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

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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: “A Countess Below Stairs” by Eva Ibbotson

countess below stairsAfter I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora, I went to the library. And folks, I went to the library a lot this year. A LOT A LOT. I realize I finished reading this book in March and I’m writing this post (in a Word document, because of the no power) on Halloween night, so I can’t talk about 2017 as a whole yet, but so far, out of the 22 books I’ve read to date, 12 have been from the library. That’s actually pretty good for me!

So this is a title I picked up on a whim. I thought it would be cute! It claimed to be about Russia! Why I would be curious about the Russian Revolution I’ll never know, said the girl who got All The President’s Men from the library on the same trip, but WHATEVER. The short answer is: I was wrong on many counts.

A Countess Below Stairs tells the story of Anna, a Russian countess who emigrates to England following the Bolshevik revolution. She and her family are forced out of their home (being of the ruling class), and when she comes to England, she decides to be a maid in an English country house to earn money for the family. Her mother and cousin (or brother? I’m not sure) don’t want her to degrade herself, but Anna refuses to relent.

Anna is also the happiest displaced Russian countess I’ve ever come across, and I watched Anastasia maybe a hundred frillion times when I was a kid. I mean, nothing got her down at all. She is excited to learn how to scrub floors! She entrances everyone who she comes in contact with! The gardener names a new type of rose after her! It’s all very twee.

So she’s been working at Mersham (the English manse) when the owner, Rupert, comes home after being in the hospital following the end of World War I. He is engaged to Muriel, and while he (thinks he) is in love with her, Muriel has also offered to help pay for repairs to Mersham, so that’s cool.

Ooo, want to play When Did Alaina Get Really Concerned About Muriel And This Book Overall? The answer is Page 54, where Robert described Muriel to some of his friends or maybe the butler:

“It wasn’t just that I knew she was an heiress – you know how people gossip in a hospital – but she’s also extremely beautiful. And an intellectual! She has this passionate interest in eugenics.” [p. 54]

Eugenics! Oh – that’s great. Just – peachy.

Let me very clear on this point: Muriel is a Nazi!

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You guys, I am serious. This was another book I’d bring to the gym to read on the recumbent bike, and multiple times I had to stop pedaling so I could gape and the outright horror I was reading.

Muriel subscribes to the beliefs of Dr. Lightbody, another “believer in eugenics.” Let’s see what he sounds like!:

Briefly, the doctor believed that it was possible, by diet, exercise, and various kinds of purification about which he was perfectly willing to be specific when asked, to create an Ideal Human Body. But this was not all. When his disciples had made of their bodies a fitting Temple of the Spirit, it was also their obligation to mate with like bodies. [p. 91]

Their obligation to mate with like bodies. Hoooly fuck.

Apparently, most of the followers of Dr. Lightbody were female, as evidenced by this snippet of a speech he gives:

“All of us, ladies and gentlemen,” declaimed the doctor, looking round to see if, among the sea of swelling bosoms, there were, in fact, any gentlemen, “have it in our power to acquire – by Right Diet, Right Living and the avoidance of lechery and vice – a body that is flawless and an unsullied chalice, a hallowed temple for the human spirit. Can we doubt that, having acquired it, it is our duty to pass it on to our unborn children and make of this island race a nation of gods? Valhalla is in our grasp, ladies and gentlemen. Let us march toward it with confidence, unity, and joy!” [p. 92-93]

Seriously. This whole aspect of the novel is so gross. I actually looked up when it was written – y’know, maybe, like with the Ian Fleming novels, I can handwave the racist/Nazi overtones by claiming “it was a product of its time”?

NOPE. According to Goodreads.com, this book was published in 2007. TWO THOUSAND SEVEN.

So instead, this character choice was made to emphasize how awful these people (Muriel and Dr. Lightbody) are. I can only assume Ms. Ibbotson wanted NO ONE to even THINK of sympathizing with the villains in her novel. Which, fine, great, whatever, but you didn’t need to make them Nazis, Eva.

(This is where some of those “fine folks” chime in and tell me that Muriel and Dr. Lightbody aren’t Nazis because they didn’t belong to the Nazi party as the Nazi party wasn’t fully established until 1918, and also, they just have a fond belief in eugenics, that doesn’t mean Nazis, but actually YES IT FUCKING DOES YOU TWAT NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY LIBRARY)

I mean, Muriel is a horrible person even without her Nazi tendencies. Rupert’s best friend, Tom Byrne, has a younger sister, Olivia. Everyone loves Olivia – she’s a sweet, precocious kid who happens to have a slight limp. Rupert has asked Muriel to make Olivia (“Ollie”) her flower girl in the wedding ceremony, and Muriel agrees. And then, Muriel meets her at the dress fitting:

Muriel seemed not to have heard. Ever since Ollie had appeared in the doorway she had been staring in silent fascination at the child. Now she drew in her breath and as Anna, guided by some instinct, stepped forward and Tom Byrne entered to fetch the bridesmaids, she hissed, in a whisper which carried right across the room:

“Why did no one tell me that the child was crippled!” [p. 155]

Oh, and lest you start to agree with the “fine folks” that you can’t be a Nazi unless you hate Jews, guess what; Muriel does.

Tom Byrne is in love with Susie Rabinovitch. This is Muriel speaking about the Byrnes (probably to Dr. Lightbody):

“And even socially … they entertain Israelites of a kind that would not have been permitted over my father’s doorsteps.” [p. 178]

Susie’s mother, Hannah, sends a wedding present to Muriel, and while we don’t get to read Muriel’s thank-you note in full, we do get to see Hannah’s reaction to it:

Hannah was standing by the window, the letter in her hand. She looked, suddenly, immensely, unutterably weary and as old as one of the mourning, black-clad women in the Cossack-haunted village of her youth. And indeed the hideous thing that had crept out from beneath Muriel’s honeyed, conventional phrases was as old, as inescapable, as time itself. [p. 223]

At the end of the day, Muriel and Dr. Lightbody are just disgusting characters. Here, we see Dr. Lightbody trying to find a costume for the costume ball, and contemplates going as the Egyptian Sun King:

 It was closer, much closer – but there was something a little bit effeminate about the whole ensemble. Not surprising, really – when all was said and done there was a touch of the tarbrush about the Egyptians. [p. 243]

Now, the good news, is that Rupert catches wise to the fact that Muriel is truly awful. He also falls in love with Anna, not knowing she’s a former countess. They have great conversations, and Anna’s optimistic joy infects Rupert.

He also has a bit of a fetish when it comes to Anna’s hair. She wants to cut it in the flapper style, but Rupert doesn’t want her to touch the length of it. One day, he’s in town visiting his solicitor (or whatever) and happens to see Anna go into a hair salon. He immediately runs across the street and confronts Anna:

“I wish to be attractive for your wedding,” she went on pleadingly, lifting her face to his. “Is that a crime?”

“Ah, yes; my wedding.” The word reared up to meet him, banishing the last traces of lunacy. He became aware of René staring at him salaciously, of Elsie, with her mouth open, clutching a towel … “You will be very attractive for my wedding,” he said lightly. “For my funeral also, je vous assure.” He lifted a hand, laid it for a moment on the rich, dark tresses where they mantled her shoulders, then turned it, letting the backs of his fingers run upward against the shining waves. For an instant he felt his touch on her cheek; then he stepped back. “There, that was my ration for all eternity. People have died for less, I dare say.” [p. 263]

I mean, slightly creepy, yet compared to the Nazi of it all, strangely sweet.

In the end, Rupert leaves Muriel – or, rather, forces her out of the relationship by pretending to have mentally deformed cousins, which is also just terrible – and he declares his love for Anna, just as she discovers the family jewelry that was nearly lost in their escape from Russia, so she doesn’t have to be a maid anymore and everyone lives as happily ever after as they can, considering there were Nazis involved.

I still can’t believe that this is marketed as a Young Adult novel. Well, okay, maybe I can. But I can’t believe there wasn’t a single editor along the way who thought to point out that maybe, making the villains Nazis was just on the side of “too much”.

Aaanyway. At least it’s over.

Grade for A Countess Below Stairs: no stars

Fiction: “Mistress of My Fate” by Hallie Rubenhold

Mistress of my FateOkay. It’s 10:02. I am giving myself until midnight to get this written. If I’m not done by then, I’m posting it incomplete, and you can fill in the blanks yourownself.

To be honest, this book was pretty … forgettable. I picked this up in the middle of my historical romance kick (I’ve still got a few of those left to review, be tee dubs), and was … very disappointed.

This is the first novel in a trilogy (how?!), narrated by Henrietta Lightfoot, the adopted niece of an Earl who becomes a fancy prostitute. Growing up, all she wanted was for her cousin, Catherine, to be her BFF. And for a time it looked like her wish came true, but then Henrietta becomes close with Catherine’s fiance, George Allenham. Catherine finds Henrietta’s platonic letters to George, becomes ill with the plague or something, and then dies under possibly suspicious circumstances. So Henrietta runs away (she also finds out that she’s not a foundling, she’s actually the illegitimate daughter of the Earl, who she was raised to believe was her uncle or whatever) to George Allenham, who takes her in and pretty much promises to marry her … but then bolts in the night.

(There’s a whole subplot about how George is a bit of an anarchist, fighting against the royals in France before the Revolution, and that he may be a spy or something, but it’s not very clear and honestly, not pertinent to my discussion of this book.)

So Henrietta, alone, follows George to London, but is a few days late and quite a number of pounds short. She is taken in by a kindly woman, and poor Henrietta learns too late that the kindly woman is actually a fancy prostitute. Henrietta is appalled — appalled, I say! — but then she’s introduced to St. John Something-Or-Other, who used to go with Henrietta’s mother (who was also a prostitute, and apparently the Best Madam Who Hast Ever Madamed), and he offers to take her in but then makes her his mistress. Then she learns that she’s pregnant, by Allenham, and when her pregnancy is discovered St. John again agrees to take care of her, but she’s a kept woman, and she then learns that nothing of hers actually belongs to her. It’s a whole big thing.

The rest of the book is Henrietta scheming with other Kept Ladies on how to maintain her autonomy in a man’s world, while also trying to make sure she has enough money to find Allenham in Paris.

Here’s the thing: I don’t trust Henrietta as a narrator. I talked about reliable narrators briefly with regards to Nick Carroway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby. We trust Nick, because it seems that he relates the events as they happen, without outside commentary. Henrietta, however, addresses the reader directly, and she tells us in the first two paragraphs that this “book” is being “written” to tell her side of the story:

I have no doubt that many of you have come to this work out of curiosity. You have heard so much about me, most of which is pure fabrication. Now that you have torn off the packaging and cut the pages, you can begin to read my story and to know who I am. [p. 1]

The fourth sentence of the entire novel is this:

Now you may now the truth, and nothing gives me greater relief than this. [p. 1]

And maybe it’s me, being a cynic; but, in the words of my forever Pretend Husband (not boyfriend – he deserves more than that), Jon Stewartnobody says “believe me” unless they are lying. And, similar to saying “believe me,” I’m not inclined to accept what someone says is the truth if they’re constantly telling me it’s the truth.

Oh, this may sound unrelated, and I know the person I’m kind of subtweeting here won’t see this, but: DUDE: JUST TELL ME IF YOU’RE ABANDONING YOUR CAR. I DO NOT CARE IF YOU’RE ABANDONING YOUR CAR. I DO NOT JUDGE YOU ON THIS. IT MAY SOUND LIKE I’M JUDGING, BUT I ASSURE YOU, I’M NOT. BUT DON’T FUCKING TELL ME THE CAR HAS BEEN TOWED TO THE DEALER. NO DEALER WILL TOW A CAR TO THE DEALERSHIP FOR DIAGNOSIS OF THE ISSUE AND THEN TOW THE VEHICLE BACK TO THE PARKING GARAGE FROM WHENCE IT CAME. AND NOT ONLY THE GARAGE, BUT THE EXACT FUCKING SPOT THE CAR WAS IN FOUR MONTHS AGO. IT. HAS. NOT. MOVED. FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, MAN UP, AND GET A NEW DAMN CAR.

Ahem. Thank you for allowing me to get that off my chest. I would bring it up, but my horoscope tells me I should keep my mouth shut tomorrow.

ANYHOODLE. So, I don’t trust Henrietta. And that means that as I was reading her escapades, a voice in the back of my head was wondering, how much of a victim is she, really?

Other, stray thoughts:

I was far too inexperienced to recognize flirtation when I encountered it, and began to panic. [p. 48]

^^ IT ME.

And speaking of it being me,

“Do you have a strong appetite, Miss Lightfoot?”

“Why, I do not believe my appetite stronger than that of most ladies,” came my innocent reply. The company began to titter.

“And do you find most ladies to have large appetites, madam?”

I thought seriously upon Lord Barrymore’s question. The entire table seemed to hang upon my answer.

“No, my lord, I do not believe we do. As we are smaller creatures than gentlemen, we are more readily filled.” [p. 249]

THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID.

Don’t be surprised if I don’t continue with the series.

(11 minutes past midnight; I’ll take it.)

Grade for Mistress of My Fate: 1 star

Fiction: “Brooklyn” by Colm Tóibín

BrooklynIn a way, it’s a good thing that I’m currently suffering from a huge bout of Book ADD. I’m still reading the 800-page behemoth that is the biography of Alexander Hamilton (asked of me at the gym yesterday, coming off of my 30-minute bike workout: “What on earth is that light reading you’ve got going on there?”), but I have no interest in any other books. Nor do I have any idea of what I’m going to read when A dot Ham is through. [[iTunes, did you just pull up “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”? Goddammit – let’s see if I can get through this track without crying for once]]

This book ADD is awful, because look, I like reading in bed: lying prone in silence helps me fall asleep. And as interesting as the Alexander Hamilton biography is, it is hard as fuck to fall asleep while reading a book that, should it land on your face, could cause your septum to deviate from the force of the fall.

But the good side to only reading one book at lunch time for the time being is: ostensibly, I should have the ability to complete a few reviews and get almost caught up before my sister gets married at the end of the month. So – here we go.

Brooklyn was the last title I was able to get for my Oscar!Watch!Read project. It’s the story of Eilis Lacey (pronounced Eye-liss), the youngest girl in an Irish family, who emigrates to America – Brooklyn, to be specific – in the 1950s in the hopes of bettering her life. Her brothers have all moved to England to find employment; her sister, Rose, works as an accountant in a mill. Eilis wanted to follow in her sister’s footsteps, but the opportunity simply isn’t there. Also not there are decent prospects for dating and marriage; none of the men in her age group show her any interest.

Rose corresponds with Father Flood, a priest from their hometown who currently resides in Brooklyn. Through their efforts, they are able to send Eilis to Brooklyn to find work and take classes towards an accounting degree. Eilis makes the journey by herself, and comes down with an awful case of seasickness. Her berthmate gives her tips on how to survive the rest of the week’s journey, and when she reaches Ellis Island she moves through the emigration line smoothly.

She has a room with Mrs. Keough, another Irish lady who runs a boarding house of other Irish ladies. They all work during the week, have dinner together at night, go out dancing on Saturdays and to church on Sundays. At first, Eilis is terribly homesick – the letters to and from Ireland do not arrive rapidly. Her sadness begins to permeate her every moment, including her shifts on the sales floor of the department store where she works. Unlike some other department stores where I’ve worked, Eilis’s manager asks her what’s wrong, and brings in Father Flood for guidance.

At one of the Saturday night dances, Eilis meets Tony Fiorello, an Italian plumber who has a thing for Irish girls. He sweetly walks her home, and they begin dating. Over time – between Eilis’s classes at the local night college, making friends with her fellow boarders, and her dates and time spent with Tony – Eilis’s homesickness goes away. Before she (and the reader) knows it, a year has passed, and Eilis is beginning to see her future in a home with Tony on Long Island.

And then, Rose passes away suddenly. Eilis goes back home to help her mother at the behest of her brothers. But because she loves Tony, and he wants an assurance that she’ll come back to him, they secretly marry before she sails back to Ireland. She is supposed to be gone for only a month. When she gets there, her mother simply assumes she’s back for good, and the assumptions pile on so quickly and effortlessly that Eilis finds herself buried underneath them – she is unable to tell her mother that she met anyone, let alone married him. Her best friend is getting married in six weeks, and it’s assumed that Eilis will stay for the ceremony, so Eilis finds herself writing to New York to extend her stay.

Meanwhile, her friend (whose name escapes me – sorry!) and her friend’s fiance ask Eilis to come out with them, and they bring Jim along – Jim being one of the boys who wouldn’t pay attention to her when she lived in town, but now that she’s lived in America she’s interesting. Eilis finds herself drawn to Jim, and there starts to be a chance that maybe she won’t return to Tony …

Brooklyn is a very quiet, pretty book. The only drama to speak of is all internal to Eilis’s thoughts and desires, and the translation of those thoughts and desires into words are beautifully-written. I was going to call the story “elegiac,” but then I found out that I’ve been using that word incorrectly all these years, because the story isn’t “mournful” whatsoever.

It’s … elegant? No, it’s like … hm. I thought I had the perfect word. Serene? Aside from whatever inner turmoil Eilis experiences? And even then, the turmoil seems minimal. Dammit, I am not as good at this as I thought.

Okay, clearly I don’t have the right word. The feeling, as best as I can figure, would be akin to floating down a lazy river in an innertube, like you used to be able to do at one of the waterparks at Disney World. The world is serene, and quiet, and you are connected to your thoughts because that’s all you have, but your thoughts are pleasant and good. You drift where the current takes you, and maybe you make a decision – left fork, right fork? – but the decision doesn’t have a lot of tension surrounding it. Whatever happens, happens, but you’re directing your own current.

And that’s what Eilis is doing in Brooklyn. At first, the decision for her to move to Brooklyn wasn’t really hers – Rose and Father Flood worked together to present her with this option of moving to America, and she took it because she knew how much Rose wanted it for her to prosper. When she got to Brooklyn, she was out of sorts. She threw herself into her studies, worked hard at her job, and then had the strength of confidence to find herself happy with Tony. Rose suddenly passes, and now Eilis is at her fork in the stream: does she go back to Ireland to help her mother, or stay with Tony in Brooklyn? Her decision is made, but not anguished over. Her decision to return to Tony (oh sorry – spoiler alert!) is made quickly, once the time to make that decision arises, but the decision is made with all the conviction in her heart based on the journey she’s taken.

The film is an exceptionally beautiful film. The colors are spectacular, and wonderfully evoke New York City in the 1950s. Saoirse Ronan inhabits Eilis perfectly, and it’s almost too bad she was up against Brie Larson in Room, because any other year, she may have had a chance at the Oscar. It’s such a sweet film, really. Also, should you decide to rent it, make sure you have tissues handy.

Anyway. I finished the Oscar!Watch!Read project in time for the Oscars to air, and I really feel like I was able to get a good grasp of the different degrees to which a film’s script can be adapted from a source material. I have a feeling – because I’m a masochist, first and foremost – that next year, I’m going to try and repeat this performance.

Having said that – hopefully, I’ll finish Alexander Hamilton by then. Even better, I hope to have figured out what I’m going to read after it.

Grade for Brooklyn: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Masque of the Black Tulip” by Lauren Willig

Black TulipI grabbed this off of my bookshelf in the last week of December for two reasons. One, I wanted to read a book quickly in order to bump up the number of books I read in December, and therefore, the year (spoiler alert! I didn’t make it. By about forty pages). And two, I was looking for something cute and funny and romantic in nature, but I wanted to know that I’d get that from the book that I ended up choosing. And I say that because the last few “silly little romance novels” I started to read all turned sour rather quickly; either the plot became too ludicrous for words, or I just got bored with the characters.

I haven’t given up on them, mind you; they’re on my nightstand under a whole bunch of library books right now. I’ll get to them eventually. And when I do, we’ll all be in for an excellent rendition of The Rant Song; so we’ve got that to look forward to, which is nice.

I also didn’t realize it had been three years since I’d read The Secret History of the Pink Carnation; it feels like I just wrote about it a year ago. So, I decided that it was about time to get back into the series, even if it is only temporary.

In case you didn’t elect to click the link above to my review of Pink Carnation, let me give you a rundown: these books are framed novels, in that we begin and end each book from the perspective of Eloise Kelly, a graduate student who is studying the flower spies of the French Revolution for her thesis. She is helped in her quest for original sources by a descendant of the Purple Gentian, one of the flower spies (along with the Pink Carnation and the more widely-known Scarlet Pimpernel). The descendant is Colin Selwick, who starts off the series kind of surly and protective of his family’s history, but — as typically happens in rom-coms — eventually warms to Eloise. Although, as the modern portions of the stories are told from Eloise’s first-person perspective, we the reader aren’t entirely sure how Colin truly feels; and Eloise definitely voices her confusion as part of her narration.

The action of the story moves between Eloise’s search in present-day and the goings-on of the flower spies and their acquaintances back at the turn of the 19th century. Pink Carnation introduced us to the Purple Gentian, Richard Selwick, through the eyes of Amy Balcourt. Amy is a lovable imp who only wants to join forces with the Purple Gentian. She and Richard fall in love — almost against their better instincts — and they are so damn cute together it’s sickening in the best kind of way.

When I originally reviewed Pink Carnation, I alluded to the rest of the books in the series. In writing these books, instead of returning to the characters we (read: I) fell in love with in Carnation, she instead spins off the sequels to get other pairs together. And while The Masque of the Black Tulip is similar enough to Carnation that I can enjoy it on its own, constantly moving to other couples in the historical section is not enough to keep me reading the books one after another; I need to take breaks in-between. (Mostly.)

That paragraph is convoluted. Basically, the history section of Pink Carnation introduces who we think are going to be main characters in the series (Amy; Richard) and their assorted sidekicks (Miss Gwen, Amy’s governess; Jane, Amy’s best friend; Henrietta, Richard’s younger sister; Miles Dorrington, Richard’s best friend). But in The Masque of the Black Tulip, we focus on Henrietta and Miles and the development of their relationship and eventual marriage. They are also sickeningly cute in an excellent way, though also in a different way from Amy and Richard.

I’ll get back to Henrietta and Miles in a moment, but within the historical part of Black Tulip, we meet sidekicks to Henrietta and Miles: Geoffrey Pinchingdale-Snipe, best friend to Miles and cohort of Richard; the object of his affections, Mary Alsworthy; and Henrietta’s friends, Penelope and Charlotte. So at the end of Black Tulip, we want to see more of Richard and Amy and more of Henrietta and Miles. But in the next book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, we are diverted yet again to focus on the developing relationship between Geoffrey and Mary’s younger sister, Letty (it’s a long story. Wait a couple of days, I’ll get into it later). So each book is like a spin-off of the one before, and I just want to get back to the original story! Because I know there are shenanigans at the School for Spies Richard and Amy started up after the Purple Gentian was de-masked! And I know there are tons of adorably bantery conversations we could watch enfold between Henrietta and Miles! Come on!

And yes, the entire series has a through-line of the courtship between Eloise and Colin, and that development is doled out in … well, very small portions. Just enough to keep us reading further to see what happens between them. And at one point in Black Tulip, their relationship is just about to go from “simmer” to “hot boil,” and then circumstances intervene and Eloise has to return to London, and that helps to propel us to read the next book, because we just want to know if those crazy kids get together in the end

It’s also possible that I’m being prematurely judgy. I’ve read through the fourth book out of a dozen, so it’s entirely possible that Amy and Richard (or Henrietta and Miles) return with substantial parts in later books. But based on my current perceptions, I’m disappointed in how the series progresses.

Not that that is going to keep me from reading the future titles in hopes of being proven wrong. And again, I’m talking about the series as a whole; The Masque of the Black Tulip is just as delightful as Pink Carnation, and while a lack of Richard and Amy is disappointing, Miles and Henrietta compensate wonderfully.

When Eloise isn’t trying to parse whether Colin’s flirting with her, she’s reading the journals and diaries of Henrietta Selwick, Richard’s younger sister. She has been kept in London during her Season while Richard, newlywed to Amy, has retired to the country to run a school for spies. Henrietta, as many younger sisters in literature do, just wants to tag along and do her part for the cause. Richard’s best friend, Miles Dorrington, has been tasked to stay behind and intercept missives from the War Office. Miles also stops by the Selwick household in town daily to keep an eye on Henrietta.

Miles’s mission is to determine who is acting as the mysterious Black Tulip: a French spy on British soil, ostensibly gathering secrets about the British effort against Napoleon. His prime suspect is Lord Vaughn, who is described as a witter version of Lucius Malfoy(*):

… the gentleman approaching was dressed in a combination of black and silver, like midnight shot with moonlight. His hair carried out the theme, a few silver strands frosting rather than disguising the original black. Henrietta wouldn’t have been surprised if he had silvered them intentionally, just to match his waistcoat ….

… Henrietta noticed the silver serpent that slithered along the body of [his] cane, its fanged head constituting the handle. It was an ebony cane, of course. Henrietta had no doubt that, as he drew closer, the silver squiggles on his waistcoat would also resolve themselves into the twining writhing bodies of snakes.

Silver serpents, for goodness’ sake! Henrietta bit her lip on an impertinent chuckle. That was taking trying to look wicked and mysterious just a little too far. [p. 54-55]

(*): Fun Fact!: I have been reading the Harry Potter books for fifteen years, and no matter what I do or how many times I say it to myself as I write, I can never not write Lucius Malfoy as “Lucious” Malfoy or “Lucien” Malfoy first. I guess, at least I don’t write it “Luscious Malfoy”?

Lord Vaughn takes a liking to Henrietta, which sets Miles’s radar off. He wants to protect her out of honor to her brother. Meanwhile, the Marquise de Montvale is getting rather cozy with Miles (to no avail), and that’s pinging Henrietta’s own radar. The more Henrietta and Miles attempt to protect each other from Lord Vaughn and the Marquise, respectively, the more they realize that they love each other. Of course, there are some obstacles to conquer before they get to their Happily Ever After, but get there they do.

Richard and Amy fell in love under what TV Tropes calls the “Loves My Alter Ego“: Amy meets the Purple Gentian and falls in love with the Gentian, whereas she hates Richard while his mask is off. Until she realizes that Richard is the Purple Gentian, that is. Then everything is hunky-dory and they get married almost immediately.

Miles and Henrietta, however, personify the “Friends to Lovers” trope. At least, that’s what call it; unfortunately, after a brief perusal of TVTropes.org (brief – hah! TVTropes is never brief!), apparently “Friends to Lovers” is too broad a category for this — in fact, “Friends to Lovers” doesn’t actually exist as a trope over there, which is shocking to me.

The closest example I can find is “Relationship Upgrade“: where two people who may have experienced unresolved sexual tension in the past decide to announce their love and become official as a couple. Henrietta and Miles have bantered with each other all their lives and felt protective of the other as near-siblings are wont to do, but never attributed their feelings to actual love; Lord Vaughn and the Black Tulip become the impetus for their relationship to be consummated.

I should note here that yes, The Deception of the Emerald Ring takes a third type of trope for its romantic plotline.

I realize that my review sounds rather negative of the series, once you put all the parts together. But I really do like the series – I can state “this happens in this book, and I wish XYZ would happen in future books” while still liking it. My wanting different or more things from something — in this instance, at least — doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the something. This will be a much different discussion when I read the next Laurell K. Hamilton novel, but when it comes to this series, I’m still interested enough in a positive way to keep reading.

As we shall see.

Grade for The Masque of the Black Tulip: 4 stars

Fiction: “Mistress of Rome” by Kate Quinn

mistress of romeAfter the much-welcomed violence break that was The Intern’s Handbook, I found myself picking up Mistress of Rome, another book I had purchased at that trip to Barnes & Noble. This title is the first in a series named on Goodreads as The Empress of Rome series – so, spoiler alert for who survives, I guess?

The main character is Thea, a slave in the Pollia household in Rome. Thea is the personal slave to Lepida Pollia, the spoiled daughter of the house. One day, the family goes to watch the gladiators, and Lepida uses Thea to bring love notes to the reigning champion gladiator, Arius. Except that Arius falls for Thea, and their romance blooms over the course of the season. When Lepida realizes that Thea has ‘stolen’ her gladiator, she abandons Thea to the streets.

Thea then gets purchased by a benevolent master who trains her in the art of singing and entertaining. He names her Athena, and she becomes the most sought-after singer for the season. She catches the eye of Paulinus, son of Marcus Norbanus, who married Lepida Pollia after the death of Paulinus’s mother. So now Thea has come back into Lepida’s circle, and Lepida’s envy of Thea hasn’t ceased one iota in the time that’s passed. That envy only grows exponentially when Domitian, the emperor, becomes enamored of Thea to the point that he makes her his mistress.

This book was basically a soap opera set in ancient Rome. The author helps us out by putting the cast of characters and the sects they fall into on the last page of the book, and it’s interesting that some of the characters were real people. But I wouldn’t read this book expecting to take away any actual Roman history. Seriously, it’s a soap opera.

Because Thea got pregnant by Arius but didn’t tell anyone, and her son, Vix, lives on the estate of her master. Just before Thea takes up with the Emperor, Domitian threatened Arius with death, so Arius had to escape Rome and ended up on the estate of the Emperor’s sister, who hates Domitian. So he hides as a gardener and befriends this slave kid that also escaped at the same time, named Vix. And it’s not until Thea comes to see Vix that she realizes that Arius is alive, but he’s also – GASP! – the gardener.

Then Lepida schemes to make herself the Emperor’s mistress, and apparently no one cares that the Emperor is a vicious, violent man intent on breaking the women he sleeps with. When Domitian finds out about Thea’s son, he decides to take Vix in exchange for Thea, and then there’s a plot between Thea and Arius and about forty other people to finally kill the Emperor.

The story is fine – if you like soap operas. I used to love All My Children, but as I was saying to my mother yesterday when The Young and the Restless came on (seriously, I’m not at home during the day, I forgot that soaps still existed) that if I found old clips on YouTube or something, I’m amazed at the dialogue, because it all sounds improvised. Like, how did I watch this for so long? Anyway, the characters are interesting, the story keeps the tension up so you get propelled along with the plot, but overall I thought the book was eh.

One thing that was jarring until I got used to it: the author switches the narration and point-of-view. A lot. We start off with Thea being a first-person narrator, but then halfway through the chapter it would switch to a third-person omniscient. There is a break halfway through the chapter, so don’t think it switches mid-paragraph or anything. But then the next chapter might start off with Lepida’s first-person narration, and then go back to third-person. It’s an interesting way to get into both characters’ heads, but it also makes me wonder why that couldn’t be accomplished by sticking with third-person narration the whole way through?

Oh well. Here’s the thing: when you look at it as an interesting soap opera set in a different time, place, and culture, the whole thing holds up. I read it quickly, so it definitely didn’t bore me. If I find the next book in the series at the library, I’ll probably pick it up. I don’t think it’s something I’ll buy again (sorry, author!), but we’ll see how the rest of the series goes.

Grade for Mistress of Rome: 2.5 stars