Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: LAVENDER AND OLD LACE by Myrtle Reed

book cover Original Publication Date: 1902

Genre: Romance

Topics: Love (obvs), spinsters, small town life, battle of the sexes

Proposed alternate title: The Women Who Waited            

Review by heidenkind:

Ruth, a big city journalist, travels to a small coastal town to visit her long-lost Aunt Jane. When she gets there, however, she finds Aunt Jane has left abruptly for a trip abroad. The only thing she sends Ruth is a mysterious letter instructing her to light a candle in the attic every night. Because no story ever began with, "And then she minded her own business," Ruth starts poking around. Does Aunt Jane leave the candle in the window for a long-lost lover? Or does it have something to do with her aunt's BFF, Miss Ainslie, who super duper loves lavender?

Someone on Goodreads described Lavender and Old Lace as Anne of Green Gables grown up, and that's a pretty good description of the feel of the book. Everything is quaint and country; there's not a lot of conflict going on; and the obvious love interest is REALLY obvious. I'm not a huge fan of Anne of Green Gables (I watched the mini-series on PBS like everyone else but never had any desire whatsoever to read the books, which should tell you all you need to know there), but I found myself charmed by the story in Lavender and Old Lace anyway. Up until the final quarter of the book, that is.

The positives first: I really liked Ruth. I liked that she was prickly and standoffish and knew what she wanted. She kind of reminded me of Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, actually, if Lady Mary had grown up as an orphan in the US rather than as a British aristocrat.

I also liked Carl Winfield, even though his internal monologue was interminably annoying and I had to roll my eyes when he showed up because it was COMPLETELY OBVIOUS this was the guy Ruth was going to end up with. No sense of narrative tension or mystery at all. She's a journalist, he's a journalist. She's the only single female under forty who can read within a 20-mile radius, he's the only single male under forty who can read within a 20-mile radius. You get the picture. The saving grace was Ruth's prickliness matched against Winfield's earnest charm–they did have chemistry and I enjoyed their scenes together, which had plenty of snappy dialog.

So I was liking Lavender and Old Lace in a lackadaisical sort of way, up until Aunt Jane returned from her travels. That's when things started getting hairy for my inner feminist.

See, Ruth was right and Aunt Jane did have a long-lost lover, a sailor who proposed before leaving and promised to return and marry her. She believed him so much she bought a wedding dress and had it all fitted and everything! Thirty years later, he still hadn't shown up. Then right before Ruth's visit, what should Aunt Jane hear but that her beau was living, unmarried and unconcerned, in Italy. I'm sure we can all imagine her reaction.

angry leslie
Something like this, perhaps?

Instead of falling into a pity spiral, Aunt Jane hies off to Italy and drags the bastard back for her wedding. Go Aunt Jane!! But Myrtle Reed apparently doesn't think a woman who Gets Things Done and goes after what she wants is a good thing. Reed consistently presents Aunt Jane as a foolish, jealous, self-righteous, and ridiculous harridan, and her now-hubby as the poor hen-pecked man who has to put with her.

This would be bad enough, but Aunt Jane is noticeably contrasted against Miss Ainslie, whose story is almost exactly the same: she also fell in love with some loser sailor who promised to return from the sea and marry her. ("Oh Brandy! You're a fine girl! What a good wiiiife you would be. But my life, my love, my laaaaaaaady is the sea...") Three guesses as to how that turned out.

Miss Ainslie continues to wait and wait for decades, her love for Sailor Guy never wavering Then Carl–who has the same last name as Sailor Guy and looks almost exactly like him, coincidence?–shows up and it becomes rather obvious that while she was waiting ALONE in the ass-end of nowheresville, her childbearing years wasting away, Sailor Guy married someone else and had kids. The bastard couldn't even send a note. Unlike Aunt Jane, however, Miss Ainslie's reaction to this turn of events is to give up on life. Seriously, she's like, "Whelp! Might as well die now." And Reed glorifies this! Miss Ainslie is continually described as saintly and beautiful and angelic, a woman to look up to and emulate.

And don't get me started on the scenes between Miss Ainslie and Carl, which all things considered are extremely weird and awkward. Miss Ainslie's always asking about him, and wondering if he'd find it "indelicate" if she wore low-cut dresses, and making him sit in her room at night and hold her hand. It's all crowned by the final scene, which is like something from Eyeroll Incorporated. Reed tries to convince us Miss Ainslie's feelings toward Carl are purely maternal, but I was not getting a mother-son vibe from those two. Nope.

awkward gif

Basically, by the end of Lavender and Old Lace I was fairly annoyed and a bit creeped out. It's not a bad novel–if I was a young girl I might have even found it credibly romantic. But then I wouldn't really recommend a young girl read it either, so. There are a lot of better books about spinsters out there, in my experience.

PS–I think the person who wrote the Wikipedia page for Lavender and Old Lace is a fangrl/boi:
It tells the story of some remarkable women, each of whom has a unique experience with love. The book follows in Reed’s long history of inciting laughter and tears in her readers through provocative prose.
Yeahhhhhhhhh. Decline to comment.

Download Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Monday, January 19, 2015

Memoirs of Harriette Wilson by Harriette Wilson

book cover Original Publication Date:1825
  Topics:mores, prostitution, social convenances, love,

 I am not going to include any synopsis here because it doesn’t make sense. How to summarize memoirs? One of the most famous ladies of ill repute of the Regency London (the beginning of the 19th century) tells you about some moments in her life. You can easily guess what they are about: beaux, lovers, friends, ennemies, prospective lovers, famous lovers, money, aquaintances, their children and lovers etc., etc. Mind you no sex. If you expect lurid descriptions of different kinky boudoir activities this is not a book for you. Try Fanny Hill instead ;p

 The memoirs initially were published by Stockdale (1825) because Harriette found herself in dire straits (read: broke and without any reliable source of a steady income in a form of a rich protector) . Harriette was writing her memoirs a chapter at a time while she was living in Paris and sending them across the Channel. They quickly attracted crowds ten rows deep outside the bookshop. The work could perhaps be described the best as being among the first “kiss ‘n’ tell” serialised memoirs, later to become celebrated in tabloid newspapers in the 20th century. She was well ahead of her times! Still you should keep in mind one important fact: before publication, Stockdale and Wilson wrote to all her lovers and clients named in the book, including Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and the hero of the Battle of Waterloo, and Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, offering them the opportunity to be excluded from the work in exchange for a cash payment. Wellington famously responded with “Publish and be damned!”, a four-word exclamation that subsequently entered the English language as a household term but it is said many others paid.

I also couldn’t help but notice that Harriette tried her best to exonerate herself and her beloved sibling, Fanny, from any blame related to the way they lived and financed their existence, including plenty of tear-jerking scenes showing great, noble charity acts, sense of humour and overall superior tastes of the Wilson sisters. What a pity they sounded a bit false even if they were completely true; you really cannot and shouldn’t be a judge in your own case. I don’t doubt that many aristocrats treated women like Harriette abominably, especially when their little dalliances were over and they tried to cut losses in every way possible. Still praising your own magnanimous generosity while exposing this or that lord or duke’s avarice make you actually less, not more credible and noble, at least in my eyes.

All the flaws notwithstanding, this is one of books I believe every contemporary Regency romance writer treating their work seriously should read and know practically by heart. When I come to think about it I suppose the publishers should examine every prospective Regency romance author in Memoirs of Harriette Wilson. While reading it at least two-three good plot ideas crossed my mind and such details like clothes and language were simply splendidly done and small wonder, the good lady was living then and there after all.

I loved her opinion about Duke Wellington and Lord Byron. I was a bit bored by too numerous descriptions of parties, opera outings, different quirks of lord-this and lord-that and such. It was painfully clear that a good editor would have improved this book beyond belief. Some fragments were good – witty, intelligent, interesting – but some were just unnecessary or too maudlin for my liking. Still I read on and on, comparing the memoirs all the time to the reality created by Wilson’s contemporary, Jane Austen. I do wonder whether both ladies would speak with each other or shake hands at all. I wish they would.

Final verdict:

An interesting non-fiction position and a historical source but with dubious credentials. Still the contemporaries spoke very highly of Wilson’s memoirs so why shouldn’t we? If you like Regency England and you want to glimpse a posh London society, so different from quiet, rural, close-knit communities described by Jane Austen, you’ll forgive this book many sins and tedious fragments. I believe you might also understand some of less pleasant Austen characters, like Maria Bertram or Mary Crawford, better.

  Review by :Anachronist
 Download Memoirs of Harriette Wilson by Harriette Wilson at Project Gutenberg

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: THE GHOST, A MODERN FANTASY by Arnold Bennett

book cover the ghost a modern fantasy Original Publication Date: 1907

Genre: Gothic

Topics: Love, opera, coming of age, ghosts

Review by heidenkind:

Newly minted doctor of medicine, Carl Foster, visits a long-lost cousin who just happens to be friends with the owner of an opera house. While Carl and his cousin and his cousin's wife are enjoying an opera starring two of the greatest opera singers in the world–Signor Alresca and Rosetta Rosa–the primo uomo, Alresca, suffers a mysterious accident on stage and Carl is called on to care for him. As Alresca recovers, it becomes apparent that his malady is tied somehow to Rosa. Will Carl be able to save Alresca–and himself, now that he's fallen in love with Rosa?

The Ghost is another random Librivox find. It's a bit like Phantom of the Opera Lite: it's not as fun and delicious with the drama, but it's in the same wheelhouse. As a pure entertainment read, it was enjoyable, although the ending with the "ghost" part was seriously anticlimactic.

Our narrator, Carl, is a tough character not to like. When the story starts he's not very confident and, as we're reminded frequently, very young. The latter's an important point because it's the excuse for every stupid thing he does during the course of the novel. He's not TSTL, but after awhile one does start to notice a pattern with these things. Even so, he's smart enough and not judgmental or egotistical. Plus, he doesn't go into freak out mode when confronted with the strange and unusual–a useful skill to have in this book.

Then there's the glamorous world of the opera, which Arnold Bennett uses to infuse the story with a sense of mystery and danger. Opera also provides a great excuse for Carl to travel all over Europe, from Bruges to Paris to London to Italy. I think the traveling around and opera scenes were my favorite part of the book.

As for the female characters, I found them well-drawn with their own motivations. Not that The Ghost would pass the Bechdel Test or anything, but there is more than one female character. Huzzah! Naturally the star of the show (both literally and figuratively) is Rosa, who OF COURSE is a gorgeous, misunderstood prima donna with a captivating voice. I actually didn't find her that annoying, but the woman is obviously Bad News. Trouble follows her around like the worst cold in the history of mankind. First Alresca tumbles off the stage, then there's his long-running illness, train accidents, boat accidents, poisonings, etc. Danger, danger Will Robinson.

I also thought Rosa falling in love with Carl was a little too convenient–I mean, I get why Carl, an opera fanboi, would fall for a beautiful opera singer with the voice of an angel, but what's the appeal for her? She's used to hanging out with international men of mystery, which Carl is definitely not. Their relationship was the most obvious deus ex machina in the book.

Aside from that, though, I was really enjoying The Ghost until the last couple of chapters, when the eponymous ghost finally came to the forefront of the story instead of just lurking in the background menacingly. I wanted–and expected–something super creepy and scary. I didn't get it. The ghost, its so-called powers, and the manner in which it was got rid of were really lame and predictable. The conversation at the very end between Carl and Rosa was just odd.

That being said, for the most part I did like The Ghost. I'm glad I read it, even though I'll probably never reread it. Definitely a book for people who enjoy pulpy, vaguely gothic, old-timey novels with a bit of romance.

Download The Ghost, A Modern Fantasy by Arnold Bennett at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Friday, January 16, 2015

Review: The Diary of a Nobody - Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith

Original Publication Date: 1888 Genre: Victorian, fiction, humorous Topics: Suburbia, middle-class, London

Review by: Liz Inskip-Paulk (

"Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see—because I do not happen to be a 'Somebody'—why my diary should not be interesting."

Although this was a reread, it was a reread from A Long Time Ago and so it ended up being more or less a New Read in the end. And this was fine, as I loved this book. I know it was written in the late Victorian era, but it was so funny that I burst out laughing at times which led to some strange looks when I was on the elliptical at the gym. I couldn’t help myself though, and TBH, it was that funny to me that I can neither confirm nor deny that snorting out loud did occur in public.

The Laurels - where the Pooter family reside.
This is a fictional diary of a lower middle-class man living on the outskirts of London, married with a grown-up son and a wife who loves him despite his flaws. (He doesn’t acknowledge these flaws though…) Charles Pooter is the diarist, and he lives a modest existence as a city clerk in an office where he’s been working for the past 20 years without much professional recognition, and he begins journaling as he secretly thinks that someone somewhere will publish his diary for its literary worth. He’s a nice guy, basically, but has some insufferable snobbish airs which stem only from his own personal social insecurity and not from malice.
Adult son William (and then later called Lupin) is rather a gadabout creature who drinks, gambles and makes somewhat brash decisions, but who receives the general adoration from his parents (which becomes somewhat tempered after Lupin movies in to his childhood home due to losing his job). Wife Carrie is portrayed as a sweet Victorian wife, but readers can see (through Mr. Pooter’s diary descriptions) that perhaps she is not quite as quiet and adoring of her husband as he writes. It’s all very farcical, but done in such a way that it’s fresh and still very very funny in parts.

Mr. Pooter’s diary chronicles about 15 months of his life and details his thinking about his life in London as a clerk and the sometimes hilarious social misfortunes that occur to him, typical things that happen to anyone but which, when they happen to Mr. Pooter, can completely shape his day and how he sees it. It’s a little bit like reading Basil Fawlty’s diary (if you remember that TV series). He does his best, but things consistently go wrong for him. Despite this, his family still loves him all the same.
George (right) and Weedon Grossmith
Written by brothers and stage performers, Weedon and George Grossmith, this book was first published as a series of excerpts in Punch, and was popular precisely it skewered most of the typical routines of its audience and the increasing social expectations of a booming lower-middle and middle class. However, it wasn’t an instant hit, but its popularity grew over time and since it was first published, this title has never been out of print. It’s also been the influence of other fictional diaries that have since been published: Diary of Adrian Mole series (by Sue Townsend), Bridget Jones’ Diary series (by Helen Fielding) and in other media forms, there’s a clear influence of Mr. Pooter’s ilk on TV shows such as Fawlty Towers. Interestingly enough, Hugh Bonneville (who plays Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) was given rave reviews for his time as Mr. Pooter in a 2007 BBC dramatization on BBC Four. I wonder if that’s available on-line somewhere… I’ll check in the future.

Download The Diary of a Nobody by Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|