These Old Shades

“Dear Edward has given Fanny a chocolate-coloured coach with pale blue cushions. The wheat is picked out in blue.” He held the sheet at arm’s length. “It seems strange, but no doubt Fanny is right. I have not been in England for such a time…Ah, I beg her pardon. You will be relieved to hear, my dear Hugh, that the wheat still grows as it ever did. The wheels are picked out in blue.”

–The Duke of Avon, reading a letter aloud from his sister Fanny

This was a reread on Audible of a book I’ve read so many times I know a lot of it by heart, even though it’s probably been more than 2 decades since my last reading. The quote above, I remember, was when I read the book for the first time, my emotions went from enjoyment and anticipation to sheer delight. Although the incurably romantic and fun story still holds up, it suffers from the narration. Cornelius Garrett does not do well interpreting the suave, omniscient, and mordant Duke of Avon. Justin Alistair is an iconic character in the romance world, upon which many many subsequent romantic heroes by many other authors has been based over the years. I don’t think Mr. Garrett understood his character. He plays him in a voice that is too high-pitched and is sometimes bombastic and querulous. There is little nuance and little comic timing. In my own mind, I hear Avon’s voice as somewhat affected but not effeminate. I hear the unhurried, dry, and quiet tones of the late great Alan Rickman. Cornelius Garrett is no Alan Rickman.

That off my chest, although I was entertained, and enjoyed revisiting one of my old-time favorites, I wasn’t as charmed and admiring of Leonie this time around. Her devotion to “Monseigneur” and her impish spirited antics (“Egad, you wildcat!”) after restored to her true female self were a little much. But the plot, the dialogue, and all of the other characters, including Justin Alastair, as written, if not played, were as entertaining as always. It is no wonder that so many aspects of the book have been so copied, even to this day, almost 100 years later.

Two oft-criticized aspects of the book are the age gap between Justin and Leonie (40 vs. 20) and the other is the emphasis of birth over breeding in the determination of character. As far as the age gap, I do not have a problem with it. It is not all that much more than Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, or Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Bogie was 45 and Bacall was 20 when they met. Cary Grant was 59 and Audrey Hepburn was 25 years younger when they starred together in Charade. As far as the importance of genetics in the determination of character, the criticism hits home a bit more strongly. Genetics is certainly a factor, but it doesn’t trump everything. Despite 20 years of being raised as a peasant, we are told Leonie never exhibits any coarseness. And conversely, in regards to the peasant with whom she was exchanged at birth, despite being raised as an aristocrat, he is awkward in society and wants nothing more than to be a farmer. Of course in my early readings of this book, I didn’t think a thing about it. And you know, some difference between the two can be explained by the behavior of both sets of parents who knew the truth. But I mustn’t digress.

These Old Shades is a most entertaining read. It has it all: romance, wit, comedy, adventure, suspense, cheer-worthy moments, triumph, and emotion. I love the descriptions of the fashions and toilettes, the glitterati, both fictional and real, and the settings. Although it’s too much to ask any book to recapture the joy it may have first brought once upon a time, it’s good to revisit books that once brought that joy. **5 stars, of course.**

Rating: 5 out of 5.

March 2, 2022

The Phantom Friend (Judy Bolton #30)

By Margaret Sutton

“Oh dear! wailed Clarissa. “I look terrible. My hair is dull. My hair is drab….”

“Turn her off, somebody!” Pauline interrupted. “We’ve heard that record before.”

It kills me to give a Judy Bolton book less than 3 stars but this one was not only flawed but “dull and drab.” Sorry! Judy is still in New York with Irene after their last adventure sorting out the scary Lake family and they have been joined by their friend Pauline Faulkner and another girl at Radio City Music Hall. They are going to tour a TV studio and watch Irene’s local variety show which seems to owe a lot to the old Shirley Temple’s Storybook TV series. They meet the naive and tiresome Clarissa Valentine, an aspiring actress from West Virginia, who wants to return home after not making it in New York City. Her money for her ticket is stolen by a cashier and the girls give her money to go back home. When she disappears from the group during the show, it is suspected that it was all a big scam to get their money. During the tour of the TV studio, the girls are victimized by Subliminal Advertising, and the reader is victimized by a never-ending diatribe on its dangers. Judy and Clarissa constantly bewail their dull and drab hair and can’t stop thinking about Golden Hair Wash. Somehow, a con man who specializes in kidnapping people and scamming churches out of their money gets involved in the story. Clarissa gets kidnapped because she is mistaken for a famous guest actress on Irene’s show and the actress ends up in the hospital and Peter gets shot. It’s all a big muddle and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Especially when Clarissa with her kidnappers posing as her mother and father end up at a surprise party in Judy’s house in Dry Brook Hollow. I might have been generous and given it 3 stars but Judy’s out of character swanning around as if in a trance talking about her nightmares and her dull and drab hair just got on my last nerve. Pauline Faulkner with her cynical outlook and sarcastic remarks was my favorite character in this one.

According to her daughter, Lindsey Stroh, Margaret used Vance Packard’s milestone book, The Hidden Persuaders as research, and apparently it really got to her. She wasn’t alone as subliminal advertising and mind control concerned a lot of people in the 50s and 60s. But it is called “as dangerous as an atom bomb” several times which is way over the top. Judy and Clarissa’s overreaction to the commercial for Golden Hair Wash which contained subliminal tactics overshadowed the mystery and adventure and even Peter ending up in the hospital (again) and in trouble with his boss. Unlike much of her laudable social commentary, it is not subtle and not integrated smoothly into the plot. It’s as if Margaret felt compelled to warn her young readers about mind control, but by the time she got back to writing a Judy Bolton story, it was too late.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

February 27, 2022

Madam, Will You Talk?

Charity suffereth long and is kind.-1 Corinthians 13:4

“Where’s David?”
“Who’s Johnny?

This is the first published work of Mary Stewart, who is widely credited with inspiring what became a whole genre of fiction: Romantic Suspense. So I guess you could say that this is the book that started it all. Set in the early ’50s this first novel introduced readers to the evocative descriptions of exotic locales that she became so famous and appreciated for. To say the least, her heroines do not suffer from dreary lives. Mary’s exciting adventurous novels must have been a welcome respite from the gloom and hardships of post-war England.

It has been decades since I last read this story but there were a few things that I had never forgotten from the 4 or 5 times I read this previously. This time I listened to it on Audible read by famous actress Emilia Fox. A friendship blossoms between a young widowed English tourist and a haunted but charming young boy in France and his evident fear of his father. She is determined to protect him at all costs. I remembered the tense cat and mouse chase between Charity Selbourne, our heroine, and her very scary “enemy” through the countryside and towns of France. Charity sabotaging his car using a secret trick her late husband Johnny taught her in order to buy her some time to get away from him. The ghost of Johnny, who was a race car driver before he was killed on a mission over France during WWII, is present throughout the novel. The war looms large in this story. Johnny taught Charity how to handle fast powerful cars. That skill saves her life.

“When you let excitement in, Johnny would add, in a lecture-room sort of voice, fear will follow.”

That quote always stuck with me.

The episode that stood out for me more than any other was her car race to rescue her love and the boy David from the hands of their potential murderers. Her use of her considerable driving skills becomes a deadly weapon. Charity’s development from just a nice and very frightened young woman to a formidable adversary is just awe-inspiring.

I remembered how quickly and shockingly the love story flared when I first read it. With my modern sensibilities, It was a little troublesome how firmly trust and long-term commitment between the two were established. But I went with it. I guess it does happen like that sometimes. Two other things that were also difficult for me on this re-read were the constant smoking and the way that Charity was marginalized and kind of infantilized by the hero after her courage and heroics.

But after the darkness and fear, the closure, joy, and hope of the ending were so satisfactory.

“And so it ended, where it had begun, with the little Jewish painter whose death had been so late, but so amply avenged. And, ten days later, with The Boy David carefully boxed in the back of the Riley, my husband and I set our faces to the South, and the Isles of Gold.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

January 7, 2021

The Haunted Fountain (Judy Bolton #28)

By Margaret Sutton

“This can’t be happening to me,” she thought. Never, in her whole life, had she felt so alone and helpless. She felt it was her own fault, too, for not calling Peter and telling him where she was going. But wouldn’t Honey tell him? She knew, and so did her father. Didn’t anyone care?…“They can’t let me just lie here and die,” thought Judy. She had never thought very much about dying. She had always felt so vibrantly alive. But now, suddenly, it seemed possible.

This book has it all! Judy, Lois, and Lorraine go to visit a fountain that Judy remembers from her childhood that seemed to talk to her. Lorraine reveals that she no longer trusts her husband, Arthur, and seems very upset. But she will not open up to Judy or Lois. Judy finds a diamond in the fountain and meets some intimidating shady characters. She enlists Horace to go back with her to the fountain to investigate and they end up getting trapped under it when someone turns the water on. Also under the fountain is a dying man, parolee Dick Hartwell, who discloses that he was coerced by a gang to forge important men’s signatures on incriminating documents for blackmail purposes. Because of leaky pipes, the room they are in starts to fill with water, and Judy and Horace realize that unless they escape, they will drown.

What follows is Judy’s very exciting and tense escape from the deadly fountain, her race to save Horace and Dick from drowning, a terrifying confrontation with hardened criminals (Judy gets slapped!), Judy’s despair when she thinks her brother is dead, a very romantic reunion with Peter, and ensuring the true criminals are brought to justice (remember the Vine gang from The Haunted Attic?. In addition to the action-packed adventure, we also have the marital drama of Lorraine and Arthur and their unhappiness with each other. Will they be reconciled?

By the end, Judy and Horace wind up in the hospital, and Blackberry, Judy’s cat, is awarded a medal for bravery. All the loose ends are tied up, including the mystery of why the fountain talked to her when she was a young teen. This mystery is many loyal Judy Bolton fans’ favorite book in the series. It is not hard to understand why. Her physical courage is at the forefront here as well as very tender scenes with Peter, Horace, and her father. Lorraine and Arthur’s problems lend complexity. It is exciting but it has emotional depth as well. Once again, Margaret Sutton ventures into territory seldom seen in juvenile series of this type.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

November 26, 2021

The Moon-Spinners

By Mary Stewart

**Spoilers**

I had just seen the Disney movie The Moon-Spinners for about the millionth time motivated by reading Hayley Mills’s autobiography. I had forgotten how different it was from the book. In both, Nicola Ferris our 22-year-old young heroine runs across Mark in Crete while on vacation with her forty-something cousin Frances. In the book, Mark is already wounded and in hiding with his Greek friend, Lambis. In the movie, they are both guests at a small family hotel. They meet at a party the first night but the next morning, he is mysteriously missing. Of course, the book has Colin, Mark’s kidnapped little brother instead of the friendly Greek youth of the movie. That was a plus. Mark’s and Nicky’s anguish and our suspense over whether the bad guys had killed Colin or taken him hostage added a lot to the novel. The scenes where Nicky and Colin find a buried body that appears to be Mark’s and the discovery of the truth later make gripping reading.

There is one main thing, though, that I feel the movie improves upon and that is Mark’s motivation for his conflict and danger from Stavros and company. In the book, Mark and Colin are threatened because they witnessed a murder among thieves. But in the movie, Mark was accused of stealing some jewels in London and the only way he can clear his name is to follow Stavros to Crete, recover them, and prove Stavros was the real thief. This brings in the iconic Pola Negri to play the part of Madame Habib to whom Stavros is bringing the jewels to sell. Those scenes, and also the scenes at the diplomat’s house that they take refuge in only to find out he is one of the gang are really suspenseful and add a lot more adventure to the plot of the movie.

I did enjoy the Moonspinners very much despite the sub-par narration of Daphne Kouma. Her enunciation was not the clearest and she often whispered to convey tension or suspense in the story which also made her difficult to understand sometimes. The romance between Mark and Nicky was very slight and rather subtle, but it was sweeter than in the movie. The characters of Colin and Lambis added some humor and depth. Nicky’s successful Cat and Mouse with Sophia, Tony, and Stratos until she makes a fatal mistake keeps you on the edge. And of course, Mary Stewart’s description of the land and the character of the people and their ways were very evocative as always. The book is lighter than some of her books in which the lead characters are a little more mature, but none beat this one for charm.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

November 5, 2021

The Host

by Stephenie Meyer

“This place was truly the highest and the lowest of all worlds – the most beautiful senses, the most exquisite emotions.. the most malevolent desires, the darkest deeds. Perhaps it was meant to be so. Perhaps without the lows, the highs could not be reached.”

“Eight full lives,” I whispered against his jaw, my voice breaking. “Eight full lives and I never found anyone I would stay on a planet for, anyone I would follow when they left. I never found a partner. Why now? Why you? You’re not of my species. How can you be my partner?”
“It’s a strange universe,” he murmured.

Earthlings have almost been taken over by an alien species who inhabit their minds and bodies, effectively killing them. But when they got to Melanie, one of the last on earth, they picked the wrong girl. The “soul” who is being put in her body is Wanderer. So-called because she has lived on more planets than anyone else of her species. She comes to earth late in their invasion, so, because they are kind, non-violent, and incapable of deceit, Earth, once on the verge of self-destruction, is now a pretty great place to live. But Melanie refuses to die. Eventually, Melanie and Wanda become allies and sisters of the heart in one body. Melanie is determined to find her little brother and her love, Jared, who are in hiding along with the rest of the last remaining humans in a secret commune. But Wanda is being followed by one of the “Seekers” who protect the “souls” and is determined to find and destroy the rebels who pose a danger to their species.

Unlike many of the reviewers, I reveled in the descriptions and the details that so many felt slowed the “action” down. I loved “Wanda” and the development of the relationships in the commune. This book was just what I needed after finishing the Harry Potter series in a 2-week marathon and in the throws of Harry Potter withdrawal syndrome. I sympathize with some of the criticisms. The love story part was problematic and a bit boring. The relationship with Jamie was a bit overdone. And the ending was…well it just would not end. It’s like she couldn’t decide how to end it so she just threw all her imagined endings into the pot. Finally, when she got to it, it turned out pretty satisfying. I was surprised!

**Spoiler**

The descriptions of “Pet” really turned me off. I wish she had chosen a different type of person for the gentle yet heroic Wanderer to occupy. Let’s not forget, Wanderer also earned iconic status as “Rides the Beast” I’m not sure Pet is worthy of her after Melanie. **End Spoiler**


Stephenie Meyer planned (and still plans, I guess) this to be a trilogy, presumably concentrating on whether the remaining humans would be successful in surviving and triumphing against the invasion. Although we root for the human rebels against the takeover of the remaining humans, I’m not sure I’m anxious to read more. This ended in a very hopeful way, and sometimes hope is better than reality. “Be careful what you wish for…”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

November 21, 2016

The Huntress

By Kate Quinn

We don’t hunt the helpless, luchik. We hunt the killers. Is like villagers going after a wolf gone mad. Only when the wolf is dead, villagers go home and we find the next mad wolf.

Ian Graham, a former British war correspondent teams up with Nina Markova a former Night Witch, one of the legendary female Russian night bombers. Their mission is to find and bring to justice a vicious Nazi predator, The Huntress, with whom Nina has a personal score to settle. They track her to Boston, where Jordan, a young budding photographer’s widowed father has just brought home Anna, his serene and reserved new fiancée, and her traumatized daughter, Ruth. From Germany.

I hovered between 3 stars and 4 stars for this one. I re-read the ending pages again, and 4 stars it is. Part of the problem, if 3 stars is a problem, was that I didn’t really take to Nina or her lengthy story while she was in Russia. It wasn’t until she came to the United States that I really warmed to her.

“Is a Russian thing. Sit around, drink too much, talk about death.” She pushed her empty plate away. “It makes us cheerful.”

I guess it was because I just prefer light over dark. I was much more intrigued by Jordan’s domestic adventures with Anna and Ruth on the home front.

I hope there is a sequel someday. I would like to see all of the characters again and read more of Ruth, all grown up. I would also like to see more Nazis caught.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

July 14, 2019

Dark Matter

By Blake Crouch

“Imagine you’re a fish, swimming in a pond. You can move forward and back, side to side, but never up out of the water. If someone were standing beside the pond, watching you, you’d have no idea they were there. To you, that little pond is an entire universe. Now imagine that someone reaches down and lifts you out of the pond. You see that what you thought was the entire world is only a small pool. You see other ponds. Trees. The sky above. You realize you’re a part of a much larger and more mysterious reality than you had ever dreamed of.” Daniela leans back in her chair and takes a sip of wine.

Dark Matter is an original concept that delivers a lot of suspense, wonder, some shocks, and twists aplenty. Jason, an ordinary physics professor with a wife, Daniella, and son, Charley, is knocked out and kidnapped. He wakes up to learn he is really a celebrated world-renowned genius who has cracked the code to other worlds and alternate realities and how to go there. But Jason loves the only other life he knows. He loves his wife and son. Can he find that life again in the infinite other parallel lives he has lived and is living?

It was hard to get my mind around the science so I didn’t even try. I just went with it. I must give it all the stars, even though It didn’t affect me very much emotionally and it wasn’t funny which are two qualities which are usually very important to me in books. There were times that I didn’t like Jason, the hero, very much. But it was well-written and kept me reading. There were several difficult concepts and Mr. Crouch handled them very well and very believably. It is a real page-turner. I did figure out what Jason and his family were going to have to do to stay together. I loved the way his wife Daniela cut through the mess and took charge at the end. I wish Mr. Crouch would have figured out a way to involve Amanda, his fellow traveler through their alternate lives, at the end. Primo sequel material there!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

October 5, 2018

The Chemist

By Stephanie Meyer

“Kevin rolled his eyes. “I bet you always have a plan, don’t you, shorty? ”She regarded him with flat eyes. “I can’t rely on muscle, so I rely on brains. It appears you have the opposite problem.”

Stephanie Meyer can write a good page-turner. Say what you will, all of the books I have read by her have really engaged me, and The Chemist was no exception. It is a light thriller with a fair share of romantic mush. Although it has lots of violence and a high mortality rate, it is not very dark, terrifying, or heart pounding. Somehow you know everything is going to turn out OK. Our heroine is an emotionally damaged female John Wick, Jason Bourne, or Equalizer type, except she has the special superpower of being a brilliant chemist and former torturer who uses her expertise to protect herself and wreak havoc on bad guys. At least she hopes they are bad guys. She is on the run from a certain U.S government agency that is trying to kill her because she knows too much. She agrees to do one last job for them in exchange for them ceasing and desisting. A common trope, yes.

The book kind of bogs down at the beginning with the setup and her preparations to capture her prey. It was interesting and admirable but went on a bit too long. I almost quit. I hung on and it picked up considerably after her target proves himself to be a sweet, innocent victim with an extremely dangerous twin brother (Kevin), who turns out to be also targeted by another branch of the government. Alex, our heroine, reluctantly teams up with him to extricate themselves from their mutual dilemma and keep his beloved, but naïve, (and, sadly, a bit dim,) brother safe. And therein lies my main complaint about this book. I actually prefer beta heroes as opposed to the Alpha male heroes. But they don’t work so well when the book is set, not in the real world, but in the nether world of constant danger, evil, and death. Especially when our heroine is such a badass. I didn’t understand the romance. She had more in common and more chemistry with his crazy and dangerous brother. They really got each other. By comparison, Daniel seemed ineffectual. But a super-nice guy. A mensch. Yeah. He actually expresses qualms about stealing a car when they were running for their lives, pursued by the powers of hell. And he was apologizing all the way through the book for being so stupid. At one point, Kevin, the uber-tough agent, tells him to shut up so he can talk to his nemesis, Alex, because at least she has some sense. Those two are hostile towards each other through the majority of the book accompanied by a lot of amusing banter and snark, but they had mutual respect. They bonded over rolling their eyes at his brother and her love interest. But, to my disappointment, it was not foreplay.
Towards the end, I kind of sped-read, not feeling compelled to savor every word and development. As a side note, Kevin’s dogs also were a little over the top and added an almost fantasy element. (Think Dean Koontz’s Watchers). The ending was a little pat, but I didn’t mind that so much either. I like the way the epilogue was done. It was clever. All in all, an intriguing concept, competently done, but lacking any surprise or twists. She is not a great writer, like some non-literary entertainment-only novelists are, but she can spin a tale and keep you engaged. I’d give a sequel, if there is one, a chance. But please, first, a sequel to The Host!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

February 28, 2017

Just One Damned Thing After Another (Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1)

By Jodi Taylor

I wasn’t all that blown away by this. Considering the enthusiastic reviews, and how much I loved The Nothing Girl, I was disappointed. It’s a great idea, but I think she bit off more than she could chew. A select group is tasked with observing and documenting pivotal events in history. They are sent back in time after extensive training. It is a very high concept intriguing plot line, but like many reviewers, I thought the many many characters were just sketched in and I didn’t feel like I knew them, so I wasn’t invested enough. I will probably try another in the series, because I have reason to believe her writing might improve as she writes more books.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

August 4, 2017