Friday, November 25, 2011

The Scarlet Lion by Elizabeth Chadwick

"Already known as a knight of uncommon skill and honor, William Marshal has earned the friendship of King Richard and the love of a wealthy heiress. But when the Lionheart dies leaving his treacherous brother John on the throne, William and Isabelle need all of their strength and courage to face a shattered world. Their sons held hostage, their integrity at stake, the two must choose between obeying their king or honoring their hearts. Breathing life into history, Elizabeth Chadwick provides a riveting novel of an uncommon marriage between a man of valor and the only woman who could match him."
(from the publisher)

my thoughts:

Actually, this will be two-reviews-in-one as I read The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion back to back. Although each is marketed as a stand alone novel based on the life of William Marshal, I highly recommend reading The Greatest Knight first. In this novel, the foundation of William's chivalrous character is set, from his harrowing childhood experience of his father's betrayal to his journey of becoming legendary for his skills as a soldier and champion of the tournament circuit. He grows to earn the confidence of kings and queens due to his loyalty and keen intellect (although he remained illiterate), and these characteristics contributed to his role as a diplomat and magnate. Chadwick fleshes out the legendary knight as a young man of honor and simple pleasures, respectful of women and committed to duty and his oath of fealty. Quite a man and hero, according the Chadwick.

The Scarlet Lion continues the story of William Marshal, now married to the beautiful heiress, Isabelle de Clare. Isabelle and William are a devoted couple enjoying their large family and balancing responsibilities to the king. Chadwick portrays William as a devoted husband and respectful of his wife's opinions which was very unusual for the times. He publicly acknowledged his pride in Isabelle's powerful position in her own right and often referred to his wife as his "safe harbor." Throughout the years, though, their relationship is tested as William's loyalty to his oath to King John (despite the king's treachery) brings troubled waters into their relationship with each other and their two eldest sons. William also created trouble for himself (and his sons!) by pledging an oath of support to the French King Philip in order to retain lands in France. King John is not one to take an offense lightly. Despite the trials that William's decisions and responsibilities bring to their married life, they weather the storms together. A wonderful love story and a glimpse of the intrigue of King John's court makes The Scarlet Lion a very enjoyable portrait of this historical figure. A bit dry at times (sometimes reads more like a retelling of historical facts), but still impeccable research and an authentic depiction of medieval life.

I plan on continuing with the story of their daughter, Mahelt Marshal, in To Defy a King.

4/5 stars for both The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Let's Talk Turkey....

...or stuffing, or sweet potatoes, or pumpkin pie, or any other delicious dish that must be on your Thanksgiving table in order to have that complete feeling of satisfaction.

Hopefully, tomorrow will be a wonderful day for all my readers who celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday -- filled with family and friends, a delicious meal, and -- if it's your thing -- football!

I thought it would be fun to ask you a Thanksgiving question:

What item is absolutely necessary for you to have on Thanksgiving?

We all have that "must have" food that Thanksgiving just would not be complete without.

For me, I live for the dressing (or stuffing, depending on where you live). I'm not much of a cook, but I make a delicious autumn dressing that I developed by combining the best of several recipes. It's a mix of sweet/savory flavors and is so easy to make:

Joanne's Autumn Dressing:

olive oil & butter
1 onion (chopped)
2 celery stalks (chopped)
1 red apple and 1 granny smith apple (chopped)
1 package pork sausage (Italian sausage is good, too!) (remove casing)
1 small package cubed ham
1/2 cup dried cranberries/raisins (Sun-Maid makes a combo pack)
chopped pecans
fresh sage -- chopped finely
1 package dried cornbread and herb stuffing mixture
1 large container chicken stock
salt, pepper to taste


Sautee chopped ingredients (onion, celery, and apples) in olive oil and butter. Add dried cranberries and raisins (I like lots), chopped pecans, and a bit of fresh sage for light browning. Remove and place in large mixing bowl. Brown sausage (remove casing) until fully cooked and add ham to lightly brown. Add to bowl, and mix in dried cornbread stuffing mix, salt & pepper according to your taste, and add chicken stock to desired consistency. Place in greased baking dish and top with a few extra pats of butter and bake at 350 degrees until golden brown and warmed through, about 25-30 minutes.

This is so easy and delicious! The above recipe is good for a fairly large family; double it for a big crowd. It's all good. I developed this recipe as my mom always stuffed her turkey with her elegant oyster dressing...and I don't eat oysters! I won't even go there.

So here's to wishing you and yours abundant blessings (and good eating) on Thanksgiving Day!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Whispers in the Sand by Barbara Erskine

"Whispers in the Sand is set in richly mysterious Egypt where the past and present collide. Recently divorced, Anna Fox decides to cheer herself up by retracing a journey her great-grandmother made in the nineteenth century: a Nile cruise from Luxor to the Valley of the Kings. Anna carries with her on the voyage two mementoes of her great-grandmother Louisa: an ancient Egyptian scent bottle and the diary of that original Nile cruise which has lain unread for a hundred years. As she follows in Louisa's footsteps, Anna discovers in the diary the chilling secret of the scent bottle and is pursued by the same terrifying spectres as her great grandmother."

my thoughts:

I'm very happy that Sourcebooks has been reissuing some of Barbara Erskine's titles in the US as I've had to shop for some of her older books in used bookstores and/or online from the UK (with high shipping prices!) So thanks, Sourcebooks - keep them coming!

Barbara Erskine is known for her fascinating historical fiction storylines in her books with supernatural forces and time-slip. However, I feel her contemporary characters and storylines are sometimes weak and often detract from the enjoyment of the novel. If she could work on getting the contemporary aspects of her novels tweaked, her books would be greatly improved! (The men in the present day can be condescending and chauvinistic, women are often near hysteria, and at least one character is certifiably the Most Annoying Person on the Planet!)

Having said all that, I enjoyed aspects of Whispers in the Sand, and the star of the show was the charming Victorian love story as told through a one-hundred-year-old diary. Erskine's descriptions of a young woman's experiences in ancient Egypt and the Victorian-era cruise along the Nile was intriguing and very poignant. I almost feel that the historical story could have been a stand alone book (without the present day story) and it would have been just fine.

Not Erskine's best and certainly not as atmospheric and suspenseful as some of her other books (i.e. House of Echoes), but still a pleasant read.

3/5 stars

Title: Whispers in the Sand
Author: Barbara Erskine
481 pages
genre: historical fiction/time slip

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

"A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton.

Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra's life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family.

Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace - the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century - Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself."
(from Goodreads)

my thoughts:

This novel has been on my TBR list for so long I almost forgot all about it! I'm so glad I finally managed to make time for it as I loved it.

I admit it -- I love gloomy, gothic, melancholy storylines. (I'm not sure just what that says about me, as I think I am a very nice, upbeat person in real life!) But I never get tired of plots with dark family secrets and an old English estate. Add in a cottage by the sea, a smugglers' cave, a secret garden, and a cameo appearance by Frances Hodgson Burnett (of The Secret Garden), and you have a winner for me.

Kate Morton knows how to draw out the suspense -- she layers her mysteries and secrets, weaves the story of several generations together, and keeps the suspense high until the shocking conclusion. I admit that I have to be in the right frame of mind to read her novels as they are very haunting and there is a pervasive sadness throughout her books, a great sense of loss.....and even though there is closure, it's bittersweet. Still many questions linger in my mind -- this would be a great book club read as I would love to have a long discussion about some threads of the story.

I have now enjoyed all three of her novels and look forward to her next writing project. You can also read my reviews of The Distant Hours and The House at Riverton.

Kate Morton discusses The Forgotten Garden:

5/5 stars

Title: The Forgotten Garden
Author: Kate Morton
Simon & Schuster
552 pages
genre: mystery/suspense

Friday, November 11, 2011

Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar

"While selling oranges in the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Ellen "Nell" Gwyn impresses the proprietors with a wit and sparkle that belie her youth and poverty. She quickly earns a place in the company, narrowly avoiding the life of prostitution, to which her sister has already succumbed. As her roles evolve from supporting to starring, the scope of her life broadens as well. Soon Ellen is dressed in the finest fashions, charming the luminaries of Restoration England.
Ellen grows up on the stage, experiencing first love and heartbreak and eventually becoming mistress of Charles II. Despite his reputation as a libertine, Ellen wholly captures his heart -- and he hers --but even the most powerful love isn't enough to stave off the gossip and bitter court politics that accompany a royal romance."

(from the publisher)

my thoughts:

Darn it, I really wanted to love this book!

It has all the ingredients of a great big juicy read about everyone's favorite orange-girl-turned-actress-turned-favorite-mistress-of-Charles II, but for me, it didn't quite all come together. It's quite a lovely novel to behold, from the gorgeous cover to the interior which consists of diary excerpts, playbills, letters, gossip columns, recipes, and other snippets of seventeenth century life. However, I found myself skimming and scanning, trying to find the real "meat" and was a little disappointed that the pieces, while interesting, didn't make for a satisfying whole. A strong beginning, a large cast of players and characters, but would have liked a bit more depth.

A pleasant read, perhaps good for someone just beginning to explore Restoration England or the mistresses of Charles II. (I'm always glad to give a balanced review, and Exit the Actress has received many 5 star ratings, so this is just my view.)


Title: Exit the Actress
Author: Priya Parmar
Simon & Schuster
446 pages

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston

"The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is a visually stunning, totally unique, full-color novel in the form of a scrapbook, set in the burgeoning bohemian culture of the 1920s and featuring an endearing, unforgettable heroine. Caroline Preston, author of the New York Times Notable Book Jackie by Josie, uses a kaleidoscopic array of vintage memorabilia—postcards, letters, magazine ads, ticket stubs, catalog pages, fabric swatches, candy wrappers, fashion spreads, menus and more—to tell the tale of spirited and ambitious Frankie’s remarkable odyssey from Vassar to Greenwich Village to Paris, in a manner that will delight crafters, historical fiction fans, and anyone who loves a good coming-of-age story ingeniously told."
(from the publisher)

my thoughts:

As a longtime memory keeper, scrapbooker, journal writer, and family historian, I've always loved old letters, heritage photographs, and vintage ephemera. However, you don't have to be crafty or into scrapbooking to enjoy this thoroughly original and visually delightful book, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. Imagine discovering your grandmother's old photos and cherished mementos in a box in the attic -- a time capsule of memories! That is what it is like to experience Frankie's scrapbook.

Frankie's story of the ups and downs of her adult life beginning with her experiences as a Vassar student is told with wit and honesty, and can easily be read in one sitting. It appears Frankie painstakingly typed out her journey from student to world traveler and aspiring writer on a Corona typewriter, adding authenticity to a tale told in days of old. I'm keeping this little gem on my nightstand to browse through it to savor each page which captures the world of the roaring '20's --the fashion, music, popculture, literature, and history created with authentic vintage ephemera. A delightful way to spend a lazy evening and dream about what is was like to live in the world of the jazz age.

4.5/5 stars

I hope you can take a few minutes to watch the booktrailer and author interview as you will get a glimpse inside this utterly charming book:

Title: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt
Author: Caroline Preston
Harper Collins

Monday, November 7, 2011

Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman


Emma, a prima ballerina in London, is at a crossroads after an injured knee ruins her career. Forced to rest and take stock of her life, she finds that she’s mistaken fame and achievement for love and fulfillment. Returning home to Australia, she learns of her grandmother Beattie’s death and a strange inheritance: a sheep station in isolated rural Australia. Certain she has been saddled with an irritating burden, Emma prepares to leave for Wildflower Hill to sell the estate.

Beattie also found herself at a crossroads as a young woman, but she was pregnant and unwed. She eventually found success—-but only after following an unconventional path that was often dangerous and heartbreaking. Beattie knew the lessons she learned in life would be important to Emma one day, and she wanted to make sure Emma’s heart remained open to love, no matter what life brought. She knew the magic of the Australian wilderness would show Emma the way.

Wildflower Hill is a compelling, atmospheric, and romantic novel about taking risks, starting again, and believing in yourself. It’s about finding out what you really want and discovering that the answer might be not at all what you’d expect.

my thoughts:

I just loved this book to pieces!

From the very first page, the story of the indomitable Beattie just captured my heart and wouldn't let go. Her journey from an unwed mother to a successful businesswoman is such a bittersweet and courageous struggle and I experienced such a range of emotions! Her life is filled with challenges and overwhelming obstacles from bigotry and sanctimonious hypocrites, but no matter how hard life knocked her down, she brushed herself off and forged ahead. The love for her child spurred her on to make a life for themselves (difficult as this was for a woman in the 1920's) and I cheered for her every difficult step of the way.

Intertwined in Beattie's story is the life of her granddaughter, Emma. Once a famous ballerina, an injury forces her to give up her career and reevaluate her life. With time on her hands and an inheritance of Wildflower Hill from Beattie, she travels to Australia to prepare the estate for sale. But once there, Emma begins sorting through Beattie's personal belongings and it seems that Beattie kept painful secrets from her family. As Emma examines the heart and life of her grandmother, she learns about her own confused and unsettled life. Sometimes pain can cause you to take risks and find the courage to do what brings you peace.

5/5 stars Beautiful, just beautiful!

Title: Wildflower Hill
Author: Kimberley Freeman
Touchstone Book
526 pages
genre: literary fiction

Thursday, November 3, 2011

House of Echoes by Barbara Erskine

"Joss Grant is eager to begin a new life when she inherits Belheddon Hall. She brings her busband, Luke, and their small son, Tom, to the dilapidated house, and sets about discovering her family roots which lie in the village.

But not long after they move in, Tom wakes screaming at night. Joss hears echoing voices and senses an invisible presence, watching her from the shadows. Are they spirits from the past? Or is she imagining them? As she learns with mounting horror of Belheddon's tragic and dramatic history, her fear grows very real, for she realizes that both her family and her own sanity are at the mercy of a violent and powerful energy which seems beyond anyone's control."

(from the publisher)

my thoughts:

Whenever autumn rolls around and the weather turns cooler, I immediately get in the mood for some good old-fashioned mysteries and ghost stories. Throw in a little history or time slip into the mix, and I'm a happy camper. I enjoyed Erskine's Lady of Hay very much, so I set out to get as many books from her backlist as possible. House of Echoes sounded like an appropriately scary Halloween read, so I settled in and prepared myself to be spooked. I was not disappointed!

When Joss and her financially-strapped husband discover that she has inherited an ancient ancestral home from her birth mother, Belheddon Hall, it appears that it is the answer to their prayers. Joss is anxious to settle in and delve into the history of her new home to discover as much as she can about her birth family. It doesn't take long for her to locate cryptic journals and letters which hint at a malevolent spirit that has haunted and harmed the males in the family for generations. And the villagers, wary of the house, warn them of the family's tragic history in the house.

Dark, stormy nights......whispers from the shadows......white roses left on the bed pillow......laughter in the attic......a baby crib that moves from the wall to the window......a bone-chilling coldness that takes over a room.....hello! One night in that house and this would have been me:

That's me, hightailing it outta there!!! But if they left the house, there wouldn't be a story, would there? So the family settles in with the help of her sister/nanny, and Joss, now pregnant, continues to be plagued with terrifying dreams and visions. Luke, ever the macho-realist, scoffs at the idea of ghosts and attributes the events on Joss's over-active imagination or the stress of her pregnancy. In his mind, everything has a logical explanation and Joss is over-reacting. Joss and her good friend, David, begin to research the history of the home and discover that it has a royal connection and a witch's curse which has cast a chilling terror in the inhabitants of Belheddon Hall since the fifteenth century. How can they deliver the house of this evil before it claims another victim?

Definitely an A+ for the creep factor, and if you can overlook a few minor annoying points (too many "There, there, dear, you're just overwrought" type comments and a sister that brings obtuse to a new level), it's a darn good spooky read. Had me looking over my shoulder a few times and turning on a few extra lights!

4/5 stars

Title: House of Echoes
Author: Barbara Erskine
Harper Collins Books
genre: mystery/paranormal

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Crimson Warning by Tasha Alexander

"Newly returned to her home in Mayfair, Lady Emily Hargreaves is looking forward to enjoying the delights of the season. The delights, that is, as defined by her own eccentricities—reading The Aeneid, waltzing with her dashing husband, and joining the Women’s Liberal Federation in the early stages of its campaign to win the vote for women.

But an audacious vandal disturbs the peace in the capital city, splashing red paint on the neat edifices of the homes of London’s elite. This mark, impossible to hide, presages the revelation of scandalous secrets, driving the hapless victims into disgrace, despair and even death.

Soon, all of London high society is living in fear of learning who will be the next target, and Lady Emily and her husband, Colin, favorite agent of the crown, must uncover the identity and reveal the motives of the twisted mind behind it all before another innocent life is lost."

(from the publisher)

my thoughts:

Sadly, I think this series has run its course for me. I am a big fan of the first three books, And Only to Deceive, A Poisoned Season, and A Fatal Waltz, and I was very much looking forward to the evolution of this elegant and sophisticated Victorian sleuthing couple. However, I've been underwhelmed with the last few books and I'm finding that the now-married Lady Emily and Colin Hargreaves have lost their luster. Of course, they are a devoted and charming couple, but the relationship (which was such a highlight in the beginning) has faded to the background. The mystery of the splashed crimson paint upon unsuspecting victims' doorstep was intriguing -- the red paint indicated that there was a scandal soon to be revealed to society -- but the race to find clues led Emily on a search through the British museum (ho hum) and the conclusion was rather anticlimatic.

I'm sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but I think it's time for Tasha Alexander to try her hand at something different -- perhaps a stand alone with new characters and a completely different setting. I truly enjoy her very elegant writing style, and her recreation of Victorian society is charming, but I'd like to see her try a new direction.


Title: A Crimson Warning
Author: Tasha Alexander
Minotaur Books

Favorite Period Dramas

Mount TBR

Joanne's to-read book montage

On a Highland Shore
A Light on the Veranda
The Queen's Vow: A Novel Of Isabella Of Castile
The Edwardians
Maisie Dobbs
Howards End
Lady's Maid
Instruments Of Darkness
When Maidens Mourn
Where Shadows Dance
What Remains of Heaven
Where Serpents Sleep
Why Mermaids Sing
When Gods Die
Before Ever After
The Sugar Queen
Garden Spells
After the Night

Joanne's favorite books »