters who have been or will be in this series put in appearances, but not unbearably annoying to me, and I wasn't lost even though I've read only the one other story.

I was hoping for something light and funny like Kiss and Tell, and I didn't get it. I got a serious story with a love interest, adequately told for a novella. I think you could easily read it during two coffee breaks and a lunch break. Despite the grim material, it was an okay read. I'm hoping to read more of the books in this series, but it will have to be as library books, and spaced well apart so that the author's tics don't give me a rash. This is not Ms. Burrowes's best writing but I'm not sorry I read it. It was worth my time. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Ghosts of Winter, by Kate Mosse (sad ghost story, mid-20th century)

This author was recommended by Clarissa on Twitter, and I did not want to get involved with a trilogy at this time, so I picked up this ebook from the library. It's fairly short and I thought it might be a good way to check out the author's style. This is a very good, not terribly spooky, quite sad ghost story. It is about finding your way home again, no matter how long it takes.

The book begins in Toulouse between the wars. Frederick has an ancient manuscript he needs to have translated, and he has brought it to a bookseller in a small town. There is, of course, a story that goes along with the manuscript, and Frederick tells his story, events that happened to him in 1928. Here is his story:

Frederick's beloved older brother George was killed in the Great War, and Freddie can't make his way through it. Sickly bookish son of disapproving and distant parents, Freddie had but one connection to love in this world, and that was George. Freddie simply can't go on, he just can't. He has spent some time in an institution where they at least got him up and semi-functioning, but he can't hold a job and can hardly hold a thought except for George, how he died, how they don't know exactly how he died or where he is buried. He has recently had influenza, and the doctor recommended a trip abroad into the mountains to recover.

But Freddie can't really recover. His grief is all-consuming. He is numb. He isolates himself. He feels nothing but grief for George, that helpless, hopeless longing for something you simply cannot have: five more minutes with the person you loved. He has reached that place in which grief and loss are simply ordinary. [I am reminded of a poem I once read that said that grief never gets better, it only gets ordinary.] There are, after all, many ways to be haunted. He considers suicide but when it comes down to it, he can't quite do it. He sees that as a lack of courage.

On his trip through the mountains, his inattention to the world around him - along with his attention to a whisper of a voice on the wind, a glimpse of something in the woods - causes him to get caught in a terrible snowstorm and he goes off the road. He loses consciousness, apparently a head injury. When he comes to, he manages to make his way to a village where he is taken in and tended to. That evening, he is invited to a special fete the village holds in memory of past events, and there he meets a girl, oh my, a girl so sympathetic, so tuned in to his mind, his feelings, his very soul. Finally, somebody understands!

I'm not going to tell you any more than that. You can probably figure out the basic plot, if you've read widely enough in the genre, or even enjoy spooky urban legends. There's nothing new here. I will say that while this is not a romance and so you must not expect a HEA, there is hope at the end of the book and a sense that Frederick is going to be okay now, finding purpose in his life, going on, finally willing to let go of the grief (which is, after all, not the same as letting go of George). In fact, we see that he is alive again in his interaction with the bookseller who does translate the manuscript. I tell you this so you won't be overly reluctant to read it for fear that it is just too darned depressing to deal with. It's sad, but in the end, hopeful, even comforting.

Kindle formatting fine, and even the line drawings at the beginning of every chapter came through nicely. The drawings add to the atmosphere. Grammar perfect. The writing is just, oh, it is so well done. I was drawn into the story from the first paragraph, and while the pace is glacial, I never lost attention. Perhaps best read during a rain or snow storm, definitely best read at night. I think if you enjoy James, or Le Fanu, even Blackwood, you may enjoy this book.

The beginning and end of the book are told in third person, but Frederick tells his own story in first person, and that is the bulk of the book. It worked well for me.

The book is too long for the story it tells. (Hah! Bet you never thought you'd hear me say that, huh?) This would have worked better, perhaps, as a novella. The detail is excruciating. Still, still … it made me think of those Victorian ghost stories I enjoy so much, where they go on and on and on about the landscape or the meal or every movement, every thought. If I think of it as a Victorian, it works quite well.

Freddie is slow on the uptake, and some may find that annoying. I found it true. The reader will almost certainly figure things out long before Freddie does, both the night of the fete and later on. This is how your mind works when you are consumed by grief. This is your brain, grieving.

I now need to read up on the persecution of the Cathars in the 14th century. I had never heard of this particular dismal chapter in the history of Christianity.

Couple quotes for you: "And I shall set this last truth down. We are who we are because of those we choose to love and because of those who love us.” 

And: “The dead leave their shadows, an echo of the space within which once they lived. They haunt us, never fading or growing older as we do. The loss we grieve is not just their futures but our own.” 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Brave in Heart (Crimson Romance), by Emma Barry (romance, historical)

Disclosure: I have had a couple of generic conversations with the author on Twitter.

This is for Wendy the Super Librarian's February TBR Challenge. TBR Challenge A Recommended Read. It was recommended by Kay, Miss Bates Reads, and I refer you to her insightful review: Review by Miss Bates

What happens when a spinster schoolteacher, 35 and not gettin' any younger, turns down what will surely be her only offer of marriage because her intended simply will not put his money where his mouth is? We find out in this not-quite-the-usual short book/long novella.

1859 Connecticut. Margaret is our schoolmarm, rapidly approaching middle age. She and Theo, local attorney, are engaged to be married. Margaret breaks it off because he is too passive, although stubbornly all she tells him is that they won't suit. He thinks noble thoughts and has all kinds of mental energy, but he defers to his widowed mother and his elderly law partner rather than exerting himself to be his own person, to find his own best, to try to make change happen. Margaret does not want to live her life in a wrangle, and doesn't want to live it with a man she loves but can barely respect. So it's over. She walks away. Theo is stunned, but - typically - doesn't do anything about it. Life goes on, as it does.

Two years later, the American Civil War/States War has just broken out. Margaret and Theo somehow haven't seen one another since she broke the engagement. She is coordinating the gathering of relief supplies when Theo sees her, and - bang - he remembers why he wanted her. They share a dance, and both feel the attraction. But later, it's the same old argument. Theo simply won't act in accordance with his beliefs, won't step out of that comfortable rut, won't risk. He is passionately opposed to slavery, but won't do anything about it but talk. He has strong opinions on other reforms, but won't run for office, won't even write an opinion column or letter to the editor. Margaret challenges him one last time and walks away. Again. For good. So there. Have a nice life, Theo.

Theo finally gets her point, and sees the fork in the road just ahead of him. A clear choice. He enlists as an officer in the army of the North, and has about a month before he has to leave for war. He persuades Margaret, with words and with, um, actions that their marriage will work, that it will not be constant argument and disappointment. And then, too soon, he is off to war. After a year, he returns for a week of leave, and things are strained at first, until they find their feet again. He goes back to war and then he is reported to be wounded and missing in action. All Margaret has of him now are some beautiful, loving letters he has written her from the front. And a mother-in-law who blames her for his enlisting and the resulting upheaval and tragedy.

I think this is a first book, so we'll be gentle, but we don't need to be overly gentle because it's well done. I could quote you pages of writing, sentences and paragraphs that are right on. These two characters, even in the beginning, are no starry-eyed near-adolescents. They are grownups and they've been gnawed at by life a bit. They have seen what comes after the orange blossoms and white lace, they know what war is, and they know what they are risking.

The scenes after Theo is reported MIA were right on. He wasn't my husband, but I've been there when someone has been MIA and it absolutely rips you apart, the not knowing, the wondering, the wild imaginings, the nameless and faceless fears, thinking you see him in every crowd. Ms. Barry has it absolutely right. And the going on, the living in spite of it, paying the bills, mowing the lawn, doing the mending, living like a ghost in your own life. Waiting. Waiting.

Kindle formatting fine, grammar fine. The letters they exchange during the war are so sweet and loving, so full of longing. The author does not waste a lot of time fussing about details of house and dress, but there was enough detail for me to know where I was, and when. There is some quiet humor. If I have one strong criticism, it's that the end is very rushed. Wham, bam, here's the HEA and the book is over, done. I got a little bit of whiplash. I'm wondering if some evil editor recommended that. On the other hand, it may have been intentional, since Margaret's world changes just that fast. The Kindle edition ends at the 87% mark, with teaser chapters of other books following. There are some sex scenes, mild, too much to call it clean/gentle but quiet enough that I actually read them. While we're aware of war and all it entails, there is very little violence in the book, a 1 on the ick scale, at most.

Serious props, too, for having the heroine have a rational personal reason for breaking the engagement. Margaret has thought it through, looked at all the alternatives, and despite her love for Theo, decides that it's best not to marry and make one another miserable.

Ms. Barry has gone on to write three successful political-themed contemporary romances. If I didn't live in Iowa, the state in which the presidential campaign never ends, I'd be interested in reading them. I may read them anyway. In fact, I foresee a major glom coming. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What I Have Learned About Twitter (personal, not a review)

I have been using Twitter for about six weeks now, and here are some things I have learned about Twitter: 
  • There are people who will share with you beautiful or funny photographs they have taken or found on the internet.
  • There is a new topic for outrage pert near every day. You will get sucked into it. Shut off the computer and walk away. As a casual user, your chances of effecting lasting change via Twitter would be somewhere between nada and nil.
  • Politics in other countries is just as weird as it is in the US. Political footballs in Australia look quite a bit like political footballs in the US.
  • If you ask for a recipe, you'll get at least one keeper.
  • If you ask for a book recommendation, you'll get at least one keeper.
  • If you ask for a hug, you'll get at least one.
  • If you ask for advice, you'll get it, and it will be from the person's own experience, not from something they Googled for you.
  • If you ask for a place to hear yourself think out loud, people will let you.
  • Twitter is a huge timesuck. Huge. Astronomical. Budget your time. Set a kitchen timer if you have to. 
  • Some people don't tweet every day and you miss them when they don't.
  • Some people live-tweet every TV program they watch, and if you're not careful, you'll get sucked into that, too.
  • Most folks do not spring out of bed every morning with a happy cry, embracing the day with all its promise. Most folks need at least one cup of coffee first. Preferably administered intravenously.
  • No matter how quirky your philosophical or religious beliefs are, there are people who will support and affirm them.
  • There are also people whose beliefs will challenge yours, and sometimes in a good way.
  • There are approximately 10,000 movies and TV series I have not seen. 
  • Not everybody is up to the medical details that I take for granted and I should be more sensitive to that.
  • You can't edit a tweet, so watch your spelling and grammar. You'll look like an idiot if you hastily use "you're" when you should have used "your".
  • It's very easy to over-share.
  • Authors or actors whose work you have enjoyed may not have someone who would suggest that they rethink that tweet before hitting the send button.
  • You can save your sanity by turning off retweets from some folks whose tweets you otherwise enjoy.
  • It is not your job to correct the beliefs - or at least the tweets - of the ignorant and bigoted.
  • People are proud of the things they make and will post photos of the things. Many times these things are cute or clever or very well done. There are a lot of talented people out there. There are also a lot of crocheted penises. You take the bitter with the sweet.
  • People sure do a lot of non-business internet things when they are at work.
  • People who use the internet a lot love cats. They love dogs, too, but they really really really love cats. Also penguins and baby animals of any kind, including baby snakes.
  • There's a whole world of smart, funny, and kind people, and you'll meet some of them on Twitter. There are some real [anatomical part of your choice] in the world, and some of them are on Twitter, too. Sometimes they are the same person. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Lessons in Love (Cambridge Fellows #1), by Charlie Cochrane (Edwardian m/m romance with some mystery elements)

Stalwart commenter Helena recommended this series. Amazon has the first book in the series for a reasonable price and it looked good to me. Sold. It's a quiet little murder mystery with minimal gore but reasonable suspense, and a m/m romance so sweet and gentle it's only a stone's throw away from clean.

1905, St. Bride's College, Cambridge, England. Two fellows of the college meet when one, the newcomer, seats himself in the other man's accustomed chair.

Jonathan, Jonty, teaches English literature. He's very young, full of charm and energy, cheerful, loves a joke, committed Christian. He's also gay. Orlando teaches advanced math. He's just a trifle older (28?) and is very introverted and older than his years. Staid, formal, extremely repressed, what we could consider perhaps asexual.

When Jonty accidentally takes Orlando's chair, they talk a bit and there's a connection, a spark. Jonty understands what it is that he's feeling, Orlando is completely clueless.

Most of the story is about their growing relationship, friendship, then more than friendship, but there's also been a murder on campus, and the young man was gay. Of course, nobody was openly gay at that time because it was a crime, although there were "confirmed bachelors." Orlando and Jonty do a little inside investigation with the cooperation of the tolerant local police. There's clearly a religious bent to the notes the murderer leaves at the site. Then another young man is murdered, and he also was gay.

As the relationship between Jonty and Orlando grows, the danger to them grows. They are discreet, or mostly discreet, very formal and careful when in public, but someone is lurking in the shadows. Did he see Jonty leave Orlando's apartment early one morning? Does the murderer know that Jonty and Orlando are investigating?

This was a nice little read, safe for bedtime reading. The romance is very slow and tentative, very gradual, as we watch Orlando experience lust and love for the first time in his life, and we learn about Jonty's horrible experiences as a schoolchild. The murders are only briefly described, no details, no gore, nothing from the murderer's POV.

Kindle formatting perfect. Grammar fine. There were few characters other than Jonty and Orlando, and they were not very well developed. I think we're meant to focus on the two men, but I would like to have had a little more development of other characters to give me some framework, to set the scene a little bit better - since I have no experience of British universities or single-sex educational systems. I found myself drawing heavily from Gaudy Night.

I wondered if a man in 1905 England would refer to thermal underwear as "long johns". All the old men in the nursing home I worked in during the 1960s wore cotton combinations in the summer and wool or a wool blend in the winter. ("Change before May and you'll lay in the clay!") They called them "underwear".

I really liked the way Jonty was willing to wait until Orlando was ready to face his feelings and curiosity. These men not only love one another and like one another, they have respect for one another, professionally and personally. I also liked the way they occasionally had a spat, the way one does with friends who are safe to be disagreed with. They respect one another's need to occasionally be alone, or to do things with other friends (something new to Orlando).

There is sex in the book, and lusting, but the sex is very gentle and described more in terms of emotion than physicality. It's also brief. These men understand the value in holding hands, or just spending time together.

The mystery was okay. It could have been any of a number of people - at one point, I was very worried that it might be Jonty - and really there weren't enough clues to say for sure which of two or three might have done it. The why was easy to figure out, but there was one surprising element that was revealed after the murderer was caught.

This was nice, a good read for bedtime when you don't want something to interfere with your sweet dreams. There are ten books in the series and they all sound interesting. Good for me right now when I'm needing things I can pick up and put down. Thank you, Helena!

Personal note: Mr. Bat isn't doing very well right now. A lot of swelling we can't get under control, and he's picked up a naggy little cough. Kidney function declining, liver function not the greatest. He's sleeping a lot. He's fully himself when awake, my usual cheerful and contented guy. One doctor says we can get on top of this, other one does not think so. But maybe Dr. Optimist is right, and things will turn around for a time. Right now, we're together and I can't really ask for much more. Thank you for your prayers and kind thoughts. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Marquess of Cake (Redcakes), by Heather Hiestand (Victorian)

I've been on a good streak lately, all my reading of at least average quality, quite a bit of it better than average. I knew it had to end sometime. I've been trying to read this book off and on for four months, and made a concerted effort toward reading it the past 3-4 days and I just can't. I'm at the 60% mark and I just can't go on.

Alys grew up working in a cake factory (maybe owned by her father?) but then he became more successful and the younger daughters have never worked for a living. Father was recently knighted and has a very inflated opinion of himself and of what his family is entitled to. Alys now works as a waitress and cake baker/decorator in one of the family tea shops, enjoys this work, and has no plans to marry for reasons that eventually are explained and then disappear like whipped cream frosting on the tongue.

Michael, the Marquess of Hatrick or something like that, spent a good part of his youth repairing the financial damage done by his father and the reputation damage done by his mother. He is addicted to sweets - gets all shaky and such if he goes more than a few hours without, but feels fine if he sticks to a non-sugar diet - so he is in the tea/cake shop a lot and meets Alys. He seems like an intelligent man, so I'm not sure why, even when the relationship between his diet, activity level, and these shaking episodes is mentioned to him, he doesn't figure out that maybe he shouldn't be eating so much sugar.

Alys and Michael are attracted to one another, but there's the class issue, but on the other hand, it's a time when money talks, so, whatever I guess. I don't know.

This has to be one of the most aimless, rambling, slow-paced 250 page books I have ever tried to crawl through. It's not terrible, heaven knows I've read worse. It's just not very good. I don't care about Alys, or Michael, or her stupid sisters, or her angry twin, or the inventive cousin who thinks he's in love with her, or whether Michael's brother is alive or not, or anybody.

Kindle formatting okay, needs breaks at some scene changes. Grammar offish at times, especially subjective/objective case pronouns. No violence so far, although one person has some war wounds that are briefly mentioned. One sex scene so far, dreamy, moderately explicit but not too clinical. Michael's mother and Alys's father are one-dimensional. Dialog isn't very good. Once Michael had some say in how Alys lived her life, he seemed to be trying to eliminate the things that attracted him to her in the first place: her spirit and her independence, and her desire to be creative through her work. (I'll admit one sees that IRL.) Their attraction seemed more physical than otherwise. Both of them, Alys in particular, were quite self-centered. Nobody had any strength except in trying to get what they wanted. At times I felt as if plot developments were selected by pinning the tail on the donkey.

It's got a lot of good reviews, and the premise attracted me. It sounded like something different. The first maybe 20% of the book wasn't bad. Unfortunately, I just could not possibly care less and I'm moving on. It's part of a series, so somebody loves it. It ain't me, babe. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

With This Curse, by Amanda DeWees (Victorian, gothic, romantic suspense)

This was free through the Kindle Lending Library. I enjoy a gothic from time to time. I was very nearly put off by the mention of its being in the spirit of Daphne du Maurier, because I'm a little weary of hype, but this was quite good. I fell just a little bit in love with the hero, and I liked the heroine also.

Clara, age nine, goes with her mother (widowed?) who is going to be housekeeper at Gravesend on the Cornwall coast (of course it is), the seat of a barony. On the way there, the mother lets it slip that Gravesend is cursed such that the people who live there will lose what they love most. Next we see Clara at age 16 or 17, besotted by Richard, the younger of a set of twin brothers, who would really like to take liberties with Clara, but only gets to first base. When it is discovered that Clara has been kissed by Richard, she is accused of carrying his child (untrue, she is a virgin) and cast out of the home. Her mother doesn't believe her, either, but at least sends her off with the names of a few contacts for work in London. (The reader is able to see that Richard is not the gallant young lover Clara thinks he is.)

We learn that over the next 17 or so years, Clara makes her way, barely, sewing. Her mother dies of - typhoid fever I think - so fast she does not get to say goodbye. Richard dies in the Crimea. Clara, now approaching middle age, has managed to find a pretty good position as seamstress for a renowned actress. However, the actress is getting married and moving to America, and that's the end of the job. She can't find another job (an old employer is blackballing her, unfairly) so she puts an ad in the paper for work.

Who appears at her door but Atticus, the older twin brother from Gravesend. He knows she's out of work. He offers her a marriage of convenience so that his dying father can rest easy about the barony going on. Clara nearly can't stand it, because every time she looks at Atticus (nicknamed Atlas) she sees Richard, darling Richard, with whom she is still in love. But it's a good deal. Once the old man dies, Atticus will settle a good sum of money on her so she will be free and independent forever. It shouldn't be long. The old man has had one stroke and is in sad shape. Clara agrees.

Atticus is a nice guy. He was born with a club foot but now is able to walk fairly normally with a cane. He limps if he's tired. Other than that, he's a dead ringer for Richard. Except he seems more gentle than Richard, if less fun-loving. He's intelligent, gently funny, and seems to have a good heart.

They do marry and arrive at Gravesend with a cover story for her so that no one will know she is the same Clara who used to work there. They give it out that she married an American and traveled about America for many years, so if she's not quite … quite, that explains it. Oddly (to me), this seems to work, and nobody seems to recognize her from before.

Atticus treats Clara as if she were in fact a cherished, beloved wife. Clothes, jewels, little pats on the arm, deference, courtesy, small jokes, good conversation. Clara can't bear to be touched by him, however, because of the memory of Richard. However, Clara begins to admire him for his goodness, and his kindness to her. He really starts to grow on her. He's a philanthropist, setting up a school and dwelling for fallen women and their children. He takes in a charming young woman rumored to be his daughter, and she sure does look like him. He handles his very difficult, possibly slightly insane vs. simply malicious father with compassion but firmness.

Predictably - I mean, it is a gothic - on Clara's first night at Gravesend, she hears a ghostly but clear whisper of her name. She can't help shivering a little bit, but is not overly concerned about it. There's a menacing figure of a villager who has a grudge against Atticus, and he finds a way into the house. There's the old baron's valet whose loyalty is to the old baron and nobody or nothing else. There are disturbing anonymous notes. Clara begins to see that Richard may not have been all that.

When the old baron dies, Clara knows she can now be free and leave, but does she want to go or is she ready for a true marriage? Atticus has made it clear that he wants a true marriage, that he loves her, but he's got secrets, too, and the old baron's death was not from a stroke. Nobody is on firm ground here.

Well, I had a good time reading this. If you don't care for gothics, it may not be your thing, but I do like one once in awhile and this was just grand. Atticus and Clara are both intelligent, compassionate, and have some life experience, and isn't that a nice change? Clara did a lot of growing in this book. If she had held on to her image of Richard the Perfect a little longer I might have taken a dislike to her, but she grew. I found her reaction to the clubfoot to be correct for the time and place, with no 21st century attitude grafted into a 19th century brain. The ward is a nice young woman. The agent is a nice young man. Anyone who has read more than two gothics in their life can figure out the mystery but it was fun getting there. I was well entertained.

It's well written. Good dialog. Enough description that I knew where I was without boring me to death. Since Clara is a seamstress, there's some loving detail about clothing, but not too much for fashion-agnostic me. I could hardly put my Kindle down.

Kindle formatting perfect. I didn’t see any errors in grammar. Told in the first person, which annoys some people but doesn't bother me. I fell in love with the characters fairly quickly and got into the plot without difficulty. There's a little bit of violence at the end but it's not bloody or disgusting, more sad than anything else. It's pretty clean, kisses mostly, a little horizontal activity but between married people, and they're interrupted before they get very far. The ghostly whispers and such are not overdone. We get to see the ton at its cattiest, and Clara's response is classic. There's humor in the book.

The old baron is malicious, a little creepy (he collects death masks and displays them in his sitting room), and definitely arrogant and too prideful for words. I'm not sure that Atticus and Clara could truly get away with some of what happens, but on the other hand, they don't really care much about the ton. I enjoyed seeing how sensible the young ward is at seventeen, compared to how naïve Clara was at the same age. I enjoyed the theme of parenting that runs through the book. We see what it must have been like for a woman in those times with very few choices, especially for those in the working or servant class.

I'm probably going to buy this book when I can, because I can see myself reading it again some day. I see that the actress who was Clara's employer has her own book, and I'm going to take a look at it. The author also has a YA series, not my thing.

ETA: Covers don't matter so much on an old b/w Kindle, but this has good cover art. 


Thursday, January 29, 2015

So Anyway …, by John Cleese (memoir, review is a bit rambling and not well organized)

If I had been five to ten years younger, I would probably have been a serious Monty Python fan. As it was, I was out of college, married, working two jobs, and caring for my dying mother when they became popular in the US. I think I would have appreciated the absurd humor, and I do like, for example, the dead parrot routine and assorted cuts from the movies. So I came to this memoir with no real expectations.

That said, I was a bit disappointed in the book. I've seen various interviews with Mr. Cleese over the years, and he seems to be an engaging conversationalist with, of course, a sharp sense of humor and endless interesting anecdotes.

We start with excruciating detail about his early life, his first memories and the reasons he's certain that they are valid memories, and then long descriptions of the histories and personalities of his parents, grandparents, and all of his teachers up to the time he was at Cambridge (degree in law, top level of a second-class degree, if I understand his terminology correctly). He acknowledges that he's not always comfortable in company and has difficulty relating to women in particular, things he blames (and blames and blames) on his mother, who sounds like a person with a serious anxiety disorder, narcissism, and a few other things. He admits that he was never beaten, starved, ill-clothed, or abused in any way, but still blames his mom for pretty much everything. Okay.

After he leaves school, then it's kind of - well, I did this and then I did that and David Frost and then I did this other thing and Marty Feldman and then some other things happened. He talks about success but his descriptions of his times on stage seem … joyless. Even at the end, when he mentions a Monty Python reunion, he remarks on how little excitement he felt about the whole thing.

He seems like a disappointed and slightly angry man, and it's very hard, I think, to prevent such emotions from coming across. I think an audiobook (not yet done, as far as I can tell) would improve the reading experience.

For fans of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python: there's not much about either one in this book. Apparently most of that is being saved for a volume 2 someday.

The author is clearly a very intelligent person, witty, well-read, knowledgeable about a number of things in life. One suspects that he has a Kindle packed full of important reading and a suitcase with 20 paper books. He has had extensive psychotherapy from the sounds of it and says that if he had gone for a career in the sciences, then it would have been in psychology. He makes glancing references to nearly all the big psych people and a few of the lesser-known ones as well. But, apart from the mother-blaming and what he calls his bad genes, we don't reap much of the insights he must have achieved from such study and analysis. Which is a shame, really. It could have been instructive for others, for surely growing up with at least one semi-monster parent is not unusual.

He notes, incidentally, the truth that before the late 1970s, if you missed seeing a movie or TV program, well, that was just too bad, because there were no VCRs or DVRs in those days, no Netflix, amazing as that may seem to younger readers. If you didn't see a non-blockbuster movie when it was in the theaters, you were simply out of luck. He points us to YouTube for (kinescopes, maybe?) of some early work, and transcribes for us the dialogue for some other early sketches.

You may want to read up on cricket terminology, if you're an American, before you read the book.

That he managed to make parts of this first, oh, third of the book amusing is remarkable, really. He notes how hard it is to write comedy, and since he seems to me to be more of a physical comedian, it must be harder yet when it's just words on a page.

I found the first part, wherein he discussed his childhood and youth, to be interesting and funny at times. Lord, the list of his mother's phobias was both hilarious and pathetic. I enjoyed his discussion of the time he spent teaching 10 year olds in subjects he himself knew little about, staying about 1 page ahead of them and having a pretty good time with it. After that, it became a bit of a slog. Details, so many details, about shows long since aired and gone, glancing references to people now gone (Peter Sellers, Marty Feldman, others). But very little about his marriage(s), and really not a lot of insight into audiences or the process of humor. He can be quite waspish, but also generous.

Kindle formatting fine. A review mentions an index but there was no index on my Kindle book that I got from the library. If you're a fan and want an index to search out certain people or things, better look at the paper copy. There are some photographs, some without dates. Interesting as a case study in psychology, but otherwise for rabid fans only, I think. I'd get it from the library first and buy only if you like it (it's $28 in hardback) and I don't think I'll bother with the inevitable second volume. Again, it could be better as an audiobook, since I always find interviews with Mr. Cleese to be quite entertaining.

Quotes: …Dad came from, at best, the middle-lower-middle class; to be exact, he was middle-middle-lower-middle class. Whereas [Mother] … was almost middle class; their lowest possible social classification was upper-upper-lower-middle class.
 [On his dancing] … immediately transformed my prancing into an imitation of a man in battle trying to avoid one of those chariots with nasty sharp knives sticking out of their wheels. The real trained dancers […] I sometimes caught them watching me with the same fascination people display the first time they see a duck-billed platypus. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Duke's Wager, by Edith Layton (reissue, Regency)

Still having internet problems. Frustrating!

ETA: There is no spoiler for the ending in this review, but there may be in comments, so conduct yourself accordingly. :-) 

There was a good deal of excited chatter online about the recent reissue of this 1980s book. It was much anticipated, although not without controversy. Reading romance reminds me of going to an art museum. You walk past the displays of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and you find some pieces that you know will stay with you forever. Other pieces are things for which you can admire and appreciate the effort and skill that went into creating them without enjoying them particularly or remembering them past the parking lot. I can see the skill involved in the writing of this book, but I can't say that I enjoyed reading the book. I think I will remember it, though.

Regina is the daughter of a country schoolmaster, now deceased. She has been educated the way a boy would have been then, and doesn't know how to do fancy needlework, paint, or dance. She's intelligent, well-read, and well able to hold her own in conversation. But she is seriously naïve. An uncle she hardly knows, a merchant in London, takes her into his care for a short time after her father's death, but he also dies unexpectedly while he's on the road without having made the slightest provision for her after his death. While he is gone, excited to be in London and eyeing a pair of opera tickets someone gave her uncle, Regina dresses in her new best dress and takes her (new, stupid, venal) maid with her to the opera. Unfortunately, it is one of those nights where the only women at the opera are call girls and courtesans, and she is so very lovely that a couple of dissolute noblemen take her for a courtesan and enter into a wager as to which of them will be her next protector. Regina flees and holes up in the house for weeks, avoiding them.

The one nobleman is the Duke of Torquay (Jason), a slight, graceful man who is also known as the Black Duke because his behavior is so far beyond that of a rake. He is a complete libertine (although he notes that he has so far escaped getting syphilis), apparently conscienceless when it comes to women. He did not seem to me to be a bad person in other ways. He seems to take care of his people, his lands, doesn't kick puppies. But if you're in a skirt and you're under 80, watch it. We are told (repeatedly) that he has a hoarse, whispering voice that is characteristic of people in his family.

The other is the Marquis of Bessacarr (St. John), who is second in his dissipation only to Torquay. But, as the Duke notes, St. John is younger and will no doubt be Jason's heir in debauchery, given time. St. John is a man who prefers to be secretive about his business, whether it's financial business (the source of his income, merchants he deals with) or his sex life. It happens that he has secretly consulted Regina's uncle for business advice and investments for some years, and shortly before the uncle's death, unaware of St. John's reputation, he asked St. John to be someone his niece could turn to should it be necessary.

Jason, the duke, sets up the bet in such a way that St. John feels compelled to agree to it, although, dang it, wouldn't you just know it, St. John just about five minutes ago installed a brand new mistress in his mistress house. Well, she's expendable, whatever. Jason sets up a scene so that Regina is thrown out of her home, now owned by a relative who thought to give Regina to her icky son. Regina stands in the street with the clothes on her back and a small bag, and Jason just scoops her right up, thinking that he will now have her.

Regina, however, is smart and has a good backbone to her. They converse and argue, and she finally hits him where a small spark of his soul still exists: his honor. Using logic and reason, she asks him if he would willingly sell himself. He sets her down in the middle of the street again, with yet another bet: she must swim on her own, find a way to survive that does not involve seducing a man, or else Jason will come to get her and have his way with her regardless. She knows St. John's name, nothing else, and goes to him. St. John scoops her up, takes her to his estate, passing her off as minor nobility, and he waits.

The big difference between these men in this situation is that Jason is right out there with his intentions: he wants her for a mistress and will set her up nicely for life when he becomes bored with her. He tells her so, flat out. St. John, however, befriends her as a kindly uncle or older brother, hiding his lust for her and his plans to take her as a mistress and set up her up nicely for life when he becomes bored with her. And the tug of war continues.

It's a romance novel, you know there has to be a HEA in there somewhere, but jeepers. Both of these men gave me the creeps, as they are intended to. Neither one of them cares about Regina as a person. All they see is a chance to control and have sex with a beautiful young woman, oh, and BTW, win the bet. That's all they see. Regina, however, being Regina, sees the best in them and seems to bring out little glimmers of what these men could be, if they just had some self-respect. As time passes, the men also see little glimmers of what they could be, what life could be.

There's a lot more to the book than this. It's a complicated story and it is not told simply. You'll need to concentrate just a bit more on this book than you may be accustomed to doing when reading standard romance.

Kindle formatting fine. Grammar fine but some word choice problems with desert/dessert, conscious/conscience, pore/pour, and some others. Not enough to take me out of the story, really. No violence. No sex except for some hot kisses and a little above-the-waist fumbling, but there is a little bit of talk of sexual habits, some of them not plain vanilla. The pace is stately, and there are no pirates or housefires or rabbits pulled out of hats, so some readers may get bored. I did not. It's dated a bit in that Regina is able to think logically because she thinks like a man, which got on my nerves a bit (dammit, did I burn my bra for nothing?).

There's a lot of telling, and I think at least half of the book is some character's inner monologue. Worked okay for me. I understand that the loser gets his own book, and I may look it up. You should know that both men derive at least part of their income from the slave trade, which is mentioned only in passing and rather obliquely at that. I had to swallow pretty hard to get that idea down, but I know it is correct historically. The class issue is discussed and in fact permeates the story: Regina is fair game because she is not of the nobility.

I don't know, I'm going to have to think about this one, and I'm glad I'm not giving letter grades anymore. Both "heroes" gave me the shivers, and not in a good way. It takes real skill to write a romance novel like this and make you care about the characters, yes, even the men. Everyone grows and changes so much over the course of the months of this book. Real growth. One man gets his HEA, and the other begins to understand what he has lost. Recommended for readers who want something other than the standard story, readers who want a little more substance and are willing to put up with deeply flawed male characters and a heroine who could use a little work, too.

If you haven't read it and you think you might, be sure to give yourself time. This is not a book to start at bedtime when you have to go to work the next day. I read it in one go while poor Mr. Bat scrambled himself an egg for supper.

1-29-15: Edited spelling. Embarrassing, jeez. . 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Emily Dickinson is Dead, by Jane Langton (1984, cozy? mystery)

Am still having a heckuva time with internet connection. I usually allow myself no more than one hour a day on the internet, but the last week or so I'm lucky to get five minutes a day. Ugh.

I decided to take a break from romance novels, so I went back to my old friend the murder mystery. It's hard to find a good mystery these days. I dislike - I refuse to read - stories with sadistic serial killers and of course what these days passes for a cozy mystery (some widowed quilter, knitter, candle maker, or next door neighbor to the chief of police stumbles upon a dead body, is considered a suspect, does some incredibly stupid things, and launches a second career as a PI) just won't stay down. Gag.

This looked interesting, and the author new to me, and the price was right (free). I like Emily Dickinson's poetry, although I don't pretend to understand more than about 5% of it on a good day. I bit. The book bit back. Oh well.

There's an Emily Dickinson symposium in Amherst on the 100th anniversary of her death. The garbage-for-brains professor who set it up invited only men to speak. Well, really. There's arson and murder, and we know who the guilty party is from the beginning. There are what I'm assuming were supposed to be hilarious send-ups of "types": the welfare mother, the fat girl, the Japanese tourist, the yuppie, the feminist, the academic.

Can I tell you without spitting all over the screen how deeply offensive some of the writing is? I'll try. No spoiler here, we know right away: the murderer is the stupid inarticulate fat girl who thinks she is in love with a professor. The author makes much of the rolls of fat on her neck and elsewhere and talks about the flapping sound her thighs make when she walks, her wide stance, her piggy face, her hatred of pretty girls, her lousy diet. It made me tired. "Winnie wallowed across the floor, slapping down her sponge-soled wedgies, her thighs slubbing against each other under her dress." "Winnie crouched down, wheezing with effort…." " [T]he kind of knowledge that tucked itself into hidden crevices in her layers of fat, deep down in the creases of her neck, or in the chubby folds of her knees."

And we have the Japanese professors who take photos constantly and talk a kind of pidgin English, the sort of thing one saw in the WWII Bugs Bunny war-effort cartoons where the Japanese were all eyeglasses and teeth. I mean, really?

What broke my heart, though, was the author's skill in writing otherwise. Listen to this, the opening paragraph of the book: "After the death of his wife, Owen Kraznik went on living and teaching in Amherst, but his days had become a bewildering fluster, a tangled wilderness, a formless and perplexing dishevelment. Snatching at the chaos as it hurtled past him, end over end, Owen struggled to arrange it in a rational pattern." Now, is that not a fine description of grief? Isn't that exactly how it feels?

Clearly I'm just not smart enough or sophisticated enough to fully appreciate this book, which I guess is a satire, or partially a satire. That's okay with me. It's at the midpoint, it's been repeating itself for a few chapters now, and I think it's fine to put the book down and move on. DNF.

Okay, now I'm looking at reviews and I see that this book was nominated for an Edgar and received a Nero. So YMMV. It was not to my taste.

Personal note: Mr. Bat is doing okay. He's having some trouble with swelling and some shortness of breath, nothing unexpected given his condition. He's still my guy, cheerful and content, glad for what he has and not worried about what he doesn't have. He had some follow-up tests last week, no results yet but I don't expect anything showing improvement, since clinically he's not as good as he was last summer. Still, he's here, we've had almost a year they said we wouldn't have, we had some pretty doggone good potato soup for lunch, we watched it snow this morning, and we still fall asleep every night holding hands.