Pretty Face

“As he marched her to the second level, he heard muttering behind him. She really was going to have to work on her vocal range. If she wanted to make an impact when she called someone a “bossy prat,” she needed to project.”

“I’m not bossy.”
He actually sounded like he believed that.
“Okay, Captain Von Trapp. Keep telling yourself that.”
She’d broken the stern director facade again. He was grinning.”

I was a little disappointed in this one, but only because my expectations were so high. It is generally accounted to be her best book, and I just loved the other three in The London Celebrities series. The setting of London’s West end Theatre scene was just as glamorous and the witty quite sophisticated banter didn’t falter either. It is one of the main appeals of a Lucy Parker novel. I love the way her amusing use of pop culture includes references from Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars characters to even Harper Lee’s controversial Go Set a Watchman. It lends authenticity and immediacy to conversations and inner thoughts. Plus it’s very funny.

Sadly, the romance, maybe because it was so similar to the others, did not engage me as much. Luc Savage (that name!) hires Lily Lamprey (that name!) as one of the actors in his latest production, 1553, about Princess Elizabeth, Princess Mary, and Lady Jane Grey. It is to open his own historic theatre which he is also renovating. He has to be talked into even looking at Lily’s audition tape for the role of Elizabeth I because although very high-profile as the sexy bombshell in a very popular prime-time soap opera, she has no experience in the theatre, and has a very soft breathy voice like Marilyn Monroe. Not exactly Virgin Queen material. However, he needs the publicity her casting will bring, and gives her the part when he finally sees her surprising acting talent. Also, he quickly learns she is not the empty-headed floozy she looks like and plays so well on TV. Lucy Parker does opposites attract romance very very well. In my experience, her heroines are usually sweet girl-next-door types and her heroes are powerful and cantankerous. In addition to the unlikely romance between the protagonists set to the drama of putting on the play that will open Luc’s new theatre, we have some side stories. Lily has to come to terms with problematic parents which have saddled her with abandonment issues. As a TV actress with a weak voice, she is under a lot of pressure to defeat expectations and prove herself to the company and the public. To complicate matters we have a prominent tabloid with a personal vendetta against Luc and by association, Lily. Towards the end, there are two crises that rear up. One cements their relationship and then the other (temporarily of course) tears them apart.

My problem with the romance was with the hero. He got on my bad side right away with his prejudging of Lily who is lovable from the get-go. It was not only sexist, snooty, and stupid but considering we are told that he returned to the London *Thee-uh-Tuh* only after selling out in order to direct Hollywood blockbusters, it was exceedingly hypocritical. Also, he was just so “above it all.” I mean, he could barely bring himself to pull a cracker at Christmas dinner with his nice family! And then he removes himself from the room when they start their traditional game of charades. Come on now. He has a lot in common with her heroes in other books, In fact, they, as well as her heroines, are almost interchangeable. Almost. But the others are made more palatable by some vulnerabilities and more of a sense of humor.

So whether it was the hero or I was just tired of the nice girl having to bring to heel a mean boy in an uneven power dynamic, this one was just a shade below the others in the series for me. It was still very good.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

July 22, 2022

Persuasion

It Wasn’t That Bad.

It was not my intention to review the much-criticized new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. But such has been the vitriol and bitterness of some of the reviews, that I can’t resist. Because I didn’t hate it. I was confused by it and confounded by some of the decisions that were made particularly concerning Anne’s character, but there was much that I enjoyed. And I certainly didn’t think everyone involved should be “thrown in prison”.

It follows the plot pretty closely. All of the characters are substantially the same people as in the book and the very faithful films.  Except for Anne. Anne is not the same character at all. The mumblings and murmurings started with the miscasting of the gorgeous Dakota Johnson as the mousy beaten-down Anne. And the trailer really got people going. Since Anne Elliott is one of Austen’s most beloved characters, the sneak peak did not sit well with many. Particularly the hyper-vigilant “Janeites”. Because of all the hate, I approached this movie with an open tolerant mind and sat down to be entertained. One aspect of the movie that has incurred much criticism is Anne continually breaking the fourth wall. She makes sarcastic and witty comments to the viewer about the behavior of her family members. Her observations are dead on. “My Father. He’s never met a reflective surface he didn’t like. Vanity is the beginning and end of his character. Also the middle.” She gives the viewers sly glances when one of her fellow characters does or says something particularly absurd. It was clearly an attempt to interject Austen’s own voice into the narrative and simultaneously enliven Anne.

As Sir Walter Elliot, Richard E. Grant could not have been better. In fact, all of the actors except one were good to excellent. But things started to get weird almost immediately. Instead of keeping Anne’s outspoken and barbed observations between herself and the audience, she calls out her relatives directly to their faces. Anne is shown to be publicly full of verve and spirit. If they had kept this facet of her personality a secret between Anne and us, her confidants, they could have kept much of the integrity of her character. They missed an opportunity to show how Anne’s true feelings and opinions are at odds with the way she is forced to navigate her world. She acts out and in the process makes her character eccentric and at times, incomprehensible.  There are many examples but most jarring was Anne spouting off out of the blue and unprovoked during a dinner party to all and sundry that she herself was the first choice of Charles, her sister Mary’s husband. Needless to say, she brings the merry party to a standstill. However true, even the most socially inept meanest mean girl wouldn’t do that! It was almost Tourettes-like. I can’t think of why this was done, as well as the many many other examples of weird behavior Anne displays such as the octopus speech and drinking way too much wine right from the bottle. The director replaced Anne Eliot with Bridget Jones. Remember Bridget’s response at the dinner table full of couples that all singletons having scales? And as Bridget Jones, Dakota Johnson was charming and funny. She just wasn’t Anne Eliot in a work that is supposed to be all about the character regaining her bloom and spirit long suppressed by sorrow and regret. There is nothing to prevent This Anne from going after her heart’s desire right from the get-go.

There was little to no chemistry between Anne and Captain Wentworth, who looked decidedly grungy throughout the production. I didn’t care for him. Henry Golding’s shady and scheming William Eliot actually falls in love with the common and unattractive Mrs. Clay and marries her at the end. Just weird and nonsensical. Back to the good. The cinematography was beautiful and the scenery and fashions were both lovely. I actually liked the contemporary pop-culture parlance (“playlist,” “fashion forward,” “you’re a 10,” “we’re exes”, “I’m an empath,” etc.) I thought it was fresh, whimsical, and definitely brave. I was drawn in as I always am by Jane Austen’s regency world however askew this one was. In fact, I rather enjoyed the off-center vibe.

I was able to tolerate the strange choices by the writer and director while I was looking at it. It was only later upon reflection that my feelings started to sour. I hated that they could have made Anne a modern kick-ass heroine, while still maintaining the integrity of one of Jane Austen’s most interesting creations and her truly moving character arc. I hear that Netflix is (or was) planning to bring more of Austen’s novels to the screen. If they decide to go ahead with this despite the fact that “everyone” hates this one, I will be very curious and interested.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

July 20, 2022

Book Lovers

By Emily Henry

“You seem pretty pleased with yourself,” he says, “for a woman who just found out she was the inspiration for Cruella de Vil.” I scowl at him. Charlie rolls his eyes. “Come on. I’ll buy you a martini. Or a puppy coat.”

Mom and Libby liked the love stories where everything turned out perfectly, wrapped in a bow, and I’ve always wondered why I gravitate toward something else. I used to think it was because people like me don’t get those endings. And asking for it, hoping for it, is a way to lose something you’ve never even had.

I suspect that many romance authors put the word “book” in the title in order to increase their sales, so I vet a book set in a bookstore or involving novelists very carefully. This one was a no-brainer though because I enjoyed two of Emily Henry’s previous books, Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation. I was immediately drawn in by the heroine, Nora, comparing herself to “the other woman” in a small town (read Hallmark) romance. That would be the hard-charging, cold and manipulative, career-oriented city-centric woman that the hero dumps for love and marriage with the sweet small-town heroine. Libby, Nora’s beloved sister, a happy but harried and exhausted mom, thinks that she and Nora need a reset in their lives. She, to get some rest and relaxation, Nora to re-examine her lifestyle and perhaps find love. Nora agrees to the plan because she cannot deny her sister anything. Libby decides to take her sister to a highly fictionalized (it turns out) version of the small town in the mountains of North Carolina in which one of Nora’s authors/clients set her recent best-seller (soon to be a major motion picture.) There, Libby presents a list of small-town romance cliches that Nora is to do (attend a festival, save a local business, etc.) before the end of their stay. Being a reluctant and slightly embarrassed Hallmark aficionado, I was hooked. Libby is trying to engineer the flipside of the Hallmark romance trope for Nora: The workaholic big city girl who finds love in the country and changes her ways. But that’s boring. Luckily, a fly in the ointment appears in the form of  Charlie, a city acquaintance of Nora’s who is kind of a male version of her and thus not suitable to force Nora out of her rut. Their initial antagonism, based on a past encounter and their mutual reputations, quickly leads to sharp and clever banter,  funny wisecracks, and lust.

The entertaining snark flows thick and fast, but I realized, around the 30% mark that nothing else was happening. Nora’s dates with the local swains don’t count because we know those are going nowhere. Her small-town adventures are just amusing window dressing. Nora’s growing lust for Charlie and vice versa is described over and over. Their personal relationship develops while working together on a new book. But it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  

Things did pick up a little over halfway when it became obvious that Libby, whom I came to like, was hiding something from Nora. Something not good. So the intrigue and mystery of that kept me going. Also getting a lot of pages are Nora and Libby’s childhood, the death of their mother, and how that molded their current dysfunctional relationship. Charlie’s past struggles with his family, and why Nora and Charlie, obviously made for each other, can’t have a sexual fling, let alone a long-term relationship, also get a lot of words.

In the end, it turns out that if everyone had just had frank and honest conversations with each other we wouldn’t have had a book. And why that didn’t happen didn’t make sense. And isn’t that just the ultimate Hallmark cliche? The bottom line is, that if this had been a TV romance movie, this would have been 5 stars. As a novel, it was maybe a shade over 3 stars. There were just too many times that, if this had been a movie, I would have been yelling at the screen, throwing the remote, and rolling my eyes. That’s fun when looking at a Hallmark, not so much in a novel.

According to Emily Henry herself, she wanted to portray what happened “after the credits” to the dumped city girlfriend who is joyless, ruthless, and as Nora is described, shark-like. We are told that is how Nora is, but we never see it. She is kind, nurturing, and patient throughout. Yes, she wants to go back to the city in the end, but she also has a lot of fun in the small town while she is there. So despite the fact that I enjoyed Nora, she was kind of a fail. I would have liked to see her being scary even if just in one token scene.

However, Libby’s secret and the big misunderstanding turned out to be a good one and really made perfect sense out of everything. I really liked the final chapters of the book, and the epilogue was one of the most charmingly written I can remember reading. It was very very well done. To sum up, the banter was good, the wisecracks were funny, Emily Henry is a good writer, the concept was great, I liked the characters with the caveat that we should have seen Nora’s “shark” side and we didn’t, the balance between the romance and the other threads was good, and the last 15% I enjoyed greatly. But see paragraph 4.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

July 3, 2022

Finlay Donovan is Killing It (Finlay Donovan #1)

By Elle Cosimano

“You told me to bring plastic wrap.” “I told you to get plastic sheeting.” “Same thing.” “No, it’s not. Plastic wrap goes around sandwiches. Plastic sheeting goes around dead people. It’s bigger and sturdier. More like a shower curtain.” “You told me not to bring a shower curtain because it would make us look guilty!” “Because nothing screams innocent like a rotting corpse in three thousand feet of Cling Wrap!”

…“She chuckled darkly. “And to think you were worried about a damn shower curtain. Nothing says ‘serial killer’ like a chest freezer in a garage.”

This was a fun comic mystery, based on a really good idea for a fun comic mystery. It kind of reminded me of the Stephanie Plum books and this one is also the first of a who-knows-how-long-it-will-be series of books. Finlay is a recently divorced financially strapped single mother of two pre-school children. Her only source of income is her career as a not very successful writer of romantic suspense novels. While discussing some plot ideas and being pressured by her agent to satisfy her contract, they are overheard and misunderstood. Finley finds herself being hired to kill a strange woman’s husband. Of course, as much as she needs the money, she has no intention of following through, but one thing leads to another, and (you know how it goes) she finds herself burying a Russian mobster’s dead body on her ex-husband’s sod farm. As she tries to cover her tracks and, aided and abetted by the irrepressible Vero, her friend/nanny/accountant/housekeeper she digs herself deeper and deeper (pun intended) into trouble and danger. With both the police and the Russian mob closing in, not to mention her literary agent, I had to keep reading to see how she was going to extricate herself from her predicament(s). It reminded me of a surreal I Love Lucy episode. Or a game of whack a mole.

By the end of the book, thanks to a darkly comic twist, she escapes both arrest or being murdered by the mob. She also figures out the real murderer, ends up being financially solvent, pursued by not one but two very hot suitors, snagging two huge advances for two sure-to-be bestselling mystery series, and secures custody of her two children. I forgot to mention that her douchebag husband was threatening her with taking away her children on top of everything else.

Despite the fun, I probably won’t be reading any more in the series. Elle Cosimano has already written the third book, and I didn’t appreciate the ending of this one which was a cliffhanger and nothing but a setup for book #2. I don’t like that. And I see the handwriting on the wall. This series will never end a la Stephanie Plum, and reading never-ending series featuring a “torn between two lovers” scenario is just not my cup of tea. I like closure. Wake me if she decides between the hot young attorney-to-be and the hot detective.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

June 25, 2022

Act Like It (London Celebrities, #1)

By Lucy Parker

I sunk into this book like a favorite easy chair after a hard day’s work. I don’t know what it is about this series by Lucy Parker. It’s light and funny but in a natural authentic way. The writing is sparkly and clever. And although the setting (the West End theatre scene in London) is glamorous, Lucy makes the reader feel part of it all. Romance is job #1 but everything else: the setting, the writing, the characters, and the journey are so exceptional, nothing else is needed. If you need a break from darkness, tension, family drama, shocking secrets, and angsty love, Lucy Parker is your girl.

Lainie is a likable, nice, and funny woman from a large happy family. Richard Troy is “an intolerable prick” who had a troubled childhood. Not that that’s any excuse for his behavior. Richard is angling for the presidency of the conservative and influential RSPA, but his only press is bad press due to his rude behavior, terrible temper, and lack of tact. In order to soften his sharp edges and create some good buzz for a change, it is arranged for Richard and Lainie, who is popular, wholesome, and scandal-free to fake a relationship while castmates in a play. Because anyone Lainie likes can’t be all bad, can he?

“Do you really think you’re the political type?” [Lainie] ventured, trying to think of a way to put it tactfully.
“Meaning?” the inquiry was frosty.
Screw it. “Meaning you have the diplomatic abilities of a tea bag, and a tendency to go off like a rocket at the slightest provocation.”
“I’m aware I’ll have to work on controlling my temper,” he said even more stiffly.…“I wouldn’t have to lose my temper if people weren’t such morons.”
“I would suggest going with a different quote when you open your campaign speech.”

Together, they navigate a pesky jerk of an ex-boyfriend, red carpets, morning show appearances, and an important dinner with the board of the RSPA which features Richard rescuing Lainie from the clutches of a horny vice-president. Meanwhile, Richard is victimized by village fetes including leaking babies, blue-ribbon pigs, and giant gourds, a 5-k race for charity, and Lainie’s large protective brothers and their unruly children. The inevitable opposites attract thing happens, and the fake relationship turns into the real thing.

Also inevitable is the break-up before the (inevitable) happy ending. I really liked Lucy Parker’s fresh approach to the big crisis. Lainie forthrightly admits her mistake and apologizes while explaining how it happened. When Richard (being the temperamental diva he is) does not choose to forgive her, instead of getting all depressed and taking to her bed with a carton of ice cream (as any self-respecting romantic heroine would do), she rolls her sleeves up and goes on a mission to get him back.

The woman she was now knew what she wanted-and she intended to have him. She would pit her personality against his any day. But he had a right to be seriously pissed. And she knew him. Even on his best day Richard couldn’t be described as charitably forgiving. He wasn’t going to make it easy for her.

He actually turns out to be no match for Lainie or his own tender if reluctant feelings for her. But fair warning: Blood and a Hospital are involved before we get to the happily ever after. And we know it is “ever after” because the happy couple makes appearances in at least 3 more of the series.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

June 1, 2022

One-Hit Wonder

by Lisa Jewell

I wanted to give Lisa Jewell another try after the first book I read by her. Like the previous novel, I was intrigued by the concept behind this one.

Ana, a bonafide card-carrying ugly duckling is 25 years old. She is repressed and bullied by everyone around her, especially her abusive psycho mother. She thinks she is ugly because she is tall, thin, and has a big nose. Her beautiful and dynamic half-sister, whom she barely knew, has died suddenly and she must go to New York to put her affairs in order. Bee was a wild child and ex-pop star whose celebrity faded quickly. A One-Hit wonder in fact.

When Ana gets to New York she is saddened and disturbed to see how Bee lived and died. She falls in with her two best and apparently only friends, Lol and Flint. Together, they are determined to get to the bottom of what happened to Bee. It is soon apparent that Bee had been living a double life with many secrets. In the course of her investigations, and away from her mother, Ana blossoms into a swan, finds inner strength, confidence, and self-esteem, and falls in love. By the end, there is plenty of redemption, happiness, and hope for the future for our main character, Ana, and others we meet along the way. But the happiness and hope that is found are in the ashes of Bee’s tragedy.

I liked Ana but didn’t love her. She was kind and good. I guess I can’t blame her for being a doormat to her mother and others, because the primary focus of the book is how she gets herself up off the floor. However, her constant poormouthing herself and failing to see her striking beauty that is obvious to everyone else was irritating. I listened to this on audio, and I liked the reader’s characterizations of everyone except two other main characters: Lol (short for Lolita, we are finally told) and Flint. The accent and voice tone was over the top with these two, and actually gave me a bad impression of them throughout most of the book. Flint’s character really turned me off and his voice just exacerbated my initial dislike. I just didn’t see how he could be the love interest but there wasn’t anyone else. As the book went on, and we learn more about him, my feelings did change, but it was slow going.

The gradual solving of the mystery and anticipation of closure on several fronts were what kept me going with this one. There were some interesting characters, particularly the difficult mystery boy and the cruel neurotic mother. The final outcomes with these two came too easily and were too pat for me.  As welcome as they were. The author had to put a pin in an ugly problem looming on the horizon to get to a satisfactory conclusion. Not that I didn’t appreciate it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

May 19, 2022

Katherine’s Marriage

by D. E. Stevenson

Katherine’s Marriage was a good and worthy sequel to Katherine Wentworth, picking right up with Katherine and Alec on their honeymoon. In a cave. A very nice cave, but still. I really wouldn’t recommend this book if you haven’t read the first one and loved it as I did. The first couple of chapters kind of got on my last nerve with Alec and “the brownie.” When all was said and done, the only interest for me was continuing my acquaintance with characters that had so engaged me. And unfortunately, Katherine, at times, is a bit of a wet noodle here in contrast to the first book.

After their blissful honeymoon, in which we meet the laird, MacAslan, and his daughter, Phil, which apparently feature in one or two other books by D.E. Stevenson, the newlyweds are confronted with a few challenges. First of All, Alec’s neurotic and manipulative sister, who they thought had been neatly dispatched to Europe and then Australia, returns like Carrie from the Grave. She is horrified that her brother is married when she expected to return to her place in his house dominating his life. Unlike Katherine, who seems to have lost some of her charm and personality, Zilla hasn’t changed a bit. She returns in all her dark and hateful glory. How she is dealt with yields some entertaining chapters and tense moments. No sooner than that is solved than Simon, Katherine’s usually lovely 16-year-old stepson suffers a personality transplant similar to what happened in the first book. When we get to the bottom of that, the third and last crisis rears its head: Sir Mortimer Wentworth, Simon’s tyrannical grandfather with an anger management problem, summons Simon to scary Limbourne. He is not on his deathbed, but has had a health scare, which has caused him to re-evaluate his relationships for ill or good. There are some shenanigans with a new will, which is always good value in a rich English aristocratic family story.

The book ends on a happy hopeful note albeit a bit abruptly with a bit of an interesting drama left on the horizon. We also wonder what the future holds for Simon and Phil. And what about the Limoge jug in the first chapters? And what about Lance and Anthea? I would have read a third book. At the end of the story, Katherine is pillow-talking with Alec, “We’ve been married for sixteen weeks; I wonder what we shall feel like when we’ve been married for sixteen years.” It’s a rhetorical question. With a couple this nice, sensible, and devoted to each other, there is no doubt whatsoever. **3 1/2 stars**

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

May 4, 2022

Again, Rachel

by Marian Keyes

‘ “The truth must dazzle gradually, Or every man be blind.” Emily Dickinson.’

I loved much of this book. First, The Walsh family is a main character here, with each of the sisters maintaining the personalities that we have come to know and love or not love as the case may be. I hate it when an author does a sequel or a series and personalities that were interesting and intriguing, that made you want to come back for more, have vanished and we have reconstituted versions. The people we were introduced to and came to know throughout the Walsh family chronicles are the same people, yet some have been allowed to grow and mature. And some haven’t.

Confidence was usually seen as a positive. But Mum was from that generation of Irishwomen who prided themselves on raising children with rock-bottom self-esteem. Nothing galled them as much as an offspring with confidence.

 I definitely need to re-read Watermelon and Angels. And maybe skip through Anna’s story to find references to Angelo. After the last book, my favorite sister is Helen and I loved her role in this.

Rachel is back. She is 20 years sober and the head counselor at The Cloisters, the rehab center that saved her life back in the late 90s. Marian Brings back the patients and their heartbreaking yet entertaining stories that I found so involving in Rachel’s Holiday.

In here, clients gave only the most sanitized, tragic version of themselves. To get the full picture, you had to talk to everyone who knew them. It was a little like investigating a crime.

Readers of previous books know that Rachel and Luke got married, and now we find out they have now been divorced for 6 years and he lives in Denver, Colorado. She is in a happy relationship with another man, Quin, who is not easy, but he is interesting and complex.  In the beginning, Rachel is told that Luke’s mother has died and of course, Luke will be back for the funeral and to take care of his Dad’s affairs. Told largely in flashbacks we learn that, according to Rachel, Luke deserted her (but how can that be?) and we are taken through their heartbreaking story that led to that surprising circumstance. Meanwhile, we explore Rachel’s present life, her relationships, her work, and catch up with the Walsh family. And of course, Rachel and Luke are in the same country again. Rachel wants an explanation and apology from Luke but he is distant. It can’t be over for them, can it? But what about Quin? And what’s up with Luke’s long-time partner who came with him to Ireland?

In all of Marian Keyes’ books, The heroines go through horrendous times before getting to the happy and uplifting. Sometimes through no fault of their own, sometimes of their own making, or circumstances out of their control but exacerbated by bad decisions and self-delusion. Rachel part II was more heartbreaking than usual. I had some problems with some aspects of Rachel’s story and some of it was a little hard to swallow. Yes, it was long and drawn out, but in order for everything to come right, it had to be. Could Rachel have had her epiphany a little sooner? Maybe. could there have been a little more fair play with the reader? Hmmm. Not sure. But the book was as insightful, involving, and hilarious as usual. Marian is a master at balancing tragedy and comedy. And with a writer this good, the more words we are given, the better. So not too long for me.

After Anna’s story, Is Anybody Out There and Helen’s, the last sister’s, story there was an over 5-year gap.  Right before Marian came out with The Mystery of Mercy Close, she wrote a refresher to catch everybody up with the Walshes and kind of get them up to speed. If like me,  you have read Mammy Walsh’s A-Z of the Walsh Family,  you can forget about what she told us about Luke and Rachel. This book completely retconns what we thought we knew about them. This is by way of fair warning. I wish I had had one.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

April 27, 2022

Katherine Wentworth

by D. E. Stevenson

I realised that I was worn out in body and spirit with the strain of struggling along by myself, coping with the children and trying to make ends meet on an inadequate income. I had prided myself upon my independence and somehow or other I had managed . . . but now I began to wonder whether independence was so important. Perhaps one could pay too highly for it. Here, in this peaceful spot, with Mrs. MacRam to provide a firm cushion to lean upon, I gradually began to feel like a different creature. I felt years younger, with a returning zest for life—as one sometimes does when convalescent after a long illness. Colours looked brighter, food tasted delicious and every day was a pleasure.

Well, it’s a tie. This book is tied for my favorite D. E. Stevenson so far with Miss Buncle’s Book or the 4th in the Miss Buncle series, The Four Graces. But this is very different from the Buncle books. While those were clever and gentle satires of English country life and just funny, there wasn’t much funny or quirky about this one. It is a lovely family drama reminiscent of Rosamunde Pilcher’s best. It is about both the consequences of freedom and independence versus being “chained up” and, sort of conversely, the importance love and sharing one’s burdens.

Katherine Wentworth is a 27-year-old widow raising her 16-year-old stepson, Simon, and her two own young twins. Although a very happy “whole family” they struggle financially. We learn that her beloved late husband, Gerald, was from a very wealthy titled family but was cast off when he refused to fall in with his father’s plans for his future and made his own way after going to Oxford and later becoming a professor. To add to those sins, as a young man, he married an Italian girl who later died in childbirth. Katherine has had nothing to do with his family and vice versa. Meanwhile, she meets a former school acquaintance, the neurotic shallow Zilla who has a very nice and attractive brother. Despite being independently wealthy, Alec works as a successful lawyer much to his sister’s frustration. She is very possessive and manipulative and wants him constantly at her beck and call. In spite of Zilla, Alec and Katherine become good friends. At the end of Part One, Zilla offers Katherine, who sorely needs a care-free vacation, her remote cottage in the highlands of Scotland for the summer. And much to my wonderment, as I went into this book cold, Simon is contacted by his grandfather and summoned to his father’s family’s estate, Limbourne. It seems the heir is dead, and the estate and title will eventually pass to Simon. As Simon says, He wants to make sure I “don’t eat peas with my knife.”

**Some Spoilers**

Part two takes place at Limbourne. Simon refuses to go without his “Mums,” Katharine. Although they are welcomed courteously and treated well on the surface, Katherine and Simon know it is not for their own sakes, but because they have no other choice. The estate is entailed and Simon will inherit it no matter how the family feels about it. Yet, because Simon is an awesome kid, the tyrannical and intimidating grandfather genuinely likes and approves of Simon. Katharine is afraid. There is something not quite right with the family at Limbourne. There is something vaguely sinister and uncomfortable about the place.

Like everything else at Limbourne, the rose-garden was a model of tidiness. There were grass paths between the beds—paths of velvet smoothness—and there was not a weed to be seen. I thought suddenly of my daughter and her remark: ‘Funny sort of garden with no daisies!’ She would think this a very funny sort of garden, there was no doubt of that. The roses grew in orderly array, each little bush perfect in shape, bearing perfect blooms. I asked Medlam how he managed to attain such perfection and he explained that there was a nursery behind the beech hedge so that any bush which was not perfect could be replaced. ‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it, ma’am?’ said Medlam, looking round with complacency. ‘It’s the best rose-garden in the county.’ It was beautiful of course—roses are always beautiful—but to my mind it was too tidy and neat. The roses did not look happy; perhaps they were aware that if they failed in their duty to their owner they would be rooted out, thrown on the rubbish heap, and replaced by another rose-bush from the nursery garden behind the tall beech hedge…. He escorted me through a gate in the hedge. Here there were more roses, dozens and dozens of little bushes, their exquisite flowers filling the air with fragrance. There were red and white and pink and yellow roses in prodigal confusion. ‘I’m afraid it isn’t very tidy, ma’am,’ said Medlam apologetically. ‘It isn’t really for show, you see. We just plants them here temporary until they’re wanted.’ ‘I like it,’ I said. ‘The roses here look natural and happy and their scent is far sweeter.’ Medlam did not deign to reply to this piece of nonsense.

A Metaphor for Limbourne and its denizens

His grandfather wants to keep Simon at Limbourne and under his power. Simon has a good head on his shoulders and is devoted to Katharine and his half-siblings but will he be seduced by the wealth and advantages his Grandfather offers?


Part 3 takes place at the rustic cottage in Scotland where Katherine is spending the summer with her 2 young children. She has reluctantly left Simon on his own to spend another week with his newfound family. He is happy and excited to do so. Much to her surprise, Alec has come to stay nearby as well, and she is not sure how she feels about that. One night, without warning, Simon shows up ahead of time and he is behaving strangely and disturbingly. He claims everything is fine but Katherine knows better. What the hell happened? **End Spoilers**


This was so good. I loved the lovely Katherine and her family with their strength and wholesomeness matched up against their wealthy and outwardly nice but inwardly corrupted relatives. The inevitable romance turned surprisingly tender and touching. I sighed. I am just starting the sequel now and am anxious to read if we visit Limbourne again. Can this family be saved? This book ends on a hopeful note. Maybe?

Rating: 5 out of 5.

April 22, 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