Stuff I Read


I should preface this review with the disclosure that I have always been fascinated by Jane Grey. I saw Lady Jane when I was about 12 and fell in love with the tragic love story of lovers dying over their principles (or at least her husband loving her enough to die for her principles). I couldn’t help but wish for most of the story that Edward Tudor had somehow lived. Of course, he didn’t and he was persuaded in his last days that neither of his half sisters (to become Queen Catherine and Queen Elizabeth I) could be queen. And that somehow his very well-educated cousin Jane Grey would be the ideal replacement (skipping the right of her mother Francis to become queen, which I also never understood).  This book tracks the circumstances and tragic decisions that forced the tragic ends of all three of the Grey sisters.

Leanda de Lisle is clearly an excellent researcher and writes with enough detail to captivate you through the entire story. She focuses in turn on each sister. The portrayal of Jane was different than the previous portrayals I had read or seen.  De Lisle really focuses on Jane’s education and deliberate upbringing in the new protestant faith. She seems resolute but not at all in a puppeted way. I didn’t see any hesitation or have a feeling that she ever questioned why she should be queen. Very fascinating reading.

I had never paid much attention to the second Grey sister who Elizabeth I and Catherine saw as a threat. So virtually all of the information I read related to her and later Mary, the last of the sisters was new to me. The author did a great job reviewing journals letters and the like. I never realized just how much fortune depended on becoming and remaining in the queen’s good favor–the grey family struggled with making ends meet after Jane’s death off and on as Catherine and Elizabeth in turn felt threatened. The queens each held a strangle hold over the future of both of the remaining Grey sisters–even trying to control if they ever married (creating the next male heir rendered either Grey sister extremely dangerous with the preference for male rulers at the time).

If you’re at all interested in the Tudor era, I would recommend this highly.

It seems I am forever qualifying my reviews, doesn’t it. Well a qualifier here, or perhaps two: 1–it took me nearly 2 months to finish this puppy (and I thought about abandoning it several times, but then I’d read a chapter and get sucked back in), and 2–I have a serious level of jealousy toward Penman and her success (she too was a lawyer (tax, of all horrible things!)–and now, lucky girl, she never has to be again!).

Shannon Penman is a terrific writer. Read a chapter, just one, close your eyes and take the tiniest effort and you will be able to vividly imagine that you are there. Being able to paint so well with words though has its drawbacks–neither she nor her editor could imagine cutting much of the over 700 page beast that is Here Be Dragons. The first significant chunk of the book, maybe up to 1/4 or even 1/3 of the book takes place before the two main characters meet. The book is supposed to be about the love story between Bad King John’s bastard daughter Joanna and Llewelyn the Great of Wales. And it is a lovely story, and it doesn’t cheat you on the love story between them, the angst and agony of Joanna’s love being split between her father and husband. But it does go on and on and on and on.

I think part of the reason why I kept putting it down was utter frustration with Joanna–she was so utterly undeserving of Llewelyn. While he wasn’t a perfect husband, he was certainly for more understanding of her fits, childishness, and the million times she stabbed him in the back to try and do right by her father. I think she was in a complicated position but she was one of those horribly misguided souls who forever seemed to be making wrong decisions out of selflessness for her love of those around her, but when  you really step back and look at it, she was ridiculously selfish. Had the book been half its size, I might not have been so disenchanted with her by the end.

Speaking of the end, I felt a bit on the cheated side. After a seemingly almost impossible reconciliation between the two — it skips a few years, and then they die. I wanted to reach into the book and shake someone.

Despite the great talent Penman has, I doubt I will read anything else by her. At least not until I’m in retirement and have all the time in the world to read books that, while good, do go on, and on, and on.

Perhaps this isn’t the best time to write up this review… as I went googling for information for you good folks, I couldn’t pull anything up related to the book without the name of the author. So I went to my public library’s site and looked it up and the entry for it has no call number or indication that it is for letting. Which usually means 1) they don’t have the book but it’s on order from the publisher or 2) it’s lost. Um, I’m feeling a wee-bit concerned here given that I had it checked out and turned it in three days ago. At the outside drive through bin thingy. Next to the hooligan teenagers of questionable hygiene practice. Sigh. Clearly, not part of the review. But still, it does make one worry.

And now for the review. Honestly, despite may or may not have happened above, I was coming here to pan it. I couldn’t finish it. It had such potential–lovely little out of the way country town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Unfortunately, everyone’s business was a tidge more convoluted than I usually have the patience for–from the outsider who moved there because she wanted to (great) and somehow successfully supports herself as a maid for several houses (not likely) and her live in daughter (also a maid) and grandson (who turns out to be the lovechild of a well-respected man in the community) to the girl who is part italian and his more or less patrician mother couldn’t deal with his choice of mate (notice that I didn’t say wife). And on and on.

I think the problem was too much jumping around from chapter to chapter. I didn’t get enough to learn to care about the characters and so couldn’t remember several chapters later what their story was when we got back to it. And Boucheron’s style was almost descriptively there. I think she wanted to achieve (at least it felt that way), a sort of Edith Warton-light–heavy on the description without describing each tine on the fork. But it got confused or cut off.

I’m feeling a little squeamy about writing this review, since I think odds are good if anyone ever goes looking for one (which is unlikely in itself though) that it will get read since there don’t appear to be any reviews of it anywhere (not even amazon)–and the book was published in 2008 after all.

I almost didn’t do the review because hey–can you really review a book you get 1/3 through and not finish? The answer, yes, I can tell you to save yourself some time. Skip it. Move on.

Mostly I liked it. It was sort of too fast of a read not to. Literally, I spent 2 hours and 10 minutes from start to finish on this puppy last night. And it kept me wanting to turn the pages. It’s not complex or sophisticated, but it was charming. Although I’m a little surprised to discover that Mary Balogh is a historical romance writer–I’m uncertain if she’s in the bodice ripper category–although there were a few things just in this book that made me think her other books might not be so tame. 😉

Set in regency England,  A Matter of Class follows a gentleman’s daughter with a failed elopment, and resulting in scandal upon her already cash-stretched daddy, the Earl. So it’s no surprise the balding rich marquess with halitosis spurns the beauty as damaged goods.  The neighboring estate has a layabout son who is trying mightily to spend the family fortune on gambling and other vices. What are two sets of disappointed parents to do? Why get them married off to each other, of course.

The story has some lovely flashbacks, and actually has enough oomph to it to give you a decent picture of the characters themselves. Generally, you like everyone you are supposed to like, sympathize with everyone whose gone and done silly things, and dislike the few you are supposed to dislike. I can’t tell you more, or I’d ruin a couple of the delightful twists.

This would be great plane-ride reading or beachfront fare for the summer. Enjoy.

So, this picks up just a few months from where we left off.

The ladies now have 2 late-teen kiddos living with them and contributing some slave labor to the household. The older of the two is a college dropout, spoiled and strikes me as the “ooh, it’s tooooo haaaard, I don’t liiiiiike it” kind of why girl I love to hate. So she has like this totally brill plan, yeah, to like make money with like, uh the farm. Or several totally brill and not actually well-researched or thought out plans. No, she doesn’t actually speak that way in the book, but damned if I didn’t hear that in the back of my head.

The boy teen is really just fodder for drama–nothing house-related except that he does work around the house (and nearly burns stuff down and steals other things). I’ve got little use for his story line.

A change from the last book, that initially I hated, then I liked, then it took a left turn at “really, really, you just didn’t have to do that” is these snippet chapters where we see a little bit into the lives of women who have lived at the house over the years. I think I was mixed on this because this is really a “life and times of x persons” type of book who rest on renovations as facilitating why they are together and we care (like life and times books of knitters or book groups). And I haven’t been coached to care about the characters who are from different times that don’t impact the current characters in the book–or do they??? That’s all I’ll say about it. I won’t spoil the details, but contrived and unbelievable are two words to describe how I feel about it.

So, this is clearly less positive than the last review. And yet, I still like the farm. I’d still read another. The writing is still well done–despite the plot wanting some help at times. And for as much as I hate the totally brill idea chick, it’s kind of fun contemplating what the different ideas actually implemented would mean for the farm.

Read it if you liked the first one.

I’m torn on this one. I think maybe I wanted to dislike it. Overall, it wasn’t a waste of time. And it was very well-written–enough so that I read it long after I should have on any given night. Sometimes it’s nice to get pulled into a story that way. But at the end I was frustrated and a bit dissatisfied.
It’s post-WWII in England, largely. A young American woman working in England who loves Jane Austen runs into a girl who claims that her relatives live near a house that was the inspiration for Pemberley. So the American girl visits one weekend, mentions her Jane Austen interest and gets pointed in the direction of a couple who live in a little town not far from the manor who have been compiling a history and records of  family that had lived there for centuries and who they believe Darcy and Elizabeth were. There are some very nice touches of letters and diary entries shared throughout the story that are quite delightful to imagine as the truth behind the story. And surprisingly, they round out several characters like Mary Bennet, for example.
As the vehicle for this discovery and sharing of all things P&P, the American girl forges a friendship with the family such that she becomes almost a surrogate daughter to them and their history and story also become important for the girl to learn. There are letters and visits back and forth from the small town to London, where she meets and falls in love with an ex fly boy with commitment issues. Your heart breaks a little bit for her as you see her heading down the tunnel vision for marriage and he clearly doesn’t have that on his mind. But at the end, I wanted to throttle her for behaving EXACTLY THE SAME WAY!!!!!!!!! She didn’t really deserve the quality guy she ends up with because it turns out that she is nearly as obnoxious as the fly boy. And the really irritating thing about it is that she simply doesn’t see that.
From a view back into history, it was eye-opening. There are lots of lovely details about how long England was saddled with rationing even post-war and just how that affected their daily lives and considerations. And I adore most stories where I can be a fly on the wall in that type of setting.
If you’re a Jane Austen freak, sure, read it. It’s not a total waste of time. And prepare to be mad at the girl at the end. If you like Austen and have nothing better to read, again, it’s probably worth your time. If you’re wondering who I’m talking about and whether it’s something to do with that strange movie that Keira Knightley was in, uh, this isn’t for you. I would take the time to read something else by Simonsen again though–her writing really is gripping.

I liked it. Holy smokes–I liked it and it made me want to read some more. Not much has done that for me lately. It’s a lovely, light-hearted read–good for a quiet weekend morning.

Three women who no longer have anyone or anything they are devoted to grounding them to their current lives pool their resources and buy a house, a big house, that turns out to have significant grounds, and a farm, with sheep, and trees, and an ornate garden, with a barn, and an old dairy, and a folly. You see where I’m going with this? They underplanned, under-realistictedness (not a word, but again, you know what I mean), and generally grossly under-estimated everything to do with their transaction. And at the end, came out personally enriched (notice, I didn’t say “richer”) for the experience.

Their kids are grown, husbands gone either by divorce or death. Why is it exactly that they should stay on their PTA street any longer? Yeah, they didn’t know the answer either. So one weekend, on a lark, they view an old home for sale. 8000 square feet of significant clean up and some remodeling. But the details are lovely, and it’s an enchanting idea to just pick up from your whole life and move, start all over again, with a new purpose you’ve never contemplated. The women each have different talents they hope will help with what they decide will be their investment. Which is the first wrong decision they make. I think of my home in Texas we sold years ago–the nicest stuff we did to that place that we enjoyed was in the last year when we prepped to sell. Idiots.

Anyhoo, you’ve got the construction minded lady, the baker/gardening lady, and the painter lady.  They do, more or less ok at the outset. Fix the problems, try not to be discouraged that each time they fix a problem 10 more crop up. There are the realities of their friendship to deal with, different ways of viewing things. The realities of the fact that none of them seem to recall that none of them has any income whatsoever during the venture. And the realities of how much money you spend when you approach a project with the attitude of “dammit–I’ve earned this.”

I love that they get discouraged, things go wrong. That in this type of chicky book, they can admit that they would simply rather not be the ones doing the unfun day to day yard work, so they hire out instead of having to pretend that ideal womanhood means they have to warrior princess up. I like that the locals expect the ladies to play the local’s customs and games to get what they need–no artificial instant acceptance for this group. They do things that bug each other. Place value on things differently and struggle a little to agree to spend money on that value.

What I really loved was the detail Donna Ball provides into the restoring, the gardening, the cooking–just enough without making you feel like you just baked a pie and have nothing to show for it. I also really loved the way she took their pie in the sky dream and made them rationalize it. Instead of just buying the house for themselves and finding ways to make income sufficient to enjoy that from the outset, the women take this house they love, poor their savings into it and sign a partnership agreement (which, btw as an attorney I hated–there are several better ways to structure their business ventures that doesn’t leave them with their bare butts hanging in the wind). I thought at the outset–there is NO way these women are going to put sweat and soul equity into this house and want to leave it in a year! And I was right 😉 Why is it that women think they need to justify money decisions like men–turn it into a business because they think they should? And then screw it all up because that’s not what they really wanted and after the initial “business plunge” they never treat the rest of the money with business decisions–mostly emotion? Someone explain that to me? Because I see this all the time.

I did dislike a few things about the book, but they are easily overlooked. I didn’t like the painter character–she really didn’t have much to contribute to the endeavor and was frankly a wee-bit on the whiny side. And the whole thing with the over-loving the farm critters was a bit much for me… just like the “ghost” dealings. But they’re minor complaints and I dare you to say–I’ll read just one chapter and then put the book down. You won’t be able to; I certainly couldn’t.

I’ve just picked up the next installment of Ladybug farm. So that should tell you that I’m endorsing this one as a “go and read.”

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