Friday, February 26, 2016

Moonraker's Bride

Moonraker's Bride
by Madeleine Brent

(Edited) Blurb:
Born in a mission in China, Lucy Waring now finds herself with 15 small children to feed. How she tackles this task gets her thrown into the grim prison of Chengfu, where she meets a man about to die. He asks her a cryptic riddle, and its mystery echoes through all that befalls Lucy in the months that follow, even when she is brought to England, where she discovers danger, romance, heartache, and mystery as strange events lead her to doubt her own senses. It is only when Lucy returns to China that she finds the answers to the mysteries of her past. It is there, at the moment when all seems lost, that she finally finds where her heart belongs.

My Reaction:
Now, this was a great read!  Much more gripping than any other gothic novel-- heck, any novel, period-- that I've read in a while, and with a thrilling, emotional romance that I actually cared about, for a change.  Moonraker's Bride was an absolute treat to read.  I could deduct some small fraction of a star for minor quibbles, but this one is easily rounded up to five stars.

Is it sexist for me to admit that I was ever-so-slightly skeptical when I learned (before starting the book) that Madeleine Brent was the pseudonym of a male author?  I should never have doubted: he had far greater skill at writing romance than a great many of the female authors I've been reading, lately.  I know next to nothing about the author, actually, but I can't help but picture him as one of his own characters-- Mr. Marsh.

I fear I can't go into a detailed reaction without possibly spoiling the story, so I'll save specific commentary for the next (spoiler-warned) section.  Suffice it to say that the novel was a highly addictive blend of adventure, mystery, and romance, enlivened by occasional sparks of humor.  I look forward to exploring more of the author's work.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  Though the Chinese setting was not a special attraction to me when I selected this book, I ended up finding it an interesting and well-written element of the novel.

--  "You must always remember that you are an English child, dear.  That does not make you better than a Chinese child, of course, but it is right to take pride in your own country."  (This seems to be an unpopular opinion, in much of the West, these days, but I agree wholeheartedly that pride in one's own country is natural and healthy and does not stop one from appreciating what's good about other countries.)

--  "One way in which I knew I was a foreign devil was that I could follow and understand a tune in the same way as Miss Prothero.  To the Chinese children the melody meant nothing, and neither did the time.  They simply shrieked out the words, all on the same note and as fast as possible."  (I imagine that some readers are bothered by this and certain other instances that may not be politically correct.  Personally, I just wonder if this is a truthful depiction of how Chinese peasant children of the time would have sung a European tune-- especially since these children were raised in an English-run mission, with daily exposure to European music-- hymns.  It seems they should be as capable of singing along as the average English child.)

--  Parts of the mystery were easy enough to solve, yet there was enough uncertainty (about everything except that brass shield!) to keep me wondering for a good while exactly how it would play out.  And by the time it was all perfectly clear, I was thoroughly hooked on the romance and wouldn't have dreamed of stopping reading, even if the mystery had been tidied up chapters earlier!

--  My new literary crush is Nick Sabine.  I'm not sure I can pin it down precisely-- the wicked sense of humor? the devil-may-care attitude?-- but he's a thousand times more engaging and likable and real-seeming than the last dozen or so heroes I've "met".  I vote "swoon-worthy"!

--  I looked up the definition of "moonraker" long before it was ever spelled out in the book.  What a strange word!  And a strange explanation for it, too...

--  If I had to find faults with Moonraker's Bride, they'd be as follows:
1. There are a great many coincidences... But those don't really bother me when the book is entertaining.  Just heap on a little more suspension of disbelief.
2.  Stereotypes?  Well, yes, there are some, but they could've been much worse.
3.  Though I like Lucy, she is almost too good to be true, most of the time.
4.  Is it realistic that a man like Nick Sabine would be "experienced"?  Yes.  But I still don't love that aspect of the character... It was the one thing I would've changed about him, I think.   However, that seems to be something we're supposed to expect, if not applaud, in the hero of gothic novels.

--  There are times that Lucy is just a bit too naive and slow on the up-take, but I'm happy to overlook them.  Especially when they yield moments of hilarity like her answer to the question, "Do you like cats?" and her belief that Mr. Gresham has brought her to England to be his concubine.  (!!!)

--  It's funny how often fiction gives us two maps to a treasure that are useless individually, but consulted simultaneously will supposedly point the direction-- or a map ripped in half so that the halves must be joined to be useful.  I can't quite picture how that works... It seems that one half would have to be better than the other, if not completely sufficient.

--  This book has at least a couple of references to "spoonsful" of this or that.  The word "spoonsful" just looks completely wrong to me.  Possibly some people think that's correct, but I'm sticking with "spoonfuls".   (And after looking it up online, I've now seen the word "spoon" so many times that it looks ridiculous-- nonsensical.  Funny how easy it is to do that...)

--  "Never change."  ~~swoon~~ ;o)  (Yet at the same time... People do change, whether they want to or not... And it would be nice to think that someone would love you even when you do change over the years.  But now I'm reading too much into something that's surely meant just to be a sweet, charming "I love you" between the hero and heroine.)

-- I didn't realize until just now that this was published in the early 1970s!  I would've guessed it was written earlier than that-- maybe about twenty years earlier... (That's a compliment, by the way...)

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mistress of Mellyn

Mistress of Mellyn
by Victoria Holt

Mount Mellyn stood as proud and magnificent as she had envisioned...But what about its master-- Connan TreMellyn? Was Martha Leigh's new employer as romantic as his name sounded? As she approached the sprawling mansion towering above the cliffs of Cornwall, an odd chill of apprehension overcame her. TreMellyn's young daugher, Alvean, proved as spoiled and difficult as the three governesses before Martha had discovered. But it was the girl's father whose cool, arrogant demeanor unleashed unfamiliar sensations and turmoil-- even as whispers of past tragedy and present danger begin to insinuate themselves into Martha's life. Powerless against her growing desire for the enigmatic Connan, she is drawn deeper into family secrets-- as passion overpowers reason, sending her head and heart spinning. But though evil lurks in the shadows, so does love--and the freedom to find a golden promise forever...

My Reaction:
3.5 stars?  Rounded up to four, I guess.  Four feels rather generous, but it'll do.  After all, the book did entertain me...

The blurb sounds a lot steamier and "romance-centric" than the book merits, in my humble opinion.  Maybe it's just me.  Possibly I'm too picky about romance in novels, but I can't remember the last time that one of these so-called "gothic romances" really delivered in the romance department.  There is a romance, but it failed to thrill me.  Fortunately, there's also a mystery or two to solve, along the way, and these successfully held my interest until the novel's end.  It helps that there's a good cast of well-developed supporting characters, as well as a setting (Cornwall) that is sketched with greater-than-expected skill.

This is only the second Victoria Holt novel I've read, and it's by far the better of the two.  The Silk Vendetta is simultaneously more melodramatic and more plodding than Mistress of Mellyn. Fortunately, the latter is enough of an improvement that I feel willing to give more of her novels a try.  (There are plenty of them, too!)

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  I found the Cornish setting very interesting and appealing.  I don't suppose I've read (or seen) much about Cornwall before.  The references to palm trees came as a surprise.  (I've never associated the UK with palm trees, for one reason or another.)  The descriptions of the mild seasons and the flowers-- roses, fuchsias, and hydrangeas-- were charming, too.  However, there was at least one reference to yellow hydrangeas, and that makes me wonder if Victoria Holt's horticultural knowledge was only rudimentary, because I love hydrangeas, yet have never heard of a variety with yellow flowers.  You might call some of the creamiest ones slightly yellowy...

--  I commented earlier on the lack of crackling romance.  (And again, maybe I am too harsh a critic, these days...)

The first problem is that our heroine, Martha/Marty is a governess because she has not married, despite the benefit of a London season.  You get the impression that she's not especially-- or immediately-- attractive to most men, and yet she soon has the attention of two eligible bachelors, in this rural village.  One romantic suitor would have been enough, not to mention more believable, but certain aspects of the story made it convenient for her to have two suitors, and so she had.

The second problem is that Connan TreMellyn runs so hot and cold with Marty.  That approach can work in a romance, but I think it works best when the two characters are thrown together much more than Connan and Marty are.  With so few encounters between the two, Connan sometimes comes off more as a lecherous employer than a dashing, romantic hero.  I realize that we are intended to question Connan's motives until the very last moment, but the downside is that it's difficult to warm to him.  By the end, I actually preferred the excessively flirtatious Peter Nansellock to the unapproachable, unknowable Connan.

Third:  Many readers remark that Mistress of Mellyn is a combination of Jane Eyre and Rebecca.  Similarly, Connan clearly draws some of his character traits from Mr. Rochester.  However, Connan is yet another Rochester-inspired romantic lead who simply can't "get away" with the sorts of things (past indiscretions, for instance) Mr. Rochester can.  Why not?  Is it all due to the relative charm and magnetism of the characters?  Whatever the reason, Connan feels much less of a sympathetic character than Mr. Rochester, despite the fact that he has some similarly legitimate causes to have lost faith (his fiancee's infidelity, the fact that she was knowingly pregnant with another man's child when they married, etc.).

--  "Miss Leigh, you came here to teach Alvean, but I think you have taught me a great deal too." Cringe.  Just cringe.

--  At some point, I couldn't take one more of Marty's hyper-sensitive (internal and spoken) comments on the fact that she is "merely a governess" (and the way she looks at everyone and everything else through that one tiresome filter).  It's just too much.  We get it!!  Otherwise, I liked the heroine very well, but she is annoyingly obsessed with and resentful of her status as a quasi-servant.

--  I was suspicious of Celestine from the start, but I have to say that the author did a good job of making a number of characters seem suspicious, so I was never completely sure which would turn out to be guilty (until she showed up in the middle of the night and wanted to go investigate the leper's squint).  Apart from Celestine, there were Peter Nansellock, Lady Treslyn, and Connan himself-- not to mention the occasional fleeting suspicion that Alice herself might still be alive, lurking somewhere around the estate, possibly insane, and not very pleased with interlopers like Marty.

-- I'm finding it difficult to believe that no-one would have been drawn to Alice's location by sense of smell (to put it as delicately as possible).  If it were a dry enough environment, maybe, but the priest's hole, we are told, is damp and dank.  Having smelled what happens when a mere mouse dies in the walls (and how long that can take to dissipate), I'm skeptical-- but then again, I suppose stone walls aren't quite the same thing as modern drywall... And maybe the little disused chapel was large enough to keep the priest's hole at some significant distance from the inhabited rooms of the building.

--  The Cornish Christmas was interesting-- especially the odd-looking names for some of the foods/drinks.  Dash-an-darras.  Metheglin.  Sloe gin.  Hog's pudding.  The pies: giblet, squab, nattling, taddage, and muggety.  And of course I had to look up the "Furry Dance" online to see what that was all about.  (I'm still not sure I completely understand.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lucia's Progress

Lucia's Progress
by E.F. Benson

My Blurb:
With the approach of a significant milestone, Lucia decides that she must look sharp, if she wants to leave a lasting mark upon the world.  Never one to dilly-dally, she immediately sets her plans into action.  She'll have to keep on her toes if she hopes to balance serious mark-making with her duties as Tilling's society queen.

My Reaction:
(This is my second time reading Lucia's Progress; this time around, it was a shared read.)

Lucia and Company never fail to entertain!  Rejoining the characters is like reuniting with a circle of old friends.  They are old friends that tend to snipe at one another, gossip, and (gently) back-stab-- and some of them aren't so much "friends" as they are rivals-- but it's amusing and cozy gossip and sniping.

I slightly preferred some of the previous Lucia books to this one, but it is still thoroughly pleasing stuff of its kind.

Interesting tidbit:  This book has also been published under the title The Worshipful Lucia.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


by Barbara Michaels

Lucy Cartwright placed her life and future into the hands of the dashing Baron Clare, despite the rumors of his dark, unsavory past. Trusting his kind words and gentle manner, she agreed to be his wife and followed the enigmatic lord to Greygallows, his sprawling country estate. But mystery, deception, betrayal, and danger surround the magnificent manor—a ghostly secret charges the atmosphere and terror reigns in its shadowed hallways. Lucy entered Greygallows willingly . . . and now she may never leave.

My Reaction:
Though this novel was a little slow to start, I found myself enjoying it, once it picked up speed.  For connoisseurs of the genre, Greygallows is a decently engaging read-- an excellent "light" Gothic mystery-thriller.  That's not to say that it's flawless-- nor a favorite-- but it serves its purpose (providing mental escape from the real, modern world) to satisfaction.

Specifics (including some SPOILERS):
--  I know that some readers love this sort of thing, but I don't particularly enjoy a focus on "social justice" in my casual, escapist reading.  It's especially annoying in historical novels, where authors give their precious heroes and heroines all the modern, enlightened attitudes, while making sure that the villain falls squarely on the "wrong side of history".  I can't stomach much of that sort of thing.  In some cases, it spoils the flavor of the whole book.  Fortunately, there was enough "other stuff" to balance the depressing history lesson aspects of this novel.

--  I think this is the second historical work of Barbara Michaels' that I've read.  The first was Black Rainbow.  By comparison to that, this is a veritable masterpiece!  Seriously, though, if you have a choice between the two of them, take Greygallows.

--  There were certain things that made me laugh-- like Lucy's pathetic little "romance" with her faux Italian music teacher-- and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to find them funny or not... But a laugh's a laugh, whether you're laughing with the author or at her.  (g)

--  I was surprised that Lucy couldn't even understand the speech of some of the less educated villagers.  Would that really have been an issue?  ...I guess there are some people whose English I'd have a hard time understanding, unless they spoke slowly-- but it still feels like such a difficult accent/dialect within one's own country would be a rarity.  Of course, this is in many ways a different world; much of the old regional uniqueness of language and speech has been flattened out and homogenized by easy travel and mass audio-visual media.

--  The reference to Brontë (for surely it was she to whom Miss Fleetwood referred) was mildly amusing-- especially her condemnation of "that unwomanly creature", considering what we later learn about Miss Fleetwood herself.

--  As is so often the case when reading this author's books, I find myself noticing a certain "reverse double standard" when it comes to... I guess you'd call it gender stereotypes.  On the one hand, she's very sensitive to women being undervalued or restricted by men and society in general.  (Overly sensitive, some might say.  It's one thing to recognize it when it's there, another to be so obsessed that you see it everywhere-- even in places where it may not really exist-- and feel compelled to comment on it each and every time.)

But on the other hand, she makes (usually humorless) jokes at the expense of male characters, if they're not "traditionally masculine" enough-- or sometimes even if they're too "macho"/male.  In this novel, there are at least a few references (toward the end) to a (villainous, of course) character's "womanish shrieks" and "screaming" in the face of danger.  In the same scene, the heroine's noises of distress are described as "cries", while the hero gives way to more manly "shouts".

...Am I nit-picking?  Maybe, but this irks me.  It's not that I like the idea of a man giving a "womanish shriek"-- far from it; I prefer men to sound and act like men, to be completely honest, traditionalist that I am--  but I find this type of thing strange from an author who likes her female leads to be strong-minded and defiant of gender stereotypes.

--  I had strong suspicions of the plot-twist villain-- (who was just too angelic to be true and was "given away" by Mrs. Andrews' tales of how he could always talk his way out of any trouble as a child)-- but other aspects of the novel kept me guessing and interested until the end.

--  For a while, I wondered if it would turn out that Clare had a romantic attachment not to Miss Fleetwood but to her brother.  I couldn't really believe this author would choose that angle in a 1970s Gothic romance/mystery-- and it would possibly make Clare's two most "physical" encounters with Lucy a little difficult to explain-- but I really, really wondered.  That would've been a major twist, at least.

--  Speaking of romance, this was lacking in that department.  Lucy has a flirtation-- is wooed-- is wed-- and then falls in love with her soulmate.  And somehow she manages to do so with a minimum of vicarious thrills for the reader.  Oh well!  (It's been so long since I read a truly romantic novel.  Most of these are so skimpy in flutters and thrills!)