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BOOK REVIEW: Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

Friday, December 29, 2017



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


DETERMINED LADY

Tough-minded Jessica Trent's sole intention is to free her nitwit brother from the destructive influence of Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain. She never expects to desire the arrogant, amoral cad. And when Dain's reciprocal passion places them in a scandalously compromising, and public, position, Jessica is left with no choice but to seek satisfaction...

LORD OF SCOUNDRELS

Damn the minx for tempting him, kissing him... and then forcing him to salvage her reputation! Lord Dain can't wait to put the infuriating bluestocking in her place—and in some amorous position, And if that means marriage, so be it!—Though Sebastian is less than certain he can continue to remain aloof... and steel his heart to the sensuous, headstrong lady's considerable charms.


My Thoughts:

Struck down by bronchitis this month and looking for a heart-warming Regency romance to read, my friend Anna Campbell suggested Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. ‘It’s sometimes called the best Regency romance ever written,’ she told me. Well, that was good enough for me. I ordered it and, as soon as it arrived, sank back into my welter of pillows and began to read.

Now, I would never have bought this book from the back-cover blurb. It begins:
‘Sebastian Baillister, the notorious Marquess of Dain, is big, bad and dangerous to know. No respectable woman would have anything to do with the “Bane and the Blight of the Ballisters” – and he wants nothing to do with respectable women. He’s determined to continue doing what he does best – sin and sin again – and all that’s going swimmingly, thank you … until the day a shop door opens and she walks in …’

The thing is, I really hate alpha males. They are always rude, overbearing, patronising and sexually aggressive. I hate them in real life and I hate them in fiction. I’ve been having trouble reading much romance or young-adult fantasy lately because of the ubiquity of the alpha male. Give me a kind and clever man over these ruddy brutes anytime!

But there I was, trapped in my sickbed, desperate for some light-hearted diversion, and so I opened the book and read the first page. It was a letter from the author, addressed to ‘Dear Reader’, and it said, ‘as many of you know, we authors can be fragile creatures. Pale and wan, we toil in our garrets, talking to people who don’t exist. Our tender egos hoard the snippets of praise that come our way from time to time, saving them to get us through a Really Bad Writing Day …’

I laughed out loud. Pale and wan I was indeed, and much prone to talking to people who don’t exist. And, yes indeedy, a snippet of praise is sometimes all that gets us through.

And so I read the book. And I laughed out loud quite a few more times, and once or twice towards the end I had a lump in my throat too.

I don’t need to paraphrase the plot for you. Big bad beast of a hero meets clever unconventional heroine and, despite himself, falls in love.

It is all done with a deft, light hand, however, and a great deal of humour. And, most interestingly, it made me understand why so many women love a romance with a big, bad beast of a hero. The thing is, Loretta Chase shows us the hurt and pain behind this seemingly hard and confident man, and then she shows us how he is saved by the steadfast love of a good woman. Now the feminist in me has always both scorned and feared this particular cultural myth – how many women have found themselves trapped in abusive relationships because they hope the man can change?

Yet I do believe that people can grow and change, and that love has transformative power. I think it is important for us to believe in the possibility of love to change the world.

Because so much of the story dwelt on Sebastian’s back story, and the unkindness and lovelessness that made him the man he was, you can’t help cheering Jessica on and admiring her for never giving up till she has finally cracked his hard outer shell.

If you are someone who steers clear of romances because you cannot bear the breathless banality of the language, then you may need to skip some scenes (for example: “She never had to think, only let herself be swept endlessly round the ballroom while her body tingled with the consciousness of him and only him: the broad shoulder under her hand … the massive, muscular frame inches from her own … the tantalizing scent of smoke and cologne and Male …’ And yes, ‘Male’ was capitalised in the text.)

However, if you can forgive Loretta Chase those passages of purple prose, you will be rewarded with a love story full of heart, humour and that essential touch of poignancy that can make the romance genre such a rewarding read. Particularly when you are sick.

You might also enjoy my reviews of Charity Girl and Sylvester, by the Queen of Regency Romances, Georgette Heyer.

Please leave a comment - what are your favourite Regency Romances?

BOOK REVIEW: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Wednesday, December 27, 2017



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londoners - three women and a young man with a past - whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.


My Thoughts:

I am such a huge fan of Sarah Waters. I think she may be my favourite author at the moment. I’ve been slowly working my way though her backlist, and finally had the chance to read The Night Watch, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize.

The novel has an unusual and audacious structure, in that each new section of the book moves backwards in time rather than forwards. So the first section begins in 1947, in the aftermath of World War II, when the people of London are struggling to get their lives back together; the second section is set in 1944, when it seemed the war would never end; and the final in 1941, during all the chaos and horror of the Blitz. We are introduced to a handful of people whose lives are linked, we shall discover, in surprising ways. There is Kay, a young woman who dresses like a man and who cannot recover from a broken heart. There is Duncan, a young man who spent much of the war in prison. And there are Helen and Viv, two young women who work together and yet know surprisingly little about each other’s secret private lives. Working backwards through their stories, much like an archaeologist may dig deeper for new revelations about a place and time, has an unexpected effect of slow-building suspense. The book, though slow and deep, becomes unputdownable. I cared so much for them – especially heart-broken Kay and soul-damaged Duncan – that I could almost not bear to reach the parts where the hurt was done.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because this is a book rife with spoilers. All I will say is that – like all of Sarah Waters’ books – it is utterly brilliant! I wish I could write so well.

Please also check out my review of another brilliant Sarah Waters book, Fingersmith.

Remember to leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!


BOOK REVIEW: Australian Gypsies: Their Secret History by Mandy Sayers

Friday, December 22, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):


Today, roughly 100,000 Gypsies call Australia home, yet until now their experiences have been hidden from our history, and from our present. Here, award-winning memoirist and novelist Mandy Sayer weaves together a wide-ranging and exuberant history of Gypsies in Australia. She begins with the roots of Romani culture, and traces the first Gypsy people to arrive in Australia, including James Squire, the colony’s first brewer. She meets Gypsy families who live all over Australia, who share the stories of their ancestors and their own lives. With her own nomadic early life and experiences as a street performer, Sayer brings unique insight into the lives of the people she meets, and a strong sense of their extraordinary history. She also demolishes some longstanding but baseless myths along the way. Her original and compelling book reveals a rich part of our history that few of us even know is there.


My Thoughts:

When I was a little girl, my father was always going off adventuring. One day I asked my grandmother why he loved travelling so much, and she laughed a little and said, ‘oh, darling, it’s the gypsy in him.’

Now, I do not know if she was speaking literally or metaphorically but I’ve been fascinated by the Roma ever since. I used to dress up in a gypsy skirt and embroidered blouse, and call myself Mitzi, and my sister and brother and I were always camping out under the stars and cooking sausages on the campfire. As I got older, I began to collect books about the Roma and their fascinating and tragic history. This interest culminated in ‘The Chain of Charms’, a series of six historical novels about the adventures of two Romani children in the final weeks of Oliver Cromwell’s rule in 17th century England.

While researching ‘The Chain of Charms’, I tried numerous times to make contact with the Romanichal community in the UK, particularly the Finch and Smith families who were the descendants of the real-life Queen of the Gypsies I was writing about. I had no luck at all. In the end, after the books were written and published, I met by the purest chance a member of the Finch family who told me that there were a great many Roma in Australia. I was so interested to hear his story, and tried to research more, but once again found it difficult to make contact or open lines of communication.

So when I saw that Mandy Sayer – a writer I had read and admired for years – was working on a history of the Roma, I knew that I wanted to read the resulting book. I went along to her launch, where Romani musicians played and danced, and then later that week I began to read it.

Australian Gypsies: A Secret History begins with Mandy Sayer’s own first encounter with the Roma, in Hungary, which sparked her fascination with their rich and secretive culture. Then she moves on to a brief summary of their history – their slow migration from India to Europe in the 11th-13th centuries, and their many years spent wandering and making a sketchy living as dancers, musicians, fortune-tellers, and horse-traders. Gradually the prejudice against the dark-skinned outsiders grew and persecution intensified, until the horrors of the Holocaust, where 1.5 million Romani were exterminated in death camps. I was deeply familiar with this history, thanks to my own research, but it is always interesting to read it again.

The narrative then moves to the history of the Romani in Australia, and in Mandy Sayer’s own personal experience in researching their lives and telling their stories. This was all new to me, and deeply interesting. I did not know, for example, that there were three Romani men on the First Fleet and that was one of them was James Squire, Australia’s first brewer. I really loved hearing the stories of the many different families who came to Australia hoping for a place of safety to call home, and the subsequent generations who have lived here since. Mandy Sayer’s account of the history of the Australian Roma is truly an enthralling untold story. I just wished that she had confessed how she came to win the confidence and friendship of people who are notoriously suspicious of the Gadje (non-Romani people), and perhaps a little more about the youngest generations and how they perceive their lives and culture changing and growing into the future. These are minor quibbles, however. The book itself is a brilliant piece of untold social history and will hopefully do much to break down any existing prejudices still remaining in our society.

For another great read about the Romani, check out my review of Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker.

Please leave a comment, I'm interested in your thoughts.

BOOK REVIEW: The Ravenmaster’s Boy by Mary Hoffman

Wednesday, December 20, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The story of the fall of Anne Boleyn as it has never been told – this time with ravens.

Young Kit finds himself on a plague cart wedged between the bodies of his mother and father. But he is alive and is rescued and taken into the home of the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. He soon finds he can speak the language of the big black birds, a skill which proves useful when he finds himself caught up in a story of queens and treason, princesses and executioners.

There can be no change in the history of Henry Vlll’s first two wives but without Kit and the ravens another Tudor monarch might never have survived.


My Thoughts:

‘Kit wasn’t the only one who thought that he was dead.’

So begins this wonderful story about a boy in the 1500s who is rescued from a plague-cart by the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. Living within the confines of the tower, gifted with the ability to speak with the king’s ravens, Kit lives in violent times. King Henry VIII rules England, and many of his enemies find themselves imprisoned within the tower’s dank walls.

One day the king’s young and beautiful queen, Anne Boleyn, finds herself accused of unspeakable crimes and imprisoned. Kit and the ravens find themselves drawn into a world of intrigue, treason, and bloodshed. Kit may not be able to save the doomed queen, but perhaps he can help save her baby princess …

Swiftly moving and suspenseful, this is an enthralling novel for children aged twelve and upwards, and a fascinating introduction to Tudor history. Loved it.

For another beautiful historical children's book, check out my review of Midnight is a Place by Joan Aitken.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: A Gift From Brittany: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside by Marjorie Price

Friday, December 15, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):


The enchanting memoir of an artist's liberating sojourn in France during the sixties, and the friendship that transformed her life

While in her late twenties, Marjorie Price leaves the comfort of her Chicago suburb to strike out on her own in Paris and hone her artistic talents. Dazzled by everything French, she falls in love with a volatile French painter and they purchase an old farmhouse in the Breton countryside. When Marjorie's seemingly idyllic marriage begins to unravel, she forms a friendship with an elderly peasant woman, Jeanne, who is illiterate, has three cows to her name, and has never left the village. Their differences are staggering yet they forge a friendship that transforms one another's life.


My Thoughts:

I love memoirs about brave adventurous people who move to Italy or France or Spain, and renovate an old house, plant a garden, cook fabulous feasts, fall in love and find themselves. Surely its my Sliding Doors life? Sometimes, when I’m meant to be writing, I look at castles for sale in Scotland instead. In fact, I do so far too often. Lately I’ve been gazing longingly at chateaus in Brittany. The book I am now writing is set there and so I can tell myself it’s research and not procrastination.

I stumbled upon this memoir one day while googling ‘Brittany chateaus for sale’ and, on a whim, I bought it. I’m very glad I did. It’s one of the most beautiful and moving memoirs I’ve ever read, and surprising in a number of ways.

Firstly, even though it’s subtitled ‘A Memoir of Love and Loss’, it is not a story about a woman moving to France, falling in love and living happily ever after. Marjorie Price does marry a Frenchman and they do buy an enchanting derelict farmhouse in Brittany, but her husband turns out to be a charming but controlling misogynist who refuse to allow her to paint or make her own decisions. His domineering behaviour escalates to violence, and Marjorie must find the inner strength to escape him and make a life on her own for herself and her daughter.

Secondly, this is not a contemporary tale. Marjorie left her native USA to travel to France in 1960. Her story is therefore set at a time of huge political and cultural change in the world. The scars inflicted by the Second World War are still deep, and the Vietnam War and the battle for civil rights are cutting new ones. Women’s rights are still being fought for, and Marjorie’s decision to travel on her own to Paris and try to make a life for herself as an artist is seen as shocking and unladylike. So the betrayal of her dreams by a misogynist who thinks women should only support their husband’s careers is just heart-breaking, and her struggle to make her own way doubly poignant.

Lastly, A Gift From Brittany has at its heart the story of an unlikely friendship between women. Marjorie is young, college-educated, American, and a single mother, struggling to make her way as an artist. Her neighbour Jeanne is elderly, illiterate, and lives in a cottage with no running water or plumbing. She has never ridden in a car, eaten in a restaurant, talked on the telephone, or seen the sea. She wears a shapeless black dress and a white cap pinned to her hair, as her ancestors have done for years. Yet she is funny, earthy, and unfailingly kind. She helps and supports Marjorie at every new challenge or crisis, and teaches her much about life and the world – even though she has never travelled more than a few miles from her home.

Jeanne is dead now, and so is her way of her life and all her stories and songs. Yet this memoir captures something of her warmth and wisdom, and gives us a poignant glimpse of an ancient vibrant culture that is now mostly lost. A truly wonderful book.

For another wonderful memoir set in France, you might be interested in my review of Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard.

Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: Inspector Morse: Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Beautiful Sylvia Kaye and another young woman had been seen hitching a ride not long before Sylvia's bludgeoned body is found outside a pub in Woodstock, near Oxford. Morse is sure the other hitchhiker can tell him much of what he needs to know. But his confidence is shaken by the cool inscrutability of the girl he's certain was Sylvia's companion on that ill-fated September evening. Shrewd as Morse is, he's also distracted by the complex scenarios that the murder set in motion among Sylvia's girlfriends and their Oxford playmates. To grasp the painful truth, and act upon it, requires from Morse the last atom of his professional discipline.


My Thoughts:

I am a big fan of the ‘Inspector Morse’ TV series, and its spin-off ‘Lewis’, and yet I had never read any of the novels by Colin Dexter which inspired the shows. I had heard that they were good old-fashioned murder mysteries with clever plots, which is something I am always hunting for, and so I thought I’d give them a go.

The first book in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock, was published in 1975, and so it reads like historical fiction now. The plot depends on a warning letter being hand-delivered because of the slowness of the English postal system; there are no mobile phones, or internet, or traffic cameras, or DNA testing. Inspector Morse has old-fashioned tastes in music (Wagner) and hobbies (cryptic crosswords) and very old-fashioned attitudes to women, who are all pretty typists with good legs. The casual misogyny can be a little hard to take (the conclusion that the murdered girl must have been promiscuous because she didn’t wear a bra, for example). However, the mystery itself is really clever and surprising, and I happen to love classical music and cryptic clues, and so I quite enjoyed the character of Inspector Morse, who is much lazier and bumbling in the novel than he is in the TV show.

For another great read written by an author who also works on British TV scripts, check out my review of The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz.

Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Le Chateau by Sarah Ridout

Saturday, December 09, 2017


The Blurb (From Goodreads)

What really happened at the chateau?

When Charlotte regains consciousness after an accident, she finds herself living a stranger’s life. The previous five years are a blank, and her husband, Henri, and daughter, Ada, are strangers. Arriving at their family chateau in southern France, she hopes to regain her memories. Instead she feels isolated and unsettled. Strange events hint at underlying darkness and menace. Charlotte doesn’t know who to trust.

Did she really have an affair with their charming Irish neighbour, as her enigmatic mother-in-law suggests? And what of Henri? He seems loving and kind, a good parent, but Charlotte is wary. Then there is Ada, a little girl who just wants her mother back.

With the help of her friend and fellow Australian Susannah, Charlotte starts to piece together events, but her newfound confidence is shaken with news that puts a deadline on her quest…

Le Chateau is a suspenseful gothic tale that will appeal to readers of Daphne du Maurier and Kate Morton.



My Thoughts:

Le Chateau is a romantic and suspenseful mystery set in a chateau in France, and so it ticks a lot of boxes for me. Sarah Ridout is an Australian author who has a Masters in Creative Writing from University College Dublin, and spent eight years living in southern France. The novel is rich in sensory detail about the French countryside, food and local customs, all of which I loved.

The protagonist of the book is a young Australian woman named Charlotte who is married to a Frenchman. She does not, however, remember him. Or their daughter, Ada. Or, indeed, any detail of her life in the past five years. An accident has robbed her of her memory, and now she must return to living at his family’s chateau and picking up the threads of a life she cannot remember. Strange menacing events frighten and unsettle her, and Charlotte does not know who to trust. Physically weak, emotionally fragile, she must try to find out the truth of what happened to her, before more harm is done.

The story reminded me of the Gothic romances by authors like Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart that I devoured as a teenager. A house full of secrets, a brooding atmosphere of darkness and danger, the exotic setting of a chateau in the sun-drenched south of France, eerie hints of some kind of supernatural threat, and a fast-paced suspenseful plot all add up to a real page-turner. I must admit I guessed the villain early on in the narrative, and so I would have loved a real humdinger of a plot twist at the end. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it hugely.

If you enjoy romantic mysteries, you might also enjoy The Lakehouse by Kate Morton. 

Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts. 
 

BOOK REVIEW: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor Book 1) by Jessica Townsend

Wednesday, December 06, 2017


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A breathtaking, enchanting new series by debut author Jessica Townsend, about a cursed girl who escapes death and finds herself in a magical world--but is then tested beyond her wildest imagination

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Having been born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for any child to be born, she's blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks--and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday.

But as Morrigan awaits her fate, a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black-smoke hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.

It's then that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city's most prestigious organization: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart--an extraordinary talent that Morrigan insists she does not have. To stay in the safety of Nevermoor for good, Morrigan will need to find a way to pass the tests--or she'll have to leave the city to confront her deadly fate.


My Thoughts:

I was sent a proof copy of The Trials of Morrigan Crow by the publisher, Lothian Books, as part of a massive publicity drive promising a magical and captivating children’s fantasy novel. The back of my proof copy lists all the advance buzz this book has garnered – publishing rights sold in 28 territories, film rights pre-empted by 20th Century Fox, a ‘multiplatform marketing and publicity campaign like never before.’

I, of course, love children’s fantasy. It’s one of my favourite genres to both read and to write. And I was interested to see if the book lived up to all the hype.

The first line is: ‘The journalists arrived before the coffin did.’

The opening scene then shows a black-clad man, Chancellor Corvus Crow, reading a statement to a mob of journalists in which he announces the death of his daughter Morrigan and assures them all that – now she is dead – there is ‘nothing to fear.’

Then Chapter One begins, three days earlier, with Morrigan discovering the kitchen cat was dead and that, as usual, she was being blamed. Morrigan is a cursed child, thought to bring trouble and misfortune everywhere she goes. She was born on Eventide, and so is pre-destined to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday – which is only three days away.

Luckily Morrigan is rescued on the eve of her death by an enigmatic man named Jupiter North with fiery red hair and a taste for elegant but brightly coloured suits. He whisks her away to Nevermoor, a world in another dimension, and allows her family to think she is really dead. Here she must take part in a series of trials in order to win a place in the Wundrous Society. If she fails, she will be sent back to her own world where nothing but death awaits her.

The comparison to Harry Potter is inevitable, and indeed Jessica Townsend has a great deal of the humour, whimsicality and excitement of the first few books by J.K. Rowling.

Anyone who has read as much children’s fantasy as I have will recognise many of the tropes Jessica Townsend employs – the unwanted child, the mysterious curse, the hidden world, the secret enemy, the dangerous competition …

Jupiter North reminded me of Willy Wonka, the magical umbrella flight parroted Mary Poppins (please forgive me the bad pun), while the battle between Saint Nick and the Yule Queen had strong echoes of the rather startling appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Does it matter? Not a bit. The Trials of Morrigan Crow is brimming over with imagination and fun. Morrigan is a wonderful heroine – dark, moody, and wry – and the unfairness of her situation makes her very easy to empathise with. The story gallops along, and the setting is wonderfully vivid. I can understand why the movie rights have been sold. The scenes are all brilliantly cinematic and the characters – while undeniably one-dimensional – are also fresh and vital. A wonderfully assured debut from a young Australian author, The Trials of Morrigan Crow sparkles with zest, wit and inventiveness.

For a similarly excellent children's fantasy novel, check out my review of A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee.

Please leave a comment, I'm interested in your thoughts! 





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