Tuesday, May 1, 2018

My April Reading

These days, it's a toss-up which book I will find the most fascinating in my monthly reading: an adult fiction book, poetry, or a children's picture book. This month, a picture book won out. (See the last entry of this post.) It is written with a sensitivity and even-handedness that is especially pleasing, because it takes the author out of the picture and lets the young voices tell their stories.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmunska Orczy de Orci
Category: Literary Book and Movies
Comments: I'm continuing on with my experiment from March by commenting on the book, The Scarlet Pimpernel, set during the Rein of Terror of the French Revolution, and the 1934 and 1982 movies. In present day, this novel of great heroism, honor, theatricality, and tender passion would be called a romantic suspense, but given that it is a 1905 roman à clef, it is now labeled a classic.

Before I get into the story, let me just say that I now know where Georgette Heyer got her inspiration for her writing style, word choice, scene setting, character development, and plotting. All of Heyer's delightful writing is here in spades. Orczy's was the original spy nobleman, a fop cum cunning daredevil, and a master of disguises who leaves a calling card and who is capable of a passionate love. Orczy's was the original story moving at a spanking pace with glittering characters and sparkling dialogue.

A delicious tidbit: Author C.S. Harris got the name St. Cyr for the hero of her Regency mysteries from this novel. The St. Cyr family is the one Marguerite Blakeney, with republican sympathies, inadvertently sends to the guillotine, thus setting off the romantic turmoil in her marriage.

The book starts right off the bat in the first paragraph with an action scene, quite like modern novels, and the pace doesn't let up. Orczy has a brilliant way of painting her scenes so that you feel like you're observing a play in action. Given that, this must've made her and her husband's job as playwrights for the adaptation much easier. While Orczy wrote the book in 1901, it languished unpublished until 1905. In the meantime, the adapted play, written in 1903, made a big splash on the London stage, and the book, when it was released, continues to sell well even today.

While the 1934 movie is more faithful to the book as compared to the 1982 movie, I believe the former movie is quite likely faithful to the dramatized version rather than the book as such, because there are missing scenes, modifications, and additions, even though the book was written from the play. Even though I had very much liked Ian McKellen (1984) as Chauvelin, having now read the book, Raymond Massey (1934) portrayed Chauvelin more accurately. Chauvelin really is the oily, vindictive, malignant villain, and not the more debonair, subtle villain.

I loved the novel so much. So much. But I was dismayed by the rank anti-Semitism in it. Oh, you can couch it to say that in 1790s France, this was a common attitude and she's merely trying to accurately portray that, but the heavy-handed way it is written smacks of the baroness's attitude more than Chauvelin's. (In the comments to my March post, I was warned that it is there, but I had still not expected it to be this much.)

His Convenient Mistress by Elizabeth Rolls
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: He is fifty; she's thirty three; both are widowed. This is not merely a second-chance love for the hero and heroine, it's also of a story of building a family together with her two children, while being open to welcoming new additions to the family. His wife and children had died of smallpox and her husband had died of an inflammation of the lungs. He needs an heir for his marquessate, while she wants protection for her children to prevent them from being kidnapped by bitterly warring grandparents. So they decide to join forces in a marriage of convenience, but even as they assume that the other is not interested in love, they find themselves thinking of the other in affection even as they're attracted to the other right from the beginning. This is a story of passion, tenderness, and family, and altogether, lovely. "You have us and we have you."

House of Cads by Elizabeth Kingston
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Joyful, mirthful, and lively. And quiet and angsty. Two protagonists, who're misfits in society and enmeshed in lies, come together in fascination and delight. The conflict in this story is largely internal, and Kingston does an excellent job of showing how they resolve their differences in circumstance, opinion, and outlook to life. The heroine is a vivacious French émigrée to England, very well-liked by people and popular with men. She's in London to rehabilitate her reputation and help a friend out. She runs into the hero at a ton party. He is a pamphlet illustrator whose sole aim is to sell as many papers as he possibly can to amass a fortune. So he poses as a wealthy businessman involved in the timber trade to gain entrée into the highest circles of society. This was such a refreshing sex-positive change from the usual Regencies. I highly recommend it. My review is here.

Someone to Care by Mary Balogh
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the fourth book in the Westcott series and tells the story of the former, now dispossessed, Countess of Rivendale, who goes by Viola Kingsley and Marcel Lamarr, the Marquess of Dorchester. They're both in their forties with adult children. She is ruled by duty, virtue, and reputation, while he is steeped in hedonism and pleasure. They had met ten years ago and both had been fascinated with each other. But she'd been married then and had asked him to go away. Stung, he had hied off. Forward ten years, they're both fancy-free, and he urges her into an affair with him. They're found out in their love nest by both their concerned families (because of course!) and are forced into a marriage neither desires. While the Westcott series has been uneven IMO, this is a wonderful book. Balogh has done a stellar job developing their relationship from a sex-only connection to an enduring love. My review is here.

The Plumed Bonnet by Mary Balogh
The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley
Duel of Hearts by Diane Farr
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I pulled these three stories in this piece together because I was struck by how much of an impact Georgette Heyer has had on them, whether it is in characterization or in story details or, merely, in turns of phrase and scene setting.

In Balogh's The Plumed Bonnet, we see glimpses of Sylvester from Heyer’s Sylvester in the Duke of Bridgewater. Balogh's story is a marriage of convenience resulting from a mistaken assumption. He assumes she's a lady of easy virtue based on her outfit, when, in fact, she's a virtuous governess and now a propertied lady of independent means. Only Balogh can navigate the MoC plot with such deftness and intricacy.

In Riley's Marquess of Amberley, we see shades of the Duke of Avon from These Old Shades. I loved this story. Loved. In Amberley, we see a hero of delicacy and nuance, who is capable of deep empathy and knows instinctively what is required of him in different situations. The heroine lives on an estate with only the servants for company. Due to her blindness, her loving relatives have constrained her to this gilded cage, little realizing that such a life is stifling for her. Amberley sets her free while challenging her to take risks. They're both wonderful in themselves and wonderful to each other.

And finally in Farr's story, we see Vidal from Devil's Cub in Lord Drakesley. Farr's writing shines in her book about two very similar, highly emotional characters, who argue at the drop of the hat but come from a place of deep understanding of the other and respect for the other's opinions, even when the other is driving them crazy. We usually see opposite attract stories, and this is the opposite that is convincingly executed. My brief reviews are here.

Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray by Janice Preston
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I have liked Preston's books in the past, so I was looking forward to reading this. While the story on the surface is the usual noble spinster daughter falling in love with an inappropriate, but hot, man, I was taken aback by the stereotyping of the Romany people—the silent type with the all-knowing serene wisdom, who prefers to camp out in the woods on the ducal estate even though he's an invited guest. He is ultimately brought up into the society of his high-ranking father and saved by this delicate white flower. While Preston goes to some length, and has done her research, to establish Romany society and culture, the characterization of the two protagonists did not work for me. Not a book I can recommend.

The Love Coupon by Ainslie Paton
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I know I am completely in the minority with a negative reaction to this book. Everywhere I have looked, people have had high praise for it, which I find inexplicable. The hyperbolic writing style with various metaphors jostling for attention made it difficult for me to get into the book. But after I'd gotten used to the writing, I was able to understand the characterization better and where Paton was going with the character arcs. However, I was horrified by how cavalierly the heroine treats the hero's views, desires, and limitations. I can understand that she wanted him to live a little and gift him with the freedom to experience living beyond the tight bounds of his worldview. But, oh, the way she goes about it. Consent is foreign to her. She pushes and pushes and pushes till she gets what she wants. When she doesn't get it, she castigates him and he is forever apologizing. When she gets what she wants, he is grateful. And there is rape by her. I could not get beyond that even after reading the whole book—despite the author's occasional sharp humor or the deft turns of phrase or the heroine's good intentions towards the hero—because this sort of behavior is a pattern for her. My review is here.

The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Category: Poetry
Comments: I finished reading this book that I talked about in February.

Nimoshom and his Bus by Penny Thomas, illustrated by Karen Hibbard
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: "Ekosi," says Nimoshom, okay, that's it, amen, says grandfather. I'm enjoying the Cree books I have been reading lately. I read Missing Nimâmâ by Melanie Florence in January. This book is about a grandfather who drives the school bus for the little Cree children. He speaks in Cree to them as he twinkles at them, makes them laugh, and gently admonishes them. And the children, in turn, loved him, and he always said, "Ekosani," thank you, to them when they brought him gifts.

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated Thi Bui
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a book that sets up a frog in your throat from the dedication onwards that doesn't dislodge even after you read the author and illustrator bios at the end. The book is dedicated to refugees everywhere. Both Bao Phi and Thi Bui came to the US from Vietman as refugees. People in their American neighborhoods "did not understand why we were there at best, and blamed us for the aftermath of the war at worst." Both Bao and Thi were very poor as children, and their parents worked multiple jobs just to survive. A Different Pond, the story and style of illustrations, is their way of honoring their roots and the dislocation of the immigrant experience through a fictionalized version of Bao's childhood. On the surface, it's a story of a predawn fishing trip that a father takes his young son on. They're trespassing on the lake to fish for their supper. They're sometimes joined by a Hmong man or an African man. The spare prose and illustrations brilliant show the poverty and hard choices of the father and the uncomplaining quietude of the boy, who doesn't know a life different from hardship, nor the life their family left behind in Vietnam.

This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World by Matt Lamothe
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The author interviewed various kids from around the globe and then decided to choose these seven kids and their stories. His artwork and the depictions of the people are based on photographs sent in by the seven families. Lamothe's goal was to appreciate how different we all are, and yet, in so many ways how similar. Inspired by his own travels, Lamothe sought to show us how our common experiences unite us. It's a book that at once fascinates and educates. Children, especially the very young, are able to quickly discern the commonalities and the dissimilarities among the depicted kids and accept them all for who they are. This is a book to savor.

Eight-year-old Romeo "Meo" is from Condrignano, Italy with a vineyard in his backyard. Kei "Kei-chan" is nine and from Tokyo, Japan. Daphine "Abwooli" is seven and lives in a house of wood and mud in the village of Kanyaware, Uganda. Oleg "Olezhka" is an eight-year-old Russian from Uchaly, a mining town near the Ural mountains. Ananya "Anu" is from Haridwar, India along the Ganges River and is eight. Ribaldo "Pirineo" is an eleven-year-old from Los Naranjos, Peru in the Amazonian rainforest. Seven-year-old Kian is from the urban town of Gorgan, Iran near the Caspian sea.

Each of these kids describes where they live, who they live with, what they wear to school, what they eat for their three meals and who they eat with, how they get to school, their classroom experience, how they write their names, their physical extracurricular activities, how they help their families, what they do after dinner, and where they sleep all united under the night sky.