Melanie Clegg: Before the Storm

Melanie Clegg: Before the Stom CoverTitle: Before the Storm
Author: Melanie Clegg

Unable to attract suitably aristocratic suitors in London, a group of beautiful, wealthy and extremely ambitious English heiresses decide to try their luck in Paris instead. Although they initially take the city of light by storm, they soon discover that the glittering facade of social success hides a multitude of sins and iniquities while their own dark secrets could well destroy everything that they have worked so hard to achieve…

“There’s something in the air…”
Madame d’Albret nodded. “It’s the calm before the storm. And when the storm comes, nothing will ever be the same again.”

Rating4star

I had put off reading this book for a while because I had only recently read the author’s Blood Sisters about three aristocratic sisters, caught up in the French revolution. The blurb of Before the Storm made it sound like it would be a very similar story. It’s true that I probably would have guessed that both books were written by the same author, even if I hadn’t known it. Adélaïde from Blood Sisters has much in common with Clementine from Before the Storm. They both grew up in a family with very traditional views about what women should and shouldn’t do and are unhappy with that.
Both books feature a character that is a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and those character witnesses both the March on Versailles and the storming of the Tuileries. The descriptions of these events are very similar in both books. But then they do describe the same event. And while Adélaïde and Clementine have very similar characters, their journeys are very different. (And the other characters have much fewer similarities with those in Blood Sisters).

Before the Storm is a retelling of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, a book I have not read, yet (but definitely want to do now). So I can’t tell how closely it resembles it and – more importantly – if some of the things that bothered me about this book are perhaps the ‘fault’ of the original. For example, in one chapter a character thinks about marriage and says that she might never want to marry. Then there’s a time-jump and in the next chapter, she has been unhappily married for a while. In hindsight, her motivations become a bit clearer but it still is clumsily done.

And being told things only after they happened is one of the general problems of this book. In one dramatic scene, one of the characters tells her husband that she intends to leave him. The next time they meet, she says she wants to make another attempt at saving their marriage. Then we are told that she has thought about how she would become a social outcast as a woman who left her husband and that she couldn’t bear that thought. A perfectly valid reason, especially in the 18th century, but we don’t see her making that decision, just the result of it. Some parts of the book could have benefitted from having more depth. Additionally, the book started off as one about a number of different women but over the course of it, most of them got sidelined. At the end, it was mostly about one of them and we got the occasional mention of what the rest had been up to in the meantime.

So do I wish this book had been longer and told us more about the things happening, instead of summing them up afterwards? Yes. Did I enjoy it anyway? Definitely. It was a fun read that kept me turning the pages (and grumble at anybody who tried to talk to me while reading because I need to know what happens next).

Rose Lerner: In for a Penny

In for a Penny - Cover

Title: In for a Penny
Author: Rose Lerner

Young Lord Nevinstoke enjoys every moment of his deep-gaming, hard-drinking, womanizing life. Then his father is killed in a drunken duel, and Nev inherits a mountain of debts and responsibilities. He vows to leave his wild friends and his mistress behind, start acting respectable—and marry a rich girl.

Penelope Brown, a manufacturing heiress, seems the perfect choice. She’s pretty, ladylike, good at accounting, and looking for a marriage based on companionship and mutual esteem, not love. In fact, the only rash thing she’s ever done in her life is accept Nev’s proposal.

When the newlyweds arrive at Nev’s family estate, they discover that all the respectability and reason in the world won’t be enough to handle a hostile next-door neighbor, mutinous tenants, and Nev’s family’s propensity for scandal. In way over their heads, Nev and Penelope have no one to turn to but each other—but to their surprise, that just might be enough.

Rating2star

She ached in places it wasn’t ladylike to think about.

I was so on board with this story at first. Nev enjoys drinking and gambling with his friends more than anything that looks like genuine work. When his father dies suddenly and Nev discovers the mountain of debt he inherited it shocks Nev into sobriety. He swears off drinking, gambling, and his friends, offers for the rich heiress and promises her not love but to be a good friend and companion. Penny agrees but there’s trouble on the horizon. Nev is leaving behind a mistress, he genuinely cared about. Penny has an almost-fiancee who takes the jilting not well. Nev’s mother and sister are convinced he heroically sacrificed himself and agreed to marry a horrible woman just to save the family and they have no intention of welcoming her with open arms. Once they are at the family estate Nev and Penny discover that it’s in a worse state than they feared and both begin to worry that the other might regret the marriage.

And that right there is already enough for one book but the problems don’t stop there. The neighbor and the parish priest both miss only a black cat they can stroke to be proper cliche villain-evil.

Cardinal Richelieu stroking his black cat

The estate isn’t just in a bad state due to incompetence, there’s something more sinister going on. The tenants are so discontent that they might rebell. Nev’s sister has more problems than not being fond of her new sister-in-law. Poachers are everywhere. Both the ex-mistress and the ex-almost-fiancee make their reappearances at the most inconvenient time. And of course, everybody else is also just at the wrong place at the wrong time so that every mistake or misunderstanding has the worst possible consequences. Considering I have read books by Rose Lerner before and enjoyed the absolute lack of this kind of melodrama, that was very disappointing. The characters in her other books are all refreshingly reasonable. There’s no ‘I overheard only parts of your conversation and now I refuse to let you explain the context’ or any of those cheap soap-opera plotlines.

Some gothic novels are name-dropped during the story and Penny firmly proclaims how ridiculous they are, only to end up in a situation that could be right out of one, which made me wonder if the book wants to be a parody or at least poke fun at some gothic tropes. But for that, the book just isn’t funny enough. Because when Nev and Penny aren’t caught up in ridiculous drama the worries they have about not being good enough for the other or dealing with bigger problems than they can handle are genuinely moving. And the author gives both Nev’s mother and one of the villains a good reason for their hostility but then they act again like the cliche evil mother in law or the mustache-twirling villain. I can’t just read one page of a book as serious romance-novel and the next as over-the-top parody but I had the impression that this was what how the author wanted me to read this.

Lynn Brittney: Murder In Belgravia

37481550Title: Murder In Belgravia: A secret group of detectives solving crime in the seedy underbelly of World War 1 London
Author: Lynn Brittney
Series: Mayfair 100 #1

Set against the backdrop of WW1, Mayfair 100 is the telephone number for a small specially-formed crimebusting team based in a house in Mayfair. London, 1915. Just 10 months into the First World War, the City is flooded with women taking over the work vacated by men in the Armed Services. Chief Inspector Peter Beech, a young man invalided out of the war in one of the first battles, is faced with investigating the murder of an aristocrat and the man’s wife, a key witness and suspect, will only speak to a woman about the unpleasant details of the case. After persuading the Chief Commissioner to allow him to set up a clandestine team to deal with such situations, Beech puts together a small motley crew of well-educated women and professional policemen. As Beech, Victoria, Caroline, Rigsby, and Tollman investigate the murder, they delve into the seedier parts of WWI London, taking them from criminal gangs to brothels and underground drug rings supplying heroin to the upper classes. Will the Mayfair 100 team solve the murder? And if they do, will they be allowed to continue working as a team?

Rating1star

Grimdark cozy-mysteries are apparently a thing now. Often cozies are rather clean: the victim wasn’t a good person anyway. The only bad things that ever happened were because of the victim (and possibly the killer). Once the murderer is caught everything is fine again. Or at the very least the (well-adjusted) sleuth has figured out the perfect way to help the person who is still suffering. (To be clear: I don’t mind that. We all need a bit of escapism now and then and many people, myself included, find that in cozies.)

There are cozies that try to break that mold. They use a set-up that is more a cozy than ‘serious’ crime novel but don’t shy away from the fact that there are issues like addiction or racism, you can’t solve in 300 pages. Some are rather subtle about it and/or don’t want to go too deep into it (and while I frequently proclaim my love for the Lady Daisy mysteries, I do wish in a 20+ book series there’d been more than one gay couple and 3 or 4 POC-characters. Though the way she deals with the fallout and consequences of WWI is done very well).

This book has no such qualms. The set-up, with an unofficial team with one-half cops one-half amateurs, is something you’d expect in a cozy. But two of the protagonists are veterans who were seriously injured in the war. The story itself involves sexual assault, PTSD, addiction, pedophilia, and prostitution. Oh and the whole book is set during World War One, and halfway through the story, London is bombed. I had almost forgotten about that, which tells you all about the impact it had on me. But sentences like “Billy explained all about the damage, the dead bodies, the smoke, fire, explosions and general horror he had experienced.” don’t evoke many emotions in me. But throughout the book, the prose is like this: bland, unemotional and no character has a distinct voice.
And even if that wasn’t an issue: the book crams all these horrors into it and features some characters that suffered terribly but they find the perfect solution for all of them. And they all lived happily ever after. I just can’t buy this after tons of misery were piled on them.

And because all this isn’t enough, the book reads like it was written by an author who thinks her readers are really stupid. There is no other reason why the most obvious facts are explained at length and why information is repeated over and over again. Like when one character discovers something and then instead of a simple ‘And then he told X what he discovered that morning’ we get half a page of ‘And then he told X about event A, discovery B, and event C’. Despite the fact that we just read about A, B and C in the previous chapter.
On another occasion, two characters visit a lawyer because they wish to see a document. The lawyer, being a lawyer is reluctant at first but can be convinced that this would be in his client’s interest. Still, he is aware that he shouldn’t really be doing this so he asks one of the characters to leave the room with him to look at a painting. Anybody who has ever consumed any form of fiction now knows what is happening there. The book feels the need to explain to us that “she was being asked to leave the room with Sir Arnold on a pretext so that Beech could look at the documents on the desk.”

Something else? Oh, right the premise of this book is an unofficial police team with women (before they were allowed in the police-force) that deals with cases where e.g. a witness doesn’t want to talk with a man. For that, the men in it were often pretty sexist. And of course, those were different times and having heroes with suspiciously modern views is not the best solution. But neither is not doing anything. The men are happy because women have their “curves in all the right places” or because “being a bodyguard and making arrests appealed to his strong sense of masculinity” and have questionable views on women’s rights, votes for women etc. and all this goes unchallenged. At no point had the characters a serious discussion about this. At no point did I have the impression that the author weighed in on it. She just wrote down what the men said and thought.

ARC received from NetGalley

Elizabeth Peters: Crocodile on the Sandbank

41t1ENkbSLL._SL300_Title: Crocodile on the Sandbank
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Series: Amelia Peabody #1

Amelia Peabody, that indomitable product of the Victorian age, embarks on her first Egyptian adventure armed with unshakable self-confidence, a journal to record her thoughts, and, of course, a sturdy umbrella.
On her way, Amelia rescues young Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been “ruined” and abandoned on the streets of Rome by her rascally lover. With a typical disregard for convention, Amelia promptly hires her fellow countrywoman as a companion and takes her to Cairo.

Eluding Alberto, Evelyn’s former lover, who wants her back, and Evelyn’s cousin, Lord Ellesmere, who wishes to marry her, the two women sail up the Nile. They disembark at an archaeological site run by the Emerson brothers – the irascible, but dashing, Radcliffe, and the amiable Walter. Soon their little party is increased by one – one mummy, that is, and a singularly lively example of the species. Strange visitations, suspicious accidents, and a botched kidnapping convince Amelia that there is a plot afoot to harm Evelyn.

Rating2star

Lucas, for pity’s sake, seize it! Don’t stand there deriding its linguistic inadequacies!

Do you care for a mystery where the heroine explains at every step that men suck and are useless (in the appropriate Victorian terminology) but nevertheless the men in the story do most of the mystery-solving? And who then ends up married and pregnant at the end?

I’m being a bit unfair here but not too much. Amelia isn’t that type of heroine who constantly talks about how strong she is but still faints at every occasion. She has a strong will but often it feels she is only right because the author says so. She wants to travel along the Nile but insists on the ship traveling the way she wants it. Objections by the captain that a different route would be better due to the wind get ignored. She is right because she is a woman and the captain just a stupid man! OK, they end up hitting a sandbank twice but Amelia isn’t bothered by that. She got her own way and that is important! She never stops to consider that under certain circumstances she should trust the experienced people. Like a captain where sea-travel is concerned.

Which makes it somewhat ironic that when it comes to the mystery-solving she’s just there to fill in the blanks at the end after a man has already done most of the work. And yes, if she’d had all the information she would have figured it out earlier. And the reason for her not having all the information even makes sense. It still is somewhat unfortunate if your feminist heroine’s first case is one where she doesn’t solve much on her own.

And then there was the romance. And yes, it is a cozy-mystery. And the heroes and heroines of those usually end up with someone sooner or later. And I don’t object to a strong and independent female character ending up with a man. But for most of the book, Amelia doesn’t just say that a woman of her age is unlikely to find a husband and that she isn’t too desperate about that. She goes on and on about absolutely not needing one because men are inferior creatures and so on. Which is again unfortunate. Especially because I didn’t feel much chemistry between the two. There were some sparks but I couldn’t buy it going that fast. The romance would have really profited if it had been stretched out over a few books.

Now for the last unfortunate thing: this is a book about white people in Egypt at a time where most of them were very racist. It’s also about archeologists at a time where a lot of people saw archeology as ‘digging stuff up, put the pretty things on my shelf and throw the rest away’. And Amelia does start off with some not very complimentary attitudes towards the Egyptians. She also doesn’t say a word when a museum-director gifts her a necklace he dug up. Then Emmerson turns up and yells that racism is bad and that not cataloging artifacts is also bad and that’s the topic done with. Amelia more or less shrugs and goes ‘yeah, guess you have a point’ and then it’s never brought up again.

Of course, I’m not expecting a cozy to devote several chapters on the chapters discussing the evils of colonialism but I couldn’t help thinking of Think of England. Another book that was more on the fluffy and humorous side with a main character who held some racists views. These views get challenged over the course of the book and then he actually admits that he was wrong before. Meanwhile, Amelia is never wrong. Ever. And that is very tiring.

 


This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day: Read anything where the main character has servants (paid servants count, NOT unpaid) or is working as a servant him-/ herself.

Think of England

34715257Title: Think of England
Author: KJ Charles

England, 1904. Two years ago, Captain Archie Curtis lost his friends, fingers, and future to a terrible military accident. Alone, purposeless and angry, Curtis is determined to discover if he and his comrades were the victims of fate, or of sabotage.

Curtis’s search takes him to an isolated, ultra-modern country house, where he meets and instantly clashes with fellow guest Daniel da Silva. Effete, decadent, foreign, and all-too-obviously queer, the sophisticated poet is everything the straightforward British officer fears and distrusts.

As events unfold, Curtis realizes that Daniel has his own secret intentions. And there’s something else they share—a mounting sexual tension that leaves Curtis reeling.

As the house party’s elegant facade cracks to reveal treachery, blackmail and murder, Curtis finds himself needing clever, dark-eyed Daniel as he has never needed a man before…

Rating4star

I had not planned to buy any new books for a while but then I read the author’s post about the inspiration for this book and just couldn’t resist. I did grow up with the Edgar Wallace-movies and still love them. Now I only know Wallace’s mystery stories that involve beautiful heiresses and dastardly villains who are after their fortune and I don’t know any of his spy-stories (or any of the other authors she mentions as inspiration) and Think of England is clearly a spy story.  Admittedly, not a genre I would have picked up normally and the blurb also made expect something that it would eventually turn into a more ‘conventional’ mystery (with a murdered country house guests) that just had some connection with the treason/spy part.

It didn’t. But that doesn’t mean I regret reading this book. Rather the opposite: I had a lot of fun. The plot is fast-paced and takes the characters from one seemingly hopeless situation to the next while never going so far that you wonder how any human can cope with all that. But during all that, there was still time for the characters to develop their feelings for each other without it feeling rushed.

The way the book handled the issue that ‘true’ Edwardian pulp fiction tends to be rather full of homophobia, racism and various other-isms was also done very well. Neither is Curtis the single person in the whole novel who miraculously is tolerant of everything (as some historical fiction tends to do with their main characters) nor is he full of the worst prejudices that magically disappeared once he met Daniel. He starts off with a fair share of them but the circumstances soon force him to reconsider them. And he doesn’t just go ‘Well, Daniel is a foreigner but also a good guy so clearly everything I ever thought about foreigners being cowardly and evil is wrong.’ It’s a process that takes much of the book (and a lot of the time in which he isn’t occupied with escaping from mortal danger he spends reevaluating all the things he so far accepted without question).

The only downside to this is that while the scenes with Curtis and Daniel were intense and the development of their relationship believable there also weren’t that many of them and I really wished there had been more. And especially with the teasing at the end that they might have more adventures together, it’s a bit disappointing that this is a standalone. There’s certainly potential to develop their relationship further but alas…

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This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Hanukkah: Any book whose main character is Jewish (Daniel)

As well as:

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Tasks for Bodhi Day: Perform a random act of kindness. I tweeted the author to tell her how much I had enjoyed the book. Because I know reviews are a great way to help authors and I always try to write them in a way that they are also helpful to other readers who are trying to decide if they should pick up the book or not. But sometimes it’s just nice to tell an author how much you enjoy what they’re doing.

Blood Sisters

12338716Title: Blood Sisters
Author: Melanie Clegg

When the beautiful Comtesse de Saint-Valèry is dragged unwillingly from her Parisian home in the dead of night, her three young daughters are left to an uncertain fate at the hands of their father in a world that is teetering on the very edge of Revolution.

Cassandre, the eldest is a beautiful and heartless society beauty, trapped in an unhappy marriage and part of the dazzling court of Versailles. Lucrèce, her twin, is married to a man she adores but he pushes her away for another woman. Meanwhile, Adélaïde, the youngest, rebels against the destiny that her position in society appears to have doomed her to.

As the horror, turmoil and excitement of the French Revolution unfolds around them, the three very different sisters struggle to survive the bloodshed, find love and discover their true selves…

Life is too short and too fleeting to be spent waiting for something to happen or to loose sight, even for a moment, of the people you love.

Rating3star

This book does a great job of portraying (more or less) ordinary people caught up in a major historical event and an at-best mediocre job at telling the story of everything else that happened to these people.

It follows three aristocratic sisters through major events of the French Revolution: the storming of the Bastille, the women’s March on Versaille, the imprisonment of King and Queen, their execution, Danton’s trial and finally Robespierre’s execution. At least one of them is always caught in the thick of it (Lucrèce is a lady-in-waiting to the queen and with her the day she is arrested, Adélaïde is married to a fierce Republican who is friends with Danton…) The description of these events is very vivid and drew me right into it (despite not caring about that period that much) and had me biting my nails in anticipation of what would happen next. Even when I knew what would happen, the way the sisters were hoping and praying for a happy ending made me want to join in and I almost hoped that perhaps I had misremembered my French history.

But not everything that happens is directly connected to the French Revolution. The sisters also fall in love, marry, fall out of love again, grow up, discover family secrets and change their opinions about important issues. And that’s where the format of the story is working against it. It tells of events happening between 1789 and 1794 but not as one continuing story. In the first part, we learn how the sisters experienced the storming of the Bastille, in the second the women’s March and so on. But their life didn’t stop between all these events, rather the opposite: often quite major events and revelations happened in between but we’re only told a short summary of what happened at the beginning of each chapter. By that time major decisions are already made, any emotional fallout of huge revelations has happened…a lot of character-development happens between the chapters.

As a result, I could connect with the emotions of the characters but not so much with the characters as a whole since I only ever saw snapshots of them at different stages in their life. I didn’t see them grow, I saw how they had grown.


This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season challenge:

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Book themes for Advent: Read a book featuring 4 siblings.

While the story only focusses on the three sisters, they also have a brother 😉

The Secret Diary of a Princess

10755502Title: The Secret Diary of a Princess
Author: Melanie Clegg

The dramatic and often tragic years of Marie Antoinette’s early life told in her own words. This book for young adult readers follows her privileged childhood and adolescence in the beautiful palaces of Vienna as the youngest and least important of the daughters of the all-powerful Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and invites the reader to share the long journey, both emotional and physical that ended with her marriage to the Dauphin Louis of France at Versailles.

This is the unforgettable story of a charming, fun-loving and frivolous young girl, destined for greatness, coming of age in one of the most magnificent and opulent courts that the world has ever seen.

Rating4star

I may not be very clever but I always know what will most please people and that, I think, is far more important.

Novels in diary-format are usually not my thing. I just can’t suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone would tell their diary in detail about their own family history or anything else they already know perfectly well. Thankfully, this book manages to avoid this pretty well. Sure, there are bits that you would not normally find in a real diary but that are only a few sentences at a time and not pages and pages about the history of the Habsburg dynasty. It also sounds believable like the voice of a young girl without being annoying (something not many authors can pull off).

At the same time, I’m beginning to realize that historical novels featuring real historical people as main characters are not really for me. Especially cases like this. The Secret Diary of a Princess begins when Marie Antoinette is nine years and ends with her wedding at fourteen. During that time, things happen to her and she has no influence over any of those things. Because children of her age rarely have, princesses at that even less (and daughters of Maria Theresia definitely not). I’m aware of all of these things but in a book that reads like fiction a part of me will always expect something – well fictional – to happen. Anything that would stop the plot from going to A to B in a straight line. But since Marie Antoinette’s life wasn’t fiction that doesn’t happen. And so I ended up being somewhat unsatisfied at the end even though I enjoyed the book. But in the future, I guess I’ll stick with historical novels that feature characters that can do whatever they like ;).


This is a read as part of 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Christmas: Read a book whose protagonist is called Mary, Joseph (or Jesus, if that’s a commonly used name in your culture) or any variations of those names.