Bloomsbury Girls

Vivien had lost count of the number of times young female students and staff from the surrounding universities and museums had come into the shop asking for certain women authors, only to be met with an unexpected lack of success. Only Agatha Christie, Nancy Mitford, and Daphne du Maurier could reliably be found on the shelves, mostly because they continued to produce and sell and were therefore harder to ignore.

Bloomsbury Girls was a very pleasant read with a great ending but I didn’t like it as much as The Jane Austen Society. I think that maybe the small village bucolic setting gave me a Deja Vue nostalgia that called up so many gentle English countryside novels and cozy mysteries that I have read over the years. The very insularity appealed to me for whatever reason. Of course, the ties to Jane Austen and the shades of her novels in the characters and their relationships were also a plus.

This one is set in bustling post-war London. This is probably an advantage over JAS for most readers, and I was looking forward to the change of scene as well. It centers around 3 underestimated women working in a new, used, and collectible bookstore run by men. At Bloomsbury Books Daphne DuMaurier is referred to as “that romance writer.” Beautiful Vivien, whose fiance was killed in WWII is smarter, more talented, and more business-minded than all of the men in higher positions, but since she is a woman, she doesn’t get the opportunity to enact her progressive ideas. Until she does. Grace is Vivien’s friend and the secretary to the “shaky but iron-fisted” manager of the bookstore with his 51 inflexible rules. She sympathizes with Vivien, but she is a peacekeeper, not a rabble-rouser. She is trapped in a bad and emotionally abusive marriage, with seemingly no way out. And last but not least, we have Evie Stone, a favorite character from The Jane Austen Society. Evie is one of the first women graduates of Cambridge but has been denied a career in academia because of sexism and the political “old boy system”. She takes a job organizing and cataloging the huge and constantly growing rare books section of Bloomsbury books. But she has an ulterior motive. Thanks to her brilliant work with Jane Austen’s family library, she knows there is a book there somewhere that she has to find. Her ultimate dream is to see that long-forgotten and neglected works by women authors of the past are brought to light and properly recognized.

Evie often found herself frustrated by the discrepancy between the archival preservation of male writing and that of their female counterparts—how every sketch of a twig that [famed 18thc. Botanist] John Loudon had ever even whimsically composed was being carefully safeguarded by several British museums, while an entire novel by his wife had become only a minor footnote in the record of her husband’s work.

Real Life historical figures in the book world of the day all play a part in how the women achieve their dreams, with an assist from another important (fictional) character from The Jane Austen Society. And it is pretty spectacular how the three women escape from the bonds of tradition, sexism, and stagnation. It’s pretty clear that Natalie Jenner was inspired by real-life events and women who moved the needle forward for female empowerment. Towards the end, the series of events which by cause and surprising effect upend the bookstore, the opportunities for our heroines, and the academic establishment itself is tightly woven and immensely satisfying. But getting to that end was at times a bit too slow-moving and meandering, which the fast-paced and well-constructed last quarter of the book only highlighted.

Of course, I rarely read a book that doesn’t have at least a little romance. And two of the three stories were charming in that regard. The third started out very promisingly but was stymied by the irritating character traits and bad behavior of the couple. Although I wasn’t bowled over by the book as a whole, many aspects kept my interest going, and the way it all ended made up for most of the more frustrating aspects.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

September 17, 2022

The Jane Austen Society

By Natalie Jenner

And the society itself sounded like a band of misfits with negligible expertise and no head for business: a country doctor, an old maid, a schoolmarm, a bachelor farmer, a fey auctioneer, a conflict-averse solicitor, a scullery maid, and one Hollywood movie star.

I really really like this one. I started it on Audible read by Richard Armitage and finished it on Kindle. As many have pointed out, it has a lot in common with a book that really spoke to me, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. England recovering from the devastation of WWII…an outsider welcomed into a small community of the like-minded… gentle romances…bookish conversations. It also reminded me of the work of the 20th-century English novelist, D. E. Stevenson. And this one has a Hollywood Movie Star and Jane Austen!

Winding through the story of the diverse group of society members are shades of some of the plots and characters from Jane Austen’s novels. Particularly PersuasionEmma, and a cad straight out of Sense and Sensibility. Or is it Mansfield Park? Or Pride and Prejudice? Or Northanger Abbey?)
The novel is character-driven, but the characters would probably not be all that interesting to many people. But I felt like I was drawn in and a part of their small world. I cared about them and their sufferings, secrets, and fates. I was invested in their mission to save Jane Austen’s house and the library, which was full of secret priceless treasures revealed thanks to a scholarly teenage housemaid. I was anxious and concerned because their chances of success looked pretty slim at times. Then we are given hope in a surprise twist I did not see coming.

Like many, I struggled to understand “the vote” of the society regarding how to advise one of their members. But I think it had something to do with this perspective from Mimi, the Hollywood star.

“…we are lucky if we get to live in places where so many people care—the trick is understanding why they care. Here, what I love, is that you care because you have a history together. You have known each other’s parents and grandparents…In Hollywood, it’s quite the opposite. Everyone comes there to start new and makes up a history—…Anyway, in a town where no one even knows your real name, let alone where you come from, what is tethering you to anything? What is there to keep you on the ground?

But I still didn’t like it, agree with it, or really fully understand it.

It won’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Jane Austen that in this book, so closely aligned with that great author, it all works out in the end. And I will add that the epilogue was everything an epilogue should be. Even though this is a fictional treatment of a real Society, the Knight Family, their home, and Chawton, it was loosely tethered enough to reality that I learned a lot.
And I agree with Adeline about Emma.
**4 1/2 stars**

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

August 19, 2022

Frederica

by Georgette Heyer

The Marquis believed himself to be hardened against flattery. He thought that he had experienced every variety, but he discovered that he was mistaken: the blatantly worshipful look in the eyes of a twelve-year-old, anxiously raised to his, was new to him, and it pierced his defences. He was capable of giving the coolest of set-downs to any gushing female; and the advances of toadeaters he met with the most blistering of snubs; but even as he realised how intolerably bored he would be in Soho he found himself quite unable to snub his latest and most youthful admirer. It would be like kicking a confiding puppy.

In rereading Frederica (on audio) I did something I don’t often do which is read two books by the same author in a row. But, since my experience with the narration of These Old Shades was less than the best, when I saw The unabridged Frederica in my audible library, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take another whack at one of my most beloved authors. Besides, this book always reminds me of springtime with its settings and outdoor adventures: a family dog harassing cows in the park unaware of proper canine London manners, a runaway bicycle, scientific excursions, balls and parties, and of course a runaway hot-air balloon. Thankfully the narration of Clifford Norgate was “bang up to the mark” with even his female characters escaping the affected tones too many male readers give their females.

Although no longer available on audible, I had downloaded this to my phone at one time so I still had access to it. Hopefully, the unabridged versions will be available again eventually in the United States as they are in the U.K. This one was an excellent interpretation. Mr. Norgate’s voicing of the Marquis of Alverstoke had nuance and subtlety and lived up to my imagination of his tone and expression. His inner dialogue trying to suss out his true feelings for the redoubtable Frederica gave a fresh insight into Heyer’s words. Some of the most amusing and memorable scenes (The Baluchistan Hound Incident and the dampening effect of “Restorative Pork Jelly” on incipient declarations of love) were “complete to a shade.”

Frederica Merriville has come to London so her beautiful and impossibly sweet and gentle younger sister can have her season and hopefully find an eligible match so she can be comfortably settled. She has audaciously reached out to her very distant cousin Alverstoke whom she has never met for assistance in getting her launched into society. He has no intention of doing any such thing, but once he meets the unusually frank and unaffected Frederica, her two young brothers, and Charis, a “diamond of first water” he thinks it might be an amusing joke on his two tiresome sisters, who have been needling him to give balls for their unimpressive daughters. He will do so but only if Charis is introduced at their sides. They are surprised but thrilled at his change of mind as their brother Vernon is a very rich and important figure in the topmost ranks of society. The Marquis has served them the lesson they deserve when they meet the lovely Charis, who totally outshines every girl in London and certainly her two plain cousins. But he’s not shot of the little family yet.

Charis soon becomes the darling of society, and her 24 year old “on the shelf” sister Frederica is well-received as well. Meanwhile, Felix and Jeremy, Frederica’s young brothers, take a liking to “Cousin Alverstoke” and he starts to become much more involved with the lively family than he ever intended. As he is drawn into their escapades, the perpetually bored Alverstoke is for once, not bored. Of course, Charis falls in love with a totally unsuitable but handsome blockhead, and Frederica struggles mightily to not be a bother to the formidable Marquis. But far from being intimidated, she finds herself constantly in need of his help and advice. The marquis, meanwhile, is falling deeply in love with this girl who treats him like an indulgent and kind uncle much to his bemusement.

This is a bright and delightful book. Georgette Heyer was at the height of her powers and Frederica is one of her most charming and likable heroines. Alverstoke is one of her most well-drawn and witty romantic leads and their interactions are high points. Felix and Jeremy are two very different brothers but are both irrepressible and fun. Even Alverstoke’s quiet and efficient secretary, Charles Trevor, shines and even plays a surprising heroic role during a final crisis. My favorite Heyer novels take place in London during the season where conversation, descriptions, and settings sparkle, and the ability to navigate the tricky conventions and manners of society put futures on the line. And you might even meet real historical figures like the Prince Regent, Beau Brummel, Gentleman Jackson, or Sally Jersey and her cohorts. This one has the extra attraction of a warm and happy family at its center.

Frederica, The Marquis of Alverstoke, and the Beautiful Charis

Rating: 5 out of 5.

March 21, 2022

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

How to Capture a Countess

by Karen Hawkins

“Financial standing, a social position beyond what she has now, and a husband to dote upon her every wish. What more could she ask for?”

“Maybe youth. Vigor. Teeth.”

“Lord Cameron has his own teeth.” Margaret narrowed her eyes at the other candidate. “I’m not so certain about Munro. They seemed somewhat clacky at dinner, so I’m suspicious.”

Tolerable. Karen Hawkins is a better writer than most of the historical romance writers I have found these days. She writes like she enjoys writing. This is the first book I have read by her, and I will give her another chance with next in the series. Humorous situations, though not laugh out loud funny. Doesn’t have the wit or the voice of some of my favorites, but she is one of the better writers in a genre I have grown weary of. Unfortunately, she follows the same hackneyed romance formula as most of her sister writers do. By page 30, X has to happen; by page 75 xx has to happen etc., etc. I had to skip through the last third of the book. This book was flawed by a silly and immature hero who was also kind of a jerk. When he threw our heroine in a lake because she dared best him in a contest and then accused her of cheating, I almost quit the thing. Still, she is engaging.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

July 31, 2015

Suspense and Sensibility: Or, First Impressions Revisited (Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mysteries, #2)

by Carrie Bebris

I’m a sucker for anything based on Jane Austen if it is well done. And sometimes when it is not. This is evidenced by the fact that I’ve read all of these Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries, though this is the only one I have actually written anything on. It starts off pretty well; the characters seemed pretty true to the originals, though Kitty is given a more positive spin. It is an improvement over Pride and Prescience. I actually chuckled a few times. Sadly, it degenerates pretty quickly once the mystery kicks in. Unfortunately, it is another paranormal mystery and it is positively outlandish. It was nice to see the Dashwood women again. Lucy Ferrars nee Steele starts out true to form, but her ultimate fate is positively ludicrous and cringe-worthy. The resolution has some tragic aspects considering the fluffy way it starts out. I was considerably less patient with the rest in the series, just skipping through the mystery part. I remember looking forward to more of Georgiana as she was pretty intriguing, and also an appearance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Unfortunately, I do not remember anything about any of the other stories, which I guess is a review of the whole series in and of itself.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

September 15, 2014

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

The Fifth Kiss

by Elizabeth Mansfield

I have gotten a few of Elizabeth Mansfield’s books on Audible, and, in rereading them, they have not lived up to my memory of how great they are. Still, they are superior to almost every other regency I have picked up lately. Elizabeth Mansfield excels at portraying heroes that are good, even sweet men. This is not one of those. The hero in this one is a nasty piece of work. He was a bad father and a bad husband to the late sister of our heroine. Even though he was neglectful and unfaithful to her she worshiped the ground he walked on. We learn later that she was terminally ill and instead of telling her husband the truth so as not to impede his brilliant political career, she told him she was not interested in intimacy anymore, and encouraged him to find it elsewhere. What. Miles and Olivia, the dead wife’s sister, and our leading lady, have always been antagonistic to each other and this devolves into almost hatred, before the corner is turned and Miles starts to redeem himself with Olivia’s help. However, throughout most of the book he is unreasonable, hateful, and angry. The narrator, I suspect, made him even more unpleasant than how he probably was on the page because she voiced him with a particularly villainous, snarly tone. She went too far, and it lessened my enjoyment of the book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

July 25, 2018

A Regency Match

By Elizabeth Mansfield

I’m afraid on this “re-read” audio version, I agree with the majority of the reviewers about the contemptible stupid behavior of the heroine. Sophia has set about proving that the hero is justified in his bad opinion of her by creating scenes and embarrassing him at his country betrothal party. At first, her purposely behaving like a zany clumsy hysteric was a little amusing. I did get some laughs out of her setting the piano on fire and then her phony inconsolable self-flagellation. But the incident with the horse was way too much. She really crossed the line. Totally unreasonable and foolish.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

January 17, 2017

Passing Fancies

By Elizabeth Mansfield

Elizabeth Mansfield was one of my favorite traditional Regency romance authors and if I had to pick a favorite of hers, this one would be it. She really misdirects you into thinking one man will be the hero and love interest and the true love interest sneaks up on you. The romance is tender and touching.

In general, This author’s forte is non-stereotypical characters, or at least her heroes and heroines usually have a little quirk or two that makes you very fond of and invested in them. She is amazing at creating a sweet sexual tension between the love interests without anything more than a kiss. To add to the appeal of her books, many are lightly interconnected by family similar to my other favorite, the great Patricia Veryan. A while back, her books had become available on Audiobooks, and I have re-read a few of them. Sadly, they didn’t quite hold up with the passage of time. But this one, and a few others, are still among my favorites. Strangely, it is those which remain out-of-print and hard to find at a reasonable price.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

February 21, 2013