Category Archive:Romance

Winston Mawdsley Graham was twentieth century British novelist best known for his series of Poldark novels, set in the late eighteenth century, just after end of the American Revolution or War for Independence. The series takes place in Cornwall, and the protagonist and eponymous hero is a former soldier in the British army in America who comes home to find the girl he left behind, Elizabeth, engaged to be married to his richer cousin, Francis. Ross returns to the land he has inherited from his deceased father and attempts to make a living and a life in the stark and poverty-stricken mines and fields of southern England.

After the first novel, Ross Poldark, published in 1945, there followed eleven more books in the series. The novels have been adapted for television at least twice by the BBC, once in the 1970’s and again (the first two novels with perhaps more to come?) in 2015. I saw the 2015 version which was what got me interested in reading the books. I must say that although I enjoyed the television mini-series, I wish I had read the books first. I think, having read the first book in the series, that the books will be the better stories, less sensationalized and more true-to-life. But now I have the actors, Aidan Turner as Ross and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, in my head, and I can’t help but picture those actors as I read the story. Mr. Turner is certainly handsome in a tall-dark-and way, and I don’t mind picturing him. But I wish I had formed my own mental pictures first and then maybe super-imposed the actors onto my conceptions.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending of the first book, too, since I didn’t realize at first that the mini-series was based on the first two books. I expected certain events to unfold that didn’t happen. However, I’m now primed and ready for the next book in the series, titled Demelza. In fact, I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. It’s reminding me, for some reason, of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. Perhaps it’s the disadvantaged and maltreated hero, handsome and debonair, but also dark and tormented. Or maybe the emphasis on finding one’s love amid the toils and vicissitudes of business (Poldark) and politics (Lymond) is what binds the two series together. And the historical setting is vivid and well-drawn and researched in both series.

In case you should want to pursue the series of Poldark novels, the titles are:

1945 – Ross Poldark (original U.S. title: The Renegade)
1946 – Demelza
1950 – Jeremy Poldark (original U.S. title: Venture Once More)
1953 – Warleggan (original U.S. title: The Last Gamble)
1973 – The Black Moon
1976 – The Four Swans
1977 – The Angry Tide
1981 – The Stranger from the Sea
1982 – The Miller’s Dance
1984 – The Loving Cup
1990 – The Twisted Sword
2002 – Bella Poldark

I’ll probably be back with more Poldarkian observations soon.

Whether I like to admit it or not, awards and public acclaim do influence my interest and enjoyment of a book. I read and wrote about Mr. Alexander’s first book, The Crossover in 2015, before it won the 2015 Newbery Award (and many other awards). My review, as anyone can see, was lukewarm: “if you do like stories in verse form, or if you don’t, but you really, really like basketball, you might want to check out Kwame Alexander’s basketball slam/rap/verse novel.”

Fast forward to 2016 and Kwame Alexander and verse novels are all the rage. Booked, his second verse novel for middle graders/young adults, at least has a title I can get behind, and I’m inclined to give it a fair shake partly because of all the acclaim for The Crossover. Booked is about books and words and family brokenness and well, soccer. I must confess that the soccer stuff I skimmed, hard to do in a novel written in tightly woven poetry, but easy for me because the few soccer-centric poems interspersed throughout the novel did not give me a picture in my mind. Because I’m soccer ignorant.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Booked. The drama in Nick Hall the protagonist’s family, Mac the rapping librarian, Nick’s dad and his book full of words, Nick’s crush on April, Nick’s mom and her easy way of relating to her teenage son—all of these aspects of the book were fun and good to read about in creative, poetic forms and types. The parts I didn’t like were the tired, old excuses and platitudes about divorce, the disrespect Nick showed for his parents, especially his dad, and the unresolved ending, which you will have to read for yourself.

I did like wading through the poems this time to capture the plot and the images and the feelings of being Nick Hall, a thirteen year old with a lot of hard stuff going on in his life. It was sort of like a game—find the plot thread. I’ve seen verse novels capture the interest of a reluctant reader in my own family this year, and I’m more sold on the genre than I was before. And I must admit that Mr. Alexander has a way with words, and poetry.

So, boys and soccer fans and just plain old readers should give it a try. Or try one of the other, mostly verse, novels that Alexander not-so-subtly recommends by way of his character Nick in this book:

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg.
Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
Peace Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose.
How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-sized Trophy by Crystal Allen.
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit.

By the way, Nick is emphatically NOT a reader as the book begins, but by the end of the story he’s looking for his next read. Librarians and teachers and parents might want to read this one just to watch the transformation, which is realistic, fits and starts, with the added attractions of a persistent librarian, a pretty girl, and some parental discipline.

The first in Ms. Willard’s series, The Mantlemass Chronicles, this romance novel is beautifully written. I compared it in my mind to another romance novel I read earlier this month (because it was set in Scotland; I don’t usually read romances), and this one by Willard is much more pleasing to the ear and to the imagination. The plot’s advancement depends on coincidence and on several fortuitous events that are almost unbelievable when threaded together to make a story. However, I didn’t care.

I just wanted Cecily and her fine, upstanding country friend, Lewis Mallory, to be able to get together in spite of all of the obstacles put before and between them. The blurb on the back of the book says that Christian Science Monitor called the book “an entrancing tale of cruel fathers, arranged marriages, sensible aunts, and a true love.” Library Journal named it “tender, solemn romance and a well-sustained mystery.” I agree. This book, published in 1970, holds up well as YA or even adult historical fiction, and the writing and the historical background require something of the reader that modern-day historical romances don’t usually—close and careful reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a marriage truly is or isn’t. This book adds something to my rumination on that subject. Set in England in 1485, just as Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond came to the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrians and the Yorks, the story features several characters, each with his or her own attitude about what marriage is meant to be. Cecily’s father sees marriage as a contract, a way to advance his own interests in terms of power and money. Cecily’s aunt, having lived through a bad marriage to a cruel husband, is interested in maintaining her own independence and in helping Cecily to become strong and independent, too. However, Aunt Elizabeth FitzEdmund is not opposed to Cecily’s marriage—to the right person and at the right time and for love, not to further Cecily’s father’s ambitions. Cecily herself is not sure what she thinks, not having been allowed to think for herself nor to have any philosophies about marriage or anything else.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the Mantlemass Chronicles:

The Sprig of Broom (1485)
The Eldest Son (1534)
A cold Wind Blowing (1536)
The Iron Lily (1557)
A Flight of Swans (1588)
Harrow and Harvest (1642)

These books take us through English history from the Battle of Bosworth, to the reign of the Tudor kings, to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, to the Spanish Armada, to another English civil war between Cromwell’s Roundheads and the king’s men, Cavaliers. During all these great events the families in and around the manor house Mantlemass—Mallorys, Medleys, Plashets, and Hollands–pursue their own ends and keep their own secrets. From reading the synopses of these other novels in the series, I can see that marriage and romance and family secrets and loyalty and independence continue to be themes that Ms. Willard explores in her books. I’m going to enjoy exploring with her and her characters.

I read Remembrance for my journey to Scotland last month because it was the only book by Theresa Breslin, Carnegie medal winning Scottish author, that my library system had. And it was set during World War I, a favorite time period. There were definitely echoes of Downton Abbey in the book.

Seventeen year old John Malcolm Dundas, son of a Scottish shopkeeper, can’t wait to enlist and fight the Huns. His sister Maggie is eager to do her part, too, or at least to do something more exciting than working her father’s store, and she goes to work in a munitions factory. Little brother Alex Dundas is only fourteen, but he longs to get into the fighting before the war ends. Then, there’s the other family in the book, the Armstrong-Barneses, consisting of mother, son Francis, and daughter Charlotte. Charlotte trains to become a nurse so that she can contribute to the war effort, even though her mother does not approve of girls in her “station of life” (the upper class) working in hospitals, particularly not her teenaged daughter. Francis, old enough to be a soldier, tries to avoid the war, reads lots of newspapers, and draws. He’s the sensitive, artistic type, and he’s opposed to the war and the way it’s being fought.

The book follows the histories of these five teens as World War I impacts them, fills their lives, and changes them and their families and their village. It would be a good fictional introduction to World War I for high school age readers and for adults. The details of life in the trenches and in the hospitals are harrowing and gritty, but I would much prefer this book as an accompaniment to the study of World War I over the one that’s often assigned, All Quiet on the Western Front. I found the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front very nearly as confusing as the battles of the war itself must have been. Remembrance with its more straightforward plot leaves out none of the horror of the war, but it tells the story of World War I in a much more approachable and understandable manner.

The Ringed Castle, Book Five in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
Checkmate, Book Six in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.

I can’t believe I read the whole thing, but I’m glad I did. I began reading this six volume series back in December 2013 with Game of Kings, the first book in the series. In this novel, a young Francis Crawford of Lymond, second son of a nobleman and landowner in fourteenth century Scotland, cavorts and carouses his way through wartorn southern Scotland and back and forth across the border with the enemy, England. Francis is a giddy young man with a facile and garrulous tongue, but also a leader in war and romance, with an undercurrent of danger and subversive rebellion running through his character. He’s a medieval/renaissance Scottish James Bond, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Scarlet Pimpernel all rolled into one.

Queen’s Play and The Disorderly Knights deal with Lymond’s adventures in France and around and about the Mediterranean as he serves and politics the king of France, Henri II, the child Mary of Scotland, later to become Mary Queen of Scots, and the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitaliers. After a stirring and tragic (for Lymond’s inamorata, Oonagh O’Dwyer) escape from the Turkish invaders in Tripoli, Lymond and his second in command, Gabriel, both return to Scotland where Lymond puts together a small private army, trained in all of arts of war and intended to keep the peace along the Scottish border.

If you’ve made it this far in the series, you’re sure to be hooked by this time, and the fourth book is the climax of the entire story, with a rather infamous human chess game forming the centerpiece of the action. In Pawn in Frankincense, Francis Crawford is at his most vulnerable and his most deadly. The chess game in the seraglio in Istanbul is unforgettable.

Books Five and Six are the ones I read this month as I made my impromptu trip to literary Scotland. In The Ringed Castle, Crawford of Lymond has exiled himself to Russia, the backside of the world in this time period and the land ruled by Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, later known as Ivan the Terrible. In this half-barbarian court of a half-mad tsar, Lymond becomes the Voevoda Bolshoi, supreme commander and advisor to Tsar Ivan. In the meantime, back in England, Phillipa, the teenager that Lymond married in in Book Four, only in outward form in order to save her good name and protect her and her mission, is serving in the court of Mary I (Bloody Mary) and investigating Lymond’s mirky and mysterious past and family background.

Checkmate brings everything in the first five books to a satisfying close, well, almost everything. With a great many starts and stops, hesitations and false starts, triumphs and tragedies, Francis Crawford of Lymond finally meets his destiny, finds his true parents and heritage, and becomes the man he was meant to be. If you have never read these books and you want to, I would recommend that you plan for a marathon reading of all six books in order over the course of a month or more and that you have an English dictionary and a French-speaking translator nearby at all times. A working knowledge of Spanish, Russian, Gaelic, and Scots dialect would come in handy also.

I have a theory that, after the events of these six books were finished, Francis Crawford of Lymond became the actual secret author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

I will admit that it’s really difficult to write a realistic, compelling, and heart-warming story about an adulterous affair. Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Flaubert (Madame Bovary), and other greats nailed the first two adjectives, realistic and compelling, but no book that I can recall has managed to make adultery “heart-warming”.

Ms. Brockmole tries in Letters from Skye, but in doing so she loses the realism and and even makes the whole tawdry story a bit boring by the time this reader figured out that this novel was going to be a “happily ever after” story, after all. Elspeth Dunn, married to Iain, is a poet who lives on the island of Skye off the coast of Scotland. When she receives a fan letter from American student David Graham, Elspeth answers his letter with one of her own. And so the affair begins.

The story begins in 1912, just before World War I. Eventually, the story moves through the Great War and the time between the wars into the beginning years of World War II. These two wars form the background for this novel of a woman who “loves” her husband, a sort of flat character who never really takes shape as a real person in the novel, but loves her grand passion for David Graham even more.

I had little sympathy for any of the characters in this novel, and I found most of them a tad unbelievable. David, the American, is naive and worldly at the same time, if such a combination is possible. He comes to London to have an assignation with a married woman, but he is offended when his war buddies in France make ugly jokes about his affair. Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, who has never been told much about her background or about her male parent, goes off on a sleuthing spree to find out these details while her mother has disappeared without a trace. Margaret seems more interested in finding out about the letters her mother and David Graham wrote during the war than she is in finding her absent mother. Elspeth herself is “torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool.” I never had any sense of why Elspeth was willing to become involved with another man besides her husband. Nor did I understand why she married Iain in the first place. She seemed to be fond of her husband, but David just wrote such good letters?

I read this book as a part of my May journey through Scotland, but I wish I had skipped it. Not recommended, unless you can believe in a story of romantic adultery.

Very piratical. And romantical.

Not really bloody. Or violent. Well, not very. I mean, there are pirates. But Captain Peter Blood (that’s his real name) is a gentleman pirate. He only kills bad guys. And a lot of the really bad, violent stuff occurs off-stage, so to speak. Captain Blood reminds me of Captain Jack Sparrow, sort of quirky and not always trustworthy. He lives by his own code of honor and morality, and it’s not exactly the traditional one of his time and culture. Still, Captain Blood sees himself, and others mostly see him, as a gentleman, forced into piracy by circumstances beyond his control and trying to make the best of it.

The story begins in England, 1685. (You can read an article with detailed historical background to the novel here.) Peter Blood is a “bachelor of medicine and several other things besides.” He becomes inadvertently involved in the Monmouth Rebellion against King James II of England. Although he is innocent, guilty only of sheltering and assisting medically one of the fleeing rebels, Blood is convicted of treason, and in lieu of a sentence of execution, he is sent to Barbados as a slave. Eventually after years of captivity, Peter Blood escapes from his master in Barbados, but since he is an outlaw and an escaped slave with a price on his head, he has little choice but to become a buccaneer, or privateer, or in common parlance, a pirate.

Some of the events in Peter Blood’s career as a pirate sound very similar to the exploits of the actual pirate Henry Morgan, fictionalized in John and Patricia Beatty’s book, Pirate Royal. Sabatini explains this similarity in his book by saying that Captain Morgan’s biographer, Esquemeling, must have read the ship’s log of Captain BLood’s ship. “Esquemeling must have obtained access to these records, and he plucked from them the brilliant feathers of several exploits to stick them into the tale of his own hero, Captain Morgan. I mention it chiefly as a warning, for when presently I come to relate the affair of Maracaybo, those of you who have read Esquemeling may be in danger of supposing that Henry Morgan really performed those things which are veraciously attributed to Peter Blood.”

So, Captain Blood, the epitome of the pirate adventure story, published in 1922, is a good bet to recommend to teens and adults looking for pirate books. The Sea Hawk is another pirate story from the pen of the prolific Sabatini. Both of these novels were adapted into movies by the Hollywood film machine of the 1920’s and 1930’s, twice each, first as silent films and again as “talkies”, the latter starring the swashbuckling film hero, Errol Flynn.

In 1773, Ronald Cameron and his sister Lauchlin are busily waging their own private war against the oppressive Sassenach (English soldiers) as the two young Highlanders work and play around their Scottish home. Their parents fought the English invaders and supported the Stuart King Jamie and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now Ronald and Laughlin believe it is their turn to carry on the struggle, especially when their elderly cousin Matthew from Virginia comes to visit and encourages their rebellion and love for liberty. However, when the sister and brother team get into real trouble with the occupation forces, their parents have no choice but to send them to Virginia to stay with their loyalist aunt, Lavinia Lennox.

The characters in Sally Watson’s Family Tree Series are all a part of the same family, the Lennoxes, and Cousin Matthew in this book is even studying his family genealogy. So there’s a running thread of family heritage and pugnacious, spunky traits that are handed down through the family, especially among the girls. The other books in the series are Linnet (London, 1582), Mistress Malapert (Shakespearean England, 1599), The Outrageous Oriel (English civil war, 1641), Loyal and the Dragon (English civil war, 1642), Witch of the Glens (Scotland, 1644), Lark (Puritan England, 1651), Highland Rebel (Jacobite revolution, 1745), and Jade (pirates in Colonial Virginia and the Caribbean). Read more here about how Ms. Watson’s books and characters are all related to each other.

I read at least some of these books when I was a kid of a girl, and I loved them then, especially Jade, the story of Melanie Lennox who frees a cargo of slaves headed for Virginia and becomes a pirate queen. The only ones of Ms. Watson’s books that I own are The Hornet’s Nest and Lark. But if any of you have any of her books lying around gathering dust, I would be happy to take them off your hands.

Characteristics of Ms. Watson’s heroines: outspokenness, a passion for justice, courage, over-confidence to the point of foolhardiness. These rather willful girls, mostly girls, make for interesting, exciting, adventurous stories, and of course, that’s the best kind. If you run across any of Ms. Watson’s novels for young people, I recommend them—even the ones I haven’t read yet.

This book is half of George MacDonald’s novel, Malcolm, as edited by Michael R. Phillips, prolific author of Christian novels. The story is continued in another Phillips-edited novel, The Marquis’ Secret.

The Scots dialect and the didactic passages are heavy going for modern readers, so Phillips tried to make the romance novels that MacDonald wrote a bit more accessible. And he was quite successful in this necessary endeavor; at least it was necessary for me. Take a look at the following few lines from the beginning of MacDonald’s original 1823 book, Malcolm:

“Na, na; I hae nae feelin’s, I’m thankfu’ to say. I never kent ony guid come o’ them. They’re a terrible sicht i’ the gait.”
“Naebody ever thoucht o’ layin’ ‘t to yer chairge, mem.”
“‘Deed, I aye had eneuch adu to du the thing I had to du, no to say the thing ‘at naebody wad du but mysel’. I hae had nae leisur’ for feelin’s an’ that,” insisted Miss Horn.
But here a heavy step descending the stair just outside the room attracted her attention, and checking the flow of her speech perforce, with three ungainly strides she reached the landing.
“Watty Witherspail! Watty!” she called after the footsteps down the stair.
“Yes, mem,” answered a gruff voice from below.
“Watty, whan ye fess the bit boxie, jist pit a hemmer an’ a puckle nails i’ your pooch to men’ the hen hoose door. The tane maun be atten’t till as weel’s the tither.”

If you get more than the gist of that dialogue, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. A whole book’s worth of deciphering that speech would be be a mighty task indeed.

Phillips begins with some description of the setting and the situation of the characters, and then he has Miss Horn say, “No, no. I’ve got no feelings, I’m thankful to say. I never knew any good to come to them.” Got it: Miss Horn prides herself upon having no feelings.

So, if you want to read the original, have at it; it’s available online at Project Gutenberg and probably elsewhere, too.. I’ll stick with the Phillips version, which has enough dialect and Scots flavor to keep me satisfied without confusing the reading too much.

Malcolm McPhail is a handsome and gentlemanly young fisherman with a mysterious past. Lady Florimel is the daughter of the present marquis, Lord Colonsay of Lossie. Duncan McPhail is a blind bagpiper and grandfather to Malcolm. As the story begins, a certain Lady Grizel has just died, and the Marquis is returning to his home near Portlossie on the Scottish coast where Malcom and his grandfather make their home.

I did think that some of the plot elements of MacDonald’s story were a little far-fetched, but then he was writing at about the same time as Dickens and the other Victorian novelists, and I don’t suppose MacDonald’s plot is any more unbelievable than some of Dickens’. (Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton practically twins? Oliver Twist just happens upon his long lost family in the middle of London?)

The Fisherman’s Lady ends with the death of one character and the revelation of a long-held family secret, but there is no real resolution to the dilemma of how to reconcile Malcolm’s fine and gentleman-like character with his lowly situation and class. The citizens of Scotland and England in the early nineteenth century were even more class conscious than those of early twentieth century Downton Abbey, and there’s wide, wide gulf between Malcolm the fisherman and the Lady Florimel. It remains to be seen, in The Marquis’ Secret, whether the author George MacDonald can bridge that gap with the revelation of secrets of parentage or the preaching of sermons about the equal standing of mankind before God.

First in a series, “A Lady Darby Mystery”, The Anatomist’s Wife takes place in Scotland, 1830. Lady Kiera Darby is a young woman, recently widowed and involved in a scandal related to her late doctor husband’s anatomical studies. As the story opens, Kiera has taken refuge with her sister’s family on their estate in Scotland, away from the vicious gossip of Edinburgh and London society.

Unfortunately for Lady Darby, when Lady Godwin is murdered (within the first few pages of the novel), Lady Darby is asked to assist Mr. Sebastian Gage in his inquiry into the crime. Not only is Mr. Gage a rake and perhaps somewhat brainless, he also may, like everyone else in the house party, suspect Kiera Darby of having some culpability in the murder. After all, Kiera’s reputation is still in shreds after her husband’s death and subsequent revelations about his work with dissecting dead bodies and having his wife draw them.(!)

There wasn’t really much Scottish atmosphere to be found in this mystery novel. The occupants of the manor call upon the services of a “procurator fiscal” rather than a coroner in the wake of the murder, and Kiera’s brother-in-law, Philip, lapses into Scots dialect a couple of times under stress. Other that that, the events in the novel could have taken place anywhere in England or Scotland or even Ireland or the continent without much change in the descriptions or the plot.

The post-Regency and pre-Victorian time period of the novel, makes it an interesting mix between what I think of as Regency promiscuity and profligacy and Victorian propriety and conventionality. The society women are appalled at Kiera’s history of having helped her husband in his study of human anatomy. And yet, these same ladies seem to be quite athletic in their pursuit of other women’s husbands. This moral schizophrenia affects the men, too, as when Gage explains to Keira that he is a rake, but certainly not a rogue: “I assure you, my lady, that were you closeted with a rogue rather than a rake, you would know the difference. If a rogue decided he wanted you, he would use all of the means at his disposal to persuade you, but ultimately he would debauch you whether you wished it or not. A rake would never dishonor a woman in such a way.” (In other words, he may be an adulterer and a cad, but at least he’s not a rapist.)

I found the ending to the book and the solution to the whodunnit rather unsatisfactory. The murderer turns out to be insane, with quite a thin motive for his or her actions. And those actions progress from a bloody and violent beginning to an even more brutal and murderous ending.So, finally, although it was good enough to keep me turning the pages, I found only few things to like about this mystery and many others to dislike: too much romance, not enough mystery, too much insanity, not enough sense, too much sexual immorality, not enough virtue, and too much generic setting, not enough Scotland. Fans of Georgette Heyer or other Regency/Victorian romance/mystery writers may enjoy this one more than I did. It wasn’t awful, just not what I was looking for.

If you want to do some more research in the area of Scottish mysteries or post-Regency era mysteries:

Rachel Knowles: When Is the Regency era?
Cozy Mystery Books with a Scottish Theme.
Books in Scotland: a resource for information on all the best in Scottish Books and Writers.