A Poisoned Season by Tasha Alexander

Rating: 7 out of 10
Summary: Tasha Alexander returns to Victorian England in the sequel to her 2005 debut, And Only to Deceive, a historical whodunit that featured amateur sleuth Lady Emily Ashton, the spirited young widow of a wealthy viscount, who finds more than a few obstacles in the chauvinistic culture of late-19th-century London.

The high-society circles of Greater London are abuzz with gossip concerning Charles Berry, a decidedly ill-mannered gentleman who claims to be a direct descendant of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The intrigue surrounding Berry is intensified when a thief begins breaking into the homes of the aristocracy and stealing only items that used to belong to the infamous French queen. Lady Ashton is drawn in when a mysterious suitor begins leaving strange gifts, including love poems written in Greek and a rare pink diamond that was once owned by Marie-Antoinette herself. When a man linked to Berry is found poisoned to death, Ashton’s curiosity gets the best of her, and ignoring warnings from her love interest Colin Hargreaves, she investigates… (Thank you, barnesandnoble.com)

My Thoughts: I own the first novel in the series, And Only to Deceive, bought on a whim from Costco Wholesale. 😀 I enjoyed it—it was an entertaining read, nothing to heavy or thought-provoking, but definitely worth the time. I checked out the next book in the series from the library, and A Poisoned Season was just as good, if not better, than the first. Barnesandnoble.com says it is “historical fiction, romance, and amateur detective mystery” that’s well plotted, in my opinion.

I really like the protagonist, Emily Ashton, and I think that’s a big part of what made me pick up the sequel. It doesn’t hurt at all that we have the same first name. She’s forward-thinking, very modern for her time period and this causes some of the frustrations and more than a few of the obstacles in the novel. Since she’s a widow (her circumstances are explained in the first book), she has a bit more freedom than most women of her time. The author got me to sympathize with her very well.

Other things I liked were the romance and the mystery. The romance was well done—slow and sweet, but not too sugary that it made me gag, which is what happens a lot with romance. Colin Hargreaves sounded like a dream; but he was so perfect, I can’t remember if he ever had any faults I can think of, which obviously doesn’t happen in real life. But whatever; the point is that the romance was nice and enjoyable. It was there, but it was kept on the down-low, which is what I like.

Mystery was intriguing; lots of great twists. I’ve never been a huge fan of mysteries, so I’ll read it if it comes along, but I won’t seek it out. This one was fine, kept me interested, especially the mysterious love letters in Greek.

Only thing I can think of to complain about is the afore-mentioned perfection of Mr. Hargreaves. But the book overall created a warm, fuzzy, happy feeling, so I can’t whine too much about these things. It’s a great book for a long card ride (which is where I read it).

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Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

Rating: 7 out of 10
Summary: Combining several familiar fairy tales in her first novel for young readers, Australian author Marillier (Daughter of the Forest, for adults) crafts a romantic fantasy rich in detail, magical creatures and strong female characters. The Wildwood is a magical place ruled by Draguta, “the witch of the wood.” For nine years, narrator Jenica (aka Jena) and her four sisters have secretly visited the Other Kingdom, which appears in the Wildwood every Full Moon and where they dance until morning. Though Tati is the oldest, 15-year-old Jena is the responsible sister; people find Jena a bit odd because she travels with a frog named Gogu (“My dearest friend, my inseparable companion and my wise advisor,” says she). But the sisters’ idyllic world begins to crumble when their cousin Cezar takes over running their estate, Piscul Dracului, while their father is away. Cezar hates and fears the Other Kingdom as much as Jena and her sisters love it. He plans to destroy the trees in the Wildwood, and Jena frantically seeks a way to save the magical world. Marillier weaves the tale of the frog prince into this lush novel, peopled with vampires and forest witches, and adds a surprise twist (involving Jena and her amphibian companion). Ages 12-up. (Jan.)

(Thanks, barnesandnoble.com)

Comments: This book was very fun. It was engaging and entertaining and quite nice. It’s Adventure! Magical creatures! True Love! All fun stuff. Juliet Marillier is definitely one of my favorite authors on this planet. I really liked how she incorporated several traditional myths and fairy tales into this one book. There was the 12 Dancing Princesses story, but it was more like the 5 Dancing Sisters in this novel. And then there was the Frog Prince, as well as the traditional vampire legend from the Transylvania area, where this book is set. Very well done.

The plot moved along nicely, and the characters interested me. Unlike Marillier’s other books, this novel is aimed toward younger readers (like the summary says, ages 12 and up). There’s a very happy ending, where the bad guy leaves/is banished, and the main character finds true love and everything just becomes so right. As a result, there’s not an immense amount of Serious Heavy Thinking Discussion that could happen.

However, there was one thing I found interesting. Cezar, the main “bad guy” of the novel, is the second son of Jena’s aunt and uncle. His older brother, Costin, supposedly “died” (I say supposedly because he’s not really dead) when Draguta, the witch of the wildwood, dragged him into a lake and drowned him. What’s interesting is that all three of them, Costin, Cezar, and Jena, were offered three wishes by the witch. Costin, as a ten-year-old boy, wished to be King of the Lake! Jena, as a 5-year-old girl, wished to be Queen of the Fairies! All in good fun, yes, like when I was a kid, all the children on the playground ran to the top of the mud hill and said, “I’m King of the Mountain!” But Cezar made an unspoken wish that the witch heard. Costin was Cezar’s hero and idol; Cezar wished to be Costin, to be the eldest son, to not be second-best anymore, to have power and to be able to inherit the estate. And this, in the end, sets Cezar on a road of destruction and ruin and it eventually takes over him, both the guilt that he “killed” his brother, and the truth that he wanted it, and played a part in his older brother’s “death”.

I just thought the sibling relationship and rivalry that Marillier included was good. That balance between hero-worship and the usual envy and jealousy. Cezar took it too far, and it ruined him.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: Ian McEwan’s emotionally charged novel follows an inexperienced young couple through their disastrous wedding night at a Dorset hotel in 1962. Very much in love, Edward and Florence are predictably nervous, but for different reasons. He longs to consummate the marriage; she is repelled by the very idea. Locked in their inhibitions and utterly unable to discuss their fears and needs, they are victims not only of personal experience but of a distinctively British brand of repression destined to crumble in the sexual revolution. One of McEwan’s greatest skills is his ability to limn the precise, irrevocable moment in which life changes forever. And although that moment is telegraphed within the first few pages of this rueful tale, it loses none of its tragic, devastating force when it occurs. Brief and elegiac, On Chesil Beach spotlights the talents of a literary grand master at the top of his game.

(Thank you, barnesandnoble.com)

I liked: The almost dreaminess of the writing style. It felt like a dream, sometimes. The well-handled flashbacks between present and past events. The way the chapters and novel itself was structured. The characters were real; real people with real talents and faults.

I did not like: Florence and Edward. But I really don’t know. I didn’t hate them or anything. There is nothing wrong with the way the author wrote the characters; as I said before, they are very real and three dimensional. The personalities of Florence and Edward themselves frustrated me at times. If only they’d been able to communicate better. If only they’d talked to each other about their separate fears; if only they’d trusted each other as wholly as they’d each thought they did. The ending of the book is one big If Only. If only this, if only that… I shouldn’t put this under the heading of “I did not like”, because it wasn’t that I thought it detracted or took away from the novel in any way, because I’m sure the author wanted us to feel the hopelessness and If Only aspect of this book. He succeeded, it was just so frustratingly hard not to be able to reach into the pages and give Florence and Edward a good shaking each.

I felt: A bit of information on the book first: Florence and Edward’s wedding night spans a whole 99 pages in and of itself. The whole book is 203 pages; the other half of the novel deals with Florence and Edward’s past history. I felt that—well, I understood Florence’s shyness. I understood that, but I didn’t understand why, if she trusted Edward so much, if she felt like he was her true love, why couldn’t she at least give him a hint, or just come right out and tell him her fears? But that’s not true either, when I say I didn’t understand that aspect. While reading it, I understood why she couldn’t tell him. The way the author described her and her life and her personality, I understood why she had such a hard time on her wedding night. But to put it into words, the Why into words, I can’t. There were these two passages in the novel from Florence’s point-of-view, that were so perfect, so relatable and I read them and I just wanted to copy them out and be like, “Yes! This is how I’ve felt, my thoughts, written by some guy I’ve never met; this Florence girl and I, we understand each other.”

A month ago they had told each other they were in love, and that was both a thrill and afterward, for her, a cause of one night of half waking, of vague dread that she had been impetuous and let go of something important, given something away that was not really hers to give. But it was too interesting, too new, too flattering, too deeply comforting to resist, it was a liberation to be in love and say so, and she could only let herself go deeper (73-74).

[Florence:] “You’re always pushing me, pushing me, wanting something out of me. We can never just be. We can never just be happy. There’s this constant pressure. There’s always something more that you want out of me. This endless wheedling”… It was his tongue pushing deeper into her mouth, his hand going further under her skirt or blouse, his hand tugging hers toward his groin, a certain way he had of looking away from her and going silent. It was the brooding expectation of her giving more, and because she didn’t, she was a disappointment for slowing everything down… Every concession she made increased the demand, and then the disappointment… She wanted to be in love and be herself. But to be herself, she had to say no all the time. And then she was no longer herself (177-178).

And that reminds me of Health class in school, or Sex Education, or whatever they call it, and sometimes they do the little skits or whatever that go like this:

Boy: Honey I love you please have sex with me!
Girl: Oh, no…
Boy: Please, I’ll love you so much more if you do!
Girl: Oh, I don’t know…
Boy: Come on, it’ll be cool, I promise, I love you so much!
Girl: Oh, I guess if you LOVE ME then it’s alright…

And then everybody watching the skit rolls their eyes, and all the girls (and I) think: that girl’s a stupid idiot; what kind of retard would believe what that guy said? I’d never give in to something like that. I’m not stupid. I’ll know it when it happens, and I’ll avoid it. I’m not stupid.
But it’s not really like that. It’s not so cookie-cutter straight and perfect, and I think that’s what leads so many people wrong sometimes. It’s not a script like I wrote above; it’s not clear and simple. It’s like Ian McEwan wrote, it’s under the surface and unclear and foggy and confusing and hormones don’t help.

ANYWAY, the novel ends quite sadly. Florence and Edward separate. They are unable to reconcile after their wedding night, and they never, ever see each other again. Edward goes onto travel and he meets many other women; he marries somebody else for three and half years. Florence, a talented musician, is often in the newspapers as a brilliant violinist. It ends with Edward’s remorse that he ever let a girl like Florence slip through his fingers.
I think what I learned from this novel (it feels weird to call it a novel; this book feels more like something right in between poetry and a novel, for some reason. It just feels that way) is to not hold back. Life is too short and you can make too many stupid mistakes; a word not said, a gesture not made. Just do it. Don’t stifle yourself and ruin something good in the process.

Helen of Troy by Margaret George

Rating: 6 out of 10
Summary: A lush, seductive novel of the legendary beauty whose face “launched a thousand ships”

Daughter of a god, wife of a king, prize of antiquity’s bloodiest war, Helen of Troy has inspired artists for millennia. Now Margaret George, the highly acclaimed bestselling historical novelist, has turned her intelligent, perceptive eye to the myth that is Helen of Troy.

Margaret George breathes new life into the great Homeric tale by having Helen narrate her own story. Through her eyes and in her voice, we experience the young Helen’s discovery of her divine origin and her terrifying beauty. While hardly more than a girl, Helen married the remote Spartan king Menelaus and bore him a daughter. By the age of twenty, the world’s most beautiful woman was resigned to a passionless marriage—until she encountered the handsome Trojan prince Paris. And once the lovers flee to Troy, war, murder, and tragedy become inevitable.

In Helen of Troy, Margaret George has captured a timeless legend in a mesmerizing tale of a woman whose life was destined to create strife—and destroy civilizations.

(Thank you, MargaretGeorge.Com)

I like: Good descriptions. Very thorough, never lets up, even to the very end. Interesting beginning, kept me wondering even though it’s an old, old story that’s been told countless times already.

I did not like: Static characters. The character development was basically nil–also, not much chemistry between Paris and Helen, I thought. I didn’t understand why they were in love. It was BOOM will of the gods yada yada, which I suppose is the way the myth works, but it made me less concerned for their relationship and the subsequent troubles (although troubles as a descriptive word is a bit of an understatement).

I felt: I’ve read a lot of novels concerning the fall of Troy. I read one where Helen, to put it lightly, was a vindictive bitch and Paris was a shallow little playboy. I’ve read one where Helen was cool and aloof and evil. This is probably one of the first that I’ve read that puts Helen in a more “complimentary” light. She doesn’t want to be The Most Beautiful Woman in The World. It’s so terrible. It’s so horrible. She can’t stand it. Whine. Feel sorry for her please. She’s very much a victim in this story; the victim of a loveless marriage, of the gods who like to play with human lives. She doesn’t have… what do you call it… a backbone. She’s the narrator, but she doesn’t succeed in making the reader sympathetic or caring.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows by J.K. Rowling

Rating: 9 out of 10
Summary: Harry Potter’s last adventure. It’s Harry Potter. Does this need a summary?

I like: The fluency, the adventure, the fabulous plot twists.

But not so much: The epilogue that was too perfect.

I feel: This is the end of my childhood. It was great while it lasted, Ms. Rowling.