Monday, January 28, 2013

Frost Fair Fiance

The title:  Frost Fair Fiance
The author: Mona Gedney
Publication: Zebra, 2003
Got it from: The Paperback Place, Canandaigua, NY, 2010

Frost fairs seem to be popping up in quite a few books I read, including here and here.  The last time the Thames froze over and there was a frost fair was during the winter of 1813-14, which is when this book takes place.  I thought this was interesting, and the cover copy promised a nerd hero, so I was intrigued.

The term "frost fair fiance" was taken from a woman who needed a man to pose as her fiance.  After the ice melted and the frost fair was dismantled, so too was their engagement.  Likewise the heroine of this story, through a series of misunderstandings, must also take a frost fair fiance to deter an unwanted suitor.

I found the pacing of this book to be a bit off.  The hero and the heroine don't meet until a good 75 pages into the book (keep in mind the book is only 220 pages long), and a lot of the whole story is taken up with details of the heroine's huge family of cousins and their children.  I liked the hero, who is indeed nerdy and sarcastic and grumpy.  I also liked the middle part, where everyone is snowed in and then attends the frost fair, as I felt it was a glimpse into an interesting historical event.  However, the ending came much too abruptly for my liking.  I felt as though we hardly got any relationship development, and I couldn't see how the heroine was anything special that she would capture the hero's heart.  In fact, I found her kind of boring and I had a hard time figuring out why the hero would go from being so antisocial to wanting to get married.  The whole frost fair fake fiance business doesn't even come until the very end, even though the blurb suggests this is the main plot.  I wish this book had focused more on the romance side of things and less on crazy family shenanigans.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Lost London

The title: Lost London
The author: Richard Guard
Publication: Michael O'Mara Books, 2012
Got it from: DC, Xmas 2012

Wow, is it Monday already?  I've been completely absorbed in so many things this weekend.  I finished Betsy-Tacy and the complete Beatrix Potter.  Watched Downton Abbey - oh my goodness, can this show get any more addictive?  Finished first season of Slings & Arrows.  Also watched all seven hours of the John Adams miniseries from HBO.  They made Thomas Jefferson sexy, don't ask me how.  Anyway, I almost forgot I finished this book.  

I love to collect useless information about London like a magpie, so I enjoyed this book.  It's all about buildings, people and things that used to be found in London but are now gone.  Many of them I have heard of already (like the Frost Fairs), but some I haven't.  London is particularly fascinating for its "lost history" because so much was destroyed by the fire of 1666 and the Blitz.  Henry Mayhew (this guy is in pretty much any Victorian London history) and Samuel Pepys provided a lot of information for this book.  

I only wish there had been more detail for the entries, as some of the original source information was rather vague.  For instance, there's the "Chelsea Bun House," home of the original chelsea bun, which supposedly sold 240,000 buns on Good Friday 1839.  How is that even possible?  Let's say they were open for ten hours, that's still 400 buns a minute!  Another list by Mayhew of the different crossing sweepers included the following: "The Bearded Crossing Sweeper at the Exchange.  An Old Woman.  The Crossing Sweeper who had been a Serving Maid.  One-Legged Crossing Sweeper of Chancery Lane."  And my personal favourite: "The Negro Crossing Sweeper who has lost both his legs."  Wow.  Kind of puts your own life in perspective, doesn't it? Interestingly, the author lays to rest the popular notion of "plague pits," citing almost no evidence for these mythical mass graves to date.

Some familiarity with the city is required for reading this book, and it's more of a jumping-off point for further investigation, but it was still very amusing.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury

The title: The Besty-Tacy Treasury
The author: Maud Hart Lovelace
Publication: Harperperennial, 2011 (originally 1940s)
Got it from: Amazon, 2012

There was a time when I was a little girl, about 8-12 years old, when I really, really, really wanted to be a Victorian child.  Not a poor workhouse Victorian girl, of course, but a genteel or at least middle-class one.  I used to go to sleep at night desperately wishing I could wake up in a sort of fairytale 19th century that existed only in books.  It could be the Concord house the March sisters lived in during the Civil War, or the Darling's nursery, or Green Gables, or even Sara Crewe's India before the whole orphan thing.  What did it matter that there was no television or computers or even proper plumbing?  All I wanted in life was shining ringlets, ribbons, velvet dresses and black stockings.  I wanted a doll with a pram, and a house in the city with tall steps, and the kind of birthday parties where girls wore sashes and drank punch and played pin-the-tail.

So how was it that I missed the Betsy-Tacy books growing up?  I certainly read everything I could get my hands on at the library, especially if it featured a spunky 19th century girl.  The only thing I can figure out is that my library didn't have them, probably because they were American.  It's such a shame, because reading them today, I know I would have loved them.

I probably wouldn't have picked up them up at all as an adult if they hadn't been one of the books read by the Mother-Daughter book club in Heather Vogel Frederick's wonderful series.  The name Besty-Tacy sounded vaguely familiar, although I originally confused it with the "Betsy" series by Carolyn Haywood, a series which my library did have and I did read and which were published around the same time as the Betsy-Tacy books.  

This Betsy, however, was based on author Maud Hart Lovelace's childhood growing up in turn-of-the-century Mankato, Minnesota.  Reading the behind-the-scenes notes at the back, it's clear that the "Deep Valley" of Betsy's world is almost an exact mirror of Mankato, and Betsy's family and friends are actually Maud's.  The four books of the Betsy-Tacy treasury show an idyllic American lifestyle, similar to the 19th century world I lived in my head as a child.  Differences between then and now are fascinating, not frustrating, grown-up problems barely exist, and each day is a delightful, unexpected adventure.

In the first book in the series, Betsy-Tacy, Betsy Ray is turning five years old and a new child, Tacy Kelly, moves into the neighbourhood.  After an initial misunderstanding, the two girls become fast friends.  What follows is a series of gentle vignettes that show the best parts of growing up as a girl.  Betsy and Tacy make and sell coloured sand, decorate a piano box as a house, explore their neighbourhood and imagine driving the milk buggy.  One chapter highlights the stark contrast between Betsy's world and ours: after a short illness, one of Tacy's many siblings, baby Beatrice, dies.  In a wonderful scene, illustrated beautifully by Lois Lenski, the two girls leave coloured Easter eggs for the birds to take to Baby Bee in heaven.  I cried reading this.

Alright.  I can't even look at this picture without getting teary.

At the end of the story, the girls meet Tib Mueller, who will be the third of their trio for the rest of the series.

In the second book of the series, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, the girls are now eight years old and their world is starting to expand a bit.  Tacy gets diphtheria, another indication that it's not quite modern times yet.  One of the biggest plot threads of the book is the girls' attempts to learn how to fly, followed by a visit to a street fair where they get to see a "flying lady."  They attempt to put on a "flying lady" show and in the end have their hopes of learning to fly dashed.  This book shows us our first glimmerings of Betsy the author, testing out her imagination on her friends.

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Hill is an interesting book.  The story starts out on a humorous note, with the girls falling in love with the young King of Spain and trying to figure out how they can marry him.  They also become obsessed with royalty and plan to crown Tib as May Queen.  They are brought into contact with a local Syrian community and befriend a little Syrian girl, whom they defend from bullies.  The last half of the book is taken up with an epic battle between Betsy & co and Betsy's sister Julia and her friends, over who will be May Queen.  In the end they discover a real-life princess is living in Deep Valley. (Spoiler alert: it's the Syrian girl).

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown is often considered a favourite among fans.  The girls are now twelve and are spending more time outside their little neighbourhood.  They befriend a girl named Winona, whom they try to "hypnotize" into taking them to a matinee of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  They also experience their first sight of a "horseless carriage." They start noticing boys now (Betsy's older sister has a beau) and Betsy begins to hone her writing skills by visiting the newly-built Carnegie Library and reading all the classics.  We are also introduced to Mrs. Poppy,  a local retired actress, who befriends the girls and begins the search for Betsy's long-lost Uncle Keith, who ran away as an actor years earlier.

I'm so glad they're re-issuing these hard-to-find books in spiffy new anthologies.  I want to read the rest of the series, which takes us all the way to Betsy's early married life.  I so enjoyed reading these and being transported to another time and place, where everything seems so safe and familiar, and yet wonderfully old-fashioned.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Grand Tour

The title: The Grand Tour; or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia
The author: Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
Publication: Harcourt, 2004  
Got it from: DC, 2006

I re-read Sorcery & Cecelia for the third time in 2011, so I thought it was high time I re-read the sequel as well.  One of the nice things about the Internet is the opportunity to engage with authors about their works.  I was about halfway through this book when I had a chance to participate in a Live Chat with the authors, which was pretty neat.  My question for them was about how it felt to go back and write the sequel almost twenty years after the first.  Caroline's response?  "It was like tuning into a radio station you really, really love."

When I first read this book almost seven years ago, I adored it.  I couldn't put it down. I was winding up my master's degree and it was the perfect distraction to all the work I was trying to get through.  This time it was - well, I enjoyed it, but maybe not quite as much as the first time.  I guess this was partly due to the fact that I knew what was going to happen.  That kind of takes away some of the suspense. 

In this sequel, Kate and Cecy are happily married to Thomas and James and they are about to embark on a honeymoon tour of Europe.  One of the delights of the book is the real-life details of what it would have been like to actually travel around Europe in the Regency period.  Any romantic notions I may have had quickly dissipated - seasickness, bed bugs, bumpy carriages and freezing temperatures were all part of the deal.  Real historical figures also pop into the book.  Beau Brummell is involved in a rather amusing dinner fiasco and the Duke of Wellington is also involved in their adventures.  Of course their honeymoon doesn't go smoothly, and the Scooby Gang couples soon find themselves in the centre of a scheme to steal ancient coronation regalia.  There's plenty of chases, highwaymen, spying and magical doings afoot.

This is definitely a sequel where you need to read the first book, but anyone who has will undoubtedly enjoy this one.  I think it's a tad overlong, but anyone who revels in the minutiae of  Regency life will howl with protest, so it's not a serious complaint.  Stevermer has a short story coming out in the upcoming Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that Kate and Cecy can solve mysteries again.