Of Noble Family: Glamourist Histories Book 5, by Mary Robinette Kowal – A Review

Of Noble Family Mary Robinette Kowal 2015 x 200From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:

I am going to miss Jane and Vincent, Mary Robinette’s heroes in her acclaimed Glamourist Histories series. Of Noble Family is the married couple’s fifth and final adventure set in an alternate Regency Britain enhanced by glamour, the loveliest system of magic I’ve encountered. But while their glamoured displays are often breathtaking, Jane and Vincent have taken ether-based illusions far beyond the ubiquitous drawing room decorations created by accomplished young women. In previous books they’ve found practical, if hair-raising, applications for glamour in the war against Napoleon, the Luddite riots, and an escapade involving pirates on the Mediterranean. For this last story the couple will be off to the Caribbean.

When the book opens, Jane and Vincent have been resting after their harrowing exploits on the Italian Island of Murano and enjoying the company of Jane’s family, especially her sister Melody’s new baby boy, who is already showing a precocious ability to see inside glamoured images. But things don’t stay relaxing for long. Vincent receives a letter from his brother Richard that turns their world upside down.

The first shocking piece of news is that Vincent’s father has died of a stroke at the family estate on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Lord Verbury fled to the island in an earlier book to avoid being imprisoned for treason. Since Vincent was badly abused by his father while growing up, the death wasn’t as upsetting to him as it might be, but the bad news didn’t end there. Upon their father’s death, Vincent’s oldest brother Garland inherited the title Lord Verbury, bought himself a new barouche-landau, and then died when the vehicle overturned on the badly maintained road leading to Lyme Regis. Vincent’s middle brother, Richard, was severely injured in the accident, losing one of his feet. In his letter Richard asks Vincent for a very large favor. Continue reading

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla: A Pink Carnation Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig 2014 From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:

A new Pink Carnation novel is always the highlight of my reading season, though the anticipation for The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla was stifling. How could Lauren Willig’s eleventh addition equal or surpass her previous highly-successful novels seeped in Napoleonic spies, romance and burlesque comedy? Yes, comedy. They say “dying is easy; comedy is hard” and it is so true. There are few authors in the genre who will even attempt it. Willig excels.

One of the main reasons I enjoy the “Pink” series so much (besides the humor) is that they take me back to Regency England, and the characters are SO original. Willig started the series in 2004 with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Each successive novel features a new set of protagonists: a romantic couple thrown together by mystery, espionage and love. After ten novels I have never been disappointed.

Set in 1806 London, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla re-introduces us to the three young Misses from Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in Bath, brought together in the seventh novel, The Mischief of the Mistletoe: Miss Sally Fitzhugh, Miss Agnes Wooliston and Miss Lizzy Reid. They are in Town for the Season, chaperoned by Lord and Lady Vaughn whose next door neighbor is reported to be a vampire. Yes, vampires are all the rage in London at the moment due to Lizzy Reid’s step-mother’s best-selling novel The Convent of Orsino. No one is above suspicion, especially aristocrats. Continue reading

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Belle by Paula Byrne 2014 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress: 

Commissioned by the producers of the new movie Belle, acclaimed biographer Paula Byrne aims to reveal the true story behind the main characters in the movie: Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an African slave, and her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705-93) and Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is both a companion volume to the popular movie and a time capsule into the turbulent abolition movement in the late eighteenth-century England.

Inspired by the 1779 portrait of Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, screenwriter Misan Sagay has written a compelling story based on facts she first learned of while visiting the 2007, Slavery and Justice Exhibition. Dido and Elizabeth were Lord Mansfield’s wards and raised together at Caen Wood House, now know as  Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath near London. While the screenplay is based on actual facts, it also incorporates a fictional narrative worthy of a seventh Jane Austen novel. In contrast, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice is an historical account of the people and times and not a novelization of the movie. Continue reading

Shamela (Naxos AudioBooks) , by Henry Fielding, read by Clare Corbett  – A Review

Shamela, by Henry Fielding Naxos AudioBooks (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

“In my last [letter] I left off at our sitting down to Supper on our Wedding Night, where I behaved with as much Bashfulness as the purest Virgin in the World could have done. The most difficult Task for me was to blush; however, by holding my Breath, and squeezing my Cheeks with my Handkerchief, I did pretty well” (297).

Reading Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, Or, Virtue Rewarded, as I recounted in my previous review of it, is not for the faint of heart; but I am happy to say that it was all made worthwhile just this past week as I listened to a Naxos AudioBooks recording of Henry Fielding’s masterful parody fittingly entitled Shamela. Many know Fielding for Tom Jones, but his satirical powers are at full and outrageous height in Shamela. In a quarter of the number of pages found in the original story, Fielding highlights and lampoons all of Richardson’s characteristic tropes, transforming Miss Pamela Andrews from a paragon of female virtue into an archetypical scheming hussy. The great irony is that, as shamefully vicious as Shamela maybe, she is a great deal more fun to listen to than her saintly prototype. Continue reading

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (Naxos AudioBooks), by Samuel Richardson, read by Clare Corbett – A Review

Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, Naxos AudioBooks (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Her knowledge of Richardson’s works was such as no one is likely again to acquire, now that the multitude and the merits of our light literature have called off the attention of readers from that great master.” – J.E. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, ch. 5

Listed among Jane Austen’s most beloved authors is the rebellious printer-turned-novelist Samuel Richardson, creator of such potboilers as Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740). The novel opens at the death of Pamela Andrew’s employer, the woman who has educated her to be as accomplished as any young woman could hope to be, by eighteenth century standards. And from there commences a rather strange and disturbing plot in which Pamela must fend off the unwanted advances of her new male employer—and I’m not simply talking about sexual harassment, which would have been bad enough; I’m talking about outright attempted rape. Indeed, the main dramatic question of the novel is whether Pamela will forfeit her honor (read “her virginity”) for the sake of wealth and safety, or will she display a heroic level of Christian virtue, and risk the possibility of public disgrace. Spoiler Alert: the novel’s subtitle gives the answer away from the start. Continue reading

Confessions of Marie Antoinette: A Novel, by Juliet Grey – A Review

Confessions of Marie Antoinette, by Juliet Grey 2013 From the desk of Lauren Puzier:

In 1789, Marie Antoinette was a thirty-three year old queen, a wife and a mother.  One day in October she took her last walk through the Trianon gardens, her peaceful respite from the demands of palace life, fully unaware that for the next five years she would ride the waves of one of the most moving revolutions in modern history.  Author Juliet Grey invites readers to join Marie Antoinette on a sympathetic journey through this period, in her third fictional narrative of the young queen’s life.  Grey offers a detailed glimpse into Marie Antoinette’s own thoughts as she experiences events and situations, interacts with family and politicians, and tries to understand what is happening to the world around her.

“…I sink to my knees in a deep court curtsy, inclining my head in a show of profound humility. The roar diminishes to a murmur. And when I rise, I lay my arms across my bosom and raise my eyes heavenwards, offering a prayer to God to spare my husband and children…” p. 37

Confessions of Marie Antoinette is set in Versailles, The Tuileries Palace, The Temple and finally, the Conciergie. The royal family of France is moved along from one new home to the next and forced to manage their family life in unthinkable circumstances.  Well researched, Grey provides plenty of detail about main events of the period to create a sense of chaos and reality.  Life was hard outside of Versailles; politicians were serious and mobs were a very dangerous reality.  There was not a week that would go by during this time when a new scandal, trial or story was published fueling the hostility towards the queen and aristocracy.

Peppered with hope, the story is full of attempts and plots presented to save the monarch.  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette make seemingly logical decisions regarding all their actions.  Louis’ main concern is the safety of his people and Antoinette’s is for her two young children’s.  The informed reader (or anyone who is familiar with the history here) may feel a bit uncomfortable knowing what these actions will lead to and how they appear to be folly rather than sound judgment.

“At his age, while he plays he should be singing the nursery rhyme my friend the Duchess of Devonshire taught him…Instead, he dreams of another desperate flight to safety.” p. 324

Grey’s Antoinette is heartbreaking.  She spends much of the book seeking out friends, trying to find any friendly face that can show her some kindness.  Limited to her own perspective, she evokes our compassion.  I found myself dabbing my eyes while sitting in Whole Foods right around chapter twenty-five (you will know when you get there…)

Through all the losses, husband and wife strive to keep their children safe by maintaining a somewhat normal daily life. They continue their education and give them all the love they can.  Perhaps a more apt title for this novel would be Realizations of Marie Antoinette, because she is not truly confessing anything, but she is learning much, and realizing a lot about her past, present and future.

Alfred Elmore, The Tuileries, June 20, 1792. 1860, oil on canvas. Musée de la Révolution francaise

Alfred Elmore, “The Tuileries, June 20, 1792.” 1860,

oil on canvas. Musée de la Révolution francaise.

Although Confessions is the third novel in a trilogy about Antoinette, I found it read as a stand-alone story. I have not read the earlier books, although now I am curious to see how Grey’s Antoinette grew as a character over the series.  I have a feeling the first two novels are full of the 18th century court life and etiquette we miss out on in Confessions, so you may want to start there.  Some readers might find the first person present-tense narrative strange if you have not read the previous books.  I found myself struggle a little to connect with Marie Antoinette through the first chapter. However, the author succeeds in giving a voice to this historical figure; she writes with clear passion for the subject and the story moves so fast you fall right into it.

A particularly strong scene is the storming of the Tuileries Palace.  A mob of citizens breaks into the palace seeking out the king and queen. Without time to join each other or come up with a plan, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are each forced to face the mob on their own. They are caught in separate rooms with only their courage to pull them through. With a table separating mother and children from the mob, Grey describes this frightening scene beautifully, full of emotion and descriptive detail.

Anonymous, “Marie-Antoinette montant dans la charette.” Engraving. Musée de la Révolution francaise

Anonymous, “Marie-Antoinette montant dans la charette.”

Engraving. Musée de la Révolution francaise.

 “I glance down at my trembling hands. ‘God Himself has forsaken me,’ I murmur in reply. ‘I no longer dare to pray.’” p. 334

You may wonder what the point is of reading a book when you already know the ending. I admit I thought this too as I started the book. In a moment of self-amusement I remembered the opening credits of HBO’s The Tudors. “You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends.Confessions of Marie Antoinette gives us an alternative and deeper look at this fascinating woman, and the opportunity to walk in her shoes through the French Revolution.

4 out of 5 Stars

Lauren Puzier is an art historian specializing in late 18th century French aristocracy.  Visit her at her blog Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century.

Confessions of Marie Antoinette: A Novel, by Juliet Grey
Ballantine Books (2013)
Trade paperback (441) pages
ISBN 978-0345523907

Cover image courtesy of Ballantine Books © 2013; Text Lauren Puzier © 2013, Austenprose.com