Fiction: “A Scot in the Dark” by Sarah MacLean

Scot in the DarkFirst: this is not a remake of the classic Peter Sellers – Inspector Clouseau romp, A Shot in the Dark. But if you haven’t watched that movie, you should. (It stars George Sanders! He’s fantastic in everything!) This is the next book in Ms. MacLean’s Scandal & Scoundrel series, the first of which was The Rogue Not Taken. The link between the two books is Alec Stuart, Duke of Warnick. Alec was the Scottish rogue who would race King and I think may be the one who performed the ceremony where King married Sophie? He wasn’t in Rogue much, but he’s the main character here.

Alec is actually like, the 17th Duke of Warnick, the previous line of Warnick Dukes expiring in quick succession. As part of his inheritance, Alec learns he is the guardian of a maid who is living in one of the ducal apartments in London. And she’s just gotten herself into a spot of trouble.

(Not an unwanted pregnancy; Ms. MacLean doesn’t truck with that type of historical romance — at least, not that I’ve read.)

Lillian Hargrove had an affair with an artist, Derek Hawkins, who is, to put it bluntly and in terms that both of my Dear Friends Emily and Sarah will immediately recognize and laugh about: a dipshit. (shit, what the fuck was Derek’s last name …. oh thank god it wasn’t Hawkins)

(for a second I thought College!Derek’s last name may have been the same as the character in the book, but it wasn’t! Hooray, I’m not telling tales on the internet!)

Anyways. Derek Hawkins asked Lillian (Lily, to her friends, of which there are few) to pose nude for a painting that would only be displayed for Derek’s eyes. And, because Lily thought they were in love, she disrobed. And then he told her that not only was it going to be displayed in a museum, but also, it was going to be the Primary Work at the London Art Exhibition (or whatever, the book is literally by my side on the couch, but I’m not going to bother looking up the proper terms for both of those things; you get the jist).

Now, in 1834, Proper Ladies did not Pose Nude for Artists. It was Simply Not Done. And especially not single, unwed Ladies. If the painting is displayed, Lily will be ruined, because no eligible man would dare marry a maid who had all her bits* displayed in a painting.

*I don’t think it’s all the bits. If I remember the description correctly, she was laying on a couch with her backside to the artist. I think.

So Alec has to come to London to get Lily married off before the painting is displayed. Well, first he tries to get Derek to marry Lily, and because Derek is a dipshit, he absolutely refuses. Then Alec pulls rank and says that Lily can only receive her funds or dowry or whatever if she finds someone willing to marry her before she turns 24, which is in nine days, and also the day the painting is displayed. Lily hoped to run out the clock, earn her pension, and move to the Continent and escape London completely.

Alec and Lily are now in a race against time, and also a battle of wits. Lily wishes to remain independent, as she’s still raw after learning how badly Derek treated her. Alec just wants to be rid of his problem so he can return to Scotland. But, as typically happens in these types of novels, they develop an attraction to each other.

I like Sarah MacLean’s novels because her characters have personality. Lily is a MASTER at passive-aggression. To wit, her choice of dress to wear when Alec tells her she needs to make a good impression at this fancy ball where there will be tons of eligible dudes:

He was not a man who noticed fashion, but this particular dress would not be unnoticed. It was a gold and bronze monstrosity, with skirts that filled the staircase and sleeves that dwarfed her. […] As though that weren’t enough, gold and bronze seed pearls were sewn into the skirts, arranged in little echoes of the canine form, and the bodice — impressively fitted despite Lily having had mere hours to adjust it to her form — was covered in ornate gold fastenings, each a different dog — spaniels and terriers and bulldogs and dachshunds. [p. 110]

And Alec’s equally canny, because he forces her to go to the ball like that. Ha!

Lily is also a very lonely person, in that she didn’t have many friends growing up. Even during this crazy time, she doesn’t have anyone to turn to. In the house where she was living when Alec first came to London, she had her room put closer to the servant’s quarters so she could hear other people in the house have conversations. So when she meets Seleste, one of the Soiled S’s (and Sophie’s sister) at the ball she’s almost surprised that Seleste wants to be her friend. But as the novel continues, Seleste becomes someone Lily can rely on, and it’s great! Women being friends!

Having said that, I doubt their friendship passes the Bechdel test, but you know what, I don’t care. I’m going to imagine all of the conversations they have after the book ends and just be happy about it.

The romance between Alec and Lily is contentious and bantery – just the way I like it. He keeps trying to convince her (and himself) that London sucks and Scotland rules. He even attempts to convince her that Burns is a better poet than Shakespeare – which, whatever dude, Burns has his place, but it’s behind Shakespeare.

This leads to a scene that has been popping up in a surprising number of romance novels I’ve been reading lately – the Oral Sex In A Carriage Scene.

… there has got to be a better euphemism for that. Please hold.

Road Canoeing. Giving The Driver a Tongue-Wagging. Buttering an English Muffin. Taking the Crumpet For a Drive.

… … … I am so sorry.

ANYWAY. That happens, but leading up to it, this exchange occurs:

He stroked her hand, his palm running over hers, his fingers tracing the dips and valleys of her fingers, until only their fingertips touched, before he once again took her hand, lacing their fingers together tightly.

“Palm to palm,” she whispered, and he heard the barely-there teasing in her words. The reference to their earlier discussion of Romeo and Juliet.

He should let her go. He meant to.

He didn’t mean to say, “The only part of the play that’s worth anything.”

He didn’t mean to look at her, to find her too close and still infernally far away. He willed himself to move. To sit back. To release her.

And then she whispered, “Let lips do as hands do.

“Fucking Shakespeare,” he cursed. [p. 172-173]

Firstly: the meeting between Romeo and Juliet is not the only part of the play that’s worth anything. Mercutio is the best character and his Queen Mab and death speeches are quite good and excellent vehicles for acting. Secondly, Romeo and Juliet is only “romantic” until, like, Act III.

And thirdly, that’s pretty hot, using Shakespeare to flirt. And so we come to another #ProTipForDudes:

If you’re in a relationship with someone who loves Shakespeare, and your normal, everyday conversation tends towards the bantery, pop-culture reference-ey type, and one day your girl is talking a lot and while she’s cute about it, you need her to shut up for a second, all you need to do is say, “Peace! I will stop your mouth!” and then kiss her. I can’t speak from personal experience, but I do know it works for Benedick and Beatrice, and they have one of the greatest relationships of all time, so …

Anyway. I liked the book, and will continue to read pretty much everything Sarah MacLean puts out. If you like romance novels that take place in the 1800s with women with agency and personalities, please give Ms. MacLean a try.

Grade for A Scot in the Dark: 3.5 stars

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Title: “A Test of Wills” by Charles Todd

test of willsAfter the high crazypants babytown frolics of The Tea Rose, I reverted to form and neglected to take great notes for the next book I read, A Test of Wills.

The Ian Rutledge series is one of the few series that the Yarmouth library owns in its entirety, it feels like. (Y’know, the more I bash the Yarmouth library on here, the more I wonder if they’re ever going to stumble onto this blog and learn how much they disappoint me. Then I remember that they can’t even add an Interlibrary Loan Request button to their website and I stop worrying.) So, phone in hand (to check on Goodreads for the first book in the series), I picked up A Test of Wills because I wanted to start a new mystery series.

I am not sure if I’ll continue with it.

Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard is back on the beat following his tour of duty during World War I. He has been released from the hospital and allowed to return to work, but he hasn’t told anyone that he’s been hearing the voice of a soldier he executed for insubordination mocking him in his head.

That’s … awkward.

Rutledge’s first case is the murder of Colonel Harris of Upper Streetham. Colonel Harris died from shotgun blast while riding his horse that morning. He ventures to the quiet town and starts investigating, with the assistance of Sgt. Davies, the local constable in Upper Streetham. Wherever Rutledge goes in his investigation, he meets resistance from the townspeople – they refuse to answer his questions.

The prime suspect in the murder is Captain Mark Wilton. And here’s where I got confused – because of the Britishness of it all, there were constant references to “the colonel” or “the captain”, and I wasn’t always able to tell them apart. Yes, I know that one was dead and the other alive, but when a third party is talking about an argument the two men had and it’s “colonel” this and “captain” that – I lose track of who’s who.

Anyway, Captain Wilton is engaged to marry Lettice Wood, the ward of Colonel Harris. Wilton and Harris got in a loud argument the night before the murder, and were seen arguing in the lane the following morning. But since Captain Wilton is also the close friend of the Prince of Wales, everyone in town is concerned about the fallout if Captain Wilton were to be named the prime suspect. Can’t embarrass the royalty, after all!

So the townspeople are all pushing Rutledge toward a couple of scapegoats: Hickam, the town drunk. But Rutledge learns that Hickam also suffers from shell shock, and sends him to the hospital to dry out and essentially clears him of all wrongdoing.

Option B is Mavers, the town anarchist. I see Mavers as a better-spoken Gabby Johnson. But he happens to have a shotgun, and he never locks his door.

To add to all this mess, there’s also Catherine Tarrant, Captain Wilton’s former lover. Rutledge learns that she fell in love with a German soldier who later died of influenza, and because this takes place right after World War I, it’s not cool to love a German. She is ostracized from the town’s society. Maybe she was jealous of Captain Wilton’s new love, and maybe she mistook Harris for Wilton?

But then, Rutledge learns that Harris had fallen in love with his ward, Lettice (who I want to be very clear – there is no familial relation between the two of them, Lettice isn’t like a cousin or anything). Maybe Wilton did kill Harris out of jealousy?

Here’s like, the one note I wrote down (after the character descriptions):

Rutledge is sent to Upper Streetham to find out who killed Col. Harris. Everyone suspects Captain Wilton, but everyone hopes it was some scapegoat, like Hickam or Mavers. No one will tell him anything, and he needs his intelligence to suss out the killer. Turns out it was … I don’t know, let’s say Moe.

I wasn’t really taken with the story. Maybe it’s due to the very Britishness of it all, but there didn’t seem to be any strong emotional stakes with the investigation. Rutledge was very diligent, and there’d be the occasional moment where he’d be hearing Hamish and responding to Hamish as if he were really there, but the moment passes, he shakes himself off and he goes back to work. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote “I don’t know, let’s say Moe” did the murder – I can’t remember who actually did it.  I have no idea if the rest of the series is going to be like this (and Goodreads claims that there are at least twenty more books oh god). I might try the next one and see if I like it any better, but if I don’t? I may quit this.

A couple of quotes, then I’m done. This one is Rutledge’s perspective on Mavers (remember, the town anarchist), but it almost sounds like it could be used in a New York Times article about the “forgotten man” (although I’m not sure why they’d crib from a mystery novel, they pretty much just take talking points issued by the White House and refuse to do any real investigative reporting anymore anyway, the spineless asshats):

He’d met men like Mavers before. Hungry for something they didn’t have, and ignorant of how to go about getting it, hating those who had had life given to them easily. Lost men, angry men, dangerous men … because they had no pride of their own to bolster their self-esteem. [p. 90-91]

SERIOUSLY, just shoot Mavers over to Iowa, and NYT reporters will be shitting themselves to get a quote about why they voted for the orangutan who learned how to talk the best words.

(I’m sorry; that’s incredibly disrespectful. I took that a little too far.

I’d like to apologize to the noble race of orangutans for my impulsive words. I did not mean to compare your intelligence to that of … that. You have my utmost respect, orangutans.)

The final quote is from Catherine Tarrant, talking about why she signs her painting “C. Tarrant”:

“Yes, I know, no one expects me when the artist is introduced. Everyone thinks C. Tarrant must be a man. Or one of those masculine women who wear trousers everywhere and smoke strong Russian cigarettes. I’ve considered wearing a patch over one eye and walking about with a trained ocelot on a leash.” [p. 130]

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Well, at least I got to make a reference to the greatest ocelot of all time; that’s worth half a star.

Grade for A Test of Wills: 1.5 stars

Fiction: “The Tea Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly

Tea RoseAs 2017 continued onward in its quick, Tower-of-Terror-esque descent into madness, I found myself turning more and more often to escapism. I stopped watching TV, for the most part, unless it was The Great British Bake Off or Bob’s Burgers for the umpteenth time. There is so much prestige TV drama I feel I should watch (American Crime Story: The Trial of O.J. Simpson, House of Cards*, any number of BBC historical dramas, Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc., etc., etc. – to the point where I almost need to do a TV Alaina’s Never Seen, but I can’t even get through Project X), but I kept sinking in to things that made me feel good.

*Remember, I read this book in August, pre-The Reckoning. I’m sure as shit not starting it now. I’m gonna wait for the last season to come out and y’all else can watch it and let me know if it’s worth getting through the Spacey years to see General Antiope kick ass, but if the fifth season’s not going to live up to my expectations, it can fuck right off.

Here’s how bad the state of the nation is when it comes to Alaina’s Entertainment Habits (please note, this is a very low factor in deciding the overall state of our nation, which is, to put bluntly, fucked): I started to rewatch 30 Rock, but I have fallen out of love with Jack Donaghy, because now when I see Alec Baldwin all I can think of is this –

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and it makes me sad. And a little nauseated.

SPEAKING OF SAD AND NAUSEATED, I was watching Two Weeks’ Notice (do NOT fucking tell me the title of the movie doesn’t have an apostrophe, IT NEEDS TO BE THERE) and enjoying the fuck out of it like normal – I love Sandra Bullock, and Hugh Grant is a fucking delight – and everything’s going well, Sandy’s given her titular notice and Hugh is being so fucking charming, and they’re at the ball and then –

the fucking asshole president is at the buffet.

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Hand to god, I pulled the blanket I was huddled underneath over my head and sang “LA LA LA LA LA” over and over again until the scene was done.

That motherfucker ruins everything he touches. He’s like Midas – fuckin’ wishes he was Midas – but with shit.

CLEARLY, I have not stopped with being emotional. But when it came to reading, I was turning away (for the most part) from mysteries and legal thrillers. I didn’t want to read about terrible things when the world was so terrible. Yes, Silent in the Grave was a mystery, but the characters had a lightness to them that their world wasn’t awful, like it would have been if I had gone with the next Rizzoli and Isles book, or the next Sara Paretsky, or … or whatever.

(Note from the Future: I will also experience this with the new Fall television season, where my favorite shows are The Good Place and … the Dynasty reboot. THE DYNASTY REBOOT, YOU GUYS, IT’S –

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IT’S FUCKING CRAZYPANTS AND I LOVE IT)

Also crazypants? The Tea Rose.

I thought The Tea Rose was going to be a high English melodramatic historical fiction. I was right, and yet so delightfully wrong at the same time.

If you want the Dynasty reboot in book form, then my dears, The Tea Rose is the book for you.

The Tea Rose begins in Whitechapel, London, 1888. Fiona Finnegan is a maid of seventeen years, working at Burton Tea as a tea packer. That is not a euphemism. Her father, Paddy, is a dockworker at Burton’s; her mother, Kate, a laundress; and she has an older brother named Charlie, a younger brother named Seamie, and a baby sister. The Finnegans live modestly, with a tenant in the form of Roddy O’Meara, a bobbie with the London Police Force. They are a very happy family.

Fiona is being courted by Joe Bristow, a “coster” in the market who grew up down the street from the Finnegans. A “coster” is the dude who stands next to the fruit and veg cart in a farmer’s market promoting the merchandise. Fiona and Joe are truly in love, and they become engaged. Fiona is a bit jealous of Millie Peterson, the fancy daughter of a wealthy grocer conglomerate; Millie is a terrible flirt, and Millie feels that she can steal Joe out from under Fiona’s nose.

Paddy is involved in starting a union down at the docks. But Burton doesn’t like the idea of a union, and decides to kill the union leader to kill the unionization talks. THAT SHIT REALLY HAPPENED, NOT JUST IN MELODRAMATIC NOVELS, BY THE WAY. Anyway, Paddy gets pushed off an I-beam and dies in the hospital, surrounded by his family.

The remaining Finnegans now struggle to get by. Joe accepts Millie’s dad’s job offer and takes a new job in the City. When he attends the Guy Fawkes party, Millie gets him drunk and date-rapes him. When Millie tells Joe that she’s pregnant (!), he sadly breaks things off with Fiona because it’s only right and proper to marry Millie and be a father to the baby.

And then the Finnegans have to take a lower-rent room. They move deeper into Whitechapel, and Kate and the baby become sick.

Fiona’s out somewhere – I think she tried to be a barmaid during this time, to earn more money – and Kate hears a ruckus in the hall of the apartment complex. She goes out to investigate, and –

Oh, y’all know that the Jack the Ripper killings are also known as the Whitechapel Murders, right?

So Kate gets murdered by Jack the Ripper –  not because she was a “lightskirt,” but because she was a witness. Fiona’s baby sister dies soon after from malnutrition and illness. Big brother Charlie, overcome with grief, goes to fight in a boxing match to earn money; a few days later his body washes up the shores of the Thames.

It’s now just Fiona and Seamie. She moves into Roddy O’Meara’s flat for a bit. Then she gets it into her head that Burton’s owes her family a settlement for Paddy’s accidental death. She marches herself over to Burton’s and manages to get into the office, where she overhears Burton himself talking his underling, Bowler Sheehan, about how easy it was to murder that union upstart Finnegan. Fiona hides near a conveniently open safe, and when Burton and Sheehan walk into the room, Fiona accuses them of murder and then runs out.  It’s not until she escapes back to Roddy’s flat that she realizes she had a stash of £500 in her fist.

She remembers that Paddy’s brother, Michael, runs a grocery in New York City. Plan in place, she wakes up Seamie, packs up their meager belongings, leaves a vague note for Roddy, and then she and Seamie board a train for Southampton.

Guys – that’s like, only the first third of the book. We haven’t even hit peak crazypants yet.

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I know.

So in Southampton, Fiona attempts to book steerage passage to New York for her and Seamie, but the boat’s full up for two weeks. She befriends a very nice young man named Nicholas Soames, who had booked first class passage for two for himself. He offers Fiona and Seamie room in his rooms, and offers to pretend to be her husband so no one would think twice. Fiona accepts, desperate to get to New York.

The good news is that Nicholas is actually as nice as he sounds. He’s a gay man, escaping from his terrible father who disowned him. He’s also mourning the death of his lover, Henri. He’s moving to New York to open an art gallery (Henri was an artist), and he grows to platonically love Fiona and she him. He’s a genuinely nice guy, you guys! It’s so rare but also very sweet!

[This is probably where you guys are going, “Hey, Alaina, how are you able to remember Nick’s lover’s name? Haven’t you spent the last few book reviews going ‘Man, I suck for not taking notes, this blows, sorry ‘bout this shitty review’?” YOU GUYS – I TOOK NOTES FOR THIS ONE

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I win.]

Fiona et. al. get through customs and Fiona finds her cousin Michael.

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Michael is mourning the loss of his wife through the classic coping mechanism of “drinking all of his problems away and not doing a great job of it.” His grocery has been foreclosed upon, his baby daughter is in the care of the upstairs neighbor, and he spends nearly every waking moment at the pub. It’s … it’s not a great look. Fiona takes her anger out on Michael’s flat, cleaning it from top to bottom and basically making it habitable again. Then she marches over to the bank and asks for a loan to reopen the grocery. She has great ideas, namely coupons and advertisements, but the bank manager thinks her ideas are stupid because they’re coming from a female mouth, and he dismisses her.

But! A millionaire entrepreneur and subway constructor (as in the first subway system, not like a Subway™ franchisee) William McClane overhears Fiona’s great ideas, and when she leaves the bank manager’s office, he goes in, tells the bank to give her the loan, and then goes out and give Fiona the good news.

[My headcanon (because I did not write down that part of the book) is that McClane goes into the office and, like Goldfinger in Goldfinger after Oddjob hat-slices the head off the statute, says something like “I own the bank.”

My headcanon continues that William McClane is like, the great-great-grandfather of John McClane, and John’s dad probably ruined the company and lost all sorts of money which is why his son becomes a cop.]

The grocery store is open and it’s a big hit. I think McClane put an advertisement in the local paper, unbeknownst to Fiona? He did something, and he also shows up after opening night and takes her out on a date. They begin to court, and it’s cute, but Fiona realizes she still isn’t over Joe.

Oh, what’s going on with Joe? Because like a true soap opera, there are multiple plots. Joe never falls in love with Millie. And when he learns that Fiona has disappeared, he tries to figure out where she went, with the help of Roddy O’Meara. When Millie finds out, she gets super jealous, and her anger causes the baby to be born stillborn. I know. When the baby dies, Millie’s father forces Joe to divorce Millie and fires him from the Peterson’s grocery business.

Back to Fiona. She decides that, in an attempt to expand her business, she’s going to develop a tea to sell. She could recognize strains of tea from her days packing it at Burton’s (not a euphemism), and she finds a special tea blender and starts her own proprietary brand, which she calls TasTea.

Let me take a second here and get something off my chest. I fucking hate that name. There is no reason to have that second T capitalized. It looks like shit. It is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

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Having ranted, I am unable to come up with a better name, I just hate it.

Moving on. TasTea becomes a hit, and she expands her brand, adding new scents and flavors to the line. The tea becomes such a hit, she returns the grocery to (now sober) Michael’s responsibility and sets off to open a series of tea rooms. She purchases a beautiful, old yet rundown building and convinces the owner to sell the property to her, and she begins to fix it up to turn it into the first tea room, named The Tea Rose. Also, there’s room for an art gallery on the second floor, because she and Nicholas are still very good friends.

Meanwhile, she and William McClane have grown very close, and William proposes marriage. She accepts, even though a part of her is still in love with Joe. (Fiona also doesn’t know about Millie’s baby or Joe’s divorce.) William also expects that, once they’re married, she’ll find someone else to run her tea empire so she can move upstate with him and be a quiet married lady with no aspirations. That whole thing makes Fiona choke, but she doesn’t come right out and laugh in his face.

Because William’s son, Will Jr., is about to pull some shenanigans! (Oh, right, William McClane is a widower with a couple of adult children. He’s a lot older than Fiona, but it doesn’t really read.) Will Jr. has Congressional aspirations, and he’s worried what will happen to his career if his dad marries again and this time, to the merchant class. And yes, when I picture Will Jr., I see Paul Ryan at his utmost smarmiest. I hate my head sometimes.

So Will Jr. orchestrates a scandal – he learns that Nicholas sometimes goes to what we would today call gay bars, and organizes a raid, only to see Nicholas arrested. Fiona learns of Nicholas’s arrest, and at his hearing, pretends to be his fiancée so he’ll be cleared of the homosexuality charge. The judge, who is also Will Jr.’s best friend says, “okay, Nick can go, but you have to come back tomorrow and I’ll marry the two of you in my courtroom. If you don’t, I’ll know you’re lying and also that he’s gay, so you’ll both go to jail. Different jails.”

Nick protests, but doesn’t say that’s the stupidest thing a judge has ever done in a courtroom, but only because he didn’t have time to look up the entire history of the court system. Fiona agrees, because how else is she going to save her best friend? This solves everyone’s problems: Will Jr. can now successfully run for Congress because obviously Will Sr. can’t be a bigamist, Nick is safe, and Fiona can continue to grow her empire, unimpeded by a stupid man.

Nick does offer the marriage to be in name only, so Fiona might be able to find someone to love her physically. Fiona won’t hear of it, so they settle into a perfectly platonic marriage.

Meanwhile, what about Joe?? Joe took a small loan from his parents and started a door-to-door vegetable delivery service, so cooks and servants don’t have to spend an entire day to go to the market and stock up on produce that will go bad quickly. His business takes off, and over the years, he has turned it into a very successful high-end grocery store chain – like Whole Foods, but less snobby.

Years pass.

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Fiona’s business has also grown, and she’s responsible for numerous offshoots of **uuggghhh** TasTea. She’s also been investing a good amount of her profits into Burton’s Tea stock shares, in the hopes of becoming majority shareholder and then shutting Burton’s down as revenge for herself and her family.

Nicholas has been … okay. Because I probably didn’t mention it before, he is a gay man. And this is the 1890s. And while HIV/AIDS wasn’t a thing back then, syphilis sure was. In what is undoubtedly the saddest but also one of the loveliest moments in the entire novel (yes, I … I may have teared up, I’M NOT MAD AT ME), Nicholas dies.

Fiona goes over Nicholas’s will to discover … Nick was in line to a dukedom. Or would have been, if his father hadn’t disowned him. But also, Nick owned 30% of Burton Tea’s remaining shares! Which puts her over the majority!

(There’s a minor subplot about how Burton’s was beginning to fail and so in an effort to raise cash, Burton sold a portion of his personal shares to Nick’s Dad, who hid it in an account under Nick’s name… and now they’re the property of Fiona and they can’t get it back neener neener neener, but Nick’s Dad sues Fiona anyway oh this will be bad)

Fiona takes the next boat to London to force Nick’s Dad to drop his suit. With Roddy’s help, Nick’s Dad allows Fiona to retain the shares. (No, I didn’t write down what happened, it’s like the one thing I didn’t write down, leave me alone, read the book to find out).

Fiona marches over to Burton Tea, where there’s a shareholder’s meeting going on. Perfect timing, Fiona! She reveals herself as the majority shareholder and new owner of Burton’s. Burton goes mad and attacks her with a penknife. Roddy and Fiona’s lawyer attempts to catch him, but he runs away.

Fiona heals after a spell in hospital, moves into a house in London and one day, goes to visit the family cemetery. On her way back, she walks to the Thames and starts skipping stones, like she used to when she was a carefree girl in love with Joe. BUT JOE’S ALSO THERE! They meet again for the first time in over ten years, and they learn that Joe’s not married to Millie, and Fiona’s no longer married to Nicholas, and they immediately reconnect and admit that they love each other still, and become engaged again.

And the book still isn’t over! But it almost is, so I’m going to leave the finale to your reading pleasure.

The book is long. Goodreads says it’s almost 700 pages. So, 3,000-word long review aside, I know I left some stuff out. But I wouldn’t be a good reviewer (I mean, I’m not anyway, but you know what I mean) if I didn’t point out a couple of places that stood out to me.

There’s a point in the beginning of the book (heh, beginning, this thing I’m going to quote occurred on p. 106) where Joe is living in the City and Fiona hasn’t left London yet, but they’re separated, and this happens:

[Joe] rose from his chair, stoked the coals, and walked to the loo to wash up. He had to get some sleep. As he dried his face, he looked out of the bathroom window. The London sky was remarkably clear. Stars shown against the black night. He stared at one twinkling brightly. Did the same star shine down on her? he wondered. Was she maybe looking at it out of her window and thinking of him? He told the star he loved her, he told it to watch over her and keep her safe.  [p. 106]

Whoops, I mean this happens. (Sorry not sorry about the earworm, folks)

And then there’s this:

Nick had been stuffing himself with steamed mussels, sopping up their garlicky broth with hunks of crusty bread. [p. 188]

Dear god, do I love steamed mussels. I was reading this paragraph while on the bike at the gym, and I almost cried because all I could taste in my mouth were those little, garlic, winey morsels and I still had like twenty minutes to go and nowhere to get those mussels.

Now, Nick is eating those mussels in Paris, and just above that line, the narrator mentions Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and for about a second I thought that Nick’s Henri was actually Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and I stopped pedaling the bike and did this:

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This book has everything: tea, Jack the Ripper, syphilis, and high melodrama. It’s great to take your mind off the shitshow that’s currently playing on our TV screens and Twitter feeds.

And guess what? It’s a trilogy.

Andy-Dwyer-Shock

Grade for The Tea Rose: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “The Queen’s Poisoner” by Jeff Wheeler

Queen's poisonerI picked this up because I thought it would be similar to The Queen of the Tearling. I was wrong.

The Queen’s Poisoner is a young adult novel, and it takes place in a setting that isn’t exactly dystopian, but certainly not modern society or a utopia. This book deals with royalty as well, but from a different perspective. But most importantly, the protagonist in this story is an 8-year-old boy.

The kingdom is Ceredigion, and its ruler is King Severn. The parents of Owen Kiskaddon are like, duke and duchess? of a province in the northern part of Ceredigion. There’s a war going on, and Owen’s father betrayed King Severn in the Battle for Ambion Hill. As punishment as a form of control, King Severn conscripts Owen into his custody, and brings him back to the royal stronghold of Kingfountain.

Owen is a terribly shy child, and Severn relishes in the fact that he frightens the boy. All the palace’s children eat breakfast at the same time, and Severn would walk around the tables while the children ate, scaring them but also making sure that none of the food was poisoned. (We find out later that Severn has magic, and his power comes from feeding off of fear of others. Breakfast scare time is like, recharging his battery for the day.)

King Severn is also drawn very much as a Richard III figure. I believe he has a bit of a hunchback, and there are rumors that he murdered or sent away his two younger brothers.

Owen’s favorite place to hide is the kitchen. He makes friends with the cook and a couple of other servants. He also finds a bag of “tiles”, which I feel are akin to dominoes. He will spend hours stacking and unstacking the tiles – he uses the motion to help himself think.

One day, Duke Horwath brings his granddaughter to Kingfountan in the hopes that she’ll befriend Owen. His granddaughter, Elysabeth Victoria Mortimer – and yes, you have to call her by her entire name – is quite the chatterbox. Owen doesn’t quite know what to make of her, and basically hopes that she’ll leave him alone if he doesn’t talk. But nope – that just makes her talk more. Eventually, they do become friendly, and Owen is able to bestow upon her the nickname of Evie.

The other person that Owen meets is the mysterious Ankarette. She lives in the tower of the castle, but doesn’t leave. She goes to him in the kitchen one day and befriends him, and teaches Owen how to play Wizr (which I think sounds a lot like chess). She knows Owen is scared of King Severn, and she teaches him confidence and also about some of his abilities. Ankarette also held the position of Queen’s Poisoner; hence the title.

Because Owen is what they call “Fountain-Blessed” – he can have prophetic dreams, or he can see things in water that other people can’t… it’s a power. But Ankarette will take the gossip she hears in the castle and feeds it to Owen in the form of a story that she tells Owen to tell Severn at breakfast the next day. And it’s usually masked in the form of a weird dream – the wolf fell over a waterfall, and when he survived, a fish was in its mouth. But that actually meant to Severn that one of his armies was close to … who knows, I can’t remember. But you get the gist.

Meanwhile, Dickon Ratcliffe is keeping an eye on Owen. Dickon is the head of the Espion, which is King Severn’s band of spies. It turns out he’s actually a traitor to King Severn – oh, shit, spoiler alert. But he’s a bad dude.

Owen and Evie go on a few adventures – jumping into the castle cistern to cool off on a hot day, sneaking through secret passageways – all sorts of shenanigans. After Severn is able to find out Ratcliff is a traitor via Owen’s “dreams”, he rewards Owen by passing the dukedom from Owen’s parents directly to Owen, making Owen duke immediately.

This was … it was weird, to me. There were a number of moments where I wasn’t sure Owen was acting appropriate for his stated age. Meaning, he’d do something that an older kid would do, but then revert right back to a different way of speaking or not speaking at all and cowering behind someone. Now, I’m not near children routinely, and I certainly couldn’t speak to how an eight-year-old is supposed to act (if there’s even such a thing). But … I don’t know, I noticed it and thought it wasn’t consistent.

I also thought Evie was too headstrong for a nine-year-ish-old, but again, I don’t know kids.

King Severn’s heel-face turn also seemed very abrupt. We went through the majority of the novel thinking Severn’s evil, and it turns out he was just misunderstood or projecting evil as a way to shore up his power.

So there you have it. This is the first book in a trilogy, and apparently each book in the series is supposed to see Owen at a different age with a different set of problems. Unlike other YA series I’ve read, there doesn’t seem to be a pressing obstacle that Owen et. al. needs to overcome, so that might be interesting. If I decide to read the next book, that is.

Grade for The Queen’s Poisoner: 2 stars

Fiction: “Ross Poldark” by Winston Graham

ross poldarkOh, good – another book from the library where I only wrote down the characters’ names. (*eyeroll*) I swear to God, Alaina …

Well, okay. This one will be quick, then.

There is a BBC television series (currently airing on PBS) on the Poldark series of novels by Winston Graham. I had never read them or watched any episodes of the series, but I had put the TV show on my Prime watchlist. And one summer day, I was loading my arms up with books to read and saw one of the books on the shelf, and as luck would have it, the first book in the series was also there, so I checked it out.

Here are the notes I made on the characters in the book:

Ross Poldark: Captain from Cornwall, who fought in the Revolutionary War (for the British), came back to run his derelict farm.

I cannot remember if Poldark was an army or navy captain; I think navy? And he didn’t just come back to run the farm – he came back because the war was over, he wanted to return to a normal life, and he hoped to wed his neighbor Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Ross’s girlfriend before the war; [Poldark] came back to find her engaged to his cousin.

Leslie whaaaat

Elizabeth thought Ross had died in the war. Because remember, this is the Revolutionary War – there ain’t no telegrams or anything. And because this is the late 1700s and women couldn’t be independent, she did the next best thing and get herself engaged to Ross’s cousin (because also, there aren’t a whole lot of people around).

Francis Poldark: Marries Elizabeth; childhood friend of Ross; gambler.

So Francis, if I remember correctly, was a bit of a dick. He grew to be very jealous of the friendship between Elizabeth and Ross, even though Ross made no attempt to drive Elizabeth away from Francis. Elizabeth and Francis have a child, whom is doted on by Elizabeth; but Francis either wants Elizabeth to have another child and she’s not ready, or Francis’s dickishness just explodes everywhere … I can’t remember, but he’s not cool. Also he’s a gambler and nearly bankrupts the family.

Demelza: The waif Ross adopts/conscripts into service as his maid; quick to learn, devoted to Ross – becomes his wife.

One day, Ross goes to the nearest village to purchase something or maybe sell something, and he meets Demelza, a young, teenaged waif who was getting into trouble in some way. When he stops her from whatever it was she was doing, she says her only option is to return to her Da, who will beat her. He takes Demelza back to his house (he has two servants, who are terrible and lazy) and turns Demelza into a jack-of-all-trades scullery maid and servant. Over the years (because this book really does cover a few years), Ross and Demelza become attracted to each other, and they end the book married.

Verity: Francis’s sister, good friend to Ross and Demelza

Verity visits Ross a lot when he first returns to Cornwall and his land. She lives with Elizabeth and Francis, and wants to make sure Ross doesn’t isolate himself after Francis’s marriage.

Captain Blamey: The captain Verity falls in love with, who accidentally killed his first wife while he was drunk

*snickers* Captain Blamey … oh man, that’s a nickname I need to keep in my back pocket…

Verity also spends a lot of time at Ross’s house because he sort of understands the romance between Blamey and Verity. Make no mistake, he’d prefer that she didn’t love him, because he doesn’t trust Blamey not to fall back into alcoholism and he worries about Verity’s safety, but he understands the attraction between the two people.

Charles Poldark: Ross’s uncle, Francis’s & Verity’s father

I think Charles dies in the novel? I think? There was also some sort of bad blood between Charles and Ross’s father, but it’s dispensed with quickly.

Jud Paynter and Prudie: Ross’s servants

When Ross returns to his land, it’s been in the hands of “caretaker” Jud and his wife Prudie. They are terrible people, in that they are completely lazy and give no shits. When Ross comes home the house is a decrepit mess, with I think only one horse and no crops to farm? He spends a lot of time fixing up the place and whipping Jud and Prudie into shape. Adding Demelza into the mix helps to inspire Prudie to at least mediocrity.

Jinny & Jim: lovebirds who worked in the mines, later married, and lived on Ross’s land; Jim gets caught poaching and goes to jail for two years.

The biggest “plot” in the book is Ross getting the ol’ family mine started up again. He hires some people, including Jinny and Jim, to help mine the copper (or was it tin? *checks Wikipedia* Copper. A copper mine). When Jim wants to marry Jinny, Ross offers to let them live in an old cottage on his land rent-free (essentially, “you work for me, now because I provide housing you can’t leave.” CAPITALISM) (tone it down, Patterson, this was written about miners in the late 1700s, communism is still a red herring at this point).

But in order to get food, Jim poaches on some hoity estate and gets caught. Even after Ross vouches for Jim in court, Jim still gets sent to jail for two years. At the end of the book, Jim is still in jail.

And those are all the notes I took. No quotes, nothing else. Overall, the plot of the book was very … like, “slice-of-life” stuff. How can I explain this …

Instead of telling a single story – or maybe one primary story with a few B-plots – Ross Poldark tells the goings-on of one man over the course of a few years. Some stories escalate and resolve, some stories are just brief vignettes, and others don’t even resolve in the timeframe we’re watching.

And that’s okay, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t quite a picaresque novel (where instead of a plot with a through-line throughout the novel, the novel is a series of adventures starring a low-class individual [typically a thief or some other rogue] and the character doesn’t undergo any development), but it felt like it at times. However, characters do develop, Ross and Demelza especially.

I’ll probably watch the TV show (eventually, at some point), and knowing me, I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series, but it’ll probably be a while. I guess I was hoping there’d be a little more suspense or action than there was, that’s all.

Grade for Ross Poldark: 1.5 stars

Fiction: “My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne DuMaurier

my cousin rachelI picked this book up at the same time as An Untimely Frost. I was perusing all of the tables of paperbacks, as quickly as I could – when I go to Barnes & Noble on my lunch break, I really only have half an hour to spend, because driving to and from there eats up about fifteen minutes each way, thanks, traffic! – and at first for some reason I thought this was a previously-unpublished novel by Ms. DuMaurier? But apparently I thought Daphne DuMaurier only wrote two novels (Rebecca and Jamaica Inn), and didn’t realize she was as prolific as she was.

Because I love Rebecca so very, very much, I bought the book, and began reading it when I returned home from My Dear Friend Sarah’s baby shower.

My Cousin Rachel is set in an unknown time period, most likely mid-to-late 1800s in the Cornwall, England area (the southwestern-most tip of Great Britain). The book is narrated by Philip Ashley, adopted ward of his cousin, Ambrose Ashley. Ambrose takes Philip in after Philip’s parents die, and Ambrose raises Philip according to what he feels is best – sends Philip off to school (Eton, I think), then on Philip’s holiday he comes back and tends to the estate. Ambrose never feels like he needs to marry to have give Philip a feminine influence; his neighbors, Nick Kendall and Nick’s daughter, Louise, satisfy Philip and Ambrose’s social needs.

As Ambrose ages, his doctor recommends traveling to warmer climes in the winter. So Ambrose winters in Florence for a couple of winters. And then, one winter, Ambrose doesn’t come home: he has fallen in love with a widowed contessa, Rachel Sangalletti. Philip feels betrayed; he’s shocked that his love for Ambrose isn’t good enough to sustain Ambrose any longer.

Then, Philip receives a strange letter from Ambrose. Ambrose is ill, and all of a sudden, somewhat paranoid. He complains of terrible headaches, but comments that Rachel is tending to his needs. A second letter arrives later that summer, wherein Ambrose tells Philip of Rachel’s lawyer and friend, Rainaldi, who recommends a doctor for Ambrose to see.

Philip becomes evermore anxious and distrusting of the care Rachel is providing, and with Nick’s blessing, Philip travels to Florence to rescue his cousin. But when he arrives, Ambrose has been dead for a couple of weeks, and Rachel has fled the villa.

Heartbroken, Philip returns to Cornwall. He learns that Ambrose never updated his will, so Philip will still inherit the estate when he comes of age (turns 25). A few weeks after that, Philip receives a letter from his cousin Rachel – she has arrived in Portsmouth, and she wishes to meet Philip and see the estate before settling herself in London.

Philip invites her to the estate, as it is the only proper thing to do. He is resolved to hate her immediately, and relies on the kindness of Nick and Louise to ensure the estate is presentable. Philip spends the day of Rachel’s arrival canvassing the acreage, determined to not see her.

(I’m sorry that paragraph is so dramatic compared to the rest of the review – I’ve been listening to classical music to a] keep my concentration on this and b] I had a headache earlier and classical music can help, but The Ride of the Valkyries just started playing and apparently it’s making my word choice just as bombastic. I HAVE NO REGRETS [except the shouting, Alaina, ssshhhh].)

But when he meets Rachel after dinner, he is charmed by her quiet graces. She is very grateful to Philip’s hospitality, and seems to be devastated by the loss of Ambrose. Philip realizes he was acting immature, and resolves to be nicer to Rachel.

As his affection for her grows – and Christmas nears – Philip goes into the village, and removes the grand pearl necklace that belonged to his mother from the Ashley security box. Philip gives the pearls to Rachel, and she is enamored of them. But at the party where they both present Christmas presents to the estate staff, Nick and Louise comment on the necklace. Nick asks Rachel to be sure to return the necklace the next day, to have it returned to the bank. She readily acquiesces, with no hard feelings. Philip is hurt, and claims to be the rightful owner of the necklace and he’s all, I do what I want! And Nick reminds him not until April when you turn 25, boy

Then Philip finds a last, lost letter among Ambrose’s belongings that Rachel brought from Florence, in which Ambrose sounds the most paranoid of all the letters. He outright accuses Rachel of embezzling money to buy things, and he also suspects she’s poisoning him.

Philip must decide who to believe: Rachel, who is incredibly sincere and guileless, or Ambrose, the guardian he trusted over everything else.

I was not drawn to this novel as much as I was to Rebecca. I also don’t know if my attraction to Rebecca stems from the movie, which I watched first, or if because the narrator of Rebecca is a nameless female (save for “Mrs. De Winter”) so that it’s easier for me to fall into her story than Philip’s. It also might be because Mrs. De Winter is so innocent and naive, whereas Philip has many moments of suspicion and paranoia, that I see more of my own instincts in Philip than Mrs. De Winter, and therefore are more likely to find escapism in Mrs. De Winter’s tale than Philip’s.

(Also, My Cousin Rachel doesn’t have a Mrs. Danvers, and that’s a liability.)

I also watched the movie when it was released on Redbox late last summer. It stars Sam Claflin as Philip and Mrs. Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, as Rachel. I know the movie did not stray too far from the book. I also know that the movie didn’t rewrite the ending of the book (unlike Rebecca, and yes, I still blame the Hays Code and no, I still don’t know if I prefer the movie or the book). But that’s about all I can say about it, because it was one of those Redboxes that I threw on and then got bored or looked at my phone and did other things and basically tuned the whole thing out.

It looked pretty, though. And again, it did not stray from the book, so, yay faithful adaptation?

If you like psychological thrillers, you’ll probably like My Cousin Rachel, even though it’s not really “thrilling”. As you read, you need to decide: is Rachel a victim of circumstance, paranoia, and perception? Or is she a black widow? After reading it and watching the movie, I’m still not entirely sure of my decision.

Grade for My Cousin Rachel: 3 stars

Fiction: “Silent in the Grave” by Deanna Raybourn

silent in the graveI had heard many great things about the Lady Julia Grey mystery series – from the Fug Girls’ Afternoon Book chats, from other readers, all sorts of places. But damned if I could ever find a copy of them. I think I had the first one out from the Portland library when I still lived there, or maybe it was during that weird six months where I worked at that horrible office, but if I had checked this out at that time, I returned it unread. And god forbid that the Yarmouth library had this title in stock.

But good news, everyone! I was shopping at Bull Moose – record store of my heart, that has also expanded to DVDs, games, and bless them, books – and a hardcover copy of Silent in the Grave, the first Lady Julia Grey mystery, was on sale. And not only was it on sale, but it was on sale for $2.97.

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Now, the hardcover is heavy. It’s like, 500 pages. And I wanted to start reading it before going to My Dear Friend Sarah’s baby shower, but I also didn’t want to be carting around a 500-page hardcover book through airport security or on the Metro. I started reading this for real when I returned to Maine, and I read it super quick.

Lady Julia Grey is a widow in Victorian England. We know she’s a widow, because the first paragraph in the book reads:

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor. [p. 13]

Edward dies shortly thereafter, for all appearances, of stroke or seizure. Edward had not been well, either, so while it is a sad turn of events, it wasn’t completely a surprise. Brisbane was invited not as a guest to the dinner party that was going on, but because Edward had hired Brisbane to investigate a threat Edward had received. While the doctor declares Edward’s death due to his longstanding heart condition, Brisbane tries to convince Julia that Edward was murdered. She dismisses Brisbane out of hand and tries to get on with her mourning.

About a year later, Julia finds one of those threatening notes left for Edward, and she starts to think that maybe Brisbane was right. Julia seeks Brisbane out and attempts to hire him to find her husband’s killer, but he rightly tells her that too much time has passed since the death for any evidence or trails to exist.

But that doesn’t stop Lady Julia! She does her own investigating, and asking the doctor some questions, and also there are gypsies and –

Look, again, sadly, this review is going to suffer for my lateness and lack of note-taking. I know I did not bother to take notes on this book because I own it and thought by skimming through the book when it finally came time to review it, I’d be able to be fine with it? But I’m writing this at almost 11 p.m. on the Tuesday night before I have to go back to work after a six-day Christmas break and I really don’t feel like re-reading a 500-page novel again just so I can do a decent job reviewing it.

Note From the Future: I maaaay have started writing these reviews like, three at a time, and then posting one a day. I’m posting this today because I’m back to having four reviews in the can, so to speak, and that’s a good amount to have able to post, so – new year new me maybe this book blog backlog can be eradicated before the Oscars!

So I’m not going to talk about the plot – mainly, because I can’t remember much of it, and what I can remember, I’ll spoil the ending for you, and I don’t wanna play you like that. Instead, I’m going to tell you the emotions I remember and some other things.

First, Brisbane is a curmudgeon. A handsome curmudgeon, but a curmudgeon nonetheless. He is short with Lady Julia, and he tends to exasperate her, but later he introduces her to Hortense de Bellefleur, a patron-slash-mentor of sorts to Brisbane. A former courtesan, she delights in her newfound friendship with Lady Julia, and Julia responds in kind, not caring about what other people in society may think. Hortense also tells Julia that one of the factors for Brisbane’s prickliness is that he suffers from – well, we’d call them migraines, in common parlance. Can’t remember what they call them in this time period, and while I will look up the name of Brisbane’s courtesan friend, I’m not searching through the pages to find the euphemism for migraines.

Julia also has some ties to gypsies – a band of gypsies used to park on her father’s land when she was a teenager, and one of her maids or housekeepers is a gypsy. Somehow Julia is concerned that the gypsies may have been involved with Edward’s death, which leads her and her brother to disguise themselves to sneak into a nearby gypsy camp, where she discovers Brisbane boxing and also he’s fluent in Romany and when he discovers her there he gets super mad and also super protective and oooohhh, I see what you did there, Ms. Raybourn, it’s Next Love Interest Time!

I realize I’m sounding super facetious, but at this point I think I’m mad at myself more than at the book. I know I loved the book – much like when I skimmed the reviews for a couple of previous books, I’m shocked at how many people on Goodreads hate this book, but I enjoyed it. I thought the romantic elements between Lady Julia and Brisbane were great – a nice, slow burn, which I enjoy wholeheartedly. There’s also a subplot with Julia’s brother, whose name escapes me, and how he managed to steal a raven from the Tower of London and now the raven lives with Julia. There’s also Julia’s entire family, the Marches; her father is a Shakespearean nut, and all of the family members are named from Shakespeare characters. There’s a lot, and again, not looking it up, but I enjoyed that part of it.

I really did like this book. Unlike what some commentors on Goodreads thought, I didn’t think the multiple plotlines distracted from the story. I think this does something similar to the Lady Emily mysteries I’ve read: you have a strong, independent, almost-headstrong widow who’s determined to get to the bottom of something, but because she’s a Lady of Quality, she can’t devote every last second to mystery-solving. There are going to be subplots. Let’s face it; we all have subplots going on in our lives, we can’t devote every single second to the main action. In some cases, we may not even know whether the main action really is the main action.

The only page I dogeared in the entire novel was page 55, where Julia reminisces about her courtship with Edward. I felt that, through this paragraph, I felt akin with Julia:

I was not like the other girls; I had no frivolous conversation or pretty tricks to win suitors. I had forthrightness and plainspoken manners. I had a good mind and a sharp tongue, and I was cruel enough to use them as weapons to keep the cads and rogues at bay. As for the young men I might have liked to partner me, I was far better at repelling than attracting. I did not swoon or carry a vinaigrette or turn squeamish at the mention of spiders. Father had raised us to scorn such feminine deceptions. Like my brothers, I wanted to talk about good books and urgent politics, new ideas and foreign places. But the young men I met did not like that. They wanted pretty dolls with silvery giggles and empty heads. [p. 55]

Heeelloooo, Alaina! Like, FOR REAL. I do not know how to flirt. I am bad at it. I can’t tell when dudes flirt with me, which leads me to think that dudes aren’t flirting with me, which is also fine. But seriously: aside from literally screaming my head off at the sight of a garter snake (ask my sister, it happened, I’m ashamed but also, not apologetic for my actions), that paragraph could be describing one Alaina L. Patterson.

Again, that’s not the only reason I liked the story, and encourage y’all to read it given the chance. But it’s nice when a reader can truly relate to a character.

Grade for Silent in the Grave: 4 stars