Monday, March 23, 2015

Duke of Midnight

The title: Duke of Midnight
The author: Elizabeth Hoyt
Publication: Hachette, 2013
Got it from:  Amazon

There are very few authors I would consider automatically reading everything they wrote, but Elizabeth Hoyt is becoming one of them.

After reading the wonderful, unusual Thief of Shadows (#4 in the Maiden Lane trilogy) and the pirate- lovin’ that was Scandalous Desires(#3), I jumped ahead to #6, Duke of Midnight.  And I may just have to go read the rest of them.  They’re that good.

There are two familiar legends/mythologies that run throughout this book.  One is made explicit in story; the other will be instantly recognizable to modern audiences.  The former concerns the heroine, Artemis Greaves, who is a lady’s companion to her rich, silly cousin Penelope.  Based on her name, it’s fairly easy to guess that the legend of the huntress Artemis plays a part, especially given the forest green motif on the cover.  And yes, she does know archery.  The other concerns the hero, Maximus Batten, the Duke of Wakefield.  I’ll give you a few hints as to which story the author is referencing:

-the hero became the Duke after his parents’ tragic murder when he was a child 
-which he witnessed in a dark alley
-after they left a theatre
-and after which he swore revenge on their killer
-and went to train to become a fighter
-and thereafter disguised his identity to stalk the streets at night
-where he returns each morning to train in his underground lair under the watchful eye of his sardonic butler


Doesn’t ring a bell?

Maximus is just one of three men who has become the Ghost of St. Giles (one of the others being Winter Makepeace from Thief of Shadows).  Maximus is less concerned with fighting crime than he is finding his parents’ killer, although he does have a mission to rid St. Giles of gin.  He will occasionally intervene to stop a wrongdoing, as he does in the opening scene where he rescues Artemis and Penelope from ruffians. 

Artemis has her own problems, being a poor relation nobody seems to care about, with a brother locked up in Bedlam after the supposed murder of three friends.  (He gets to be the hero in the next book).  The Duke is supposed to be courting her cousin Penelope, but he ends up being more intrigued by the braver, more intelligent Artemis.  When Artemis inevitably discovers Maximus’s secret identity, she blackmails him into helping her brother escape.

I definitely enjoyed this book, as I do with almost all “masked crimefighter” plots.  However, I think I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t read Thief of Shadows first. I know I said the same thing when I reviewed Scandalous Desires, but I just absolutely loved Isabel and Winter as characters and the role-reversal with her as the experienced rogue and him as the shy virgin.  It was hard not to compare the two sets of lovers, and Maximus and Artemis suffered in comparison.  They seemed almost too perfect and slightly remote. 

Nevertheless, Duke of Midnight was extremely well-written. The action was exciting, the tension enjoyable and the sex suitably steamy.  Not to mention that I’m still loving the 18th century setting, a little more wild than the staid Victorian era.  Even the excerpt at the back of the book from the first in the series piqued my interest, despite my initial disinterest in the plot.   Hoyt is just wonderful at writing great characters with snappy dialogue and an evocative setting.  Her voice as a writer is unique and interesting, making her a standout for me in the rest of the ho-hum romance aisle.

Little House in the Big Woods

The title: Little House in the Big Woods
The author: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Publication: HarperTrophy, 1932
Got it from: Hannelore's, 2015

For some time now, after having read Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, I have been meaning to re-read the Little House series.  This winter I happened to spy the boxed set in the window of a local used book store, and managed to score the mint-condition set for a great price.  Naturally I am starting with the first one.  

I was quite young when I read this series over twenty years ago.  I never liked Little House quite as much as other classics.  Maybe it was because books like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women seemed closer to my own East Coast childhood.  The prairies were foreign to me, as was the backbreaking labour depicted in Wilder’s books.

Re-reading Little House in the Big Woods in my thirties, I am surprised how much I remembered and how much my initial impressions of the book still hold.  The scenes I loved the most, like the sugar snow and the dance at Grandpa’s, were still my favourites.  I used to get easily bored by the descriptions of how chores were done but now I read them with a historian’s interest.  On the other hand, I never noticed how much hunting there was when I was a child.  As an adult animal lover, I cringed even as I understood how it was needed for survival.  

When I was young, I also read Laura’s narrative as a literal account of her life.  After reading McClure’s book, I now know that it is more a distillation of several years and events to arrive at something like the essence of Laura’s life.  And that’s okay.  It is a window into a lost world post-Civil War when the white folks were starting to settle the west.  

I suspect that few Americans now live so self-sufficiently, and for children the Little House books must seem like a foreign country.  I am sure many are bewildered by how hard-working Laura and her sisters are, and how strictly they are raised.  There are learning moments in the way Laura enjoys the simple pleasures (an orange at Christmas!), revels in the natural world and learns not to be wasteful.  There’s a comforting simplicity to all of the Little House books which makes them enduring classics.

3 corn husk dolls out of 4.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Naked King

The title: The Naked King
The author: Sally MacKenzie
Publication: Zebra, 2011
Got it from: The library

The Naked King is the last book in Sally MacKenzie's "Naked" series.  I have read exactly one, which is this one.  Yes, you are supposed to read them all in order. And yes, as usual, I didn't, because: reasons.  I've done this many, many times before and I'll do it again in my next review, too.  Because a good book should stand alone, and I decide whether I'm intrigued enough to read the whole series, in order or not.

Stephen Parker-Roth, known as the "King of Hearts" (he claims it's because of his card-playing skills, gossips say otherwise) is drunk one morning when he runs into confirmed spinster Lady Anne Marston and her dog.  One thing leads to another and they share a kiss on her doorstep before her dog knocks them into the bushes.  As they are seen by a scandalized neighbourhood gossip, they have to act like they're betrothed.  Stephen finds the whole situation amusing, while Anne is horrified.  She is trying desperately to remain scandal-free so her younger sister can make a proper match during the London season.

As you might guess from the cover, this is definitely meant to be a lighthearted romance, and for the most part it is.  Both the hero and heroine come from cah-razy families.  In addition to her younger sister and dog, Anne has two young, mischievous stepbrothers, a batty aunt chaperone and an absentminded scholarly father.  Stephen has a large, meddlesome family who feature prominently in the rest of the series.  I am rather intrigued by the hints about Stephen's older brother, who supposedly was so into botany that his mother worried she would have to dress a woman up like a flower to get his attention.

But all is not entirely frivolous in this book.  In fact, a rather dark thread runs throughout the story: Anne was raped at a party ten years earlier and she is still traumatized by it.  Her violation caused her to retreat from society and she has lived with the secret shame, blaming herself and living in fear of her secret being discovered.  What I really liked about this book was the hurt/comfort aspect (I am a sucker for hurt/comfort stories), where Stephen helps her heal.  There is one memorable scene where he makes her buy a more flattering wardrobe, and her reluctant shedding of her old clothes mirrors the shedding of her emotional armour.   I really enjoyed Anne's journey to reclaim the joyful side of her romantic and sexual life.  

However, Anne's rapist turns up as the villain in this book, and at times he felt too over-the-top in his cartoon villainy.  He didn't need to literally smell bad for me to get that he was disgusting, and his sexual extortion stretched the bounds of credulity.  But it didn't ruin the story for me.  This was a solidly enjoyable Regency, and I would definitely read this author again.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Betsy Was a Junior and Betsy and Joe

The title: Betsy Was a Junior and Betsy and Joe
The author: Maud Hart Lovelace
Publication: Harper Perennial, 2009 (originally 1940s)
Got it from: Amazon, 2013

It seems that lately, so much of what I have been reading has felt like a chore.  Whether it is books for book club, or bad choices on my part, I find myself more often than not just putting books down and not picking them up again.  But I read the Betsy books for pure pleasure.  As much as I try to draw them out, I just find myself zipping through them too quickly.

This 2-in-1 book follows Betsy through her junior and senior high school years.  There is a lot that feels familiar from her previous high school books: romance, the "gang," outings, fashion and school.  In Betsy Was a Junior, Betsy is enchanted by her older sister's experience with university sororities and she decides to form her own.  It of course ends disastrously, with Betsy learning a valuable lesson about excluding people.  In Betsy and Joe, Betsy is caught up in a classic love triangle with Tony and Joe, although the book's title gives a hint as to where her heart lies. (Go Team Joe!) The romantic drama is the backdrop to all the fun and festivities of her senior year.

Once again it is hard not to love Betsy and her world of Deep Valley.  Everything just seems like so much fun.  There are always parties and sleigh rides and swimming and picnics and plays, and they are always eating the tastiest-sounding food.  

I already summed up a lot of my thoughts about the Betsy books in my previous reviews, and the same applies here.  If you've read the earlier books, of course you will read and enjoy these ones, the way you would watch the next installment in an addictive TV show.  And of course I'm going to read the rest of the series with Betsy's European adventures and her marriage.  I'll try to draw it out, but I doubt I will be able to resist binging again.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tea for Three

The title: Tea for Three (includes Death by Darjeeling, Gunpowder Green and Shades of Earl Grey)
The author: Laura Childs
Publication: Berkley, 2001, 2002, 2003
Got it from: Indigo Saint John, 2014

One of the things I have discovered about mystery series is that there are mysteries with themes and then there are themes with mysteries.  The Tea Shop books definitely fall into the latter category.  The main character/sleuth in these stories is Theodosia Browning, an outgoing 36-year-old entrepreneur who runs the Indigo Tea Shop in historic Charleston, South Carolina.  Besides being a crack shopkeeper, Theodosia is also deeply involved in the lives of her friends and neighbours, who have a habit of killing each other for some fairly flimsy reasons.  Like many cozy detective stories, the mystery often takes a backseat to the setting.

And what a setting!  Let me first start with the Indigo Tea Shop itself.  It is the kind of tea shop that dreams are made of.  Theodosia's employees include a gentle, grandfatherly tea expert named Drayton and an adorable pastry chef named Haley.  While Theodosia often forgets about work to run around solving mysteries, her two employees run the shop without a hitch.  There is always a kettle on the boil and batches of delicious scones being pulled out of the oven.  Regulars are always dropping in to gossip and rave about the shop and drink tea by the fire.  No one is ever angry, demanding or asking for a refund. Everyone is always neighborly and helpful.  Let's face it, by the time I finished reading, I was ready to move in.

Then there is Charleston itself, a place that before I read these books, I wouldn't want to go anywhere near on account of the heat and humidity.  But Laura Childs paints such a cozy picture of the city, with quaint shops and friendly shopkeepers and historic charm, that I now I want to go.

The mystery aspects of the books are, I'm afraid to say, not that great.  The mysteries are fairly easy to solve and not super exciting.  (In the third book I actually figured out who the perpetrator was in the first chapter, before they were even introduced or the crime was committed).  I feel kind of bad saying this, because I did enjoy the books.  If you're as into tea shops and as steeped (heh) in tea culture as I am, you will probably also love them.  Bonus - you will get to learn about new teas to try and there are recipes for all the food described in the book.  Yum!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Revolutionary Mothers

The title: Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence
The author: Carol Berkin
Publication: Vintage Books, 2005
Got it from: Visitor Center, Quincy, Massachusetts

I've been learning a lot about the American Revolution ever since I became interested in Abigail Adams, and I bought this book when I was on a tour of their home in Massachusetts.  I have to confess it's taken me forever to read, even though it's not a long book at all.  I started it on my holiday last June and finally when the new year rolled around, I told myself to just get it done.

Because this book is slight and doesn't spend too much time on any one woman, it feels like more of a jumping-off point for further research into this fascinating subject.  It covers the everyday life of women on both sides of the war, from the well-to-do ladies of Boston to the camp followers to the plight of women who were slaves.  The author is a professor of American history and this book suffered somewhat from sounding at times like a PhD thesis (x happened because of y, and here are the footnotes to back it up).  I did enjoy some of the fun stories, especially of the Loyalist women who were exiled to my old hometown of Saint John.  A poem of the day summed up the Loyalists' feelings: "Of all the vile countries that ever were known/In the frigid or torrid or temperate zone/From accounts I had there is not such another/It neither belongs to this world nor the other."  Yeah, that's Saint John alright! 

Predictably women went back to their confined lives after the war, despite having done some incredible and exciting things during the conflict.  Maybe that's what makes the Revolution so much more fun to read about than the times of peace surrounding it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

When Everything Changed

The title: When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present
The author: Gail Collins
Publication: Little, Brown and Company, 2009
Got it from: Seneca Falls Women's Rights Museum, 2014

Happy 2015!  What a great book to be starting the new year with.  I bought When Everything Changed last fall on a trip to Seneca Falls and could hardly put it down.  

There's so much women of my generation and younger take for granted.  Yet when this story opens in 1960, women weren't much further along than they had been in the nineteenth century. (Once upon a time, I used to think that 1960 was ancient history but - paradoxically - the older I get the closer in time it seems.)  Which is why I think every girl and woman from 8 to 80 should read this book: to learn about a time when women weren't allowed in certain bars, on certain planes and in a lot of workplaces.  There was once a time when women couldn't get their own credit cards without their husband's signature, or buy a house for themselves, or (gasp!) wear pants in public.  And then Women's Liberation happened, and everything changed.  As the author herself says, "Even people who were there don't actually remember what it was like."

What makes this book so engrossing is that Collins is able to seamlessly move from from describing the really big stories about landmark legal victories and big-name feminists like Betty Friedan to stories about ordinary women and their day-to-day lives, in their own words.  There is honestly never a dry or superfluous passage. It all feels important and fascinating.  Nor do white women hog all the limelight.  A sizeable portion of the book is devoted to the Civil Rights movement and how it helped pave the way for the Women's Liberation movement.  The profiles of the courageous African-American women who fought for both movements are some of the best parts of the book.  Out of all the women in the book, Ella Baker is by far my biggest hero.

Most of the book is devoted to what happened between 1964-1973.  As the author later admitted in an interview, everything after that has been an attempt to come to grips with the seismic shift of that short decade.  Some of the ways that things haven't changed are infuriating (as is the section on Phyllis Schlafly, who has arguably done more to destroy feminism than any woman in history).  Still, the story ends on a positive note: the U.S. has recently come close to having a female candidate run for president, and may very well soon have a woman in the White House.  Now that would be amazing.