The Winter Witch

The Winter WitchThe Winter Witch by Paula Brackston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a sucker for pretty much anything set in Wales, good or bad, but this book turned out to be a loving tribute to the landscape. The author has a lyrical way with words, and was able to create a strong sense of time and place, helped by the use of Welsh language words throughout. Morgana was an interesting character, and without the imposition of magic and witchcraft this could have been a 5-star historical romance. While I enjoy a good paranormal or fantasy story, I struggled a bit with it here. I wanted to be immersed in historical Wales, so every time magic was introduced it just didn’t seem quite right to me. I had a few historical quibbles – the use of the famous song Calon Lan, for example, which wasn’t written until 1890 probably at the earliest. It was interesting to learn something about Welsh cattle droving which died out in Wales after the introduction of railroads in the 1840s and 50s. Aside from the language (no glossary provided, which wasn’t an issue for me, but those who don’t know some basic Welsh might wish it had one), other elements of “Welshness” seemed contrived – let’s throw in some references to Welsh cakes and bara brith and carving love spoons. And corgis, of course. The author does live in Wales, and obviously loves her country. Despite my nit-picking here, I enjoyed the book enough to give it four stars. It’s a sweet love story, a tribute to Wales (especially the language and the landscape), and the triumph of good over evil.

Book Description: In her small early-nineteenth-century Welsh town, there is no one quite like Morgana, who has not spoken since she was a young girl. Her silence is a mystery, as well as her magic. Concerned for her safety, her mother is anxious to see her married, and Cai Jenkins, a widower from the far hills, seems the best choice. After her wedding, Morgana is heartbroken at leaving her mother, and wary of this man, whom she does not know, and who will take her away to begin a new life. But she soon falls in love with Cai’s farm and the wild mountains that surround it. Cai works to understand the beautiful half-tamed creature he has chosen for a bride, and slowly, he begins to win Morgana’s affections. It’s not long, however, before her strangeness begins to be remarked upon in her new village. A dark force is at work there — a person who will stop at nothing to turn the townspeople against Morgana. Forced to defend her home, her man, and herself, Morgana must learn to harness her power, or she will lose everything. (from book jacket)

About the author: Paula Brackston lives in a wild, mountainous part of Wales. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, and is a Visiting Lecturer for the University of Wales, Newport. Before becoming a writer, Paula tried her hand at various career paths, with mixed success. These included working as a groom on a racing yard, as a travel agent, a secretary, an English teacher, and a goat herd. Everyone involved (particularly the goats) is very relieved that she has now found a job she is actually able to do properly. (from author’s website)

Longbourn

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have undoubtedly over-rated this, but I had so few 5-star reads last year, I am trying to even out my 3, 4, and 5 star reviews. So anything even slightly over 4 will be rated a 5 – for now. Obviously I have mixed feelings about that! This book does not try to retell the story of Pride and Prejudice, but it does serve as the framework for a story of the servants at Longbourn. The lives of the Bennets take a definite backseat here, with a lot of gaps. This is its own story. Jo Baker has taken some liberties with their back stories, which might raise some eyebrows, but to say more would be spoilers. I liked the framework. I liked the different point of view of the servants. But I thought the love story between Sarah and James was a bit weak. It sort of lost continuity in the last third of the book – perhaps a few chapters from James’ point-of-view might have been illuminating. The ending was only so-so for me. But there is a lot to enjoy along the way, especially in the day-to-day lives of the servants and their thoughts and feelings. Definitely a book that I could see myself re-reading some day, perhaps alongside P&P and Pride and Prejudice: The Scenes Jane Austen Never Wrote.

Book Description: In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

The Anatomist’s Wife

The Anatomist's Wife (Lady Darby, #1)The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a period romance wrapped up as an okay country-house-type murder mystery, and the background of Lady Darby is intriguing. The author does work in some interesting historical details (Burke and Hare, jigsaw puzzles), but the setting in the Scottish highlands, near Inverness, just doesn’t work. I couldn’t figure out the social background of these people, and what they were doing in Scotland. There was nothing Scottish about any of it, certainly none of the names given to the characters. Kiera is decidedly a late 20th-century Irish name, Alana and Greer are also 20th-century names. There are other anachronisms (summer squash soup?, raccoons in 19th-century Scotland?, comparisons of eyebrows to cotton blooming?) and the dialog is far too modern. On the whole, I found the characters to be very flat — even the future love interest, Mr. Gage. The romance angle is very cliche. Maybe it is a notch above the usual Harlequin’s judging by the number of 4 and 5-star reviews on Amazon, but I prefer more realistic meat to my historical reading. I read this for my “Wife books” challenge, and I won’t be reading any more of the series.

Book Description: Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister’s estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes. Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage–a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn’t about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl. When Kiera and Gage’s search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim…

Mr. Timothy

Mr. TimothyMr. Timothy by Louis Bayard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1860s London, 10-year-old street urchins, and every bit as atmospheric as Dickens himself. Add a grown-up “Tiny Tim” in his early 20s, trying to find a meaningful life for himself, and a cruel prostitution racket preying on young, foreign girls. Bawdy humor, gripping action, a few ghosts, and coming-of-age introspection. Mr. Bayard has not been sentimental in imagining the lives of the Cratchits post Dickens. Timothy is somewhat lost and floundering following the death of his father. The tale is sometimes charming, sometimes very dark and brooding. Fast-paced action at times, and threatens to bog down at other times, so a bit uneven. The narrator of the audiobook was marvelous. This is one I will probably reread.

Book Description:
Welcome to the world of a grown-up Timothy Cratchit, as created by the astonishing imagination of author Louis Bayard. Mr. Timothy Cratchit has just buried his father. He’s also struggling to bury his past as a cripple and shed his financial ties to his benevolent “Uncle” Ebenezer by losing himself in the thick of London’s underbelly. He boards at a brothel in exchange for teaching the mistress how to read and spends his nights dredging the Thames for dead bodies and the treasures in their pockets. Timothy’s life takes a sharp turn when he discovers the bodies of two dead girls, each seared with the same cruel brand on the upper arm. The sight of their horror-struck faces compels Timothy to become the protector of another young girl, the enigmatic Philomela. Spurred on by the unwavering enthusiasm of a street-smart, fast-talking homeless boy who calls himself Colin the Melodious, Timothy soon finds that he’s on the trail of something far worse — and far more dangerous — than an ordinary killer. This breathless flight through the teeming markets, shadowy passageways, and rolling brown fog of 1860s London is wrought with remarkable depth and intelligence, complete with surprising twists and extraordinary heart.

Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is fluff, but enjoyable fluff if you aren’t expecting either a murder mystery, or the continuing voice of Jane Austen. P.D. James has her own style – that of omniscient narrator – but it fits the time period admirably. Still, it is narration, and lacks the sparkling dialog that characterizes Jane Austen. Those who are intimately familiar with Pride and Prejudice may tire of the endless rehashing of those events. Those who are not, may appreciate the filling in of the back story. I enjoyed learning where P.D. James has taken our familiar characters in the six years since the end of P&P. As for the murder mystery, this is not so much a who-done-it as it is an exploration of how the characters react to these events and the unfolding murder trial. All in all, this is probably better than most of the P&P sequels out there.

Description: It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball. Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a mystery and a lurid murder trial.

Lost in Austen

Lost in AustenLost in Austen  (2008)

Starring: Jemima Rooper, Elliot Cowan as Darcy, Hugh Bonneville, Alex Kingston

Director: Dan Zeff

Length: 180 minutes

 

I’ve taken a break from the Moby Dick stuff to revisit Pride and Prejudice. I had hoped I would be doing a presentation for the Minnesota Library Association on this in the fall, but alas my proposal was not selected. I still hope to do it somewhere, sometime, somehow so I will revisit this topic from time to time and work up a page like I did for the Moby Dick project.

I’ll give this film 4 stars. Basically, a 21st-century woman unwillingly changes places with Elizabeth Bennet and manages to screw up all her efforts to make the story come out the way it is “supposed to.” Along the way, there are some hilarious twists on Jane Austen’s story. Several of the characters are not what they seemed in the original P&P.

I didn’t love the Amanda character, but the rest of the cast was, well, perfectly cast. Elliot Cowen is my favorite Darcy to date. He had the perfect blend of haughtiness and arrogance without being wooden, and yet his transition into the passionate, in love Darcy was seamless and believable. Alex Kingston as Mrs. Bennet was also outstanding. I thought her interpretation of the hysterical Mrs. Bennet was perfect without being over the top silly. I loved that all the Bennet girls, Caroline Bingley, and Georgiana Darcy were all played by actresses that seemed the appropriate age instead of being 10-plus years too old. And Mr. Collins – deliciously creepy. And wait until you meet his brothers!

Very well done! I would love to see this cast do the original P&P.

Description: Amanda Price is sick of the modern world. She yearns for the romance and elegance found in the books by her favorite author, Jane Austen. But she’s about to get a rude awakening as one fateful evening, she is propelled into the scheming 19th century world of Pride and Prejudice while that book’s Elizabeth Bennet is hurled into hers. As the book’s familiar plot unfolds, Amanda triggers new romantic twists and turns within the Bennet family circle as she clumsily tries to help the sisters nab husbands and even captivates the tantalizing Mr. Darcy herself. But what about Elizabeth…and what will become of one of the world’s greatest love stories?

 

Ahab’s Bride

Ahab's BrideAhab’s Bride by Louise M. Gouge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not quite sure what to make of this one, but it was okay. Originally a dissertation project, the time period seems to be thoroughly researched. But despite all the detail, I couldn’t quite put myself into this time and place. There’s a stiffness and formality to the writing that gives this a rather old-fashioned feel and kept me on the “outside” looking in. It is a Christian novel, so the author indulged in a lot of theological dialogue. At least she didn’t seem to be trying to save the reader’s soul! Mostly it seems historically appropriate. I found the background about the Quaker schism interesting. Hannah, herself, seems to be open-minded to different points of view.

Hannah starts out in her marriage to Ahab with a great deal of naivete. Some of the romantic dialog is far too sickeningly saccharine for my taste, but I wouldn’t say this is a romance novel. It is a portrait of a woman, growing and changing over time. Mostly we see her through her relationship with Ahab. The lengthy periods of his absences are glossed over far too quickly. Through her eyes, we see an Ahab that is too perfect to be real in the beginning. I do think the author did a better job with his character following the loss of his leg. One of Hannah’s friends explains toward the end of the book “he’s always had something broken inside” but we don’t really see that foreshadowed at all. It seemed quite an abrupt shift in his personality after the accident. But again, it is all through Hannah’s eyes.

It might be interesting to see how Hannah develops in the next book of the Ahab’s Legacy trilogy now that she is separated permanently from Ahab, but I haven’t decided if I really want to read it or not. I do like the historical detail, and there are hints of what Hannah might become through her interests in transcendentalism and introduction to the thinking of Lucretia Mott.

Description: Before Captain Ahab encountered Moby Dick, he met the woman who would capture his heart – Hannah Oldweiler. This voyage back to 19th Century Nantucket completes the portrait of the man who ruled the sea with an iron will, and introduces us to the woman who had a spirit and determination to match. When Ahab becomes obsessed with settling a score with the great whale, Hannah is left alone to raise their son and to oversee her husband’s estate. Waiting and praying for his safe return, Hannah is faced with loneliness – a deep longing in her soul that not even her husband can meet. Will Hannah become as independent as Ahab? Will she take her future into her own hands? Who will fill the emptiness in her heart?