Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my blog! You may not think you know me, but I have a feeling we are very much alike. I am the woman in the long skirt and bulky sweater sitting cross-legged on the library carpet reading the hardback vintage classics one can only find on the bottom shelf, back row. You will also find me searching through the online catalogs of publishing companies and chatting with authors on forums. I love the smell of fresh paper in a new book, and the smell of dust on a vintage classic. I love the classics, Christian fiction, short story collections, and those unique finds that keep me up until the early hours of morning when I finally fall asleep with the book still open on my chest. I am, however, a careful reader. I notice missing details, glaring plot flaws, and characters who suddenly have drastic personality changes halfway through the novel and I do not hesitate to discuss these issues in my reviews. I am honest and believe I am fair so please don't take my criticism personally and don't hesitate to contact me about your next book. I also enjoy a good, long chat with other readers and often learn from these experiences. Comments are always welcome. You will find more about me in the right hand column and more about what I look for in books in the left. I hope you enjoy your time here! --Darla Sue

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Love Finds You in Mackinac Island, Michigan by Melanie Dobson



Love Finds You in Mackinac Island, Michigan by Melanie Dobson
Summerside Press
Minneapolis, 2012
ISBN 10: 1609366409
ISBN 13: 978-1609366407

It is June, 1894. Elena Bissette and her parents are on the steamer, Manitou, traveling through the Straits of Mackinac, headed for their summer residence on Mackinac Island. This may be their last summer on the island as Elena's father's investments have not provided the financial support they had hoped for, and Elena's mother has made it clear that this will be the summer Elena will become engaged, for the family's sake, for the sake of money. According to Elena, her mother has thought this through carefully and chosen the richest, most eligible bachelor on the island for her daughter. Elena realizes her family's situation is dependent on her success at finding an appropriate spouse over the summer months. Although she's not sure she's ready for marriage, she does understand her mother's feelings of desperation, and yet, she still believes that marriage should be for love. The conflict of the novel is established from the beginning--love versus money.

As Elena and the rest of the passengers disembark from the ship a gust of wind catches Elena's hat, whips it from the top of her head and sends it tumbling along the boardwalk toward the water's edge. Elena pushes through the crowd, trying desperately to retrieve her lovely hat and nearly falls into the water, rescued at the last minute by a departing soldier. She can hear the whispers in the crowd as she returns to her mother. She can see the look of embarrassment and disapproval on her mother's face, and this scene establishes yet another theme in the novel--gossip, judgment, friendships based on popularity, the type of life that Elena abhors and tries to avoid, but she now knows she will be the focus of this gossip the entire summer, all because of her silly hat and a playful gust of wind.



Elena's concern for her hat is matched by her concern over how her mother will react to the situation. In Elena's mind, her mother seems to fit in well with the rest of the families on the island, people who are more concerned with gossip and impressing their neighbors than living a Christian life. Soon, however, Elena will realize that her mother is showing concern for Elena's reputation because she deeply loves her daughter and wants what is best for her. This realization will take time, though, and Elena will experience a few more embarrassing moments before she recognizes the wisdom in her mother's advice and decisions.

There is one area of her life, though, where Elena appears to be wiser than her mother, and that is in her choice of husbands. Although Elena realizes her family's finances are in jeopardy, and a marriage to a wealthy man could help this situation, she seems to understand clearly, in her heart, that marriage should be for love. She is torn inside with the conflict between marrying for love and her duty to her family.

The man her mother has chosen, the most eligible bachelor on the island, Chester Darrington, is struggling with a similar conflict. Darrington is aware of the fact that every mother on the island is hoping he will marry her daughter and he does his best to avoid the usual gatherings where he will be forced to spend his time meeting every single daughter in his family's social circle. Darrington also understands his family obligations and tries to please his own mother by smiling, dancing, and acting appropriately during these seemingly endless introductions.

A Change in Personality

Then Chester is told a bit of gossip that oddly seems to change his personality. When he hears that Elena is seeking him out, intent on a wealthy marriage, he judges her before they even meet, and when they do meet, he is rude and unkind. It almost seems as if a union between Elena and Chester is impossible. This novel, however, has a second story embedded in each chapter, the story of a woman and her children seemingly abandoned in the lighthouse that Elena has used to hide away from her family since her childhood years. The story appears in the form of a diary, and the diary's presence eventually helps bring Elena and Chester to a stronger understanding of the truth about love and commitment.

This is a novel that is hard to set aside, even for a few hours. The relationship between Elena and her mother is realistically portrayed and the historical details are both accurate and fascinating. It is hard to classify the plot as it could be historical romance, but with the inclusion of the diary, it also becomes a mystery, which makes it even more fun to read.

On the other hand, I was frustrated by the way the diary was introduced in the novel. A page from the novel simply appears in the book without explanation or introduction. I would have preferred to read about Elena's first discovery of the diary. As it is, the introduction of the diary into the story creates a bit of confusion, and the confusion is not cleared up soon enough. In fact, it continues until the reader is well into the story.

I felt the same way about the introduction between Elena and Chester, which does not take place until nearly halfway through the novel. I wanted them to meet much sooner. I felt a bit of irritation over how long it was taking for the two to meet. I wanted to feel the tension between the two of them from the start. Instead, I felt their individual tensions over their life situations, but no connection between the two that would lead me to believe they might eventually fall in love.

Spoiler Alert

And now I will say a few things that may spoil the plot for those who have not read the book. In fact, these comments are specifically for those who have read the book.

I also felt as if the conflict that kept this couple apart was a bit contrived. Elena's actions did not seem shocking in any way, and the fact that Chester's sister was embarrassed by her husband's flirtations with another woman should not have deterred Chester as he already recognized that his brother-in-law was a womanizer.

I was equally confused by Chester's response to gossip about Elena. From the beginning, the reader is made aware of Chester's disdain for the gossipy nature of the social circles on the island, so it doesn't make sense that he would listen to, respond, and react to the gossip in the way that he does.

There is yet another conflict between Elena and Chester involving identity confusion, but this does not seem serious enough to cause the tension between them that appears in the novel. However, when the tension is finally resolved, and the couple are united, Chester's character becomes almost unbelievable. He suddenly transforms from a serious businessman to a silly, irritating schoolboy. The resolution of the financial situation could also have been made more clear considering this was such an important theme in the novel.

In spite of the problems with characterization and plot, I would recommend this novel. The details are strong and compelling. The author has clearly completed a tremendous amount of research about the history of the island and has a solid understanding of the workings of society at that time. Elena's mother is a strong presence in this novel. Although Elena does not present her in the best light in the beginning, the reader begins to understand the woman's fears and desperation, emotions that make sense under the circumstances. Elena is an interesting character, a woman I would enjoy reading about in a sequel. She is intelligent, compassionate, and kind, a young woman who is trying her best to make her own way in this world while still pleasing her family and maintaining her Christian ideals.

I would rate this novel with a four for quality. Although there are problems with the plot, and with the hero's character, Elena, her mother, the exquisite historical details and the mysterious diary are enough to justify a high recommendation of this novel and its author. As for the blush factor, the only sexuality in this novel is implied in the behavior of Chester's brother-in-law and other island gossip, not enough to even rate on the blush scale.



Melanie B. Dobson


I would like to say a few words about the author, though. This is not a first-time novel for Melanie Dobson. She has eleven historical romance, suspense, and contemporary novels in publication. Like most authors, she started writing while still in school. Her writing career began in 2006 with the publication of a novel inspired by the adoption of the oldest of her two daughters.

Dobson spends a tremendous amount of time with her family traveling and hiking in the mountains near their Oregon home, and this family closeness is reflected in her stories. In Love Finds You in Mackinac Island, Michigan, the reader finds a realistic conflict between mother and daughter, but also recognizes the love and respect the two have for each other.

Dobson is also an award-winning author. Two of her novels won Carol Awards in 2011, and her novel Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana won Best Novel of Indiana in 2010. When commenting about her writing, Dobson was quoted as saying, "My desire is that the stories God has etched in my heart will give readers a glimpse of His love and grace even when they don't understand his plan." To me, this statement is an accurate summary of the feelings expressed by Elena Bissette. Dobson has certainly achieved her personal writing goal with Love Finds you in Mackinac Island, Michigan.

Resources: 

  • Dobson, Melanie B. Love Finds You in Mackinac Island. Summerside Press. New York: 2012. 

I received this book free from the publisher through the Litfuse Publicity Group. However, I was not asked or required to write a positive review. The opinions I express are my own and in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 [...] : "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."






Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory


Queen Elizabeth and Sir Robert Dudley




The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory
Touchstone
New York: 2005
ISBN-10: 0743565096
ISBN-13: 978-0743269261


It is autumn, 1558, and the church bells of England are ringing to announce the coronation of the new queen, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, once declared his bastard child when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was convicted of treason, then beheaded. Now she is 25, and she is queen. Although she lacks her mother's provocative beauty, she has inherited Anne Boleyn's charm, her pale and willowy appearance. She has her father's ginger-colored hair and his stubborn pride.

She has also inherited a financially destitute kingdom, and the same dilemma that plagued her father throughout his rule--the need for a male heir to carry on the Tudor family line.

The answer to her plight would seem to be an easy one as she is infatuated with her childhood friend, Sir Robert Dudley. It matters little that the Dudley family's reputation has been sullied by claims of treason and the executions of his father and brother as Elizabeth's family line was also tainted by the execution of her mother. There is a far more serious matter preventing a marriage between Elizabeth and Robert: Amy Robsart, Dudley's wife.

Dudley is expected to spend his time at court. Following Elizabeth's accession in 1558, she appoints Dudley the Master of the Horse. This position makes him a dignitary of the court and member of the ministry, a peer and privy councillor. He is in charge of everything that involves the court's horses, as well as the hounds, stables, couch houses, stud, mews, and kennels.

If Elizabeth wants to ride, he must see that she has the proper mount, and Elizabeth rides often, particularly with her Master of the Horse. If there is a procession, hunt, visiting dignitaries, the Master of the Horse makes all decisions regarding how the day will proceed. As Elizabeth is a new monarch, there are many processions and visiting dignitaries, particularly since she is also unmarried, which means Sir Robert Dudley is responsible for preparing his lover to look her best for the representatives of men who want to court her, which could not possibly have been the most comfortable situation for a man.

The Social Plight of Robert Dudley's Wife

While Dudley is at court, his wife, Amy Robsart is shuffled from one place to place, living with relatives, friends, acquaintances, when all she really wants is to build a home with her husband. Not just a house, but a home where they can raise a family and grow old together. In the beginning of Elizabeth's reign, Dudley assigns his wife the task of finding a home that would represent the importance of his station in court, but Amy fails to meet his expectations. She wants a farm, one that is close to her family. Dudley wants a castle fit for a visiting queen.

Amy becomes increasingly aware of the many rumors circulating about her husband's relationship with Elizabeth, but remains steadfast in her belief in his love for her, stubbornly denying any insinuations of an affair that she might overhear. Her marriage to Robert Dudley was not the typical arranged marriage. They married young, but they married for love, and she believes in her heart that this love will be enough to save her marriage.

As the length of time between visits from her husband continues to grow, and his attention to her needs begins to wane, Amy grows anxious and gradually suspects there might be some truth to the rumors, but her anxiety only makes her more determined to find some way to save her marriage. She begins to realize that there is the possibility that her husband will ask for an annulment of their marriage and decides she will refuse any attempt to end her own relationship with Robert Dudley.

Dudley and Elizabeth have grown so close that he now makes all decisions regarding her daily activities and is beginning to overstep his boundaries in political decisions, as well. At first, Elizabeth appears to be willing to accept this behavior. She asks him to move into the rooms adjoining her own so they can meet privately each night without interruption, though this clearly confirms the affair in the minds of those around her.

Gradually, Dudley's ambition gets the best of him. Elizabeth, whose mother was beheaded when she was a child, is aware at all times that she must maintain control, that she cannot allow any man to rule over her as this could potentially put her in danger of losing her power, or her life. When Dudley makes a comment about his own power in the court and repeats the same words Elizabeth used when she was told that she was queen--"This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes."--Elizabeth's worst fears about Dudley's ambitious nature are confirmed.

The Murder of Amy Robsart

Shortly after, Amy Robsart is murdered. Her neck is broken by an intruder who carries her down the stairs to make it appear as if she has fallen, carefully arranges her dress to leave a certain amount of doubt as to whether or not it is an accident, then places Dudley's signet ring in her pocket.

There is an immediate investigation and Dudley is cleared of all wrong-doing by law, but in the minds of the people he is guilty of murdering his wife. This destroys any chance that he will ever be able to achieve his greatest goal--to marry the queen and rule by her side. For Dudley, however, there is an even greater mystery--why did his wife have his ring? He tries to deny the obvious, but there can only be one answer, one person who planned the murder of his wife, and the placement of the ring is a message, warning him against his ambitious nature.

Considering the many characters involved in this story, Gregory's first challenge was to choose the person who would tell the story. She decided to tell the story through the voices of the three primary players in this love triangle--Queen Elizabeth, Sir Robert Dudley, and Amy Robsart. Elizabeth and Dudley are the most logical choices, but when she chose to interject the voice of Amy Robsart into the story, Gregory made a decision that was pure genius.

As Elizabeth and Dudley have clearly wronged Amy through their public romance, Amy Robsart immediately becomes a sympathetic character, a victim in the minds of the readers, just as she was in the minds of the public when she was alive. While she was alive, the Virgin Queen was known as the whore, Sir Robert Dudley was viewed with jealousy, envy, resentment and contempt, which placed him in a very dangerous political position, and Amy Robsart was his pious, obedient...neglected wife who was emotionally abused so badly by her husband that eventually, people were embarrassed to be seen with her.

The Characterization of Queen Elizabeth I

I was disappointed in the character of Elizabeth. I have also researched her life for many years and although it could be said that she was naive, I believe Gregory made her appear weak, and a weak woman would not have made the decisions Elizabeth made to preserve her claim to the throne. The title is catchy, but also a bit misleading. Elizabeth did not take on the persona of the Virgin Mary until much later in her reign. In these early years, she was known as "the whore." The way that Elizabeth is presented in this novel does not make her a sympathetic character.

Dudley's ambitions may have also been a bit overplayed. He certainly would have had a bit more control while in front of the court considering the deaths of his father and brother. On the other hand, Dudley's remorse over the death of his wife felt very real and sad, almost pathetic as he gradually realizes how cruelly he treated the one woman who was faithful to him beyond all reason.

Like most writers of historical fiction, Phillipa Gregory loves her research. This is obvious in the carefully detailed accounting of Elizabeth's early reign. On the other hand, Gregory is, first and foremost, a storyteller. The nature of her craft demands that she apply her creative inspiration to the historical facts, mixing the two like a cook searching for the perfect ingredients to entice her readers to nibble, bite, then eat the cake whole and come back begging for more. The details behind the death of Amy Robsart are often disputed by historians to this day, so Gregory is speculating when Dudley realizes at the end of the novel who it was that orchestrated the death of his wife. Gregory explains this in an author's note at the end of the novel. There is certainly evidence to support her conclusions, but she does plant a device in the story to assist her readers in agreeing with her.

Gregory also portrays Elizabeth's older sister, Mary, in a much gentler manner than many other writers of historical fiction and directors of contemporary Elizabethan films. I believe Mary was angry about the shameful humiliating divorce and subsequent death of her mother, but as Gregory seems to show, Mary tended to unleash her anger on the religious authorities of the time who had refused to support her mother. I suspect she realized Elizabeth was far too wise to plot against her, particularly in the early days of her reign. She shared the same childhood fears as Elizabeth, never knowing when their temperamental father might order their execution on a whim, and I believe Gregory is accurate in showing a certain closeness shared between these two women.

Ratings

On a scale of 1 to 5 for the steaminess factor in this novel, although I do not believe the sex scenes were necessary, there are graphic scenes in this novel. They do not, however, overwhelm the plot, so I would rate the novel with a three.

As for the quality of the novel, I did find the plot captivating, though I do not believe the character of Elizabeth is portrayed consistently throughout the novel. On a scale of 1 to 5, I would rate this novel a four for quality of work.