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1. A Quilt for Christmas (2014)

A Quilt for Christmas. Sandra Dallas. 2014. St. Martin's Press. 256 pages. [Source: Library]

For readers who love to read about quilters or quilts, this one may prove satisfying. Also, this one would be a good match for those who like to read about the Civil War. This one is set in Kansas during the last year of the Civil War. I liked Sandra Dallas' A Quilt for Christmas even though I don't consider myself fitting into the ideal audience. (I don't particularly seek out books about quilts. I don't seek out historical fiction set during the Civil War.)

Eliza Spooner is the heroine. She loves, loves, loves to quilt. She loves to get together with other women in the community. The war has had an effect on the community. Many husbands (and brothers, fathers, sons, etc.) are gone, away fighting for one side or the other. Eliza's husband, Will, is fighting for the Union. The novel opens with Eliza finishing a quilt she's made for her husband. She'll be sending the quilt along with a soldier who is returning to her husband's unit from leave. Her love for her husband is obvious, and, not just because she's spent all this time making a quilt. There are dozens of flashbacks. These flashbacks give readers a chance to get to know the couple. However, I must admit that these flashbacks are confusing at times. They are not really set apart in the text, and the transition from present-day to the past can be sloppy at times.

Readers meet Eliza and her son and daughter. Readers meet men and women of the small community as well. Mainly, readers get to know Missouri Ann and her daughter. When Missouri Ann's husband dies, she takes the opportunity to flee from her abusive in-laws. Eliza opens her home to the pair, and this isn't without some risk. Missouri Ann's in-laws are probably without a doubt the meanest and cruelest in the county--if not the state. But not everyone in the community is as immediately open to including Missouri Ann in their group. Her in-laws have tainted her, a bit, no one wants to get close to someone who would marry into that family.

At one point, at a quilting party of sorts, the discussion of slavery and runaway slaves comes up. Opinions are mixed. Prejudices are voiced. Even though most of the women are for the Union--for the Yankees--most if not all have very strong views about blacks.

Eliza's own views will be tested when she's asked to hide a runaway slave: a woman who murdered her mistress. Will she welcome her home to this slave and put her own life and the lives of her children at risk?

A Quilt for Christmas is an odd book at times. It seems to have a handful of plots and stories, any one could be the MAIN one, but really not one seems to stand out as being the one it's all about. It's definitely NOT a plot-driven book. It's mainly about the lives of women in a particular community during the fall of 1864 and throughout 1865.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. Reread #50 Les Miserables

Les Miserables. Victor Hugo. Translated by Isabel Florence Hapgood. 1862/1887. 1232 pages.
This book is a drama, whose leading personage is the Infinite. Man is the second.
I have now read Les Miserables three times. This will be my second review of Les Miserables on my blog. My first review was in April 2013. I love Les Miserables. I do. I think I love it more each time I read it. The book has depth. The story it tells is memorable and emotional. It is a book you EXPERIENCE. I love so many things about it: the depth and quality of the writing, the characterization, the narration, the themes.

There are many words that could be used to describe Les Miserables: compelling, political, spiritual, philosophical, dramatic, romantic. It is just as concerned about politics and social justice as it is romance and family. It touches on the subjects of education, crime, poverty, and injustice. It's a novel where ideas matter just as much as characters.

It's also a novel heavy on details. When it's good, it's REALLY good. But at times some of the details are too taste-specific. In other words, some of the details weigh the story down. At times Les Miserables is boring. It's worth reading. It is. It's worth pushing through to the end. It's okay to skim certain sections, in my opinion, because it is one of the most satisfying reading experiences overall. Not that I LOVE the ending, though I think I may have made peace with it this time around.

Who are some of the characters? Bishop Myriel, Jean Valjean, Fantine, Inspector Javert, Cosette, Marius, Eponine, Enjolras, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, Mabeuf, Monsieur Gillenormand, and Gavroche--just to name a few.  I don't know if I can say I have a favorite. I know which characters I don't like. But I really just like all of them--no matter their strengths and weaknesses.

Do you have a favorite character? a favorite scene?

One of my favorite scenes is early in the novel when Jean Valjean meets Bishop Myriel (Bienvenu). He is an ex-convict who has just been released. He's seeking a place to stay for the night. It is not going well.
"I have knocked at all doors."
"Well?"
"I have been driven away everywhere."
The "good woman" touched the man's arm, and pointed out to him on the other side of the street a small, low house, which stood beside the Bishop's palace.
"You have knocked at all doors?"
"Yes."
"Have you knocked at that one?"
"No."
"Knock there."
It opened wide with a rapid movement, as though some one had given it an energetic and resolute push.
A man entered.
We already know the man. It was the wayfarer whom we have seen wandering about in search of shelter.
He entered, advanced a step, and halted, leaving the door open behind him. He had his knapsack on his shoulders, his cudgel in his hand, a rough, audacious, weary, and violent expression in his eyes. The fire on the hearth lighted him up. He was hideous. It was a sinister apparition.
Madame Magloire had not even the strength to utter a cry. She trembled, and stood with her mouth wide open.
Mademoiselle Baptistine turned round, beheld the man entering, and half started up in terror; then, turning her head by degrees towards the fireplace again, she began to observe her brother, and her face became once more profoundly calm and serene.
The Bishop fixed a tranquil eye on the man.
As he opened his mouth, doubtless to ask the new-comer what he desired, the man rested both hands on his staff, directed his gaze at the old man and the two women, and without waiting for the Bishop to speak, he said, in a loud voice:—
"See here. My name is Jean Valjean. I am a convict from the galleys. I have passed nineteen years in the galleys. I was liberated four days ago, and am on my way to Pontarlier, which is my destination. I have been walking for four days since I left Toulon. I have travelled a dozen leagues to-day on foot. This evening, when I arrived in these parts, I went to an inn, and they turned me out, because of my yellow passport, which I had shown at the town-hall. I had to do it. I went to an inn. They said to me, 'Be off,' at both places. No one would take me. I went to the prison; the jailer would not admit me. I went into a dog's kennel; the dog bit me and chased me off, as though he had been a man. One would have said that he knew who I was. I went into the fields, intending to sleep in the open air, beneath the stars. There were no stars. I thought it was going to rain, and I re-entered the town, to seek the recess of a doorway. Yonder, in the square, I meant to sleep on a stone bench. A good woman pointed out your house to me, and said to me, 'Knock there!' I have knocked. What is this place? Do you keep an inn? I have money—savings. One hundred and nine francs fifteen sous, which I earned in the galleys by my labor, in the course of nineteen years. I will pay. What is that to me? I have money. I am very weary; twelve leagues on foot; I am very hungry. Are you willing that I should remain?"
"Madame Magloire," said the Bishop, "you will set another place."
The man advanced three paces, and approached the lamp which was on the table. "Stop," he resumed, as though he had not quite understood; "that's not it. Did you hear? I am a galley-slave; a convict. I come from the galleys." He drew from his pocket a large sheet of yellow paper, which he unfolded. "Here's my passport. Yellow, as you see. This serves to expel me from every place where I go. Will you read it? I know how to read. I learned in the galleys. There is a school there for those who choose to learn. Hold, this is what they put on this passport: 'Jean Valjean, discharged convict, native of'—that is nothing to you—'has been nineteen years in the galleys: five years for house-breaking and burglary; fourteen years for having attempted to escape on four occasions. He is a very dangerous man.' There! Every one has cast me out. Are you willing to receive me? Is this an inn? Will you give me something to eat and a bed? Have you a stable?"
"Madame Magloire," said the Bishop, "you will put white sheets on the bed in the alcove." We have already explained the character of the two women's obedience.
Madame Magloire retired to execute these orders.
The Bishop turned to the man.
"Sit down, sir, and warm yourself. We are going to sup in a few moments, and your bed will be prepared while you are supping."
At this point the man suddenly comprehended. The expression of his face, up to that time sombre and harsh, bore the imprint of stupefaction, of doubt, of joy, and became extraordinary. He began stammering like a crazy man:—
"Really? What! You will keep me? You do not drive me forth? A convict! You call me sir! You do not address me as thou? 'Get out of here, you dog!' is what people always say to me. I felt sure that you would expel me, so I told you at once who I am. Oh, what a good woman that was who directed me hither! I am going to sup! A bed with a mattress and sheets, like the rest of the world! a bed! It is nineteen years since I have slept in a bed! You actually do not want me to go! You are good people. Besides, I have money. I will pay well. Pardon me, monsieur the inn-keeper, but what is your name? I will pay anything you ask. You are a fine man. You are an inn-keeper, are you not?"
"I am," replied the Bishop, "a priest who lives here."
"A priest!" said the man. "Oh, what a fine priest! Then you are not going to demand any money of me? You are the cure, are you not? the cure of this big church? Well! I am a fool, truly! I had not perceived your skull-cap."
As he spoke, he deposited his knapsack and his cudgel in a corner, replaced his passport in his pocket, and seated himself. Mademoiselle Baptistine gazed mildly at him. He continued:
"You are humane, Monsieur le Curé; you have not scorned me. A good priest is a very good thing. Then you do not require me to pay?"
"No," said the Bishop; "keep your money. How much have you? Did you not tell me one hundred and nine francs?"
"And fifteen sous," added the man.
"One hundred and nine francs fifteen sous. And how long did it take you to earn that?"
"Nineteen years."
"Nineteen years!"
The Bishop sighed deeply.
The man continued: "I have still the whole of my money. In four days I have spent only twenty-five sous, which I earned by helping unload some wagons at Grasse. Since you are an abbe, I will tell you that we had a chaplain in the galleys. And one day I saw a bishop there. Monseigneur is what they call him. He was the Bishop of Majore at Marseilles. He is the cure who rules over the other cures, you understand. Pardon me, I say that very badly; but it is such a far-off thing to me! You understand what we are! He said mass in the middle of the galleys, on an altar. He had a pointed thing, made of gold, on his head; it glittered in the bright light of midday. We were all ranged in lines on the three sides, with cannons with lighted matches facing us. We could not see very well. He spoke; but he was too far off, and we did not hear. That is what a bishop is like."
While he was speaking, the Bishop had gone and shut the door, which had remained wide open.
Madame Magloire returned. She brought a silver fork and spoon, which she placed on the table.
"Madame Magloire," said the Bishop, "place those things as near the fire as possible." And turning to his guest: "The night wind is harsh on the Alps. You must be cold, sir."
Each time that he uttered the word sir, in his voice which was so gently grave and polished, the man's face lighted up. Monsieur to a convict is like a glass of water to one of the shipwrecked of the Medusa. Ignominy thirsts for consideration.
"This lamp gives a very bad light," said the Bishop.
Madame Magloire understood him, and went to get the two silver candlesticks from the chimney-piece in Monseigneur's bed-chamber, and placed them, lighted, on the table.
"Monsieur le Curé," said the man, "you are good; you do not despise me. You receive me into your house. You light your candles for me. Yet I have not concealed from you whence I come and that I am an unfortunate man."
The Bishop, who was sitting close to him, gently touched his hand. "You could not help telling me who you were. This is not my house; it is the house of Jesus Christ. This door does not demand of him who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has a grief. You suffer, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And do not thank me; do not say that I receive you in my house. No one is at home here, except the man who needs a refuge. I say to you, who are passing by, that you are much more at home here than I am myself. Everything here is yours. What need have I to know your name? Besides, before you told me you had one which I knew."
The man opened his eyes in astonishment.
"Really? You knew what I was called?"
"Yes," replied the Bishop, "you are called my brother."
"Stop, Monsieur le Curé," exclaimed the man. "I was very hungry when I entered here; but you are so good, that I no longer know what has happened to me."
The Bishop looked at him, and said,—
"You have suffered much?"
"Oh, the red coat, the ball on the ankle, a plank to sleep on, heat, cold, toil, the convicts, the thrashings, the double chain for nothing, the cell for one word; even sick and in bed, still the chain! Dogs, dogs are happier! Nineteen years! I am forty-six. Now there is the yellow passport. That is what it is like."
"Yes," resumed the Bishop, "you have come from a very sad place. Listen. There will be more joy in heaven over the tear-bathed face of a repentant sinner than over the white robes of a hundred just men. If you emerge from that sad place with thoughts of hatred and of wrath against mankind, you are deserving of pity; if you emerge with thoughts of good-will and of peace, you are more worthy than any one of us."
This meeting will change his life. The impact of the Bishop on Jean Valjean is huge. And this scene is just the beginning.

In writing this review, I discovered two books releasing in 2015, that I really, really WANT to review--NEED to review. Both are February releases. Candlewick Press is releasing Marcia Williams' retelling of Les Miserables.  Penguin is releasing a NEW translation of Les Miserables by Christine Donougher.

I could not possibly share every quote I loved from the book. There are hundreds. But I will share some with you.

Favorite quotes:

True or false, that which is said of men often occupies as important a place in their lives, and above all in their destinies, as that which they do.
"Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God." 
Teach those who are ignorant as many things as possible; society is culpable, in that it does not afford instruction gratis; it is responsible for the night which it produces. This soul is full of shadow; sin is therein committed. The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the person who has created the shadow.
The supreme happiness of life consists in the conviction that one is loved; loved for one's own sake—let us say rather, loved in spite of one's self.
To make the poem of the human conscience, were it only with reference to a single man, were it only in connection with the basest of men, would be to blend all epics into one superior and definitive epic.
Diamonds are found only in the dark places of the earth; truths are found only in the depths of thought. It seemed to him, that, after having descended into these depths, after having long groped among the darkest of these shadows, he had at last found one of these diamonds, one of these truths, and that he now held it in his hand, and he was dazzled as he gazed upon it. 
If you wish to gain an idea of what revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to acquire an idea of the nature of progress, call it To-morrow. To-morrow fulfils its work irresistibly, and it is already fulfilling it to-day. It always reaches its goal strangely.
Man lives by affirmation even more than by bread.
Peace is happiness digesting.
The bourgeoisie is simply the contented portion of the people. The bourgeois is the man who now has time to sit down. A chair is not a caste.
True history being a mixture of all things, the true historian mingles in everything.
Of all the things that God has made, the human heart is the one which sheds the most light, alas! and the most darkness.
A compliment is something like a kiss through a veil.
Civil war—what does that mean? Is there a foreign war? Is not all war between men, war between brothers? War is qualified only by its object. There is no such thing as foreign or civil war; there is only just and unjust war.
The right to the alphabet, that is where the beginning must be made. The primary school imposed on all, the secondary school offered to all, that is the law. From an identical school, an identical society will spring. Yes, instruction! light! light! everything comes from light, and to it everything returns. Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy.
Everything can be parodied, even parody.
He sleeps. Although his fate was very strange, he lived. He died when he had no longer his angel. The thing came to pass simply, of itself, as the night comes when day is gone.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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3. Jane Austen's First Love

Jane Austen's First Love. Syrie James. 2014. Berkley Trade. 400 pages. [Source: Review copy]

  I enjoyed reading Jane Austen's First Love. I admit I had my doubts at the beginning. On the one hand, after being so disappointed in Becoming Jane, I was hesitant to read anything giving Jane Austen a romance of her own. Also I wasn't wowed by The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. On the other hand, several people I respect really did love Jane Austen's First Love. While I can't say that I loved, loved, LOVED Jane Austen's First Love, I did really enjoy it. More than I thought I would at any rate.

1791. Summer of 1791. Jane and Cassandra travel to meet their brother Edward's fiancee, Elizabeth Bridges, and her family. (Several other family members go as well. The mother, but, not the father. Another brother, Charles, I believe. But the focus is mostly on Jane and Cassandra). Jane is just fifteen, she's not "out" yet. Her sister is a year or two older and is. Part of what makes this trip special, is that Jane is to be allowed certain privileges. She'll be allowed to go to dances and balls. She'll be allowed to powder her hair, etc. Most--if not all--the events will be family and friends. (Bringing together multiple families. Several of the Bridges' sisters are engaged to be married. All the engagements are being celebrated. There will be plenty of people there.)

On their trip, they happen to meet--quite dramatically--a young man named Edward Taylor. (He happens to be a neighbor, I believe.) Jane becomes smitten with him. He enjoys being with her, but, there aren't any OBVIOUS signs that he's madly, deeply in forever-and-ever-love with her. She may hope that he is "the one." But he is sixteen and not anywhere close to proposing marriage to anyone, no matter how lively, witty, charming, talented, beautiful, etc. Does Jane hope he is the one? The fictional, Jane, I mean? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Without a doubt, Jane enjoys herself tremendously, and finds time with him thrilling.

Strawberry picking. Dances. Dinners. Walks. Riding horses. Play acting. Matchmaking. Such is the stuff of Jane Austen's First Love.

One of the main plots surrounds the Bridges' sisters: Fanny, Elizabeth, and Sophia. They are all older than Jane. They are all of the courting age. Elizabeth and Fanny are engaged. Sophia is close to an engagement as well. Jane is watching; watching carefully, closely, analyzing and taking notes. Jane's observations lead her to believe that the sisters are mismatched! Readers meet a young Jane, an opinionated Jane, who is enjoying the idea of love, of falling in love, of finding love. What does she know of LOVE? What does she know of what makes two people compatible? It's interesting!

I also enjoyed how readers get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Jane writing The Three Sisters. I would say that readers should take the time to read this little story on their own before, during, or after the novel.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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4. Where The Heart Is (1995)

Where The Heart Is. Billie Letts. 1995. 376 pages. [Source: Bought]

The novel opens circa 1985. Novalee Nation, the heroine, is seven months pregnant. She is with her boyfriend, and they're both heading west. He's a man without integrity, to say the least. He does reluctantly give her a ten dollar bill so she can go buy some shoes when her own shoes are lost through the hole in the floor of his car. But he expects a good bit of change back. Or does he? Was he planning to abandon her at the Walmart all along? Or did he just get tired of waiting? Does it matter? The truth is that Novalee Nation is left at a Walmart in a small town in Oklahoma with only $7.77. She has no family to call, no friends either. So Novalee settles down in Walmart for the rest of her pregnancy, hiding when need be, so no one knows that she is living there. She ventures out during the day and meets people, meets the librarian, for example. By the end of her pregnancy, she's made a few friends. Now these new friends of hers don't know the truth exactly. But they're not the type of people who would care overly much about the truth. Novalee happens to find herself among the least judgmental folks she's ever met. The book spans seven years worth of drama. If the book has a theme it is one of 'home' and 'belonging' and 'family.'

Where the Heart Is was not a good match for me. I wanted a different book, perhaps. A book that kept the "down-to-earth" quirky characters perhaps, but, lost much of the smut. It isn't that Where the Heart Is is your traditional smutty romance--it isn't, far from it. But I thought there were certainly plenty of details that were tasteless. Why did readers need to follow Willy Jack's story at all???? Every chapter that focused on Willy Jack seemed tasteless and pointless. Why do we need to know about his time in prison? If the story had centered exclusively on Novalee Nation, would I have liked it a bit more? I think I would have. At least I wouldn't have hated it. Eliminating Willy Jack wouldn't have solved all the problems, one scene that was too much to take, and rightly so, was the child rape. The scene had every right to be disturbing. It was a horrible awful situation. Still. The details were too much. The profanity--the blasphemy--was also too much. 


© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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5. Reread #48 A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens. 1843. 96 pages. [Source: Bought]

MARLEY WAS DEAD, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

 I have watched A Christmas Carol more times than I've read it, and I've read it two or three times at least. The story is oh-so-familiar; the phrasing is oh-so-familiar. It's a book that has an old-friend feel even if you haven't read it dozens of times. There are scenes and descriptions that just feel incredibly right and familiar. For example,
Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
and
“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach. “Bah!” said Scrooge. “Humbug!” He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?” “I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.” Scrooge, having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug!”
“Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” “Keep it!” repeated Scrooge’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.” “Let me leave it alone, then,” said Scrooge. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!” “There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Other details, I've found, are less memorable perhaps.
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?” “It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.” From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children, wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment. “O Man! look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost. They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread. Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude. “Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more. “They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand toward the City. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!” “Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge. “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?” The bell struck Twelve.
I don't recall thinking much of the two children Ignorance and Want, of thinking about what message Dickens was sending. But when I was reading The Man Who Invented Christmas, Standiford stressed their significance. (Standiford called A Christmas Carol, "a bald-faced parable that underscores Dickens's enduring themes: the deleterious effects of ignorance and want.") Why had I not noticed them before? I can only suppose that I've been rushing through the text looking for what was familiar and beloved, not really considering the book as a whole.

I like A Christmas Carol. I don't love, love, love it. I have found it to be a Christ-less Christmas story. A book that doesn't really focus on the Savior--newborn babe or risen Savior--so much as it focuses on humanity improving and changing and saving themselves. The message to Scrooge isn't, you're a bad man; you need a Savior; consider your eternal soul. The message is whether that even Scrooge, as horrible as he was, can change; he can change the way he lives; he can become a good man, a great man. He can avoid after-life horrors by changing his behavior. That isn't a Christian message.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. Where There's A Will (1940)

Where There's A Will. Rex Stout. (Nero Wolfe #8) 1940. Bantam. 258 pages. [Source: Bought]

I always begin Nero Wolfe mysteries wanting to love them. I do love, love, love Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. And I have certainly loved plenty of them in the past. Some more than others, of course. But at the very least, the mysteries generally serve as entertainment or distraction. Where There's A Will is not one of my favorites.

Wolfe and Goodwin are in need of clients, wealthy clients preferably. That isn't exactly unexpected. They almost always are in need of clients according to Goodwin. The book opens with the two meeting a family--dysfunctional family, don't you know?! This high-status family is in mourning. Three sisters (and their lawyers) come to Wolfe upset about their brother's will. Each had been under the assumption that they'd be left a million dollars each. They'd been left nothing, or almost nothing. They were disappointed, perhaps a bit ashamed at how angry they were. But the very fact that their brother's mistress received so very, very much is infuriating. Especially since he was married. The widow is outraged. Will Nero Wolfe go about trying to persuade this mistress woman to share the inheritance? Before that case gets a proper chance to be taken up, there comes a great shock. The brother's death was no accident. Someone murdered him. Now someone else in the family comes to Wolfe and begs him to take the case and solve the murder.

Can Wolfe solve the murder? Will Goodwin reach the same conclusion as Wolfe--in the same amount of time?

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. Is He Popenjoy? (1878)

Is He Popenjoy? Anthony Trollope. 1878/1993. Penguin. 632 pages. [Source: Bought]

Like so many of Anthony Trollope's novels, Is He Popenjoy? is a novel essentially about marriage and relationships. Just because it's about marriage and relationships doesn't mean it is about love and romance and happily ever after.

Lord George and Mary Germain are newly married. Mary Lovelace was not exactly his first choice for a bride. (His first choice was in fact a woman named Adelaide. She too is recently married. She is Mrs. Houghton now.) The two are in the getting-to-know each other stage. Yes, they are married. But they weren't madly in love with each other before they married. Only time will tell if they will fall in love with each other afterwards. She is thoughtfully examining herself for signs of love, and she's looking closely at her husband as well. Do I love him yet? How about now?

The couple lives with his family, with his mother, with two of his older sisters. George is content with the arrangement. After all, most of the adjustment falls to Mary as it now stands. Mary is the one who has to come into a house with three older, opinionated, slightly critical women. Mary is the one under examination, under trial, not George.

But. One of the conditions for marrying Mary was arranged by her father. George must be willing to get a house in London and they must reside there several months each year. This puts George very much out of his comfort zone. It thrills Mary, of course, as her father knew it would. In London, Mary has the freedom to relax and be herself.

Complications. Mary is introduced to Adelaide Houghton's cousin, Jack de Baron. Adelaide is hoping that Jack will flirt with Mary. That Mary will flirt right back. Mary and Jack do become friends, good friends. But it is friendship, nothing more, nothing less. Adelaide. What can I really say about her?! She infuriated me. She throws herself at Lord George time and time and time and time again. She is desperately in love with him now and not a bit discreet about it. She must tell him explicitly how much she NEEDS him and how he was always, always the one she wanted most of all. It's a pitiful sight when all is said and done. George. Well. George listens again and again and again and again. He's always open to hearing her declarations. Even if he's embarrassed and ashamed afterwards. As he walks away from and her and heads back to his wife, he's left feeling icky. Yet. For some reason, he sees it as his job as a gentlemen to remain friends with Mrs. Houghton, that he is being kind when he visits her at her request. He doesn't want to be RUDE to her after all.

More complications. George's family is completely dysfunctional. His older brother is a twisted mess. He's got no manners, no heart, no conscience. He's spent almost all his adult life living abroad in Italy. After learning of his younger brother's marriage, he writes to let his family know that they have to leave HIS house, and that under no terms are they to remain in the neighborhood or community because he doesn't want to see them. He has decided to come back. He is bringing a wife. A wife and a son, an heir. Never mind that he never communicated to his family or his lawyers that he married or had a son. True, he is the heir and the house is technically his to do with as he sees fit. But who throws their own family out without at least making some assistance towards finding them another place? The family manage to stay in the neighborhood against his wishes. And their brief encounters together are super awkward and humiliating. He wants nothing to do with anybody. Not his family. Not his former friends. Not his neighbors. Not the clergy in the area. NO person is welcome in his house. Mary's father advocates that something is obviously wrong here. Perhaps his brother has some secrets he wants to keep hidden. Perhaps his brother's son is not legitimate? Perhaps his wife is not really his wife?

Taking sides. Relationships get ugly and messy and twisted in this one. Accusations for just about everything abound. Ultimatums are given. All relationships will be tested. Can love bloom between two stressed individuals in these horrible conditions?

I didn't love this one. I didn't hate it, mind you. I didn't even dislike it exactly. It's just that there were more characters that I hated than characters that I liked in this one.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. Sundays with Jane: Persuasion (1818)

Persuasion. Jane Austen 1818/1992. Knopf Doubleday. 304 pages. [Source: Bought]

Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel. It just is. I believe this is the third time I've reviewed it. April 2011. January 2008. Out of all of Austen's opening lines, I have to admit that Persuasion's first sentence is my least favorite. Wouldn't you agree?

Opening to Sense and Sensibility: The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.

Opening to Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Opening to Mansfield ParkAbout thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.

Opening to EmmaEmma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. 

Opening to Northanger AbbeyNo one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. 

Opening to Persuasion: Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

I've already summarized the plot twice before, and, the problem with reread posts is that I have to always (try to) find new ways to say what I've already said.

Anne Elliot is the heroine of Persuasion. If you haven't read Persuasion before let me add this, please, don't expect Anne to be Elizabeth Bennet. Just don't. You'll be happier for letting Anne be Anne and not comparing her to Elizabeth, Emma, Elinor, Marianne, Catherine, or Fanny. Plenty of people misunderstand Anne--the top offenders being her very own family--I don't want you to be one of them. Don't let her family persuade you that Anne is someone to easily dismiss, a nobody.

As I was saying, Anne is the heroine of Persuasion. Eight years before the novel opens, Anne fell in love. It was a forever-love. She wanted to marry Frederick Wentworth. He wanted to marry her too. They loved each other very much. But he had no way to support her. It wasn't just that he couldn't support her in style. Her family disapproved. Her friends disapproved. Long story short, the engagement was broken off. Persuasion is all about her second chance. When Anne and Captain Wentworth meet again, eight years later, can these two come together and make it work, can they have their happily ever after? That is the very simplified version, I suppose! Austen being Austen, there are plenty of characters and stories introduced in Persuasion. It is a very enjoyable read. In places, it is quite giddy-making.

Do you have a favorite Austen hero? Captain Wentworth is perhaps one of the strongest Austen heroes. Of course, everyone is familiar with Darcy. But Wentworth has his fans as well! Perhaps in large part due to his letter to Anne:
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that a man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan. (234)
Personally, I love Henry Tilney, Mr. Knightley, and Captain Wentworth.

Favorite quotes:
Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste.
No, it was not regret which made Anne’s heart beat in spite of herself, and brought the colour into her cheeks when she thought of Captain Wentworth unshackled and free. She had some feelings which she was ashamed to investigate. They were too much like joy, senseless joy!
She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! alas! she must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. Reread #44 Frankenstein

Frankenstein. Mary Shelley. 1818/1831. Oxford World's Classics. 250 pages. [Source: Bought]

Almost every time I read it, I focus on something new, something that I might have missed, something that I hadn't considered before. I thought I would share my observations with you instead of a traditional review.

Stories. Frankenstein is a story within a story. But it's more than that. It's a text that utilizes stories and storytelling even within that framework. The first story, of course, is the one Robert Walton is communicating to his sister, Margaret, through letters. After the first few letters, Walton stops being so introspective and focuses on telling someone else's story. Victor Frankenstein's story. This is written in the letters in first person, as if Victor himself were telling the story--sharing it. Within that big story, are dozens of little stories. The story of how his parents met. The story of his birth and childhood. The story of how Elizabeth was adopted. The story of how he became interested in science. The story of his mother's death. The story of his going away to university. The story of his madness--his obsession--and how he came to create life. The story of his sickness and recovery. The story of his learning about his brother's death/murder. The story of Justine. You get the idea. Each story is crafted and shaped. These stories are how he sees himself and the world, his place in it. Some of the stories are personal and a vital part of the plot. Other stories are more like asides. But this isn't Victor's story alone. Midway through the book, readers learn the creature's story. Even though this is written in first person though the eyes of the creature--the monster--the words are for better or worse being filtered through Victor Frankenstein's memory. He's telling what the monster said. He's telling what the monster heard. And Robert Walton is then passing along Frankenstein's story of the events and conversations. The creature is a storyteller as well. He recalls his life, his memories, his desires and needs. But he also focuses in particular on one family, one French family living in exile. This section has multiple stories. Including one focusing on a young woman. Though it may seem like an aside to readers, the stories matter very much to the narrator, the creature. The stories are providing for him a framework of the world, of how it works, of what life and love are all about. The stories resonate with the creature. He has seen love. He has seen family. He has seen fellowship and community. Because he has seen this, he feels the lack of it in his own life. But it isn't just the unfolding story that he personally witnesses. He is also shaped by the stories--the words--in the books he oh-so-conveniently is able to read. Words and stories matter. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the stories we share with others, they all matter. For example, I think the story the creature told himself over and over and over again was it is all Victor's fault. He made me. He gave me life. He made me this ugly, this revolting. He made me this large and strong. He left me--he abandoned me. He didn't love me. He never loved me. He rejected me. He made it so everyone would reject me. Why does everyone reject me? It's his fault. It's all his fault. He made me have killing-hands. He made me have killing-thoughts. He didn't show me a better way. He didn't teach me. He didn't raise me. I had to learn everything all by myself. It is his fault. I'm not responsible. Why would I be? It is his fault! If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be so miserable, so alone, so full of angst. I wouldn't feel pain or hunger or thirst. I wouldn't feel at all. The monster has his Job moments. One last thing, Victor Frankenstein speaks of the power of words, of persuasion. He warns that the creature has a way with words, that he can manipulate people by his persuasiveness. He warns Walton not to let himself be manipulated by the creature's story--his words and pleas. Is there any truth to this? Is the creature trying to masquerade himself as an angel of light? His actions say one thing: he's a killer, a murderer, he premeditates at least some of his crimes. His words say another: no one loves me, everyone runs from me, it's all HIS fault.

Questions. It's hard to read Frankenstein without questions. Who is the real monster? Who should be held responsible? Is there anyone who shouldn't be held responsible? Why is human life valued so little by ego-obsessed people? Why does Walton idolize Frankenstein?

Victor Frankenstein, Robert Walton, and the creature share a few things in common. They are introspective, moody, obsessed, and lonely. True, there are differences in their obsessions. Robert Walton is obsessed with glory, with adventure, with discovering the Northwest Passage. Walton has spent years if not decades obsessed with the North Pole, with the arctic regions. This started as a boy with books, with stories and words. His dream shifted slightly for a brief period of time when he wanted to be a poet, but, ultimately he came back to his first love. He didn't give up his poetic personality/nature however. Victor Frankenstein is first obsessed with science, with electricity, with creating life. This playing God leads to no good--it leads to madness and murder. I believe the madness started long before he was successful. I have never understood how he could piece together this creature--this eight-foot creature--and it is only when he is alive that he realizes that it is monstrous and ugly and unnatural and threatening. Why make it eight-feet? Why make it so unhuman? Regardless, having created life, he then becomes obsessed with destroying it--with murdering his demon-creation, his monster. His only reason to live is to track down and kill the monster. The monster's obsession? Well, he's driven by anger and pain. He wants to HURT Frankenstein. He is acting out, having murderous temper-tantrums all to get the attention of the one who gave him life, his father, his creator. He wants what he can't have. He wants love and acceptance. He wants to belong. He wants companionship and family. He wants to be happy. He wants to be treated fairly and humanely. He doesn't want to be judged based on appearances. He taunts and haunts his creator. He wants Frankenstein to be just as miserable and desperate as he is.

Quotes:

Robert Walton meets Victor Frankenstein:
In the morning, however, as soon as it was light, I went upon deck and found all the sailors busy on one side of the vessel, apparently talking to someone in the sea. It was, in fact, a sledge, like that we had seen before, which had drifted towards us in the night on a large fragment of ice. Only one dog remained alive; but there was a human being within it whom the sailors were persuading to enter the vessel. He was not, as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but a European. When I appeared on deck the master said, "Here is our captain, and he will not allow you to perish on the open sea." On perceiving me, the stranger addressed me in English, although with a foreign accent. "Before I come on board your vessel," said he, "will you have the kindness to inform me whither you are bound?" You may conceive my astonishment on hearing such a question addressed to me from a man on the brink of destruction and to whom I should have supposed that my vessel would have been a resource which he would not have exchanged for the most precious wealth the earth can afford. I replied, however, that we were on a voyage of discovery towards the northern pole. Upon hearing this he appeared satisfied and consented to come on board. Good God! Margaret, if you had seen the man who thus capitulated for his safety, your surprise would have been boundless. His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. We attempted to carry him into the cabin, but as soon as he had quitted the fresh air he fainted. We accordingly brought him back to the deck and restored him to animation by rubbing him with brandy and forcing him to swallow a small quantity. As soon as he showed signs of life we wrapped him up in blankets and placed him near the chimney of the kitchen stove. By slow degrees he recovered and ate a little soup, which restored him wonderfully. Two days passed in this manner before he was able to speak, and I often feared that his sufferings had deprived him of understanding. When he had in some measure recovered, I removed him to my own cabin and attended on him as much as my duty would permit. I never saw a more interesting creature: his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness, but there are moments when, if anyone performs an act of kindness towards him or does him any the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled. But he is generally melancholy and despairing, and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him.
 Robert shares his big, big dream with Victor:
I was easily led by the sympathy which he evinced to use the language of my heart, to give utterance to the burning ardour of my soul and to say, with all the fervour that warmed me, how gladly I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race. At first I perceived that he tried to suppress his emotion; he placed his hands before his eyes, and my voice quivered and failed me as I beheld tears trickle fast from between his fingers; a groan burst from his heaving breast. I paused; at length he spoke, in broken accents: "Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!"

And so it begins...
Yesterday the stranger said to me, "You may easily perceive, Captain Walton, that I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes. I had determined at one time that the memory of these evils should die with me, but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been. I do not know that the relation of my disasters will be useful to you; yet, when I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale, one that may direct you if you succeed in your undertaking and console you in case of failure. He then told me that he would commence his narrative the next day when I should be at leisure. This promise drew from me the warmest thanks. I have resolved every night, when I am not imperatively occupied by my duties, to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day. If I should be engaged, I will at least make notes. This manuscript will doubtless afford you the greatest pleasure; but to me, who know him, and who hear it from his own lips—with what interest and sympathy shall I read it in some future day! Even now, as I commence my task, his full-toned voice swells in my ears; his lustrous eyes dwell on me with all their melancholy sweetness; I see his thin hand raised in animation, while the lineaments of his face are irradiated by the soul within. Strange and harrowing must be his story, frightful the storm which embraced the gallant vessel on its course and wrecked it—thus!
I've reviewed Frankenstein several times in the past. 2007. 2009. 2010. 2011

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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10. Dancers in Mourning (1937)

Dancers in Mourning. Margery Allingham. 1937. 337 pages. [Source: Bought]
 When Mr. William Faraday sat down to write his memoirs after fifty-eight years of blameless inactivity he found the work of inscribing the history of his life almost as tedious as living it had been and so, possessing a natural invention coupled with a gift for locating the easier path, he began to prevaricate a little upon the second page, working up to downright lying on the sixth and subsequent folios.
The book appeared at eighteen-and-sixpence, with frontispiece, in nineteen thirty-four and would have passed into the limbo of the remainder lists with thousands of its prototypes had not the quality of one of the wilder anecdotes in the chapters dealing with an India the author had never seen earned it a place in the news columns of a Sunday paper.
This paragraph called the memoirs to the attention of a critic who had not permitted his eminence to impair his appreciation of the absurd, and in the review which he afterwards wrote he pointed out that the work was pure fiction, not to say fantasy, and was incidentally one of the funniest books of the decade.
The public agreed with the critic and at the age of sixty-one William Faraday, author of Memoirs of an Old Buffer (republished at seven-and-six, seventy-fourth thousand), found himself a literary figure.
I was disappointed with this vintage mystery. While I absolutely loved the opening pages, by the end I found the whole book to be a mess. I admit it could be a mood thing. As much as I wanted to like it, even love it, perhaps I didn't have the patience to remember the large cast of suspects. Or perhaps the problem is that the characters aren't well drawn enough, aren't unique enough, to distinguish between. There were three or four characters that I could remember. But for the others, it was who is she again? who is he again? how does he fit into the group again? where did she come from?

Albert Campion has been invited into the inner circle of Jimmy Sutane and his friends. Sutane is in show business--the theater. Uncle William is, I believe, a mutual friend? Regardless, Uncle William is one of Campion's closest friends in the book. Anyway, Sutane invites Campion to his country house. There are many, many people there. Mostly his guests are in show business too--in the same currently running production. But a few are in his employ or in his family. By the end of the day, tragedy will strike and one of the guests will be dead.

The main reason I found this book to be a complete mess is Albert Campion. He is a horrible detective in this one. Why? Because at the party, he falls madly, deeply in LOVE with Jimmy Sutane's wife. He believes that they share a meaningful moment. In fact, he gets so swept up in the moment...he finds himself almost rushing across the room and taking her in his arms. At least he doesn't do that. But. Regardless. His inappropriate interest in Linda--Jimmy's wife--keeps him from using his brain for hundreds of pages. He doesn't want the murder to be solved just in case the murderer is someone that she cares about, just in case bringing the murderer to justice would make her feel bad. It's RIDICULOUS.


© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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11. Reread #42 The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) Robert Jordan. 1990. Tor. 814 pages. [Source: Bought]

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

The Eye of the World is the first in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I first reviewed this one in October 2012. I thought the book was promising, that it had great potential. As the first book in a long series, it also serves as an introduction. An introduction not just to the world or to the main characters, but an introduction to the writing style: the details, the descriptions, the narration, the foreshadowing. It also hints at the complexity. Hints. (If you think there are a lot of names--both people and place--to keep up with in the first book, then you should know it only becomes more challenging in later books. It isn't necessarily good or bad that this is so. It just is.)

To keep it very simple, The Eye of the World is a coming-of-age adventure-quest story. It is all about the journey, or, you could just as easily say it is all about the chase. Eye of the World is essentially setting the stage for a big battle between the forces of good and evil.

The Eye of the World introduces readers to a handful of characters. Three young men who could potentially change the world for better or worse: Rand, Perrin, and Mat. Two young women who follow them into danger: Egwene and Nynaeve. Both have significant roles to play in the books ahead. Neither really steal the show in this first book. We learn that both women are able to touch the True Source (One Power) though they've not received training. Both women intrigue Moiraine, the Aes Sedai who has promised to protect them all--to the best of her ability. She knows that the Dark One seeks to destroy these three men, and quite possibly all those that stand in his way. Moiraine and Lan, her warder, will do what they can but they know it will be a continual struggle, a challenge, to stay a step or two ahead of the evil that pursues them.

There are also other characters introduced in this book that I'd like to mention. I love, love, love Loial. He's introduced relatively late in this one. But I adore him! He's an Ogier. There is also Thom Merrilin. He's a gleeman--an entertainer, storyteller, musician, juggler, etc. He travels with this group at the very beginning. There's also a young girl, Min, who is able to a certain degree to see the future. Readers also briefly meet Elayne, Gawyn, and Galad. And Queen Morgase. And the queen's Aes Sedai, Elaida.

It had been two years since I'd read this one. It was interesting to see what I remembered, and what I'd completely forgotten. I liked this one very much upon rereading. I enjoyed so many things about it still.

Quotes:
Not more than twenty spans back down the road a cloaked figure on horseback followed them, horse and rider alike black, dull and ungleaming. It was more habit than anything else that kept him walking backward alongside the cart even while he looked. The rider’s cloak covered him to his boot tops, the cowl tugged well forward so no part of him showed. Vaguely Rand thought there was something odd about the horseman, but it was the shadowed opening of the hood that fascinated him. He could see only the vaguest outlines of a face, but he had the feeling he was looking right into the rider’s eyes. And he could not look away. Queasiness settled in his stomach. There was only shadow to see in the hood, but he felt hatred as sharply as if he could see a snarling face, hatred for everything that lived. Hatred for him most of all, for him above all things.
He was hoping his father had not noticed he was afraid when Tam said, “Remember the flame, lad, and the void.” It was an odd thing Tam had taught him. Concentrate on a single flame and feed all your passions into it—fear, hate, anger—until your mind became empty. Become one with the void, Tam said, and you could do anything.
Strangers and a gleeman, fireworks and a peddler. It was going to be the best Bel Tine ever.
Aes Sedai and wars and false Dragons: those were the stuff of stories told late at night in front of the fireplace, with one candle making strange shapes on the wall and the wind howling against the shutters. On the whole, he believed he would rather have blizzards and wolves. Still, it must be different out there, beyond the Two Rivers, like living in the middle of a gleeman’s tale. An adventure. One long adventure. A whole lifetime of it.
“What kind of need would be great enough that we’d want the Dragon to save us from it?” Rand mused. “As well ask for help from the Dark One.”
“I still think you shouldn’t come,” he said. “I wasn’t making it up about the Trollocs. But I promise I will take care of you.” “Perhaps I’ll take care of you,” she replied lightly. At his exasperated look she smiled and bent down to smooth his hair. “I know you’ll look after me, Rand. We will look after each other. But now you had better look after getting on your horse.”
The Aes Sedai you will find in Tar Valon are human, no different from any other women except for the ability that sets us apart. They are brave and cowardly, strong and weak, kind and cruel, warm-hearted and cold. Becoming an Aes Sedai will not change you from what you are.
But hope is like a piece of string when you’re drowning; it just isn’t enough to get you out by itself.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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12. My Year with Jane: Lady Susan, Watsons, Sandition

Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sandition. Jane Austen. 1975. Penguin. 211 pages. [Source: Bought]

Lady Susan. I've read Lady Susan several times now. This is a quick, enjoyable read. I always forget how playful it is until I'm rereading it. I do have a tendency to dismiss it. The story, the drama, is told almost exclusively through letters. The epilogue being the exception. While I'm glad that readers do learn what happens next, how happily ever after is achieved for certain characters, it doesn't quite feel like it belongs either.

In the novel, readers meet Lady Susan and her daughter. She has invited herself to stay with a brother-in-law, I believe, and his family. Catherine is one of the main characters. She HATES Lady Susan and wishes she could politely throw her out of her home. She LOVES Lady Susan's daughter, however. One of Lady Susan's biggest fans is Reginald, Catherine's brother. Lady Susan can do no wrong in his eyes. His journey to the truth is interesting but frustrating.

The characters in this one are certainly different. Lady Susan reminds me of Mary Crawford in a way, with Mary Crawford being the tamer. Lady Susan is SOMETHING. She belongs on a soap opera perhaps.
Where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting.
In short, when a person is always to deceive, it is impossible to be consistent.
Facts are such horrid things!
The Watsons. This was my first time to read this incomplete novel. I would have loved it if Austen had finished it, I'm sure. It has so much potential. It had me from hello. Unfortunately, it is too brief to be truly satisfying. But in just a few short chapters, I found everything I love about Austen to be present.   
Miss Emma Watson, who was very recently returned to her family from the care of an aunt who had brought her up, was to make her first public appearance in the neighbourhood, and her eldest sister, whose delight in a ball was not lessened by a ten years’ enjoyment, had some merit in cheerfully undertaking to drive her and all her finery in the old chair to D. on the important morning.
Sandition. This was also my first time to read this incomplete novel. I think I liked the beginning of The Watsons more than I liked Sandition. (Even though Sandition is longer. Even though I found Sandition more quotable.) I am glad I read it...once. It was certainly enjoyable enough for what it was.
Sanditon was a second wife and four children to him, hardly less dear, and certainly more engrossing. He could talk of it forever. lt had indeed the highest claims; not only those of birthplace, property and home; it was his mine, his lottery, his speculation and his hobby horse; his occupation, his hope and his futurity.
EVERY NEIGHBOURHOOD should have a great lady. The great lady of Sanditon was Lady Denham; and in their journey from Willingden to the coast, Mr. Parker gave Charlotte a more detailed account of her than had been called for before. She had been necessarily often mentioned at Willingden -- for being his colleague in speculation, Sanditon itself could not be talked of long without the introduction of Lady Denham. That she was a very rich old lady, who had buried two husbands, who knew the value of money, and was very much looked up to and had a poor cousin living with her, were facts already known; but some further particulars of her history and her character served to lighten the tediousness of a long hill, or a heavy bit of road, and to give the visiting young lady a suitable knowledge of the person with whom she might now expect to be daily associating.
She took up a book; it happened to be a volume of Camilla. She had not Camilla’s youth, and had no intention of having her distress; so she turned from the drawers of rings and brooches, repressed further solicitation and paid for what she had bought.
 
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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13. Review: Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker. Vintage Reprint, 2014. Personal copy.

The Plot: The story of Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the servants.

Sarah, one of the housemaids, is the main character -- and as she works long days, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, doing whatever is required -- she has her own dreams, her own hopes, and her own loves.

The Good: I was lucky enough to "discover" Pride and Prejudice on my own. I was in high school, it was a book on the shelf at home, I was bored with nothing to read. (Seriously, you want your kids to read? Have plenty of books at home and let them be bored.) Like many others, I fell hard for Elizabeth and Darcy and Elizabeth and Darcy together.

You may remember I was disappointed in the Pride and Prejudice mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley (yet I'm still looking forward to the upcoming TV program.) I am so happy to say that I had the exact opposite reaction to Longbourn: it was everything I wanted, and more, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One thing I find interested, now, as an older, adult reader, is how often books written long ago, books like Pride and Prejudice, don't show certain aspects of life at the time. It reveals, of course, both what the characters would (and wouldn't) think as well as what the author thinks the reader does and doesn't want to know. In other words, the servants in Pride and Prejudice are barely mentioned, even though, of course, they are there because these homes and houses needed staff to run.

Longbourn looks at those servants -- and I loved, actually, how little we see the Bennets, because how often would they interact with each other? And even though we know Elizabeth sees herself and her family as not being well off -- still, they did have servants even if they don't have many. And they had the privilege that having servants meant. Or, as Sarah puts it: "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." In that one sentence we see a different side of Elizabeth's behavior, which in Pride and Prejudice is strictly shown as her independence and non-conformity. It also shows a disregard for the people who have to clean her clothes. It's careless and rude.

Sarah is one of two housemaids, and that's another thing -- this is no Downton Abbey. There are a couple other servants, yes, but altogether there are very few, expected to do very much, with very little pay or free time, and from a very young age. Yet, it's shown that these servants are lucky because they have jobs, a place to sleep, food. It's shown just how few options these workers had -- especially the women. This is one of those books that makes me value, all the more, the servants and serving class of the past -- the workers, the people making the best of their worlds, the people who strive to be happy with what they have. And makes me thankful for all the laws we have, against child labor, for minimum wage, for overtime.

The source of the fortunes of the wealthy is explored, especially just what it meant to be "in sugar." Ptolemy Bingley, one of the Bingley servants, was born a slave. I loved that Longbourn showed that England wasn't all white in the nineteenth century, and how others would interact with Ptolemy.

The risky position of women, love, and sex is also shown (and I won't go into more because spoilers.) I will say this: Longbourn, surprisingly, made me much more sympathetic to Mrs. Bennet and the pressure she was under to have a son and how precarious the family was without sons. She was no longer a silly woman, but rather a desperate one who had few options other than trying to have a male heir and then wanting security for her own daughters -- a security her husband was reluctant, or unable, to think about.

Of course, this is a Favorite Book of 2014!




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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14. Review: The Timothy Wilde Novels

The Gods of Gotham (A Timothy Wilde Novel) and Seven for a Secret (A Timothy Wilde Novel) by Lyndsay Faye. Berkley Paperback 2013, Berkley Paperback 2014. Personal copies.

The Plot: The Timothy Wilde novels are mysteries set in 1840s New York City, at the very start of New York City's police force.

The Good: There are few things I like better than a historical mystery. Faye both recreates 1840s New York, full of details and interesting tidbits; yet also creates something that is a mirror to our own time. For example, the formation of the police force is far from simple. Part of it is need, with the growing size of the city and population. Then there is the mix of altruism and nepotism. Wilde, for example, gets a job on the new force not because he wants it or has any particular skill set -- he's a bartender. Rather, it's because of his politically connected brother.

Timothy Wilde is reluctant to even take the job, because he and his brother don't get along but for various reasons he needs the job. And, it turns out being a bartender is a pretty good skill set: observation, talking, listening, crowd management. Oh, and another thing: many regular people were opposed to a formation of the police, in part because they feared it was militarization. So.... 1840s questions that have parallels today.

The Gods of Gotham is the first in the series, and gives as much room to Timothy's own origin story as it does to the start of the police. He'd been left orphaned as a child, raised by his older brother, befriended by a local minister. Timothy isn't desperate enough to accept his brother's job until he loses everything in the Great New York Fire of 1845. And here is why I love fiction that accurately incorporates history: learning not just about fire but also the just how scary a fire was -- how it was fought -- and the devastating losses, both in terms of lives, injuries (Timothy's face is burnt, leaving scars), and property. Timothy's savings, all his property, is lost.

And Faye's writing! I loved it. Here, an example of showing the bias of the times and where Timothy stands in terms of that prejudice: "Popery is widely considered to be a sick corruption of Christianity ruled by the Antichrist, the spread of which will quash the Second Coming like an ant. I don't bother responding to this brand of insanity for two reasons: idiots treasure their facts like newborns, and the entire topic makes my shoulders ache."

The Gods of Gotham, as that quote hints at, is about the immigration as a result of the Irish Potato Famine, how those Irish Catholics were treated in New York City, as well as missing children, prostitution, child prostitutes, private efforts at addressing the problems of poverty, women's rights, religion  -- and, of course, the politics of the 1840s. And as I read it, I thought of all those historical fiction children's books, set in Ireland, set in other European countries, were the happy ending, the solution to poverty or discrimination, is emigration to America; and how often that was just the start of a new nightmare.

In Seven for a Secret, Timothy Wilde is still with the New York City police force. How the police worked, what actually it meant to be a member, was fascinating -- Timothy's role as detective, investigating and solving crimes, is almost as revolutionary as the force itself.

Seven for a Secret centers around a different group of New Yorkers than the one shown in the first book: the world of free blacks and runaway slaves. Without giving too much away -- don't worry. Timothy is not the Great White Hope that saves the day. The mystery involves that community, and so Timothy becomes involved, and at times he is ignorant of the laws and social mores and risks -- but the community itself has leaders, and Timothy works with them or for them. The African American characters are multifaceted and complex.

My favorite quote from Seven for a Secret: "He likes who he is in the story because it's the wrong story he's telling."

What else? I adore Timothy's older brother, Val. Yes, Timothy is often at odds with him; yes, Timothy is judgmental about Val's choices, from Val's politics to his substance abuse to his womanizing. But what captured me is that Val was a teen when his parents died; the two books show just how brutal and cold their world was, and just how indifferent it was to two orphaned boys. Timothy doesn't quite realize or appreciate just what Val did, was willing to do, to take care of him. Val, in some ways, has earned his right to drink or drug or romance too much. He's my 1840s Bad Boyfriend.

I also like how Faye portrays the female characters, including how Timothy views them. They are whole; more than tropes. (And having watched and/or read one too many historical fiction shows, where it's either the virginal wife (hey, you know what I mean) or the whore - -well, it was nice to see more than that, and to see Timothy himself seeing the disservice society does by viewing women as being either one or the other.)

Finally -- Timothy himself. He's in his mid-twenties, and while he's great at observations and putting the pieces of a puzzle together, he's not brilliant. He makes mistakes, mistakes that arise from his youth, his inexperience, his own biases (such as the ones he has about his brother), and his own stubbornness.

Good news: a third book is on its way! The Fatal Flame is scheduled for May 2015.

And yes -- these are some of my Favorite Books Read in 2014.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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15. Reread #40 All Clear

All Clear. Connie Willis. 2010. Random House. 645 pages. [Source: Bought]

If you want a gushing review of the book, I recommend visiting my first review of the book.  It is always interesting to me to see which books reread well, and which ones don't. Mood obviously comes into it. And apparently, I was not in the mood for All Clear. Perhaps because I was taking my time, instead of rushing through, I found myself less enthusiastic with the stories and characters. Too much time to think and ask questions, maybe?!

Is All Clear a disappointing novel? Yes and no. On the one hand, I certainly didn't LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it the same way I loved Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. Since I love reading books set during World War II, one would think that I'd almost have to love, love, love these two time travel books set in England during the war. I mean, I love time travel, I love books set during this time period. It would seem like the most natural thing in the world for me to ecstatically love Blackout and All Clear. But. That is not the case. On the other hand, the books are enjoyable enough. I certainly came to care about the characters and wanted to know what happened next. But there wasn't an urgency to KNOW if you know what I mean. I found both books less compelling than the previous time travel books. I found a handful of characters enjoyable or interesting. But I didn't LOVE any of the characters.

Would the books have been better if they'd been published as one book, perhaps an edited-down one book? Probably. Hard to say for sure. It wasn't that any one section or chapter proved boring or irrelevant. It is just that both books were so very, very thick. And the books weren't necessarily action-packed. Which I don't have a problem with actually. I prefer character-driven books typically. But essentially the books are just about three characters realizing they are trapped in the past and may never get back to the future. They think about being trapped a lot. They brainstorm. They panic. They brainstorm. They cling to hope but give into worrying.

Without any previous books in the series to compare it too, Blackout and All Clear are certainly enjoyable enough on their own. It is really only in comparison to Willis' earlier time travel novels that the novels become a bit disappointing.

I liked All Clear. I didn't love All Clear.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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16. Reread #39 Blackout

Blackout. Connie Willis. 2010. Random House. 495 pages. [Source: Bought]


This year I've decided to reread all of Connie Willis' time travel books. This is the third book I've reread. I've also reread Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. I first reviewed Blackout in November 2010. I reviewed it again in January 2012.


Blackout is about (three) time travelers studying World War II. For the most part, the novel is set in the year 1940. However, the novel also contains other stories--almost like riddles. These small stories are set in 1944 and 1945, they feature other characters--or do they?--studying World War II: V1 Rockets and V-E Day.

Merope Ward (aka Eileen O'Reilly) has gone back to study the evacuation of children to the country. She is working as a nurse/maid on a country estate. Her assignment was for the spring of 1940.

Polly "Sebastian" (she takes on a different Shakespearean last name for every assignment) has gone back to study the London Blitz. She wants to work as a London shopgirl. Her assignment was for the fall of 1940.

Michael Davies (Mike) has gone back to observe the Dunkirk evacuation. His assignment was for the summer of 1940.

They've heard over and over again that historians cannot change the past, that historians cannot damage the timeline, that historians can merely observe past events. But what if everyone was wrong? What if time travel is dangerous and risky? Not just dangerous for the time traveler who may find himself/herself in trouble, but dangerous for everyone. What if there are negative consequences for time travel?

Eileen, Polly, and Mike will question what they've all been told when they find themselves trapped in 1940 unable to return to Oxford and their own time. Eileen missed her deadline because of a quarantine initially. Months later she tried to use her drop and failed. She thought it was because there were too many people nearby--the military has just taken possession of the estate where she worked. She remembers that Polly Churchill will be in London soon. She wants to find her and use her drop to go back. Mike was injured during the Dunkirk evacuation. An injury that kept him trapped for weeks. His drop is also impossible to use. He remembers Polly's assignment. He goes to London desperate to find another time traveler. These three reunite only to discover what Polly already knew--her own drop was damaged--she thinks because of a bomb. She was hoping that THEY were there to rescue her. Being trapped changes everything.

Blackout is an intense read. Primarily the focus is on what war was like on the homefront, what the war was like for Londoners. I definitely recommend this one. But it does come with a warning. It is only half the story. All Clear is the sequel, and, you'll want to read it to finish the story. Blackout does not stand on its own.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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17. The Boleyn King

The Boleyn King. Laura Andersen. 2013. Ballantine. 358 pages. [Source: Library]

Alternate history. What if Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII the son he so desperately wanted and needed? What if she survived her husband instead of being beheaded? What if Henry VIII had only had TWO wives? What if Elizabeth and her younger brother grew up with both parents, relatively happy? King William is that son. His father has died, and, he though under the age of 18, has been England's king. He faces challenges, every king does, and those challenges are what The Boleyn King is all about. The book has four narrators: William and Elizabeth (royal siblings) and Minuette and Dominic (close and trusted friends of both William and Elizabeth). Minuette seems to be the type of heroine that no male character can resist. Elizabeth somewhat secretly is in love with a married man, no surprises as to who that is. William is being pressured to marry well. Will his choice be a) Mary, Queen of Scots b) Jane Grey c) a French princess d) someone of his own choice that will upset his advisers and the court just as much as his father's decision to marry Anne Boleyn. This is the start of a trilogy...

The good news: It's a quick read. I read it in one day. It is also a premise-driven book. For readers who find the premise intriguing, this one is worth the read. Especially if one can get it from the library. Just in case. I liked seeing which characters avoided death and disaster. I don't know if these characters will continue to have happily ever afters, of, if they'll find themselves in troubles of a different sort. But. It was an interesting enough read.

The bad news: It's light on history. This one focuses more on fictional characters than on real people. And the characters based on real people aren't always that accurate. This makes some sense for some characters whose lives were very different in this alternate universe. But this may leave some readers disappointed that there isn't more substance and depth. If you're looking for a character-driven book, this one might disappoint. Also. It definitely is trying to appeal more to romance readers than historical readers. If that makes sense.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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18. The Late Scholar (2014)

The Late Scholar. Jill Paton Walsh. 2014. St. Martin's Press. 368 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed The Late Scholar enough while reading it, for the most part, but the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am. I have liked or enjoyed Jill Paton Walsh's sequels to Dorothy Sayer's Lord Peter mysteries. The Late Scholar is set in the 1950s. (I'm not sure if it's early, mid, or late 50s. But Queen Elizabeth is on the throne, I believe.) The novel opens with the Duke of Denver (aka Lord Peter Wimsey) learning that he is a Visitor at Oxford. He is being called upon to settle a dispute among the fellows. The person--ultimately one of many suspects, I suppose--who initially requested his interference comes to regret it. Lord Peter is thorough. He doesn't want to just cast a vote on a controversial topic without any thought. He wants to study the situation, learn both sides, draw his own conclusions about what is best. The dispute is about selling a medieval book to get the money to buy land next door that has come up for sell. Is land more valuable to the college than one book in the library? Or is the ancient book more valuable to the college than a piece of real estate? It wouldn't be a mystery book if it didn't turn to violence and murder. Lord Peter, Harriet Vane, and Bunter must follow all the clues to catch a murderer or two.

There were a few things that felt a bit off, that kept this one from feeling like a genuine, authentic Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mystery. I allow some change would be natural enough. Two decades would change a person, would change a couple. But the changes in a way have a very surface feel to them. I'm not sure the characters have the depth that they need, they are very much reliant on familiarity with the original.

I have not reread the whole (original) series, but, Lord Peter seems changed and not always for the better. I could not show you a passage where Lord Peter reveals a personal faith in God. But I have a feeling I would have remembered if Lord Peter revealed a cold mockery for Christianity and/or stated openly and unashamedly that he did NOT believe in God. There were a few uncomfortable scenes in Late Scholar where Peter's atheism comes to light, I suppose. It was done in an almost ha, ha, don't be silly, of course I don't believe in God kind of way. It just struck me as wrong. I'm not saying that I consider Lord Peter evangelical. But. I always got the impression that he believed there was a God, that at the very least he was agnostic. The reason this strikes me as wrong is that Dorothy Sayers was a Christian, she wrote Christian books. I've read some of her theological essays and they are quite good. I just don't see HER Lord Peter being one to make light of or mock Christianity or the Bible or the fundamental belief that there is a God. Of course times have changed. Decades have passed since his creation, so maybe modern readers assume that naturally Lord Peter is "smart enough" to have outgrown any idea of God.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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19. The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten

The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten. Harrison Geillor. 2011. Night Shade Books. 320 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Is it a horror novel or comedy? Readers will be the final judge in the end.

I do not like horror novels. There are a few slight exceptions now and then that I've discovered by accident. But. For the most part, I don't seek out horror novels. So, if I don't seek out horror novels, why would I read The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten? For one reason, primarily. The book pokes fun at Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. It asks a big 'what if?' What if the heroine is not good, clumsy, and naive? What if the heroine is evil and manipulative? What if she wears a mask in every relationship? Being who she needs to be--in that moment--to get what she ultimately wants?

Bonnie Grayduck is the heroine who appears to fall madly and deeply in love with Edwin Scullen, a vampire. And she is one of the monsters in this horror novel. The events loosely fit into the Twilight books, so, one could definitely see the book as being a parody. But this parody isn't a ha-ha parody.

Bonnie is a dark person. She doesn't think nice, happy thoughts. She wants what she wants when she wants it. It is all about power and control and desire. And she has adult desires. Don't expect the "innocent" tension or chemistry from Twilight. This book is for more mature readers, I'd say.
So Edwin had taken a sudden trip to Canada. Interesting. It was insane to think he'd left town because of me...but in my experience, most things in the world do seem to resolve around me. And if they don't start out that way, they get there eventually. (50, ARC)
"Ike's great," I said, because if I told her I thought he was podgy and dull she'd get offended, "but I like Edwin."
She looked at me, now. "Really? Scullen? You don't like Ike?"
"I like him, what's not to like, but, not that way."
"I don't understand you," J said, voice heavy with mistrust. "Ike is so sweet and good and kind, and Edwin...he's so cold and condescending and superior."
I gave a great sigh. "I know. I've always been attracted to boys like that." (80, ARC)
I'm not much of a reader, but if I was, apparently I'd have a hard time reading any novel written in the last fifty years that didn't have a brooding sexy conflicted vampire in it--the shelves were just full of the stuff. (91, ARC)
"You are a brave, wonderful, suicidally stupid, diplomatic-incident-causing, amazing woman," Edwin said, kissing my face all over. We were in my bed, two nights after Gretchen's very timely demise. He'd only been back for about ten minutes, and he'd already called me names, clutched me to his bosom, sobbed a bit, brooded a fair amount, and proclaimed his love in a fairly operatic fashion. He'd finally settled down to snuggling me in bed which was rather less exhausting. (196, ARC)
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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20. The Lost (2014)

The Lost. Sarah Beth Durst. 2014. Harlequin. 352 pages. [Source: Library]

Running away from possible bad news, Lauren Chase, our heroine, finds herself almost hopelessly lost when a road trip goes wrong. Lauren enters a dust storm on a highway, and, when the dust is cleared she's entering the town LOST. Her first impressions of this town, well, I'm sure we'd share if we were in her place. But Lauren decides that as weird as the town is, it is still better than going back out on the highway this late at night when you have no idea where you are and how to get back to civilization. One of the many weird things about the town is how all the residents act like they know something she doesn't: that she'll not be leaving town anytime soon, that she's just as stuck as they are. Lauren tries to leave town. Most of the day she tries to leave town, to no avail. No one is surprised to see the newbie return to town frustrated and confused. They tell her to find the Missing Man. He might be able to help her find what she's lost and enable her to leave the town of Lost.

The Lost has two symbolic characters, the "Missing Man" and the "Finder." Lauren ends up meeting both men...

In the past, Lauren has evaded her feelings. She's not dealt with everything that has happened in her life. But now, she almost has no choice but to own up to her feelings and reflect on the past and go through her memories one by one. Her focus is on the "possible" bad news. Her mother's latest test results. Is the cancer back? Is it terminal? How long does her mother have left?

Will Lauren find her own way out of Lost? Does she even want to leave Lost?

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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21. The Attenbury Emeralds

The Attenbury Emeralds. Jill Paton Walsh. 2010/2011. St. Martin's Press. 352 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed reading The Attenbury Emeralds. I love Lord Peter Wimsey. I do. I love, love, love him. And I like the romance between Harriet and Lord Peter. So it was charming to revisit Lord Peter and Harriet several decades later in 1951. This mystery novel opens with a bit of storytelling. Lord Peter and Bunter team up and take turns telling Harriet about some early detecting concerning the Attenbury family jewels. The first such story begins in 1921. At one point the first mystery was solved, and I was unsure what direction the novel would take. It was only then I realized the story was far from over. For this simple case about the Attenbury emeralds was not as simple as it seemed. It was a mystery with no clear beginning or end in fact! The novel was not merely a sharing of former detecting successes, but, a new opportunity for Lord Peter to solve the case and prove he still has it.

I enjoyed spending time with Lord Peter and Bunter. I love their relationship. I do. I also enjoy seeing Lord Peter and Harriet together. And the brief glimpses we get of their children are nice enough. I really liked knowing that Lord Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess, was still around! I do find her delightful!!!

For so many reasons this one was just a joy to read. I do recommend it for fans of Dorothy Sayers' mysteries.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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22. Reread #37 Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. 1953/1991. Del Rey. 179 pages. [Source: Bought]

It was a pleasure to burn. 

I've written about Fahrenheit 451 quite a bit. Once in May 2007, which was the first time I read it. Twice in 2010; one was a graphic novel. I've read A Pleasure To Burn: Fahrenheit 451 Stories, a book of short stories and novellas that show the thematic evolution of Fahrenheit 451. I've reviewed the movie. I reread it in June 2012 and September 2013.

Obviously this is a book that I absolutely love.

Fahrenheit 451 is a novel set in a world where thinking is a crime. I exaggerate perhaps. Thinking deeply is dangerous. Thinking for yourself is dangerous. Thinking superficial thoughts that everyone-else-in-society is thinking--like about what to watch, what to listen to, what to buy, where to go to have a good time--that is okay, more than okay. It is to be encouraged. It is individuality and contemplation and reflection that is dangerous. Every minute of every hour of every day is to be packed full of distractions making it impossible to think, to consider, to reflect, to observe, to question, to feel anything truly and deeply. It's a more, more, faster, faster world. And it's a world that our hero, Guy Montag realizes he loathes. He is a fireman. He burns books, houses, and sometimes people. But Guy Montag is living a secret life: he doesn't like burning books; in fact, he wishes he could save them and read them. He does manage to "save" a handful here and there. But taking them home and hiding them, well, there's a risk involved. He's willing to take it because he's so miserable, and he feels that society is so unreal and pointless. He wants answers, not ads. He wants to learn, to know, to feel.

Quotes:
"People don't talk about anything."
"Oh, they must!"
"No, not anything. They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say how swell! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else..." (31)
"We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?" (52)
Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute. (58)
Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn't that right right? Haven't you heart it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren't they? Don't we keep them moving, don't we give them fun? That's all we live for, isn't it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these. (59)
Did you listen to him? He knows all the answers. He's right. Happiness is important. Fun is everything. (65)
"We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over." (71)
Every hour so many damn things in the sky! How in hell did those bombers get up there every single second of our lives! Why doesn't someone want to talk about it! We've started and won two atomic wars since 1990! Is it because we're having so much fun at home we've forgotten the world? Is it because we're so rich and the rest of the world's so poor and we just don't care if they are? Is that why we're hated so much? Do you know why? I don't, that's sure! Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. God, Millie, don't you see? An hour a day, two hours, with these books, and maybe. (73-4)
It’s been a long time. I’m not a religious man. But it’s been a long time.’ Faber turned the pages, stopping here and there to read. ‘It’s as good as I remember. Lord, how they’ve changed it in our parlors these days. Christ is one of the family now. I often wonder if God recognizes His own son the way we’ve dressed him up, or is it dressed him down? He’s a regular peppermint stick now, all sugar-crystal and saccharine when he isn’t making veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshiper absolutely needs.’ (81)
"You're a hopeless romantic," said Faber. "It would be funny if it were not serious. It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the 'parlor families' today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. (82)
 Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more 'literary' you are. That's my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. the mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. we are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam. (83)
"Caesarians or not, children are ruinous; you're out of your mind," said Mrs. Phelps.
"I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month; it's not bad at all. You heave them into the 'parlor' and turn the switch. It's like washing clothes: stuff laundry in and slam the lid." Mrs. Bowles tittered. "They'd just as soon kick as kiss me. Thank God, I can kick back!" (96)
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. My Year with Jane: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey. Jane Austen. 1817/1992. Everyman's Library. 288 pages. [Source: Library]

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. 

I know I say this with every Austen review, but, it's true: I love her novels more each time I read them. Now that I've read Northanger Abbey three or four times, I have to admit that I really do love it. Perhaps not as much as I love, love, love Persuasion. But I really am very fond of it. I am especially fond of Henry Tilney. He may just be my favorite, favorite, favorite Austen hero.

My latest review of the novel is from 2011. I am going to challenge myself to keep the summary as brief as possible:

Catherine Morland, our heroine, loves to read; she especially loves to read gothic novels. When she travels to Bath with her neighbors, she meets a new best friend, Isabella Thorpe, and a potential soul mate, Henry Tilney. While Miss Thorpe ends up disappointing her, Catherine's journey is not in vain for her crush, Henry, has a saint for a sister. When invited to visit the Tilney household, Catherine is beyond excited to accept. Her time at Northanger Abbey, the Tilney's home, proves shocking, but not at all in the way she expected.

I love the newest movie adaptation. I would definitely recommend it.

My favorite quotes:
She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility, without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out. There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no — not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door — not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children. But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.
The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; his name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck. There was little leisure for speaking while they danced; but when they were seated at tea, she found him as agreeable as she had already given him credit for being. He talked with fluency and spirit — and there was an archness and pleasantry in his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her. After chatting some time on such matters as naturally arose from the objects around them, he suddenly addressed her with — ”I have hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether. I have been very negligent — but are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars? If you are I will begin directly.” “You need not give yourself that trouble, sir.” “No trouble, I assure you, madam.” Then forming his features into a set smile, and affectedly softening his voice, he added, with a simpering air, “Have you been long in Bath, madam?” “About a week, sir,” replied Catherine, trying not to laugh. “Really!” with affected astonishment. “Why should you be surprised, sir?” “Why, indeed!” said he, in his natural tone. “But some emotion must appear to be raised by your reply, and surprise is more easily assumed, and not less reasonable than any other. Now let us go on. Were you never here before, madam?” “Never, sir.” “Indeed! Have you yet honoured the Upper Rooms?” “Yes, sir, I was there last Monday.” “Have you been to the theatre?” “Yes, sir, I was at the play on Tuesday.” “To the concert?” “Yes, sir, on Wednesday.” “And are you altogether pleased with Bath?” “Yes — I like it very well.” “Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.” Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. “I see what you think of me,” said he gravely — ”I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”
“My journal!” “Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings — plain black shoes — appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.” “Indeed I shall say no such thing.” “Shall I tell you what you ought to say?” “If you please.” “I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him — seems a most extraordinary genius — hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say.” “But, perhaps, I keep no journal.” “Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one?
My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journaling which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.”
“What are you thinking of so earnestly?” said he, as they walked back to the ballroom; “not of your partner, I hope, for, by that shake of the head, your meditations are not satisfactory.” Catherine coloured, and said, “I was not thinking of anything.” “That is artful and deep, to be sure; but I had rather be told at once that you will not tell me.” “Well then, I will not.” “Thank you; for now we shall soon be acquainted, as I am authorized to tease you on this subject whenever we meet, and nothing in the world advances intimacy so much.”
I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature. My attachments are always excessively strong.
I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.” “But they are such very different things!” “ — That you think they cannot be compared together.” “To be sure not. People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour.” “And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view. You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else. You will allow all this?” “Yes, to be sure, as you state it, all this sounds very well; but still they are so very different. I cannot look upon them at all in the same light, nor think the same duties belong to them.” “In one respect, there certainly is a difference. In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman, the woman to make the home agreeable to the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile. But in dancing, their duties are exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, while she furnishes the fan and the lavender water. That, I suppose, was the difference of duties which struck you, as rendering the conditions incapable of comparison.”
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time.” “Yes,” added Miss Tilney, “and I remember that you undertook to read it aloud to me, and that when I was called away for only five minutes to answer a note, instead of waiting for me, you took the volume into the Hermitage Walk, and I was obliged to stay till you had finished it.” “Thank you, Eleanor — a most honourable testimony. You see, Miss Morland, the injustice of your suspicions. Here was I, in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes for my sister, breaking the promise I had made of reading it aloud, and keeping her in suspense at a most interesting part, by running away with the volume, which, you are to observe, was her own, particularly her own. I am proud when I reflect on it, and I think it must establish me in your good opinion.”
“I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly.” “It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do — for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of ‘Have you read this?’ and ‘Have you read that?’ I shall soon leave you as far behind me as — what shall I say? — I want an appropriate simile. — as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!” “Not very good, I am afraid. But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”
The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.” “I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?” “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.” 
It was no effort to Catherine to believe that Henry Tilney could never be wrong. His manner might sometimes surprise, but his meaning must always be just: and what she did not understand, she was almost as ready to admire, as what she did.
The past, present, and future were all equally in gloom.
Wherever you are you should always be contented, but especially at home, because there you must spend the most of your time.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. Death of a Schoolgirl (2012)

Death of a Schoolgirl (Jane Eyre Chronicles #1) Joanna Campbell Slan. 2012. Berkley Trade. 340 pages. [Source: Library]

My expectations were low, so I was quite pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable this Jane Eyre mystery was. It may not be perfectly perfect from start to finish. There might be a paragraph or two here and there that bothered me. (For example, I didn't understand why Mrs. Fairfax was pushing Jane Eyre to take the family diamonds with her on her visit to Adele's school. Here she was going to check on the child's welfare, and Mrs. Fairfax is urging her to take jewels so she can dress up for her hosts in London?! I don't know if part of me thought it was foreshadowing--for better or worse--but when she put them in her reticule, I wanted to shout WHY are you traveling with expensive jewelry?!?! Why?! And sure enough--predictably enough--Jane Eyre gets robbed on her way to London. See! I told you not to take the family jewels!) But for the most part, I found the book to be an entertaining read.

Mrs. Rochester (aka Jane Eyre) is a new mother. She loves, loves, loves her new baby boy. But. When she receives a short letter from Adele with a French message included asking--begging--for help, she decides to leave her husband and son behind to check on Adele at her boarding school. If all is well, if it is just Adele being Adele, being childish and wanting her own way, then she may leave her at the school. If the school is less than ideal, if she does not like what she sees--how she sees the children being treated, if she thinks Adele's misery is justifiable, then she may take her out of the school. Because Jane Eyre was beaten up by the thief, because she doesn't particularly look RICH and IMPORTANT, she is initially mistaken as the new German teacher who was supposed to arrive several weeks earlier. That first day Jane Eyre is a bit flabbergasted and too overwhelmed to correct anyone. She has just learned that one of Adele's classmates was murdered. Eventually, one of the teachers convinces Jane that she should continue the deception, that she should resume her teaching duties temporarily and watch over the students herself. She debates what is best. Should she take Adele immediately to safety and let others solve the crime? Or should she become an amateur detective herself and work as a team with others to help solve the case?

Is Jane Eyre the best detective ever? Not really. But to me that almost doesn't matter. I liked spending time in her company. The setting intrigued me. I had never placed Jane Eyre in the Regency time period. But here we have the sequel set during the reign of George IV, and Queen Caroline, the scandalous Queen Caroline has not died yet. This places the book within a specific time frame. The sprinkling of historical details may not speak to all readers. Little details can be easily dismissed or ignored. But to me it's the little things that help ground a book. The book does deal with prejudices and judgments: how the lower classes feel about the upper classes, how the poor feel about the rich, how the rich feel about the poor, do they see them as human, are they compassionate and kind, or, haughty or cruel. One of the characters is VERY prejudiced against French people. Again and again we see characters making judgments or being judged. Sometimes the people that are being judged in certain situations are making judgments about others just a chapter or two later.

There were places I loved this one. There were places I merely liked it. But at times it just felt RIGHT. Maybe it didn't feel RIGHT cover to cover. But I read it quickly and enjoyed it very much.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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25. My Cousin Rachel (1951)

My Cousin Rachel. Daphne du Maurier. 1951. 374 pages. [Source: Library]

Years ago I read and enjoyed Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I've been meaning to read more of her books ever since. My Cousin Rachel is the second of hers that I've read. I enjoyed it. I'm not sure I enjoyed it more than Rebecca. But I think it is safe to say that if you enjoyed Rebecca you will also (most likely) enjoy My Cousin Rachel.

My Cousin Rachel is narrated by Philip Ashley. He is the heir to his cousin Ambrose's estate. Ambrose took him in and raised him essentially. These two are close as can be. Daphne du Maurier knows how to do foreshadowing. In both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, she uses it generously giving readers time to prepare for tough times ahead. In this case, the foreshadowing is about Ambrose's trip abroad and his surprise wedding to a young woman, coincidentally a distant cousin, named Rachel. Rachel is a widow he meets in Italy. Instead of returning home to England, these two settle down in Italy--Florence, I believe. Philip is angsty to say the least. How dare my cousin do this to me! How dare he marry someone he barely knows! Philip spends months imagining Rachel's character and personality. She has to have an agenda! She has to be manipulative and scheming. She has to be TROUBLE. Now Philip doesn't voice his concerns to everyone he meets. He is more guarded, almost aware that it's silly of him to have this strong a reaction to someone he's never met. But Ambrose's happily ever after is short-lived. And not just because he dies. Ambrose wrote mysterious letters to Philip over several months. In these letters, Philip sees that all is not well. That there is something to his prejudice against Rachel. It seems that Ambrose has regrets, big regrets, about Rachel. The moodiest of all these letters reaches Philip after Ambrose's death.

So. What will Philip think of Rachel once he actually meets her? What will she think of him? Will they be friends or enemies? Will they trust one another? Should they trust one another? Whose story is based in reality? Is Rachel's accounting of Ambrose's last months true? Or was Ambrose right to mistrust Rachel? Will Philip be wise enough and objective enough to know what is going on?

The author certainly gives readers plenty to think about. Readers get almost all their information filtered through Philip's perspective. But I suppose the dialogue in the book might provide more. If one can trust Philip's recollection of it.

I think My Cousin Rachel is a character-driven horror novel. Though I'm not sure if horror is the right description. It is certainly creepy and weird. Not all horror novels star vampires and werewolves and ghosts and zombies.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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