Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Pride of the Peacock by Victoria Holt

Like many women, I grew up reading Victoria Holt (The Mistress of Mellyn, The Mask of the Enchantress, Lord of the Far Island, etc.) and I was excited to see that that Sourcebooks Casablanca was making them available again on E-Book.

The story is this:  young Jessica Clavering learns the true story of her family and birth when the mysterious old opal miner who bought the family manse befriends her.  Ben is a great character, full of stories and mischief.  When he learns he is dying, he sends for his son, Joss Madden and arranges a marriage between the pair.  Jessica agrees to the marriage as a way out of her family life, and they set out for Australia's opal fields and a home called Peacocks.  Once there, Jessica finds herself beset by danger....physical and emotional.  Will she find out what happened to the magnificent opal called The Green Flash at Sunset?  Will she discover who and what is threatening her?  And is her new husband a thief and a murderer?  In a world where only the strong survive, and morality is defined by necessity, who can she trust?

The first half of the book is filled with lively detail, and Jessica's relationship with Ben unfolds in a believable, and interesting fashion.  Ben's stories of the Australian Outback, opal mining, and his long life are fun and its easy to see why Jessica is so charmed by him.  He brings a strong defiant streak to her stuffy Victorian world, and helps her to break free from her mournful, bitter family.  She discovers that she is the product of a love story, her mother is really her grandmother, and her father supposedly deserted her mother on the eve of their wedding.  Heady stuff.

Ben's engineering of a wedding between Jessica and his natural son, Joss, also seems a logical next step.  Jessica longs to go to Australia and Joss is Ben's heir...if he marries Jessica and takes her back to Australia with him.  Joss is one of the "peacock's" of the title.  Proud, aloof, handsome, and headstrong, he is the perfect Holt hottie.  Jessica is so turned off by the stories Ben tells her about Joss,  that she is  determined their marriage be "in name only", which makes Joss even more aloof and prideful.

The descriptions of a mining town in Australia, and the home called "Peacocks" are are the inner-workings of an opal mining company.  Holt really makes the time and place come alive.  The obsessive search for and possession of opals, in particular one called The Green Flash at Sunset is the current running throughout the book, and from it springs the mystery and danger Jessica finds herself in.  She is both attracted to and deeply suspicious of Joss, and almost loses her life as a result.

What seems to be missing is a real relationship between Joss and Jessica.  Lots of sparring, lots of suspicion,  lots of misunderstandings....all pretty standard fare.  Jessica's sudden understanding of her love for Joss seems abrupt, as does his love for her.  It may be a result of this book having been written in the 1970's,  as well as the author's more delicate handling of sex, but the whole affair seemed  to lack chemistry.

I plan on re-reading other Holt novels, as well as those by Phillipa Carr, another pseudonym for the author, Eleanor Hibbert (see the sidebar).  Like Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt is a  part of cherished  memories of learning about love through books while I was too young to learn about it in real life.  She will always hold a special place in my "library of the heart" as a result.

Available as an E-Book January, 2014 from Sourcebooks Casablanca

  • Hardcover: 303 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (August 1976)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385122810
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385122818


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tuscan Rose by Belinda Alexandra

A baby is anonymously delivered to a convent with a tiny key the only  clue to her identity. These are just the beginnings of the mysteries that surround young Rosa Bellocchi.   As Rosa grows, she realizes that she psychically senses the origins of things.  She touches a piece of furniture and is transported to a hard wood jungle.  Or she eats a piece of bread and feels the sun and the wind on the wheat.  Or...she senses the pain and fear of the chinchilla's used to make a fur coat.   You can imagine what she goes through when she tries to eat meat.

When she is grown, Rosa is sent to  sinister Villa Scarfiotti as the governess to a family with secrets.  The Marchesa Scarfiotti is a rail-thin, meat-eating monster covered in make up.  Her husband is haunted by the loss of his sister, and longing for another woman.  Their child, Clementina, is the sad product of this unhappy couple and Rosa is determined to help this waif any way she can.  The Villa is haunted by witches, say the servants, and Rosa understands this to be true.

The Marchesa is threatened by Rosa, and when the chance arises, she schemes to have Rosa unjustly imprisoned.  Sadly, this is easily done in Mussolini dominated Italy, especially by an avowed Fascist admirer like the Marchesa.  Rosa is kept in prison for years, raped by a guard, and bears a daughter, Sibilla.    She is eventually freed after promising to stay away from the Scarfiotti family, but branded an "enemy of the state".

After her release, Rosa must fend for herself and the baby in an increasingly hostile environment.  Mussolini and his Black Shirts have changed the Italy Rosa loves with their omnipresent threat.  However, next few years are happy for her when she meets Luciano, and falls in with his family troupe of performers.  Eventually, she goes to work for Antonio Pirigi, the owner of an antiques shop she met some years before, and finds security in his world, and love with Luciano.  

But Luciano too, has a secret.  He is an active anti-fascist, as are his whole family.  Rosa, torn between love and her need to protect her baby, must make a choice.  Eventually, she knows she must leave Luciano to save Sibilla.  When Antonio proposes, she chooses a life with him.  She learns to love him, they are happy, have two more sons, and build the shop into a thriving business.

Alas,  the war that Mussolini has been steering Italy towards has finally arrived, and Rosa's life and family are torn apart by tragedy and madness.  Bravely facing the Germans, and the inevitable showdown with the Marchesa, Rosa learns the truth about herself, her past, and the woman she has become.

The author vividly brought Mussolini-Era Italy, and Florence to life.  Her description of the villa, the furniture she sells and the streets of the city are detailed, and skillfully rendered.  My only dissatisfaction with this book is that some of the decisions Rosa makes seem oversimplified, and abrupt.  For example, while in prison, Rosa waits months and months trying to get in touch with the priest from the convent, Father Marzoli, to ask for help in getting out. Once he arrived, however, she let him think she was guilty of assisting in an abortion rather than risk anyone at the convent getting in trouble.  She imagines a complicated scenario in which her favorite nun, Suor Maddalena is raped by the same prison guard who raped her.  None of this is even hinted at before and seems a bit sudden, not to mention far-fetched.  Similarly, the truth of Rosa's parentage feels a bit contrived, as does the sudden loss of her psychic gifts.  The witches of the Villa are always hovering in the background, but neither their presence, the witchcraft story line, or their assistance seems fully developed or resolved.

Having said that, I found Rosa to be a totally likable heroine whose bravery in the face of huge odds is endearing.  I really enjoyed learning more about the war in Italy and the Germans part in it, as well as the rise of Mussolini.  The point of the book is that war begins in our own hearts; that violence, even against the animals we eat, can only engender more violence, and that peace is the best thing we can bring the world.  To that end, the author succeeds admirably. 

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (April 12, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0857208764
  • ISBN-13: 978-0857208767

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Life on a grand scale: Lady Catherine, The Earl and the Real Downton Abbey by Countess Carnarvon

Lady Catherine, The Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey, by the current Countess Carnarvon, Fiona, is a must for any Anglophile. Particularly, those who are addicted to Downton Abbey.  This is the second book by Countess Carnarvon.  The first was 2011's   Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey :  The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.

Both books center around the Countess of the title.  Lady Almina was the chatelaine during the first World War, and was the mother of the titular Earl of the second book.  She was the natural daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and brought an influx of wealth and glamour to life at Highclere Castle. Her husband was the Egyptologist  Earl of Carnarvon, who along with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.    Her daughter-in-law Catherine, is the focus of the second book, set during the 1920's and through World War II.  Catherine and her husband "Porchey" are the grandparents of the current Earl of Carnarvon, (whose wife Fiona is the author of the series).

The real centerpiece of the books of course, is the fabulous Highclere Castle, much like the fictional Downton Abbey is that of the PBS series.  The family sees itself as the stewards of an estate that has offered jobs, focus, and history for the surrounding countryside and England itself.  When so many of the great houses have been lost, especially during the time frame of the two books, one has to admire the persistence and downright cleverness employed by the family in order to maintain and retain the magnificent estate.

But the lifestyle is the most intriguing facet of the story.  Catherine Wendell was the daughter of an upper  class American family living in reduced circumstances in London after World War I.  Popular and pretty, she met and married Lord Porchester ("Porchey" to family and friends) and started her married life as the bride of an army officer stationed in India.  Her father-in-law, the famous Lord Carnarvon (of the "curse of Tut" fame) died soon after, and the young couple took up residence at Highclere Castle, the seat of the Earls since 1679.  They soon establish themselves as a part of  the elegantly aristocratic set that included royalty, politicians, gadabouts and the fabulously rich.  Racing, shooting weekends, and house parties are described in great detail, and vividly come to life.

One strength of the  book is that the lives of the staff are also examined in great detail.  In an age when all of the footman are called "Charles" despite their real names, it is a little touching (and hopeful0 to see how interwoven the lives and fortunes of the family and staff are.  When Highclere Castle's existence is threatened due to the reckless spending of forefathers, and new taxes, the lifestyle and livelihood of the whole county are affected.  The estate is saved, thanks to an influx of money by Almina, the sale of a number of art works,  and the advancement of the racing stud by Porchey.

Of course, being down-on your-luck Highclere style is still pretty darn fabulous. This is not a story of scrimping and saving.  Life at Highclere seems to be full of hunting, parties and trips abroad.  Ultimately, wealth, birth and privilege do not completely protect one from sadness and loss.  Having established himself as a bon vivant, Porchey also established himself as a womanizer, and the marriage with Catherine ended in 1936.  She was devastated, turned to drink for solace, and remained fragile for some years, until a happier (albeit brief) marriage to Geoffrey Grenfell restored her self-esteem. She married  Don Momand ten years after Geoffreys death, again happily.  Porchey remarried Tilly Losch, the dancer, actor and choreographer , but not happily, and remained single thereafter, although not without companions.

Most interesting to me were the famous figures that flitted through the Carnarvon's  life at Highclere.  Prince George, the Duke of Kent was one of Porchey's best friends, as was the Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill-Spencer. Randolph Churchill (the son of Winston Churchill) was an intimate, and the young King Edward VII  was part of their set before abdicating to marry Wallace Simpson.  Evelyn Waugh and the Duff Cooper's were also visitors to the grand house.  Porchey's second wife was Tilley Losch, an actress who brought  a touch of Hollywood to Highclere, as did Catherine's mother who was close friends with Adele Astaire (now Lady Cavendish).  Political figures, royalty, aristocrats and the wealthy are all a part of life at Highclere Castle.

Also interesting were the World War II stories.  The years leading up to the war, the Blitz, and the first years of the War are brought vividly to life by the author.  The effects of the war on Highclere are becomes a sanctuary for children from London who are escaping the bombs of London, a training facility, and farmed as a source of produce  for the countryside.  And the family and staff stepped  right up to the challenges and sacrifices war demands.  One staff member, the valet-turned-butler Robert Taylor,  was a war hero whose romance and war exploits are recorded in detail.

The elements that make the TV Show Downton Abbey so fascinating are the same things that capture us in real life:  the magnificent beauty of the home itself; the privileged lifestyle; the famous (and infamous) characters; the nostalgia for a time that is gone' and the just plain glamour of it all make this a most compelling read.

Paperback368 pages
Published October 29th 2013 by Broadway Books