Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reading Anthony Trollope on my brand-new Kindle

I have spent most of a deliciously lazy Saturday settling into The Eustace Diamonds on my new Kindle (and scratching the cat behind the ears and under the chin.)

It was only a matter of time before I caved and got an e-reader. I'd already purchased some digital books to read on my phone. I cannot resist the allure of cheap or free public-domain classics.

In particular, I've acquired a few of the Mobile Reference collections available at the Kindle store containing multiple works by 19th and early-20th Century authors. Yes, the books could be had for free, but $2-$5 is a small price to pay to have dozens of works in a single file, with a clickable table of contents and all the convenience of the Kindle format. I especially love being able to access word definitions instantly.

Reveling in all the literary goodness at my fingertips put me in the mood to sink into a big, fat Victorian novel. After considering Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, or Elizabeth Gaskell, I was ensnared by the opening sentences of Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds:

"It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies - who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two - that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her."

I'm just 10 chapters in, but already I'm inhabiting the world Trollope created. I am fascinated by the avaricious, utterly wicked Lizzie and rooting for the good-hearted governess, Lucy Morris, to win the man she loves. I'm impatiently waiting for Frank Greystock to come to his senses and propose to Lucy, already, and I'm hoping the ever-correct Lord Fawn will untangle himself from his ill-considered engagement to Lizzie.

Already I'm impressed by the multifacetedness of Trollope's characters. Take Lord Fawn, for instance. From his first appearance, I shared Lizzie's view of him: A dull, none-too-bright peer unlikely to go far in life, and as guilty of seeking a marriage for money as Lizzie herself. But Trollope began awakening my sympathies by explaining the burden carried by a noble, yet poor, man constrained to live among the wealthy. Then after Lord Fawn discovers his intended is a greedy, scheming liar, Trollope dropped this scene on me:

"It was a Saturday evening, and as there was no House (of Lords), there was nothing to hurry him away from the office. He was the occupier for the time of a large, well-furnished official room, looking out into St. James's Park, and as he glanced round it he told himself that his own happiness must be there and not in the domesticity of a quiet home. The House of Lords, out of which nobody could turn him, and official life - as long as he could hold to it - must be all in all to him. He had engaged himself to this woman, and he must marry her. He did not think that he could now see any way of avoiding that event. Her income would supply the needs of her home, and then there might probably be a continuation of Lord Fawns. The world might have done better for him. ... He was a man capable of love, and very capable of constancy to a woman true to him. Then he wiped away a tear as he sat down to sign the huge batch of letters."

That last sentence made me catch my breath, and then say, "Awwwww," while shaking my head over Lord Fawn's plight. Trollope got me. In that instant, he made me care about a character I had found ridiculous and annoying.

Earlier in the novel, a scene occurs in which Frank Greystock, a member of the opposition party in the House of Commons, makes a speech on behalf of the "Sawab of Mygawb," a dispossessed Indian prince. I found myself chuckling and nodding my head in agreement at Trollope's summary of the purpose of political invective:

"We all know the meaning of such speeches. Had not Frank belonged to the party that was out, and had not the resistance to the Sawab's claim come from the party that was in, Frank would not probably have cared much about the prince. We may be sure that he would not have troubled himself to read a line of that very dull and long pamphlet of which he had to make himself master before he could venture to stir in the matter, had not the road of Opposition been open to him in that direction. But what exertion will not a politician make with the view of getting the point of his lance within the joints of his enemy's harness?"

Right on, Anthony! Doesn't that description completely fit today's politicians, who argue based on what will advance their own and their party's interests, rather than on what is best for the people they are supposed to represent?

(By the way, the lovely feline in the photograph is my cat Bella relaxing by my feet as I read.)

If The Eustace Diamonds continues as excellently as it began, I may just have found a new author addiction. I also want to mention my appreciation, compared to other Victorian novelists, for Trollope's smooth, easy-to-read writing. I've never had to stop to parse out the meaning of a sentence going on for half a page, as I sometimes have to with Dickens or the Brontës.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Queen's Man by Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman is an author revered by many historical fiction fans for her huge, all-encompassing novels that make the past truly come to life. She has written several  books, most recently a trilogy (soon to be a quartet) on Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their "devil's brood" of scheming children.

On a smaller scale, Penman also wrote four medieval mysteries, set during the period in which King Richard was held captive by his enemies in Europe, his mother Eleanor ruled England as regent and his younger brother John plotted to seize the throne. I just finished the first of these books, The Queen's Man.

I have mixed feelings about Penman's mystery debut. Her characterizations were strong, and her grasp of time and place second to none. She obviously knows this period inside and out. I particularly enjoyed how she wrote the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine. However, I found the mystery a bit thin and the ending a letdown.

The Queen's Man introduces Justin de Quincy, bastard son of a bishop, who as the story begins has no income or prospects. By chance, he witnesses a murder on the road to London and discovers a secret letter for Eleanor hidden in the victim's tunic. The letter informs the queen of what has befallen Richard on his return from the Crusades. Eleanor, fearing the French king's involvement in intrigue against her son, charges Justin with discovering the truth behind the killing.

The book's first half was a quick, easy read, introducing several possible suspects and motives for the murder. Unfortunately, Penman abandoned those plot threads in the second half to place her focus solely on a hunt in London for a hired killer. I prefer my mystery novels to have more twists and turns that take me on a wild ride, before pulling everything together and springing surprises on me at the end. The ending of The Queen's Man, however, left me saying, "Is that it?" The few surprises were rather tepid and unexciting.

Justin was an appealing protagonist, a sort of "fish out of water" living by his wits and sometimes requiring help from those with more knowledge of the criminal underworld. The supporting characters were strong and kept me turning the pages even while the main plot dragged.

The book did spark my interest in learning more about the captivity of Richard the Lionheart, as well as the antagonism between Richard and John. I have heard subsequent novels are better, so I'll continue with the series for now.

My grade: C+

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley (Did Not Finish)

Oh dear. I feel like a party pooper. Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie has gotten great reviews. I expected to like it. But I won't be finishing it.

I usually enjoy stories with characters who don't fit into their societies, who must learn how to cope with the difficulties that brings while remaining true to themselves. I looked forward to getting to know Lord Ian, who suffers from Asperger's syndrome in Victorian England, a time and place that would label people like him as, at best, eccentric, and at worst, mad. I wanted to see if Jennifer Ashley could write a believable romance given Lord Ian's social limitations.

But I just didn't find the heroine, Beth, at all believable in the 85 pages I managed to read.

Ashley boxed herself in by establishing right up front that Lord Ian and his brothers are regarded as disreputable, scandalous, even dangerous. So much so that any unattached woman seen in their presence would immediately be ruined socially.

Ashley gave me no hint in 85 pages WHY the family has such a bad reputation. But putting that aside, she makes it clear Beth is aware of Lord Ian's reputation. Added to that is the hero's imposing physical presence (big, broad shouldered) and his puzzling, even threatening social behaviors (not looking anyone in the eye, no observing of social niceties). Ashley sets up a situation in which any prudent heroine, no matter how sympathetic to Ian's sufferings, would behave with at least SOME caution.

So how does Beth, the vicar's widow recently come into wealth, behave? (Remember, the book is set in 1881, in the middle of Queen Victoria's reign.)

First meeting: Ian, deciding he wants Beth in his bed, reveals her fiancé not only keeps mistresses but has some unusual sexual tastes. He then promptly proposes to her himself. Beth not only allows him to kiss her passionately but comes very close to accompanying him home for the night.

Second meeting: Ian kisses Beth, nibbles her earlobe and asks her a deeply personal, intimate question. Which she ANSWERS. Then Ian tells Beth he wants no other man touching her. (Danger, Will Robinson, danger!) She responds, "I don't think I mind that."

Between the second and third meetings: Beth learns Ian is the prime suspect in the stabbing deaths of two prostitutes. (Oh, but she knows Ian CAN'T be a killer. She trusts him. She certainly lusts after him.)

Third meeting: Beth blatantly offers to become Ian's mistress.

I don't care that Beth enjoyed sex with her first husband and misses a man's touch. I don't care that she feels sympathy for this misunderstood, tortured hero (whom she's just barely met). Beth is Too Stupid To Live.

Also, Beth accepts drawing lessons from Lord Ian's brother (another social pariah she meets once) and agrees to share lodgings with his estranged wife (again, after meeting her once). Yep. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Need I mention the repetitive, sloppy writing? (In one scene, Beth is described as a mediocre pianist with stiff hands, then her "nimble fingers" are "tripping across the keyboard.") Or the book heading in the direction of "clichéd murder mystery the heroine will try to solve, get herself in danger and have to be rescued by the hero" rather than the character-driven story I expected?

Sorry. I just have too many problems with this book to finish it. My grade: DNF

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Last Night's Scandal by Loretta Chase

Last Night's Scandal was nearly all I wanted for a follow-up to Lord Perfect. Only some pacing issues and a slight lack of character depth compared to Loretta Chase's other Carsington books kept it from being as good as Lord Perfect. Still, I enjoyed this sequel very much.

Peregrine Dalmay, Lord Lisle, returns to England for a visit from his Egyptian excavations. His irrational parents blackmail him into restoring a crumbling old castle in Scotland said to be haunted by ghosts. Lisle is initially determined to resist his parents' demands, but Olivia Wingate-Carsington, a childhood friend grown into a devilishly beautiful young woman, tricks him into journeying to Scotland with her. The unconventional Olivia is determined to have one last adventure before she is forced to choose a husband and settle into a life of stifling domesticity.

The first three Carsington books featured some wonderfully funny moments, but Chase outdoes herself here. Last Night's Scandal was hilarious, especially in the first half. Many of its laugh-out-loud moments came from the Ladies Cooper and Withcote, two wicked old women Olivia brings along as "chaperons." (Two more unsuitable chaperons could not exist, according to Lisle, outside of a brothel.) Olivia, with her penchant for "noble quests," also made me howl with laughter. She was like a combination of two of my favorite Georgette Heyer characters: Arabella, with her tendency to become enraged and act without thinking, and Sophy, with her good-hearted gift for manipulation.

What was most fascinating about Olivia as a character was she was utterly unsuited to live a conventional, respectable English upper-class life, with its endless round of tea parties and carriage rides and balls. Adventure and romance were like air and water to her. Lisle, also, was an unconventional man unsuited to an ordinary gentleman's life, but he could act the part when needed, while Olivia could not. She needed him to ground and calm her, while he needed her to remind him to live out his true desires.

Unfortunately, the novel began to drag when the characters arrived in Scotland, with the mystery of the castle's ghosts and hidden treasure drawn out too long. Chase also wrote scene after scene in which Olivia and Lisle succumbed to their attraction to each other and sternly told themselves they would never do it again, only to fail at the next temptation. The story did pick up in the last 100 pages, and Chase brought the romance to a tender, successful conclusion.

Olivia and Lisle's love story did not resonate with me as powerfully as those in the previous Carsington books. Because they were so young compared to the other couples and had fewer obstacles to overcome, their romance wasn't as rich. Their self-imposed reasons for staying apart seemed trite in comparison.

Still, Last Night's Scandal was a fun read, and if Chase wants to follow these characters back to Egypt, I will willingly take the journey. My grade: B

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lord Perfect by Loretta Chase

Benedict Carsington is the perfect English aristocrat: controlled, honorable, ever mindful of duty and obligation. His behavior is always impeccably correct, and he possesses the bored, arrogant demeanor expected of a man in his high position. Son and heir to the Earl of Hargate, Benedict keeps his emotions firmly in check ... until he meets HER.

Bathsheba Wingate is a notorious widow, a member of the "Dreadful DeLuceys," the perpetually misbehaving branch of an otherwise noble and respectable family. Bathsheba's marriage to the younger son of an earl created a huge scandal that resulted in her husband being disinherited. Her closest relatives are all smugglers, gamesters, thieves or swindlers, but Bathsheba lives respectfully, earning a small income as a drawing instructor and striving to give her daughter Olivia a chance at a better life.

The roguish Olivia forms a secret friendship with Peregrine, Benedict's nephew, and confides to him her plans to seek the fabled DeLucey treasure, reputedly buried on the family's estate by a pirate ancestor. Peregrine tries to stop her, but when he fails he finds, as a young gentleman, he cannot allow Olivia to travel on her own.

Benedict and Bathsheba set out in pursuit, and soon the oh-so-well-mannered Benedict finds himself behaving in inexplicable ways. Kissing the lovely Bathsheba when he knows it can only bring trouble. Drinking far too much wine while listening to stories of her outrageous relatives. BRAWLING with common drunkards in the streets to defend Bathsheba's honor. What is happening to him? And why doesn't he feel shame? Why, indeed, is he having the time of his life?

Lord Perfect is my favorite so far of the Loretta Chase novels I've read. It is the story of a man discovering how to enjoy life after allowing duty to overburden him. It is also a story about weighing a deep love for an "unsuitable" person against the probable consequences: being scorned and rejected by society, disappointing one's relatives and sullying the family name.

As she did in Miss Wonderful, Chase examines these deeper issues while keeping her tone light and her story warm and engaging. Benedict and Bathsheba exchange much witty banter as they begin to understand and come to care for one another. Both of them have shouldered too much responsibility in their lives - Benedict because he is heir to a great estate and Bathsheba because she has had to raise a daughter alone while making her own way in the world. Benedict learns from her what it's like to live without others to fetch, carry and smooth the road for you. She learns from him that wealth and privilege go hand and hand with grave responsibilities.

I adored this pair, as I have all the couples in the Carsington series thus far. Chase's lead characters are such likable, genuine people. Benedict, despite his somewhat arrogant manner, is warm hearted and sensitive, with an appealing, self-deprecating sense of humor. Bathsheba is hilarious whenever she lies to protect Benedict's reputation. She's terribly bad at it; others can see right through her.

Benedict and Bathsheba find not only a lover, but a friend and confidant, in each other. The palpable chemistry between them is not just sexual, but emotional, rooted in empathy and understanding.

Olivia, 12, and Peregrine, 13, are just as appealing as the main couple. Peregrine, a precocious, endlessly inquisitive lad who wants to become an Egyptian explorer, strives to emulate his uncle and to act like a young gentleman toward Olivia. Clever and opportunistic, with a quick temper, Olivia resembles her mother more than Bathsheba would like to admit. Chase's newest novel, Last Night's Scandal, focuses on these two as adults. I'm very much looking forward to reading their story.

As I approached the end of the novel, I worried about how Chase would give Benedict and Bathsheba their happy ending without inventing some hard-to-swallow scenario. I hoped she wouldn't let them off the hook too easily but would test their mettle by having them make difficult choices and face the consequences. Without giving too much away, I don't think Chase could have handled the ending any better. It was pitch perfect and consistent with what she has previously written about the characters involved. It was a bit fanciful, but this is a romance novel, after all. As such, it provided near-perfect escapist entertainment with some depth to it.

My grade: A.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase

Daphne Pembroke needs a man with quick wits as well as brute strength to help her find her kidnapped brother and a stolen papyrus that might reveal the location of a pharaoh's treasure. NOT the big, dumb oaf the British consulate in Cairo foists on her (however handsome he may be). Still, Daphne figures she has enough brains for two. Perhaps Rupert Carsington will prove useful if heads need to be knocked together. Now if only she could think clearly in his presence ...

Rupert Carsington reckons helping an intriguing young widow is preferable to digging in the hot desert looking for artifacts for his scholarly cousin. Especially when the widow is devastatingly attractive. And if playing stupid makes her explode with temper in such an adorable way ...

This seemingly mismatched pair soon embark on the adventure of a lifetime, in which falling in love becomes the greatest thrill of all.

So begins Mr. Impossible, the second book in Loretta Chase's series about the Carsington brothers. While the previous book (Miss Wonderful) grappled with weightier issues, such as the physical and emotional scars of war, Mr. Impossible was a fun romp from start to finish, the in-print equivalent to watching a two-tubs-of-popcorn adventure movie.

Sailing down the Nile in pursuit of kidnappers, Daphne and Rupert unwittingly stumble into the middle of a showdown between rival Egyptologists.

The Frenchman Duval believes Daphne's brother Miles can translate the hieroglyphics on the stolen papyrus and lead him to a tomb filled with treasure. But Miles isn't the brilliant linguist most believe him to be. He acts the part to shield his sister, the true genius of the family, from prejudice against female scholars.

The Englishman Lord Noxley, known as the Golden Devil, pursues Duval and his men, hoping to rescue Miles and thereby win the heart of Daphne. Unscrupulous and ruthless, Noxley (or "Lord Noxious," as Rupert calls him) believes Daphne's fortune and Miles's linguistic talents will help him become the premier Egyptologist of the age.

During their Nile journey, while facing perils including dark, labyrinthine tombs, murderous brigands and deadly vipers, Rupert and Daphne grow uncomfortably aware of their attraction to each other. They are both brave, resourceful people but novices when it comes to love. The easygoing Rupert, with his devil-may-care attitude toward life, has always loved women and left them. He has no names for the emotions Daphne stirs in him and is bewildered by the loneliness he feels when he cannot be by her side.

Daphne is coping with the aftereffects of an unhappy first marriage to a man nearly three times her age. Her late husband, jealous of her intellect and passionate nature, convinced Daphne she was a damaged, unwomanly creature who needed to tame her "base" instincts. Her intense desire for Rupert shames her at first, until Rupert convinces her, bit by bit, that he loves her for who she truly is.

Rupert and Daphne's love story forms the core of the novel, but Chase also included a great deal of action, humor, witty dialogue and hair-raising escapes, as well as a wonderful cast of supporting characters. They include the comically pessimistic Leena, Daphne's maid, who reacts to all difficulties with pronouncements of gloom and doom; Tom, Rupert's adoring servant, who convinces others his master is a genie able to call down curses on his enemies; and Ghazi, the Golden Devil's right-hand man, a cheerfully efficient killer. Chase also included many intriguing details about life among the Egyptians to give the story a strong sense of place.

The only thing that annoyed me was the number of times Chase reminded me Daphne and Rupert had the hots for each other and wanted to tear each other's clothes off. I got that the first dozen times she brought it up. Still, Chase scores points for writing passionate, believable and sexy love scenes. My grade: A-

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase

I'm realizing, much to my surprise, that I really enjoy historical romances ... especially when they are as well written, witty, sexy and touching as Loretta Chase's Miss Wonderful.

The lovers in this novel had me from its very first pages. Alistair Carsington, third son of an earl, must either find a suitable occupation or a rich heiress to marry if he is to avoid becoming a constant drain on the family finances. Hailed as a hero after his return home from Waterloo, he cannot remember the carnage of battle or the brave acts he is supposed to have performed.

In his father's eyes, however, Alistair is a wastrel and a waste. Before Waterloo, he constantly needed to be extricated from disastrous romantic entanglements, and after the battle, he has run up astronomical tailor's bills. Alistair's attention to his clothing has become his means of coping with a permanent limp after suffering severe war wounds, as well as the emotional trauma of having nearly died face down in the mud and blood, with corpses piled on top of him.

Alistair forms a partnership with his best friend, Lord Gordmor, to construct a canal in rural Derbyshire that will transport coal from Gordmor's mines. He encounters immediate opposition from Mirabel Oldridge, who has managed her father's estate for more than a decade. The canal must run across the Oldridge's land, but Mirabel will not have it; she has worked too hard and given up too much to let the estate's beauty be spoiled.

Years ago, Mirabel chose rescuing the estate from an unscrupulous overseer over marrying the love of her life and traveling to Europe with him. Practical and resourceful, she has done a man's work for so long, she has forgotten what it is like to be a woman, or to be in love. Her clothing and hairstyle are so shockingly unfashionable, it drives Alistair to distraction. (In one of the book's funniest scenes, Mirabel comes to dinner dressed so badly, Alistair cannot focus on the arguments he is making in favor of the canal.)

Despite their differences, they fall in love, but their opposition over the canal is not so easily solved. Alistair strives to find a solution, anxious to prove his worth both to Mirabel and his father, while at the same time dealing with vivid nightmares that bring the horrors of Waterloo back at the most inopportune of times. Mirabel discovers the warm, sensual woman she has locked inside herself for so long and must decide what is most important to her: her cherished family estate or a second chance at love.

Loretta Chase wove humor and sparkling wit throughout her story to lighten the somber mood. She also turned romantic cliches on their heads by allowing Mirabel to be the aggressor in some of the novel's sexy, tender love scenes. (Mirabel even climbs a ladder and through a window to reach her beloved's bedchamber, and the seduction scene that follows is laugh-out-loud funny.)

My only quibbles with the novel were the plot dragged in spots, and Chase sometimes took too long to reveal important information about the characters. The book also was marred by the late, somewhat awkward appearance of a villain and a kidnapping. But I enjoyed the story so much, I was willing to overlook these flaws. I will certainly read more of Chase's books, including the rest of the novels featuring the Carsington brothers. My grade: B+

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter by A.E. Moorat (Did Not Finish)

How could I resist a book with the title Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter? I requested a copy from my local library as soon as it arrived, hoping for a rollicking, B-movie-style romp with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek.

But alas, I got hopelessly bogged down in a confusing mish-mash of plot threads and put the novel aside for two weeks. I returned to it this weekend, read a few more chapters and realized I just didn't care to finish it.

The book doesn't live up to the promise of its title or the wickedly funny portrait of Victoria on the cover. I expected an entertaining, over-the-top tale about a queen who rules her country by day and kicks demon butt by night. What I got was a rather tepid account of Victoria's early days as queen and her romance with Prince Albert, sitting uneasily aside plot threads concerning zombies, demons and werewolves.

Victoria learns on the night of her accession that Lucifer's minions still walk the Earth, sowing evil and discord among humankind. A Royal Protektorate of demon hunters watches over the monarchy and thwarts the plots of nefarious beings. Meanwhile, in London, a certain Lord Quimby and his manservant, Perkins, have been re-animating corpses. McKenzie, a journalist, discovers Quimby's preoccupation with zombies, as well as hints of evil goings-on at the palace. In the meantime, descendants of Baal (who include several members of the royal family) plot to take over the British empire by placing a half-breed demon on the throne.

My synopsis makes about as much sense as the book did. The various plot threads seemed merely an excuse to introduce different kinds of monsters (succubi, werewolves, bloodthirsty rats, zombies and demons) and to have them disembowel as many people as possible. While Victoria makes goo-goo eyes at Albert back at Buckingham Palace, many of her subjects die excruciatingly painful deaths. Despite all the blood (and yes, guts) the story dragged, with the point of view constantly changing and the subplots never meshing into a coherent whole. The characters were flat, and the writing, while it had flashes of humor, was never funny or daring enough to make reading this book at least a guilty pleasure.

I gave up about halfway through, at the point where Prince Albert is kidnapped by werewolves, and Victoria morphs into an action hero. She finally gets to kick butt, but her sudden combat prowess and acrobatic skills are, quite frankly, unbelievable. (She hasn't had any monster-slaying training, after all.) I flipped to the end of the book to read the ending, which unsurprisingly made no sense at all. It concerned a secret Albert was keeping from Victoria that was revealed to the reader early on, sapping all suspense.

Thank goodness I borrowed this book from the library instead of buying it! My grade: DNF.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer

A young nobleman sprawls nonchalantly inside his coach, despite the dangerously fast pace at which it is traveling. When highwaymen hold up the coach, his demeanor does not change. Without a second thought, he pulls the trigger of the small pistol in his pocket, blowing a hole through both his coat and an unfortunate robber's head. In a bored voice, he commands his coachman to drive on, leaving the body in the road.

With this opening scene, Georgette Heyer tells the reader all they need to know of Dominic Alastair, Marquis of Vidal. He is cold-blooded, reckless and quite dangerous. However, the frivolous beauty Sophia Challoner and her greedy mother do not recognize this. Both imagine Sophia can behave scandalously with the marquis and eventually force him to propose marriage.

Only Mary, Sophia's sensible sister, recognizes who would come out the worse from such an encounter. When she intercepts Vidal's note instructing Sophia to meet him late one night so they can run away together, Mary decides to disguise herself and take her sister's place. She imagines the marquis will let her return home once he discovers the deception and will think twice about approaching Sophia again.

What Mary does not realize is Vidal has been sent into exile by his father after nearly killing a man in a duel. Vidal intends to go to Paris, where he plans to make Sophia his mistress. When he finds Mary in his coach, he imagines she has the same loose morals as her sister and forces her onto the boat instead.

So begins another delightful romp by the incomparable Ms. Heyer, featuring a deliciously tangled plot filled with romantic misunderstandings, in which true love wins out over all.

Vidal soon realizes the practical, resourceful Mary is no lightskirt but a lady of quality. Chagrined (for he does not make a habit of abducting virtuous women) he offers her marriage as a way of salvaging her reputation. To his shock, she refuses. He cannot help but grow intrigued by this unusual miss who seems to know just how to manage him. Before long, he's desperate to wed her, not out of duty, but for love.

Mary, meanwhile, resists Vidal at every turn despite her growing affection for him. She believes the marquis's family will never accept a lowly gentleman's granddaughter as a spouse for their son. While staying in Paris with Vidal's cousin, Juliana, Mary becomes involved in the relationship between the flighty girl and her sober, correct suitor, Mr. Comyn. The different romantic plotlines become hopelessly entangled, and Heyer once again shows how deftly she can get her characters into trouble, then get them out again.

Yes, Heyer charmed me with another witty, wonderful tale. I wasn't sure she would be able to redeem the marquis, who if anything was even more wicked than his father, the Duke of Avon (introduced in These Old Shades). But by subtle degrees, she showed he did, indeed, have a heart. I greatly enjoyed becoming reacquainted with several characters who played key roles in These Old Shades, including the Duke of Avon, still head-over-heels for his lovable wife, the Duke's mischievous brother, Rupert, and of course, the irrepressible Leonie, Duchess of Avon.

My grade: A.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

Like The Masqueraders, Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades is another unabashedly romantic, exciting adventure story set in Georgian times, with one extra element. The novel is most importantly a tale of redemption. The hero, Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is an amoral, jaded, ruthless nobleman, proud of the nickname "Satanas" given him by polite society. But even this dangerous, dishonorable man has a flicker of goodness left in him, which shines forth when he falls in love despite himself.

Avon impulsively rescues a Paris street urchin from a life of poverty and abuse when he notes the youth's resemblance to the Comte de Saint Vire, his old enemy. Avon makes "Leon" his page, knowing all along "Leon" is really "Leonie," a young woman dressed as a boy. What's more, Leonie is the Comte's daughter. Desperate for a male heir, the Comte placed the infant girl in the care of a peasant couple and passed the couple's newborn son off as his own.

Nursing a grudge decades old, the Duke of Avon intends to use Leonie as an instrument of revenge against the Comte. He brings her to his English estate as his ward and charges a female cousin with teaching her to become a lady. Slowly, Avon's thoughts turn from his own revenge to restoring Leonie to her rightful place. The young woman's innocence, mischievousness and forthrightness awaken tender feelings in him, and her love for Avon as her rescuer makes him strive to be the man she believes him to be.

I was afraid at first Heyer would make Leonie too wide-eyed and adoring for my tastes, but she balanced those elements of her character nicely with stubbornness, hot-headedness and an ability to take action on her own behalf. (In one of my favorite scenes, Leonie backs Avon's brother into a corner with a fencing foil, enraged the young man called the Duke "Satanas" in front of her.) When Leonie's father, the Comte, tries to kidnap her, she proves more than capable of engineering her own rescue. The romance between her and Avon at times seems more of a parent-child relationship, but she is able to stand up to the Duke when she wants to and is sometimes wiser than him, despite their 20-year age difference. She is definitely a heroine who knows her own mind.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the story was seeing Avon's acquaintances and family members reacting to the change in "Satanas." Many of them had reason to mistrust or even hate the Duke, but they all became his allies in the end because they cared for Leonie. Avon finally revealed Leonie's parentage to the world in a tense, exciting scene, with the villainous Comte getting his just desserts.

I very much enjoyed this unusual romance and look forward to reading the sequel, Devil's Cub. My grade: A.

These Old Shades is one of a handful of Heyer novels recently reissued both by Harlequin Books and Sourcebooks Casablanca. (The Sourcebooks cover is on the left, while the Harlequin cover is at the top of the post.) I hope Sourcebooks eventually will republish all the Heyer novels now being reprinted by Harlequin. The Sourcebooks versions are of higher quality and much more durable than the flimsy Harlequin releases, which don't hold up to repeated readings.