Music in the Hills (Dering Family #2)

by D. E. Stevenson

The view down the valley was wide and free; the winding river, the rounded, rolling hills. The air sparkled so that it was a positive joy to breathe . . . and over the whole place there was a stillness, a peaceful sort of feeling; it was like the feeling one has when the words of a benediction have been uttered and have died away.

Rhoda had quite a good brain (and knew it), but even she found the sermon “a bit stiff,” for Mr. Sim’s theme was the ethical interpretations of history and the varying interactions of the temporal and spiritual powers. As Rhoda looked round at her fellow-worshippers she could not help wondering whether they were taking it all in or whether their rapt expressions were due to pre-occupation with domestic affairs.

“So, Becky, What are you reading?”
Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a young Englishman, disappointed in love, who goes to Scotland and learns to be a sheep farmer. In the 1950’s”
“Oh.”

Whenever I finish a D.E. Stevenson novel, half the time, it seems like I am declaring it the best I have read yet. Music in the Hills is the second in a trilogy begun with Vittoria Cottage, and it has supplanted Katherine Wentworth as my favorite so far (other than the Miss Buncle books). After proposing to Rhoda, the strong-minded and captivating artist we met briefly in the first book, and being turned down, James Dering, the beloved son of Caroline, the heroine of Vittoria Cottage, goes to live with her sister and her husband’s Scottish estate and sheep farm, Mureth. He has his mind and heart set on being a farmer after being stationed in Malaya during the war. James is one of D.E. Stevenson’s strong, upstanding, handsome, and kind heroes. He was lovely, although on at least two occasions I wanted to slap him silly.

We meet lots of interesting characters at Mureth and the environs. The main characters, self-deprecating, vague, but wise Mamie, strong and straight Jock, pretty vivacious Holly, fairy-like Eleanor, Daniel the shepherd, and community and duty-obsessed Lady Shaw, would all take pages or at least paragraphs to describe satisfactorily. Even the ones who put in the briefest of appearances have something distinctive about them for good or bad. The ones we are meant to scorn, I disliked intensely (narcissistic bully Sir Andrew, Lady Shaw’s husband, and the self-important entitled Londoner who buys a neighboring estate. He doesn’t understand his house, the people, or the land and doesn’t care to.)

There are quite a few plot threads to keep things interesting. Lady Shaw’s conniving niece Holly’s pursuit of James, for one. We know she is not right for him right away.

You don’t *like* London do you?”
“No, of course not. I’m really a country person.” She did not look like a country person. Even James, who knew very little about women’s clothes, had a feeling that Holly’s green frock was a town rather than a country garment and her shoes had been made to walk upon London pavements rather than in country lanes. He took her hand to help her down the uneven steps.

It takes James, naive in the ways and wiles of women quite some time for the light to fully dawn. We fear for him. When the vibrant unconventional Rhoda tears up on her motorcycle and knocks on Mureth’s door, we breathe a sigh of relief. We also fear for Eleanor, Lady Shaw’s young daughter. Though surrounded by family, she is virtually alone in the world with her books, dreaming her life away. James takes to her immediately and enlists reluctant Mamie to help rescue her. What will happen when sweet and timid Mamie gets up the gall to talk to the self-important human steamroller who is Lady Shaw about her parenting? I was on the edge of my seat. Meanwhile, someone is rustling the Mureth sheep. Suspicion falls on a likable character we know has got to be innocent. What is going on? James gets on the bad side of the powerful new neighbor who unbelievably shoots at a sheepdog. When he throws a citified party to introduce himself to his country neighbors, danger lurks everywhere. By the end, the good and strong are set apart from the bad or weak. Then we have the petty feuds and rivalries, Lizzie the housekeeper and her detachment from her children, the gossip, a country party that almost leads to disaster, stalking sheep rustlers, hunting, fishing, and traipsing through the hills. I for sure started to cringe at the direction the James and Eleanor relationship seemed to be briefly going, but it didn’t. What was he thinking?

Despite the fact that I had another book waiting to be read, I had to pivot and go right on to the sequel, Winter and Rough Weather. It was too soon to leave the world of Mureth and its people. I had to keep accompanying them on their journeys for a little while longer. I hope we see Eleanor completely sorted in book #3.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Vittoria Cottage

By D. E. Stevenson

We don’t stand still, thought Robert. We are travellers upon the path of life. No traveller can bathe twice in the same stream. He bathes and goes on his way and, if the road is dusty and hot, he may look back longingly and think of the clear cool water with regret … but presently he may come upon another stream, different of course, but equally delightful to bathe in.”

This is a quintessential D.E. Stevenson novel which means I really liked it. It features a little family headed by a young widow living in a charming abode in the English countryside. Wandlebury, home to Miss Buncle, or rather, Mrs. Abbott, is frequently mentioned as in the vicinity. Caroline Dering is very nice, very capable, and the mother of three children. James, her oldest and the child most like her, is serving in Malaya. Leda takes after her petulant late husband and is beautiful, selfish, and entitled. Bobbie, the youngest, is lively, tomboyish, and just a good kid.

The story centers around Caroline’s friendship with a newcomer to the village, an attractive widower she had coincidentally had a pleasant encounter with on her honeymoon with the habitually peevish and thankfully now-dead Arnold. Robert, a spy, was imprisoned in Germany and is still recovering from the aftereffects of both that and the tragic death of his wife during the blitzkrieg. They fall in like and are smoothly transitioning to love until things are shaken up by Caroline’s younger sister, famous actress Harriet Fane, who comes for an extended visit. She sets her cap at Robert, and what man, Caroline thinks, could resist? Harriet is my favorite character. She is worldly, amusing, and speaks her mind without fear or favor. She and Caroline are devoted to each other.

The other main focus is Leda’s engagement to the lazy and weak Derek, the son and heir of the leading family in their community. If possible, he is even more unlikable than Leda. Both Caroline and his father, the Admiral and local squire, are in favor of a long engagement because Derek is still at University and they have no means of support. Derek and Leda are not happy. Both are foolish and immature, though Leda, thanks to her raising, is slightly more sensible.

The fates of both romances reach a crisis and form the conclusion of the novel. On the way we have Caroline’s visit to London, James’ return home from Malaya, his nascent romance with Derek’s likable independent sister, painful news from Robert’s young son in America, a few medical crises, a few parties, and various encounters with well-drawn townspeople and neighbors. Particularly noteworthy is the fate of Comfort, Caroline’s lovable housekeeper who worships the ground Caroline walks on, but is dangerously overweight.

The protagonists are so “pro” and the antagonists so “anti” that you just want the book to go on forever so you don’t have to leave their world. Instead, it ends very abruptly with a lot of loose ends, which brought my rating down. It was read by Lesley Mackie who was simply perfection. I am so happy that this is only the first in a trilogy. Even though the next book follows lovely James to faraway Scotland, I hope we hear a lot more about our friends in and around Vittoria Cottage.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Hidden Clue (Judy Bolton #35)

“Dad’s right,” Judy’s brother Horace put in. “Don’t you remember the Prophet’s words to the woman with the baby?” He said, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s Longing for itself. “They come–

“You and your quotations!” Judy interrupted before her brother could finish. “I suppose you’re going to tell me they come trailing clouds of glory.

“No, that’s Wordsworth.

This is # 35 of the original 38-book Judy Bolton series and things are winding down. The Hidden Clue piggybacks on the former book, The Puzzle in the Pond in which Judy, Peter, and the rest of the community take in orphans displaced due to a fire at an orphanage. In Judy’s temporary care at Dry Brook Hollow are 4 or 5-year-old “Sister” and her baby brother. No one knows their names or history because they were just dumped on the orphanage’s doorstep one day.  When anyone tries to question Sister, she is very vague and her answers don’t make sense. One day, Judy buys a doll for her but leaves it at the toy store which used to be a drugstore. When she goes back to get it, it has turned back into a drugstore again and all of the dolls she saw in the window are gone. The clerk denies everything and acts suspiciously. While in town, she takes Sister to the Library where Maud Wheatley who we met a while back in a former book is the librarian. Sister runs to her thinking, for some reason, that Maud is her real mother. Maud does not handle it well and ends up lying to the child, agreeing that she is her mother (when she is not).

As things unfold, Sister lets some things slip about her past, Including that she once had a “Winnie” doll, a not-too-nice woman called ‘Auntie Grumble” who was supposed to take care of her, a chess board, a group of men in a truck, and her old house burning down. Unfortunately, Judy does not know which of these disclosures to take seriously.  She writes all these clues down, and from there Peter and the FBI get involved. Peter and Judy pursue the clues to Chicago where the mystery is solved and Sister and the baby happily end up with a family.

This is not a favorite, but It is certainly far from the worst in the series. I love that it is mentioned that Judy and Peter go to visit Roberta. A lot of things did not make sense, some situations are very hard to swallow, and Judy is kind of obtuse about some things. And a little whiny. The biggest reason for not being too fond of this one is that Sister got on my nerves, and I didn’t like the way Maud behaved around her. She came across in a negative way that I don’t think was intended by the author. But maybe it was. It’s true that Margaret Sutton’s characters are multilayered and many are neither all good nor all bad. What surprised me, in this book about orphans and “real parents” versus adopted parents was Judy’s insensitivity to Peter’s being an orphan until he was adopted by his grandparents. And her friend and sister Honey’s very troubled background before being adopted. In her zeal and focus on finding Sister’s “real parents” it’s like she forgot her own family’s history. She remains oblivious even with Dr. Bolton’s disapproval and broad hints to check herself. The clue-stick finally makes contact in the end. In addition, the big case of transporting stolen baby dolls across state lines was underwhelming. Couldn’t we at least have had them stuffed with drugs or firearms?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Unequal Affections

By Lara S. Ormiston

Why did he have to be so charming in some ways and so insufferable in others? She was sure she had hurt far more than just his pride. Would it always be so hard?

I admired and enjoyed this alternative imagining of Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance very much. Very. What if Elizabeth took the more practical approach of her friend Charlotte and accepted Darcy’s proposal at Hunsford?

She had been proposed to by a stranger. A very rich, very handsome stranger who was very much in love with her. She could not possibly accept him—but, suddenly, she could not possibly refuse him either, not now. This was, she knew clearly, a chance unlike any other she would ever receive. She could not turn him down for the satisfaction of it. She had to think.

You will need fear nothing as my wife, neither poverty nor loneliness, dishonor, or disloyalty, unkindness, neglect . . . you will be the most cherished wife in all of England.”

Who could resist such a declaration? She’s only human. After a week of soul-searching, she accepts Darcy. Not only for the good she can do her family, especially Jane, but because she starts to see Darcy in a new light. She thought he despised her. She was so wrong. How else has she misjudged him? Before she can truly come to love Darcy as he ardently wishes, he has to change. And changing the habits and attitudes of a lifetime is by necessity slow going. But I never found it tedious. It really felt like this is how it would have gone. In the original, Elizabeth’s words in summarily rejecting Darcy’s proposal shake him to the core, and he starts to change. Just as ”the letter” starts Elizabeth on her path. In this book, it is a much different process. How Elizabeth finally gets through to him is a great scene.

As for Darcy, he had been completely unable to speak. Elizabeth’s words had cut through him like knives, shaming him deeply, and shame was not an emotion he was accustomed to experiencing…Was it possible that he, who had studied throughout his life to improve his mind and character, had overlooked such an essential flaw?…He had not understood her then, but he did now. His refusal to talk was an active unkindness, a deliberate slight on the value of those he had thought beneath him. He had not thought their feelings even worth the effort of a few polite remarks and a smile or two. He certainly had not been willing to consider lowering his own dignity to promote theirs. Nor . . . his brows furrowed deeply in pain . . . nor to promote Elizabeth’s happiness either.

This book includes many high points of Austen’s novel. Particularly delicious is this version of Lady Catherine De Burgh and Elizabeth’s confrontation in the garden. And in this one, we have Darcy’s reaction to his aunt’s unmitigated gall and ill manners “which rather threw anything anyone in the Bennet family had ever done in the shade” when he walks into the middle of the fray. All of the characters remain true to Austen’s creations. And the more time we spend with Mr. Bennet and Lydia the more contemptible they are revealed to be. I liked how Lizzie started seeing her father more clearly and lost a lot of her respect for him. At one point, she even intervenes and protects her mother from Mr. Bennet’s mockery. There is even a dramatic rescue of Lydia and an exciting confrontation with Wickham as well, but in entirely different circumstances than the original.

I also found the dialogue, vocabulary, and narrative very authentic to Jane Austen’s style. The book is too long and repetitive but it rarely got tiresome. I admit that I found Elizabeth’s change from confusion to liking, to loving Darcy way too gradual to be believable or sympathetic. But Ormiston’s treatment of Darcy, I thought, was brilliant. His admiration, love, and passion for Elizabeth remain steadfast throughout. In this, he proves, again and again, the ardent words of his proposal in Austen’s work. Even when Elizabeth’s fearful secret is revealed to him: that not only did she not love him, but how much she actively and publicly disliked him, he doesn’t blame Elizabeth but himself. Elizabeth has to accept the fact that her actions and manners were not above reproach either and have caused great pain.

This is easily the best reimagining of or sequel to Pride and Prejudice, I have ever read. I hate to call it Fan Fiction, although it is, because it doesn’t do it justice. When I looked for more of Lara Ormiston’s books, I was so disappointed to learn she hasn’t written anything else.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Puzzle in the Pond (Judy Bolton #34)

by Margaret Sutton

“Is this–your typewriter?” she asked when she could find her voice.
George Anderson glared at her. “You knew this stuff was here, didn’t you? I’ve read about you, always snooping around in empty houses and giving that brother of yours ghost stories for the Farringdon paper. you’re Dr. Bolton’s daughter, aren’t you?”

Peter has been assigned by the FBI to round up the rest of the Mott gang from The Secret Quest so Judy and Peter are finally back home. As the book opens, she is up in her attic gathering ephemera for the Roulsville library display cases. The doorbell rings, and before you know it, she is hot on the trail of another adventure. Her young friend Holly’s typewriter has been stolen! Their hot pursuit of the suspicious green car leads them to a shady furniture dealer whose stock seems to have been waterlogged at some point.

While in the neighborhood, they visit the Jewel sisters of the previous book and meet their friend Meta, who is the sad and mysterious matron of a nearby orphanage. While there, they visit the beaver dam not far from the house and are joined by Horace and Honey. This is where the puzzle in the pond reveals itself. Imagine Judy’s shock when she spies, sticking out of the dam, a distinctive table leg from a piece of furniture that was in her old house in Roulsville?! The contents of the Bolton home had been believed lost forever after the flood had devastated the small town 6 years ago. (The Vanishing Shadow, Judy Bolton #1). How did the table leg get to the pond which is upstream from the flood? While investigating the curious appearance of the table leg, we meet Danny, a resident of the orphanage who has been waiting 6 years for his father, who was once engaged to Meta, to come for him. Peter gets involved while trying to locate the rest of the Mott gang and it appears that Danny’s father might be involved in criminal activity.

I enjoyed this much more than the previous 3 Judy Bolton mysteries. I like it when Judy is back home and we meet old friends in familiar surroundings, which are often smoothly incorporated into the mystery. This one includes a lot of history and background from previous books, which further adds to the enjoyment. Honey, Peter’s sister, and Horace, Judy’s brother are now in a better place than in the previous book, and are “almost engaged.” Judy Bolton is best when read in order as time does progress and one book builds on the other, unlike with many other girls’ series.

Margaret’s talent for creating multilayered characters is at the forefront in this one. Holly has been a fixture since book #23, The Black Cat’s Clue, as a teenage friend Judy has taken under her wing. But she is often silly and flighty. George Anderson, Danny’s father, has a hair-trigger temper and flies off the handle easily. He is sulky and suspicious of everyone. Despite this, he does love his son and finds a happy ending with him and his former fiance. Even Danny comes across as “a vicious little monster” at one point. In the middle of the investigation, the orphanage burns to the ground in a dramatic scene. True character is revealed including the character of the community as a whole as everyone pitches in to help with the orphans, including the Bolton and Dobbs families.

There were several unlikely events and unanswered questions in this one. Primarily, how did the Mott gang morph from industrial espionage involved in rocket science to looters and traffickers of stolen furniture? Will Alden Launt, Honey’s sneaky co-worker and member of the Mott gang, be arrested at last? How did George, who abandoned his toddler son for 6 years in order to scrimp and save to open a business and make a home, afford a fancy honeymoon? It’s best for the adult reader not to scrutinize some things too closely, I guess. And, as always, some threads may be picked up in future books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment

by D. E. Stevenson

Tim accompanies us to the gate, giving jocular advice to Betty as to her behaviour in school towards teachers and fellow scholars. Try to point out to Betty as we walk up the hill that of course it is ‘Only Daddy’s fun’, and she must be very good and quiet and do all she is told; to which Betty replies gaily, ‘Oh yes, I never take any notice of what he says.’ Feel that this is not quite the lesson I intended to impart, but am powerless to put my meaning into words.”

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment was effectively D.E. Stevenson’s first novel. It is steeped in the atmosphere and culture of England between the two world wars. She did write one before but it was 10 years prior. And this one started off her career as a much beloved and popular novelist. The book was originally a diary she wrote as a young wife of an army officer. She lent it to the mother of a new army wife to help her understand what her daughter was getting into. Acting on a suggestion, D.E.S. fictionalized it and it was published to great success. About a year later she continued Mrs. Tim’s adventures (and I use that term generously) with Golden Days. The version I read was the two books combined into one, originally titled Mrs. Tim Christie. I wanted to read it because it is highly rated, was published to great acclaim at the time, and was the book that started her career as an author. It is probably the series she was best known for (There were three more “Mrs. Tim” books to follow: two in the 1940s, one set during the war years, and one shortly after. The last one was published in 1952). The other reason I wanted to read it, was that I remember picking it up as a young girl, always being on the lookout for new authors when I had read and re-read all my favorites. I couldn’t get into it at all. It was a bad choice to start off with and I wish I had picked another one. But I thought that now, knowing and enjoying Ms. Stevenson and “getting” her now that I am very much older (very very), I would give it another try. And of course, there was the bonus that if I really liked it, I would have 3 others in the series to look forward to.

I chose to read it on audible narrated by Christine Rendel. She was excellent and a good actress with all of the different voices, but I found her voice too mature sounding for the young vibrant Mrs. Christie. The first part of the book had a lot of characters which I knew would not be on the scene for long as I knew Mrs. Tim would be moving on sooner or later, so I was not really invested in them. But it was very pleasant and somewhat entertaining. Mrs. Tim, Hester Christie, is a thoroughly charming, sensible, and nice woman. Reading between the lines, we know she is a beauty and is admired and respected by everyone. Her husband, Tim, seems like a good guy, a little typical with his old-fashioned masculine traits both good and amusingly clueless and transparent. Hester is devoted to him and we see him through her eyes, so we are pretty sure he is worthy of her love and returns her devotion. Also, they are the loving parents of Brian, 10, and Betty, 6.

Things pick up when Tim is transferred to Scotland and Hester is invited to visit a new friend, the trenchant, frank, and dignified Mrs. Loudon, at her estate in the Highlands. There we meet Guthrie, Mrs. Loudon’s son, who is in the toils of a frivolous, beautiful, rather common, and thoroughly unsuitable young lady. We have an encounter with a ghost and suffer with Hester when Betty sneaks out to look for kelpies in the river and gets lost in the mists. We help with an elopement between the offspring of two families who have been feuding for hundreds of years and deal with the obnoxious social-climbing Mrs. McTurk. Most interestingly we have the appearance on the scene of the handsome and amusing Major Morley, a friend from Captain Tim’s previous posting, who is head over heels in love with Hester. She is blissfully unaware of his feelings, but they are obvious to everyone else. Through it all, we have the muddled reminiscences of Mrs. Loudon’s garrulous elderly cousin. It is charming and amusing, especially with the wry perspective of the lovely inside and out Mrs. Christie. Unfortunately, all of the little threads end somewhat anticlimactically, with the least drama possible. In the end, even Major Morley leaves the scene right before Tim’s anticipated arrival, eliminating any chance for any kind of interesting interaction between the trio.

All in all, I did like the book, but in the context of listening to it while doing other things. I kept saying, “maybe I’ll give it one more session before moving on” to listen to some very anticipated recently acquired audibles. I kept giving it one more day until, before I knew it, I was painlessly finished with the book. But I probably won’t read the others in the series.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

The Secret Quest (Judy Bolton # 33)

By Margaret Sutton

Always there was some bright hope there, like the sun itself, lighting the way. Mysteries would puzzle Judy for a time and then be solved…But always the quest would go on.

Still in Washington D.C., Judy and Honey, who is on “vacation” from her job as a fabric designer, get involved in industrial espionage involving solar energy-fueled rockets. After picking up the wrong suitcase at the airport the girls pursue the owners, two old-fashioned elderly ladies to return it and get Honey’s clothes back. Inside the old ladies’ suitcase is an antique coffee mill with some mysterious diagrams hidden inside. Peter recognizes something fishy is going on. Also fishy is Honey thinking she saw a shifty new co-worker with the ladies. We find out that Honey’s career might be in jeopardy. Finally, they figure out that the sisters have returned to their home near Roulsville with Honey’s suitcase.

But before they cut short their D.C. trip to follow them, they run around Washington and, at The Smithsonian, they meet a young solar scientist that Honey is attracted to (She is irritated with Horace), go to a very progressive Unitarian Church (The sermon is about the sun-worshiping Akhenaten, the first monotheist), and are waylaid by President Kennedy and Jackie’s (“Isn’t she beautiful?”) motorcade. On the way home, they visit Gettysburg, where they have to lure the ever-present Blackberry out of a cannon with some sardines which Judy just happens to have handy. When they get home they find Honey’s workplace on fire and learn that Horace has gotten attacked and beaten up. Goodness!

When they get to the big old isolated house of the elderly sisters, Dorcus and Violetta Jewel, they are not exactly welcomed with open arms. The old ladies are being victimized by their nephew who is an imposter, of course. Because their real nephew is the shy nice scientist, Henry Jewel, whom they met in D.C. This guy is on the F.B.I.’s 10 most wanted list! After convincing the women that the creepy guy upstairs is not their nephew, outsmarting him, and narrowly avoiding disaster (violent poltergeists, getting shot, and drowning) everything works out. In the end, the Jewel family is re-united, the scientific diagrams are safe in the hands of our government, Honey’s job is secure, and she is “almost” engaged to Horace. Peter gets to work from home and is put in charge of rounding up the gang responsible for all of the mayhem, which, surprise, includes Honey’s scary rival at work.

This one had some positive aspects but it kind of made my head hurt. I liked that some of the characters from the last mystery (The Whispered Watchword) were seamlessly incorporated into this one. There was lots of science and history which I liked, we briefly meet up with Lois and Lorraine back in Roulsville, the Horace/Honey courtship was advanced a bit, and the wrap-up at the end was nice. The characters were well developed. However, there were too many crazy coincidences. Four men (five if you count the imposter) in or talked about in the story had the same name, which was confusing. There were a lot of perplexing and nonsensical decisions made and developments that occur.

After New York City, a cross-country road trip to Yellowstone Park, and two books set in Washington D.C., I hope we can just stay home for our next adventure, The Puzzle in the Pond.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

August 8, 2022

The Whispered Watchword (Judy Bolton #32)

By Margaret Sutton

Judy, Peter, and Blackberry are in Washington D.C. and get involved with investigating the mob. Since Peter got shot in a previous book, he is there for a refresher course and brings along Judy and for some reason, Blackberry. While there, he is assigned to investigate a crime syndicate ring. The manager of the hotel they are staying at is being threatened into paying protection money. If he doesn’t pay, his little daughter will be kidnapped and even killed. He does not know where to turn as he refuses to give in to the mob, but will not go to the FBI or the police because he fears reprisals. To make matters worse, his own relatives are involved with the mob unbeknownst to him. A senator who is fighting for tougher crime laws is also in danger. Yikes. To add to Judy’s concerns, Blackberry is missing from their motel room. There is a lot going on in this one. (Blackberry is Judy’s cat )

This one gets pretty messy. I will say that Margaret does a good job of incorporating the mystery with an educational tour of the Capitol for her young readers as well as providing a cautionary tale on joining a crime syndicate. I loved Judy’s musings on freedom and patriotism. We also spend a lot of time in the less savory parts of our nation’s capital. The middle chapters are taken up with Judy being led around in circles by her sketchy new “friend” Liz who tells her that her husband is an FBI agent when he is really working for the mob and related to Mr. Rocklin, the hotel manager. Liz is a confused 17-year-old who can’t decide between protecting her stupid husband or doing the right thing and being straight with Judy about what is going on. I struggled with Liz and what her game was.

To make a long story short, Judy is imprisoned in an abandoned building (again!) while rescuing Rosita, Mr. Rocklin’s 8-year-old daughter from a violent death. Blackberry, himself kidnapped by the mob, is found safe and sound making himself at home in the Capitol building basement ridding it of its mice problem. Judy cracks several mysteries in this one.

There were some weird things about this one that I could not overlook.

Why did Mr. Rocklin think Blackberry was a warning from the Mob when his motel allowed cats?

Why did Peter and Judy even bring Blackberry on a long car trip to Washington? Is it any wonder something bad happened to him?

Why did Walter Krut, one of the head mobsters, think Blackberry’s collar was made of solid gold? (He didn’t, but I only figured this out after a careful re-read.)

After getting led astray by Liz (another problem) Judy gets an offensive and sanctimonious lecture from one of Peter’s colleagues (and tour guide) on her wifely duties being married to a G-man (with Pamphlet!). Nope. Just nope.

Judy, lost and driving on the mean streets of D.C. in the pouring rain, hails another passing car to ask for directions. While driving. With her windows rolled up. Successfully.

The victimized Rocklin family was not very sympathetic. In fact, they were kind of hateful. and that especially includes Liz’s husband Charlie who was a wet noodle. I don’t believe for a minute that he was going to go back to rescue Rosita, despite what he told Liz.

Judy uses a childhood yell that only Peter would recognize to call for help when she hears a siren outside the abandoned house. “Hip deminiga folliga sick de hump de lolliga yoo hoo!” Luckily Peter is with them and answers in kind. I bet his FBI buddies got a real kick out of that.

The FBI intercepts an attack on the senator’s life mid-speech. (Shades of The Manchurian Candidate!) Right when he was pulling out a deadly fountain pen. (Poison dart? It couldn’t have been a very high-caliber firearm. Or maybe he was going to scribble him to death.)

Once Rosita is rescued, her father refused to press charges against his cousin by marriage for her kidnapping and attempted murder. WTF? Is he insane!?

So while the bones of the story made sense and were interesting a lot of the details did not hold water and it was distracting and bothersome. The problems could have been fixed easily. They were not major holes. I feel like Margaret was let down by her editor. On to The Secret Quest!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

June 17. 2022