Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Pledge of Better Times (Book Review)

Title: A Pledge of Better Times
Author: Margaret Porter
Publication: Gallica Press, 2015, paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: A compelling historical novel set in the late 17th century about two interconnected families: the Stuarts and the de Veres, loyal servants to their monarch. Charles II, restored to his throne after years of exile, reigned merrily, yielding numerous attractive bastards but no legitimate child. Charles’ brother James, a controversial Catholic, and his daughters, reliable Protestants, Mary and Anne, are heirs to the throne. The Earl of Oxford, Aubrey de Vere, is a high ranking courtier loyal to the Stuarts. The story is primarily about his daughter, Lady Diana, first a girl and then a beautiful and intelligent young woman, who serves Mary and pledges her love to the Duke of Albans, son of Charles II and the notorious orange seller Nell Gwyn.

Audience: Fans of quality historical fiction and historical romance; Anglophiles and fans of the Stuarts.

What I liked: This time frame is much neglected: there is historical fiction set during the English Civil War and during Charles II’s exile and plenty depicting Bonnie Prince Charlie’s but not much set around the time of Charles’ death in 1685. You won’t be surprised to hear that two of my childhood favorites take place during this period: Princess of Orange, about Mary’s childhood and marriage to William of Orange, and Shattered Summer, about the Duke of Monmouth’s misguided attempt to seize the throne.  You can see how handsome he was and he had his share of Stuart charm.
Duke of Monmouth (1678) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

A Pledge of Better Times is thoroughly researched yet written with a light touch: Porter delicately balances the need for historical accuracy without sacrificing her vivid storytelling and provides a touching romance as well. I am a long time fan of her books, back to her Walker days, and this is by far her best. Her enthusiasm for even the most minor character shines through. I loved Diana de Vere and her father, a courtier who wants to be loyal to his monarch without renouncing his religion (of course, as a Catholic, I wish James II had been more tolerant of religious freedom and avoided being deposed – and if his father had been smarter and more tolerant, perhaps he could have kept his head and kingdom – pigheaded Stuarts!). Even minor characters such as Nell Gwyn and Prince Eugene of Savoy are well depicted while the calculating Sarah Churchill shows her true colors (why doesn’t PBS bring back its wonderful miniseries about Sarah and her soldier husband?). My mother will appreciate mentions of her favorite Henry Purcell. One of the portraits of Lady Diana by Sir Godfrey Kneller graces the cover of the book, making me want to research and visit his paintings in person. I think I have seen this one he painted of the first Duke of Marlborough in person but not the one above of Monmouth.
John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough by Sir Godfrey Kneller
What I disliked: The one bad thing about historical fiction based on history one knows well is knowing what is going to happen, and in this era it was usually bad. Oh well, at least William and Mary are preserved as a great university.

Source: I purchased a trade paperback but it is also available in Kindle. Highly recommended!

Images of the Dukes of Monmouth and Marlborough used by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Indian Summers – Season 1, Episode 8 – Recap

In the last episode, the authorities decided that Ramu Sood killed Adam’s mother, Jaya. They don’t know that Ralph had a stronger motive: avoiding disgrace that exposure of his youthful liaison with Jaya would reveal. A small but growing group of people know that Ralph is Adam’s father but none of the authorities want to think anyone British is involved in something as sordid as murder. Much better to blame it on poor Mr. Sood!
Sooni Dalal, lawyer in training
A fancy British barrister comes to Simla to prosecute Mr. Sood’s trial (which takes place unrealistically soon) and at least there is a lawyer for the defense (and the lawyer has an assistant – Aafrin Dalal’s sister, Sooni, who wants to go to law school – she should talk to me first). The policeman testifies that Mr. Sood had a motive to kill Jaya because she stole his deceased wife’s wedding dress. He explains that when he tried to interview Mr. Sood, the man had disappeared – clearly, not the sign of an innocent man, everyone agrees. (Unless it’s the sign of someone who doesn’t think he’ll get a fair trial.) The prosecutor also tries to discredit Ian, who saw Mr. Sood on the veranda of his house and says he could not have committed the murder.

Gandhi is still fasting, and Ralph pretends dealing with that fallout requires all his time but really he can’t concentrate on anything because he’s terrified about what might come out in the court room. Ian goes to visit Mr. Sood in prison, who basically says he’s doomed and Ian shouldn’t jeopardize his standing by testifying.

Alice is wearing the most fetching hat; doesn't everyone get dressed up to sit in a hot courtroom all day? She, her future sister-in-law Madeleine, the whiny Sarah, and the other British ladies are attending the trial for entertainment. I told you not much happens in Simla! Mr. Sood was disliked by the British because of his rivalry with Mr. Armitage (Ian’s uncle) and the jostling accident that sort of caused Mr. Armitage’s heart attack/stroke. On the stand, Cynthia asserts with calculated spite that Mr. Sood is lucky he’s only being charged with one murder.

Leena visits Mr. Sood’s lawyer (against Dougie Raworth the Missionary’s wishes – he is aware that Ralph might be implicated in some way but is also very conscious he has spent half the money Ralph secured for the Mission School, so tells her to leave it alone) and she takes the stand when Ian doesn’t show up for court. She testifies that Jaya had a son, Adam, thinking this introduces another motive. The prosecutor asks who the father is and Leena hesitates but says she does not know. She reveals that Adam called his father “demon.” If you remember, that is what Ralph’s would-be assassin called him; I guess that guy was Adam’s grandfather.

Mr. Sood’s lawyer takes an unexpected approach and practically accuses Leena of killing Jaya to protect Adam or out of thwarted maternal instincts. Dougie, looking agonized, shouts from the audience to leave Leena alone. This evidence of Dougie’s affection for Leena makes his wife, Sarah, sick to her stomach and she has to run from the court room, humiliated. She thinks he has ruined her new social standing and doesn’t realize the British were just tolerating her for Alice’s sake. Leena is also extremely bitter, angry that the legal system is not trustworthy.

Aafrin accompanies Sooni to find Ian (so depressed he got drunk). Aafrin asks her again about the letter he gave Alice for Sita (warning the family to hide the stolen evidence) and finally believes her when she says she never got it. Aafrin realizes it was Sita, not Alice, who lied to him.
Ian McLeod
All Sooni needed was to be around people with integrity or at least less wishy-washy than her brother. She is unwillingly impressed with Ian’s commitment to fairness. For the first time, she has encountered a British man she doesn’t despise (technically, of course, he is Scottish).

Aafrin apologizes to Alice for doubting her, and she asks angrily why he doesn’t leave Sita. Alice points out that she left her husband, carrying a baby. “She doesn’t have India to run to,” Aafrin points out, which Alice, never having been destitute, cannot understand. Then Aafrin and Sita rendezvous in a cemetery and he tells her he knows she lied about giving the note to Sooni. She denies it at first but then admits the truth, although pretends she didn’t know it was important (absurd – the fact that Alice sought her out to hand deliver the note had to have made it clear it was an emergency). Sita slaps Aafrin’s face and begs him not to leave her but he walks away coldly. He’s really not very loyal to either woman; why not be kinder to Sita? Plus, it’s stupid to make her angry – who knows what she’ll do? No one in this show ever plans ahead except sneaky Cynthia.

The prosecutor destroys Ian’s character during cross-examination and Ian loses his temper, destroying all the good his honest testimony had provided (the judge had seemed like a decent guy until this point). Later, Ralph asks Cynthia if she thinks Mr. Sood really did it and she says, “Of course.” Is this an elaborate double bluff by Ralph? However, the judge finds Mr. Sood guilty and sentences him to be hanged.

Belatedly, Dougie sends back the generous check Ralph arranged for the school with a note saying he and the children are not for sale and tells Ralph not to return to the school (so much for Sarah’s social climbing). There is a meaningful shot of Ralph’s sandals at the episode end – a witness during the trial found a sandal near the crime scene and everyone in the court laughed merrily at the idea of an Englishman wearing an Indian sandal but Ralph does sometimes dress in casual Indian clothes.

Images copyright to PBS

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Indian Summers – Season 1, Episode 7 – Recap

The Indian children from the orphanage/school, out for an innocent swim, find the body of Adam’s mother, Jaya, floating in the lake. When Dougie is summoned to say a prayer over the corpse, he recognizes her. He tells the police he saw her talking to Ralph recently. However, when Ralph is asked to identify the body he tells the official he's not sure who she is; alone with the body he breaks down. Is it because he regrets the need to have killed her or did he really once care for her? Or perhaps both? Who really killed her? The coroner says there are two sets of wounds: stab wounds that caused her death and one from years before.

I thought Eugene had gone back to Chicago but he is acting with Cynthia in The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Ronnie Keane, who has the kind of civil service job where he can disappear to direct a play and no one notices. Of course, even the Viceroy in the cast but I think Ralph does all his work anyway. Alice, Madeleine, and Sarah also have parts because Sarah insisted. Madeleine asks Alice why she doesn’t say no to Sarah. I am surprised that Alice doesn’t confide in Madeleine about the blackmail.

When Ian hears about Jaya’s murder, he asks to meet with Superintendent Rowntree. Ralph and Aafrin overhear, and Aafrin asks who the victim was. “Nobody!” Ralph says decisively. When Ian reveals that Jaya stole Mr. Sood’s wedding dress, poor Mr. Sood becomes the prime suspect. He is beaten until he makes a false confession.

Ralph suggests that the play be postponed because of a nationalist Indian gathering scheduled for the same day out of respect, but Cynthia and the Viceroy refuse to listen. They say the play is a tradition and the Indian matter is nothing to do with them. Cynthia has persuaded Mr. Keane (serving as play director) to kick Eugene out of the play, although a replacement would have a lot of lines to learn quickly.

“The past always catches up to you,” Ralph says to Cynthia when he brings her the news of his former paramour’s death. He says he loved Jaya once, and Cynthia tells him he has to forget about her. She is delighted that Mr. Sood is now assumed to be the murderer. Cynthia suspects Ralph of the murder and he suspects her. I know she is very, very fond of Ralph but would she kill for him?

Dougie received a generous check for the Mission School from the Revenue department, prompted by Ralph. I think Dougie is finally connecting the dots – he says Ralph has taken a great interest in the school recently. Well, yes, his son is a student there . . .

Finally, the turbaned Indian sergeant confronts Aafrin with the stolen certificate that was found during the search. It is unclear what he wants other than threats of blackmail. Everyone’s a blackmailer in Simla!

Aafrin assumes that Alice betrayed him and confronts her; he tells her Sita wouldn’t have done that and goes on to say Sita is the woman he loves and plans to marry. Alice denies it and is very upset by his accusations. Aafrin does try to ask his sister what happened the night the police searched their home but Sooni is so angry with him for continuing to work for the English that she refuses to answer. Still, Aafrin should know if Alice had betrayed him he’d have lost his job and been imprisoned.

Cynthia summons Ian to quiz him about Mr. Sood’s involvement in the murder. She tells him that Mr. Sood confessed. They had quarreled about Ian’s decision to work for Mr. Sood (it is not considered appropriate for a Brit to work for an Indian, regardless of the fact that Ian is penniless now that his uncle is dead and the estate forfeit). Cynthia tries to charm him back to the Club, reminding him where his loyalties lie. She also recruits him to play Algernon instead of Eugene. By the way, Cynthia makes a great Lady Bracknell, autocratic and sneaky!

Ian tells Ralph – very foolishly – that he heard the murder when walking home the previous night and that Mr. Sood was back at the house. Ralph delicately asks if Ian was drunk at the time, implying his recollection is faulty. But when Ian chooses to visit Mr. Sood in prison (blowing off the play, which makes Cynthia very angry), Ian realizes Mr. Sood has been falsely accused (and beaten up) and that the English, who already resent him as a landowner, have seized upon him as a convenient scapegoat. Ian is determined to stick up for Mr. Sood when no one else will – he is emerging as the only character with any integrity.

Aafrin brings Sita as his date to the play and tries to kiss her while Alice is looking: what is this, junior high? Alice is absurdly hurt but she barely knows the guy and he’s kind of an idiot. It’s all for the best, really! He needs to support his family and she needs to figure out what to do about Charlie, her husband. If Ralph is disgraced and loses his job/or goes to jail, Alice could be forced to return to Charlie.

At the funeral, Leena, the beautiful teacher from the school, tells Alice the deceased woman was Adam’s mother. Alice is astonished by this news and further surprised to see Ralph lurking near the funeral. Leena has guessed that Ralph is Adam’s father and asks Dougie if he is trying to protect Ralph by failing to tell the police that Jaya was Adam’s mother.  It seems just a matter of time until all Ralph’s lies unravel and whatever perfidy in the past (and present) will be revealed.

Image copyright to PBS

Friday, November 6, 2015

Indian Summers - Season 1, Episode 6 - recap

The episode begins with Adam’s crazy mother walking into Mr. Sood’s house while a servant snoozes, and stealing a wedding sari that belonged to his deceased wife. Later, Mr. Snood blames the poor woman Ian hired last week, going crazy on her and Ian. If your caste is that low, you apparently get blamed for every random theft.
Alice and Madeleine are out exploring some local temples with erotic sculptures with the generic Mr. Keane when they encounter a cobra. Everyone freezes with fear (including me) but a Captain Farquhar "just passing by" shoots it very impressively. He’s a sort of poor man’s Damian Lewis in terms of looks who is instantly smitten with Alice. Madeleine is unnerved by the dangerous encounter but rallies when the Captain gives her a drink from his flask.
Ralph is being stalked by Adam’s mother, who is still hanging around in the shrubbery by the lake. He goes to Cynthia for advice about whatever happened ten years ago (presumably the liaison that resulted in Adam, although it seems to me this behavior is SOP for British men in Indian – the only “crime” by their standards is not keeping it quiet). Ralph speaks moodily about the woman disappearing. “She’d only come back,” says Cynthia, who doesn’t realize Ralph wants the woman to disappear permanently.

Alice is trying to flirt with Aafrin but he refuses to have eye contact with her and tries to do his work. She hands him a note that says, “Look at me, and they stare at each other until Ralph appears for tea. Alice should know this isn’t going to end well.

Aafrin is finding he doesn’t fit in with his family very well any more. And when he gets home for dinner, he finds his parents have invited his girlfriend Sita over, a desperate move given their enormous disapproval of her – probably an attempt to reclaim him. There is some ardent political conversation: Aafrin’s sister Sunni has been bitter ever since she got released from prison and resents that Aafrin is working for the enemy. She makes fun of her father for supporting British rule. The father says to the mother later that all he wants is for Aafrin to live the life given to him. Mrs. Dalal doesn’t agree; she wants him to conform, as she is still extremely unhappy about Sita and wonders what her family and friends would say if they got married. She would be more worried if she knew Aafrin was yearning for Alice.

Ralph is trying to figure out what Dougie knows about Jaya, Adam’s scary mother. He thanks Dougie for taking in Adam at the orphanage (referring to him as the boy who appeared at the engagement party), and asks Dougie to let him know what is needed in the way of upkeep: he'll try to get the Board of Revenue to pay. Dougie is too clueless to be suspicious of this sudden generosity and promises to make a comprehensive list of every repair the orphanage needs. Doesn’t Ralph remember he is overextended financially? Wait until he finds out his fiancée is not rich, as he had thought.
No one wants an ex-girlfriend who looks like she's covered with eye of newt
Ralph goes looking for Jaya, and she confirms that Adam is Ralph’s child and also reveals that the assassin is her father, presumably seeking revenge for her lost honor (but why did it take him ten years?). Ralph holds her hands and speaks to her very kindly. He must be wondering what he ever saw in her. Believe me, we’ve all been there, Ralph, but not all of us act on these homicidal impulses. Jaya says Adam has the evil eye, which is not a nice thing to say about one’s child and is not likely to influence Ralph in his favor.  Jaya must have some education or else Ralph used to read her poetry as she quotes Ben Jonson, "Or leave a kiss but in the cup, And I'll not ask for wine."  Jaya tells Ralph that many men have been cruel to her, and also one Englishwoman.  Cynthia?

The very forward Captain Farquhar admires the picture Aafrin drew of Madeleine and asks Alice if he could commission one of her from the same artist to bring with him when he goes. Ralph, despite having just finished a quickie with Madeleine in a nearby room, takes an instant dislike to the stranger flirting so obviously with his sister and says, “Not a chance. She fidgets too much to pose.” Alice says yes, however, because she realizes it’s an excuse to see Aafrin. Joke on Alice – when he turns up with his art materials he brings his schoolgirl sister as a chaperone.

Luckily, the girl asks if she can try the piano, which gives Alice and Aafrin time to talk. For the first time Alice tells someone about her husband, but the story is not what I expected. Alice simply says she realized she didn’t love him and left him. “I tried being unhappy and it didn’t work.” I guess I was wrong in assuming the husband had an affair. It seems as if Aafrin didn’t know she was married. Aafrin says bitterly that he has heard of Englishmen having Indian mistresses but never the other way around. And he reminds Alice that his father is ill and Aafrin is responsible for supporting his family. Her face falls but she recovers and asks if Aafrin would like to meet her son, who is just waking up. He says yes but when she runs upstairs to get Percy, Aafrin and sister leave quickly. That is not very nice and he didn’t finish the portrait!

At the Club, it turns out that Captain Farquhar is a friend of Alice’s husband and was sent with a message – that taking Percy was kidnapping because a child is the property of the father. “What do you want?” Alice asks, wondering why she is surrounded by blackmailers on all sides. The slimy captain wants Alice, clearly. Even without knowing about the blackmail, Ralph is so offended by what he sees that he lures Captain Farquhar away and knocks him down a flight of stairs. Captain Farquhar is taken away to a hospital. Imagine what Ralph will do to Charlie when he appears?

In fact, Captain Farquhar redeems himself slightly when he leaves. Alice asks him to write to Charlie to say she is not ready to return yet. And Captain Farquhar gives her a sketch that Aafrin did of her. Alice knows this means he drew it from memory which makes her happy.

Adams’ crazy mother, Jaya, attacks the nice orphanage teacher, Leena, and says she is taking Adam to meet his father, but Adam stays with Leena to protect her from his mother. Then we see Jaya wearing the stolen red sari and waiting by the lake for Ralph to come say goodbye to her, just as Ian McLeod walks drunkenly home after some a few drinks with Mr. Sood. Suddenly, Ian hears a scream and splashing. I suppose she could have fallen in but it seems likely that Ralph drowned his former paramour, rather than risk exposure. He certainly has a motive but it is not clear if anyone knows about Adam other than Cynthia and the dead assassin.  Maybe it was Cynthia - she did say she'd consult the useful Keyser.   Ralph needs a lawyer so he can keep track of all the intrigue surrounding him.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Great Christmas Knit-Off (Book Review)

Title: The Great Christmas Knit-Off
Author: Alexandra Brown

Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, October 2015
Genre: Chick Lit
Plot: Stood up at the altar by her fiancee and in disgrace at work, Sybil and her dog impulsively jump on a train to visit her best friend Cher, now running a pub in the picturesque village of Tindledale, somewhere in England. Expecting a quick weekend visit, Sybs woefully underpacks and winds up staggering miserably through the snow without boots.  Luckily, despite her misery, she is warmhearted and makes friends easily with the quirky inhabitants who feed her, clothe her, and – in the case of the local doctor, whose name is [clue] Darcy - romance her. However, the fun part of the story is when Sybs, an obsessive knitter, helps the twittery owner of a yarn shop revitalize her store and pay off all her bills by enlisting all the villagers in a massive knit-off making hideous holiday sweaters in large numbers.    

Audience: Fans of light English romantic fiction; authors such as Katie Fforde, Sophie Kinsella, Carole Matthews.

Tag Line:  When life unravels, it's time to knit . . .
What I liked: I enjoy a novel with a Christmas setting (although it was chiefly the snow and ice that gave this book its December atmosphere), and this is definitely a feel good story with an appealing heroine and village setting, lots of engaging characters, enough gossipy back-story to help the reader keep everyone straight, and the obligatory happy ending.  Although not much of a knitter myself, it was fun to read the descriptions of Hettie’s House of Haberdashery, and I will look forward to another trip to Tindledale (at first I misread as Tinderdale which would likely have been a very different type of book).

Points for the charming map of the village, and I hope the grumpy bookstore owner gets his own story as the series continues!

What I disliked: I am still perplexed about the message Sybs found in her newspaper: “Give me a try.  X.”  It was later explained as a shopping recommendation which does not make much sense.
Source: I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review. This review is the last stop on the tour but you can read other reviews of the book by clicking here. Recommended for those who enjoy a chick lit version of Cranford!

KnittingIf you want to see some pretty knitting, visit my friend Leah's blog.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Indian Summers – Season 1, Episode 5 – Recap

The Viceroy is hosting a very elegant party at his residence to celebrate Ralph’s and Madeleine’s engagement – Alice says everyone has been invited, and this includes both blackmailing Sarah and the beautiful Indian teacher, Leena. “Prepare to eat cake!” is the theme of the party.

Ralph is negotiating with Dr. Kamble, an Untouchable (at the bottom of the caste system), to prevent the Untouchables from making a deal with the Indian Congress, which would go against British interests. Dr. Kamble is not impressed by his arguments and asks when Ralph’s family first came to India. Ralph is proud his family has been in the Indian Civil Service since 1824 but Dr. Kamble opines that his family had a hundred years to help his people, had they so chosen.

Weird little boy Adam and his equally strange mother have reunited. She tells him to wait for her and they’ll find his father (could it be Ralph?). Adam is scared of his mother but does not fit into the orphanage. The rest of the orphans are enjoying the story of Cinderella and want Leena to go to the ball, but she says she only has a hand me down dress. The orphans make her an outfit that looks beautiful but Leena wears the hand me down silver dress instead, which does nothing for her. Not that it matters; the missionary is still in love with her and with a wife like Sarah, who can blame him?

Alice tells Aafrin that she knows he stole the evidence linking the assassin to the Indian nationalists and accuses him of asking her to betray her own brother. Aafrin asks worriedly if she will tell but she’s not sure. This prevarication usually winds up with someone getting murdered but I think Alice is safe because she is the only character I like. Or does that mean she is more likely to be eliminated?

Sarah made one of her first blackmail demands of Alice – she wants to sit near the Viceroy at the engagement party dinner. However, the man in charge of protocol is immune to Alice’s coaxing and says as the wife of a missionary Sarah is stuck next to a man who works in sewage (at least, in an office job; not cleaning or shoveling it – that would indeed be insulting).

Ralph is regretting his engagement and asks Alice what she really thinks of Madeleine, complaining that Alice avoids her. Alice says Madeleine has been very kind to her and tries to explain she is just giving the couple privacy. “Oh, you’re jealous!” Ralph exclaims, because he finds that easier to understand, and from the way he is fawning over Alice we know he’d be very jealous of her spouse. Lucky spouse is far away, we think, albeit not dead.

“I don’t know if I’m in love or following orders!” Ralph complains. This could refer either to his engagement or the absurd costume he is wearing. I think the engagement is doomed. I hope for her sake Madeleine isn’t pregnant!

There is a first mention that Ralph may be spending more than he can afford although I guess it was implied when Alice commented on the gorgeous house in Episode 1. It would be nice if Madeleine really is an heiress but I suspect she and her brother are frauds.

When Sarah finds her name tag down at the uncool end of the dinner table she is furious and tells Alice it would be a pity if people found out her husband was alive (Alice was an idiot to say she was a widow). As a result, Alice switches their name tags, which doesn’t go over well with Protocol Guy, although Alice is perfectly happy sitting next to the Sarah’s morose husband, Dougie. When Alice notices that the servants are deliberately ignoring Dr. Kamble, she makes them serve him but the poor man is given something offensive – which must have been pig. Sarah does get to dance with the Viceroy which is more than she deserves. I doubt she will be grateful.
Madeleine and Ralph are dressed as Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (hence the cake theme – bizarrely appropriate for the last days of the Raj although surely that wasn’t Madeleine’s intention) which is strange because it’s not a costume party and no one else is dressed up; plus it makes Ralph look extremely sinister, kind of like John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. Cynthia is watching them dance and taking pleasure in the engagement because she helped engineer it until Eugene reveals there is no fortune! Cynthia is stunned by this news and can’t decide what to do. And if Eugene thinks Ralph is too much the gentleman to break the engagement, he is quite wrong.

However, Ralph doesn’t know the bad news yet and is in good spirits because the Maharajah at the party was gracious to Dr. Kamble, which Ralph and the Viceroy had not anticipated. It turns out that the Maharajah outlawed Untouchables in his admittedly small region. Aafrin has been put in charge of Dr. Kamble and tells him that Ralph is trustworthy (which is clearly not true) smoothing the way for Ralph to make another attempt to win Dr. Kamble over for his political purpose. Don’t Ralph and his cronies know the British will have to leave India? Are they just trying to feather their nests before they leave?

Then Ralph takes Madeleine for a turn in the garden just as Adam and his mother appear. They seem bent on accosting Ralph, so I guess he really is Adam’s father (we can tell from the mixed race children at the orphanage that half-Indian, half-English children are not unusual but they are kept out of sight so I suppose this might destroy Ralph’s career). Ralph seems to recognize Adam’s mother and tells one of the servants to get rid of her. Alice and Aafrin are watching, out of sight, and Alice impulsively kisses Aafrin passionately. He responds (I could tell he was getting tired of girlfriend Sita when she kept chattering to him earlier but maybe it was also because she never delivered the warning note. Although Aafrin doesn’t know it yet, the police found the forged document in his family’s home) but although this embrace was predictable, it is not very convincing. Aafrin is not a very appealing character (although intended to be) and was very petulant throughout this episode. Combined with the fact that he asked Alice to betray her brother by concealing his theft of the evidence relating to the assassin, she should steer clear of him. Does Alice not realize that if Ralph turns her out, she will have no choice but to go back to England to the dreadful husband?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Indian Summers – Episode 4 – Recap

The Viceroy of all India has arrived in Simla to enjoy the cool breezes after a business trip to London, and everyone bows very low indeed as he passes by. When he reaches the office, he naturally asks for his private secretary. One of Ralph’s servants runs to the house to alert him and, catching sight of Madeleine in his bed, averts his eyes (I am sure all the servants have been speculating like mad on her exact status). When Ralph comes downstairs looking very debonair, Eugene (furious that his host and sister keep retiring to the bedroom) announces that he and Madeleine are returning to Chicago that very afternoon unless Ralph plans to propose. Ralph is very taken aback but does not plan to be pushed into marriage by an upstart American. Eugene complains about the carrying on he has been forced to observe and asks what Ralph’s intentions are. Ralph hesitates but then Madeleine comes downstairs, all smiles, and is mortified when she realizes what is going on. Eugene insists they are leaving at 4:00 unless Ralph has something to say to Madeleine.
“I wish you a safe passage,” says Ralph, the coldest fish in the sea, because he has to rush off to see his boss. Although not sure I like Madeleine, I felt bad when her face fell and she realized how indifferent Ralph really is to her.

The Viceroy is very pleasant and says he’s heard about Ralph’s young lady and wants to meet her. He implies it is time for Ralph to get married. All of this surprises Ralph but makes him a bit more positive about poor Madeleine.

Ralph is given the coroner’s report on the assassin’s attack which basically says, “Lone gunman, possibly insane.” Heard that one before? He and Superintendent Rowntree commiserate about the guy’s false identity papers being missing (although I assumed these were falsified, but if so, why not falsify more?) which prevents them from publicizing the case as a Nationalist plot. The document is missing because Aafrin took it, remembering his sister had told him the assassin wasn’t really a Nationalist (in fact, we think there is something in Ralph's administrative past that inspired the attack). Ralph suspects the document was stolen, not misplaced, and when he invites Aafrin over for some golf I wonder if he suspects Aafrin. Aafrin is wearing the wrong clothes (not for the last time, poor fellow) and is no good at golf. The Viceroy stops by and acknowledges Aafrin’s brave act in saving Ralph’s life.

Sarah has finally received a gossipy letter from England about Alice - the mail is faster then than now - so immediately decides to ask her to tea – what’s on the menu? Alice!

The uncle who collapsed at the fair has not died from his heart attack, and Cynthia arranges for him to be taken to England for proper nursing. The nephew (about 20?), Ian McLeod is left in charge of his uncle’s failing fortunes.

Madeleine is reluctant to leave India although she knows her brother is right about Ralph’s having sampled all the wares he wants. However, because the Viceroy inquired about Ralph’s young lady, Ralph asks her to stay and play hostess for a little impromptu soiree. “You told him about me?” asks Madeleine hopefully. “Shouldn’t I have?” asks Ralph disingenuously. I am sure he knows how Madeleine is hoping for clues he really does care for her.  Perhaps this is more of an audition of her suitability as a hostess - it’s not as if he needs a hostess with his sister in residence!

Over tea, Sarah tells Alice that her son Matthew horrified her that day by asking to attend his father’s school for the natives. Alice is not very shocked and reveals that going “home” to England at 8 was very lonely. Alice suggests they ask Matthew what he’d like to do, and Sarah mutters something about Alice not having consulted her child when she left England. Suspicious, Alice gets up to leave but Sarah insists on accompanying her and reveals that she knows the truth – Alice’s husband is not dead, as she told Sarah, but alive, and that Alice took her son and left him without explanation (I am sure she had her reasons). Sarah says this if this sort of behavior got out it could hurt Ralph’s career. “What do you want?” Alice demands, and her blackmailer/Sarah says she just wants them to be friends. (As a missionary’s wife, Sarah is low on the social totem pole, which she hates – Alice could improve Sarah’s quality of life, if she wanted to.)

The Viceroy is updating Ralph on his recent visit with the Prime Minister. He tells Ralph the English need a man to represent their interests, and tells Ralph it could be him (given the Nationalist fever and Gandhi, I am not sure this is really an ideal job for anyone but it’s certainly meant as a compliment).

Ralph questions Cynthia about how the Viceroy knew about Madeleine, and it is clear Cythia spread the word, hoping to boost Ralph’s career hopes. I guess becaue Cynthia runs the British Club she hears every word of gossip.

Ralph hosts a little soiree, and Aafrin is the only Indian in attendance (a rude English guest makes fun of his suit). Poor Aafrin, and he was so pleased to be invited. The Viceroy asks impertinent questions about Madeleine and Eugene’s wealth as he tries to figure out if it’s a good match for his protégé.

At the party, Ralph’s colleague (Superintendent Rowntree?) tells Aafrin that they’ve made a list of everyone who visited the coroner’s office the day the evidence disappeared and are going to raid all their homes to search for it. Aafrin panics because he gave it to his sister. He leaves the table (the guy has no subtlety at all – I would like him better if he weren’t so clueless) and writes a note to his sister telling her to destroy it. Alice comes to see if he is ill and he begs her to bring the note to Sita. Alice runs in the dark to a church where Sita is waiting for a rendezvous with Aafrin, I suppose, and although Sita points out that Aafrin’s family hates her, she goes to their home anyway.

Quaint parlor games are going on at the party which Madeleine enjoys because she is the quasi-hostess and thinks that if Ralph’s friends admire her that is half the job done, so Alice is able to sneak back inside without anyone noticing her absence.

Ian tells Cynthia that Ramu Sood, the Indian who was feuding with his uncle, has asked him to manage the estate (which now belongs to Sood). Ian seems excited but Cynthia says that is completely unacceptable AND she reveals that his uncle died on the train so Sood is a murderer. Now Ian really can’t work for him but he does not appear to have any source of income. This is usually considered a problem.

The party is a success because everyone is drunk at the end, especially the Viceroy who gets a bit maudlin and accidentally calls Ralph “Gerard,” the name of his son who died in the war.

Superintent Rowntree (I think) tells Ralph they didn’t find the document anywhere, so we viewers know Sita got to the Dalals’ home in time.

Ralph says he has a question for Aafrin, and Aafrin is terrified it is going to be about the missing document. Instead, it is about Madeleine: Ralph says Aafrin’s artist eye was perceptive about him, so what did he see when he drew Madeleine? He goes on to ask Aafrin if he should propose or send her away. Aafrin is astounded and doesn’t know how to answer. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was some kind of double bluff (i.e., how dare you comment on your betters) But in the next scene, Ralph appears about to propose. I hope Madeleine really is an heiress and not just an adventuress – surely, if Sarah can get the gossip from England, Ralph could have done some due diligence about the extent of the Mathers’ fortunes?

The episode ends as it began, with child Adam dreaming about his mother but suddenly she appears and they are reunited. Or so it seems!

Image copyright to PBS

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Indian Summers – Season 1, Episode 3 – Recap

Aafrin is back at work after being shot, despite appearing to be at death’s door at the hospital in last week’s episode. Ralph’s previous condescending attitude has changed now that Aafrin saved his life, and he asks if Aafrin is interested in a high level position in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), perhaps one day as magistrate. The ICS, which ran India, was called the 'heaven born service' during the Raj days.   Although by the late 19th century a few Indians were admitted, it was expensive to travel to London to study for and take the necessary exams, which kept the numbers low.
Sarah scolds her husband's girlfriend
Aafrin says the ICS is exactly what he wanted but he couldn’t take the exams due to financial constraints.  “It’s all a matter of timing,” smiles Ralph, his new best friend, and offers him a position as Head Clerk which pays enough to subsidize his studies (amusingly, the people in my office who are clerks do not take it as a compliment but Aafrin is delighted).  Aafrin should be suspicious of this dramatic change in his fortune.  “I’ll be joining the ranks of the heaven-born!” he says to his delighted parents, while his sister is participating in nationalist rallies. Aafrin’s girlfriend is very happy too

Ian McLeod, the somewhat uncouth nephew of the drunken landowner, is discovering that his uncle is in debt to an Indian neighbor, Mr. Sood.  Not wanting to be caught in the middle, he suggests the man go discuss the matter with his uncle at the club, not realizing the Indian is banned from the club.  Mr. Sood comes to a fair organized by Cynthia to talk to the uncle, but when their argument becomes physical the uncle has a stroke or heart attack.  He is totally incapacitated.

Alice and Percy are playing with some other mothers and babies when Cynthia pops over to tell her there is going to be an inquest into the shooting and she will need to testify.  Alice doesn’t see why this is a problem and Cynthia tells her pointedly that she can’t possibly remember anything that happened.  Alice resents her interference and it is likely that Cynthia’s attempt to protect Ralph is likely to make Alice even more curious about what inspired the assassination attempt.

Dougie Raworth, the Old Testament-looking missionary and Leena his beautiful helper are in the middle of a passionate embrace when Alice stops by to volunteer at the orphanage.  Alice remembers Leena from the train (she was able to pronounce Persephone when Sarah could not) and is much friendlier than other English ladies would have been.  Leena is wary but eventually responds to Alice’s sincere desire to help.

In the meantime, Aafrin’s sister was arrested at the Nationalist protest.  Aafrin has been invited to the Whelans’ for drinks and, reluctantly, asks for Ralph’s help getting Sooni out of prison.  Ralph promises to do what he can.

It’s clear that Ralph wants to be sure Alice’s and Aafrin’s descriptions of the assassination attempt are the same as his.  “All I recall is his shouting, ‘You British devil!’” Ralph says pleasantly.   Aafrin says he remembers very little.  But when Ralph brings Aafrin to sketch Madeleine (who reveals her American background by shaking hands with him; I suspect an Englishwoman would not do so until he has risen much higher in the social strata), Alice leaves the room.   She confronts Ralph, and tells him she will not perjure herself.

I thought Dougie was going to tell Sarah he was in love with Leena, but Sarah, guessing what is wrong, starts sobbing, and Dougie merely says he will behave more like a Christian in the future.  I guess that included giving his son Matthew’s shoes to Adam, the boy who was hit by the train!  When Ralph sees Adam at the fair, he recognizes something about him, and the mysterious music that starts playing shows that Adam is linked to Ralph’s secret past.  Sarah takes the opportunity to tell Leena that her claim on Dougie is over and to stay away.

Madeleine’s brother is angry that Ralph is sleeping with Madeleine but has not proposed.  He suggests she play a little harder to get (I expected him to trot out that old adage about Ralph not buying the cow if he can get the milk for free).

When Alice and Aafrin are deposed, separately, they are asked if the assassin said anything.  Both hesitate, then respond as Ralph suggested, “You British devil.”  This way it will seem that the attack was part of the Nationalist movement, not anything personal towards Ralph, which might uncover whatever is in his past.  However, the Englishmen conducting the deposition leave for some fresh air and Aafrin takes a look at the assassin’s file.  As his sister had warned him, the English falsified identity papers to show the assassin was a political protestor.  When Aafrin sees this proof, he realizes he is being used.  Sooni is equally upset when she is released from prison due to Ralph’s influence.  Her prison-mate advises her to fight from the outside.

A somewhat disappointing episode!  I hope the plot begins to pick up.

Image copyright to PBS

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Indian Summers - Season 1, Episode 2 - Recap

If Alice was expecting a relaxing summer visiting her highly-placed-in-the-British-hierarchy brother, she had a rude awakening within hours of arriving in Simla.   First, a scheming brother and sister seem to have moved into her brother Ralph’s house, and then there is an attempted assassination on Ralph while she is inches away. Not much happens to advance the plot in Episode 2. Although Ralph had seemed very hot and heavy with his American guest, Madeleine’s brother Eugene tells Cynthia (aka Mrs. Weasley) that Ralph is losing interest. Madeleine is very pretty and allegedly rich: why did she have to come to India to look for a husband? What is her secret? Does she really like Ralph?
Aafrin, pre-assassination attempt
Ralph, who is private secretary to the Viceroy, and the other British civil servants don’t seem to do much at work except talk about discouraging Gandhi and other attempts at nationalism. Back at the house, ladies of leisure Alice and Madeleine are thinking about going to a gymkhana (which makes me think of the Pullein-Thompson sisters) when Suspicious (and doubtless friendless) Sarah drops by, hoping to ingratiate herself with her betters. She continues to ask nosy questions about Alice’s husband – Alice mendaciously told her the man is dead but we know he is alive back in England. Whatever he did (is it worse than just cheating on her?) was sufficiently painful that whenever he is mentioned, Alice has to rush outside for fresh air.

Aafrin is still in the hospital, and his female relatives are concerned that his recovery is slow. Ralph is more concerned about negative publicity when an Indian newspaper reporter from the Delhi Herald comes asking questions. He doesn’t even want to pay Aafrin’s hospital bill! The assumption is that the attempted assassination was politically motivated but the would-be assassin won’t speak. “But he’s wearing a Gandhi hat!” says one of the Brits triumphantly, i.e., it must be political. Mr. Khan, the polite Indian reporter, points out it is merely a hat everyone wears to keep off the sun! However, the Indian servant listening to this conversation finds an identity card hidden in the lining of the hat that I think shows the man is a nationalist.

Ralph visits the assassin and says they’re in a bit of a hole. Well, it was pretty obvious they had some relationship! Startlingly, the man first strokes Ralph’s face (this surprised me because I couldn’t believe they were secret lovers) and then begins beating him viciously. The man does some damage before someone pulls him off; then Ralph visits Cynthia to be cleaned up and cuddled, in a semi-motherly way. This seems odd although we know both Alice and Ralph lost their mother early, and he has known Cynthia for years. Ralph seems to cherish sentimental memories of his childhood that aren’t identical to Alice’s recollections; for example, he bought Alice a piano because he remembers her accompanying her singing as a child but Alice says she doesn’t play. Ralph also seems to cherish a drawing (done by him?) of Alice as a child. If he is so obsessed with her, why didn’t he ever go back to England to visit her? He doesn’t seem to be hurting for money but perhaps was too busy pursuing a career. Alice says she didn’t come to India just to practice the piano but she doesn’t explain why she did come. I think it is obvious that she was escaping from the husband and visiting Ralph was expedient. No sign of the baby in this episode but that’s why you have an ayah.

Mr. Khan says if there wasn’t a political motive for what everyone politely calls “the incident,” there must be another reason. He does some digging and finds out that Ralph was an Assistant Magistrate at some point in the past; he wonders if there is a connection. When Khan goes to visit the man in prison; he is too late, the man has killed himself. Mr. Khan won’t stop pursuing the matter, so Ralph distracts him by bringing him to visit Aafrin. Ralph tells the reporter that Aafrin saved the life of this “very grateful Englishman.” Ralph even charmingly poses for a picture with Aafrin, more proof he is hiding something, as he does not like Aafrin and does not seem grateful.

Last week I ignored a character named Ian, a young man who was on the train with Alice and Sarah, coming to live in India with his uncle. He is beginning to find out that the uncle is in debt and very disreputable, but he continues to be forgettable (except that I think he had a flingt with Sarah on the way home from the Club in Episode 1).

Alice covers her bright hair to venture discreetly to visit Aafrin’s family to inquire about his recovery. It turns out his family kept the news of his injury from the father who has a weak heart (and did he say they are living in a cow byre or did I misunderstand?), so everyone is annoyed with Alice for coming, plus they hate that she saw their humble home.  Aafrin’s elder sister Sooni meets up with his Hindu girlfriend, who tries to give her a letter for Aafrin. Sooni opens and reads the letter and seems unlikely to pass it on.

Adam, the child who nearly was killed on the train tracks, runs away from the orphanage, and lovely Leena, the assistant teacher, wanders around until she finds him. She sent for Dougie, the missionary/orphanage director, to help her search, but jealously Sarah insisted he stay with her.

Ralph and some other guy competed at the gymkhana, which looks quite jolly, especially when everyone heads off for drinks, but then they leave Sarah behind, and you know what a woman scorned is likely to do…

Madeleine accosts Ralph while he is taking a bath (American hussy). She wants to talk about their relationship. As my Latin teacher used to say, “Nihil novi sub sole – there is nothing new under the sun.” Like all men, he has no interest in the Serious Talk but it’s boring taking a bath by oneself, so he beckons her to join him in the bathtub and she does not realize she should play hard to get.

Sarah, still smarting about being ignored at the gymkhana, writes to a friend in England to do some sleuthing about what Alice is hiding. Wouldn’t you think the mail back and forth to India would be unreliable? Yet I am sure Sarah’s correspondent will write back by return of post with all the dirt about Alice’s husband, which we are eager to hear!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Tonight the Streets Are Ours (Book Review)

Title: Tonight the Streets Are Ours
Author: Leila Sales
Publication: Farrar Straus Giroux
Genre: YA Fiction
Plot: Arden is that rarest of things – a selfless teenager – but it is stressful to be surrounded by a host of selfish people: her parents (including her mother who just walked out on the family), her boyfriend, and her best friend Lindsey. Wearied by the people in her life who take and offer nothing back, Arden finds escape by reading the blog of a young New Yorker. Naturally, his life seems more interesting and more perfect than her own, so when everything seems to go wrong in her small town of Cumberland, Arden impulsively heads to New York to find the blogger, with her friend Lindsey in tow. As in all quests, not everything one finds turns out to be exactly what one sought...

Audience: Fans of YA authors such as Sarah Dessen, Susane Colasanti, and Sara Zarr
Leila's Booksigning
What I liked: Each of Sales’ four books is very different but friendship and loyalty play an important role in each. This Song Will Save Your Life, her third book, is a unique blend of darkness and irrepressible humor. I have recommended it to people who don’t usually read YA but were captivated. This book is just as readable but much lighter, although Arden’s family situation is as complicated as Elise’s in This Song. Arden’s mother decided she was being taken for granted and simply left her family. Arden could cope without a mother but her little brother seems lost, and their workaholic father is clueless. Arden’s teachers and principal (and father!) don’t know her well enough to realize she does not use drugs, and her boyfriend is narcissistic and thoughtless. I also enjoyed the description of Just Like Me Dolls, which chose little girl Arden to be the face of one of its dolls and matching books:

Out of all the thousands of girls between the ages of eight and twelve who sent in their essays, Just Like Me Dolls had chosen Arden as their winner.

Because Arden was Girl of the Year, she got free copies of her books, with titles like Arden in Charge and Arden’s New Friend. She got a free doll, designed with peach-colored skin and light brown hair and hazel eyes, just like her. She got every single one of the Arden Doll’s accessories for free, too: a doll-size tire swing and doll-size metal detector, a doll-size cat and doll-size dog to mimic her own pets.

Arden’s impulsive decision to drive to New York to find the boy who writes the blog she has become obsessed with and her interaction with him is the best part of the book, as she matures before our eyes in one night. It’s also great that Arden realizes her happiness does not depend on a teenage (or older) boy.
Alice and Leila
What I disliked: A minor quibble, but I thought the beginning, which jumps into the middle of a pivotal 24 hours for Arden, then goes back two months in time, was both abrupt and unnecessary. Sales could just have begun with the day Arden gets called to the principal’s office. The author told us that some readers complained the plot was improbable: I found it reasonably convincing although would not have been brave enough to drive a car to NYC at 17! I don’t really enjoy it even now.
With the author
Source: I bought this book at Leila Sales’ recent booksigning at the Brookline Booksmith. By attending with my friend Alice, who is the librarian at the school both Leila and my nieces attended, I got to meet Leila (pronounced Lye-la) and her delightful parents as well. I recommend all Leila's books, especially This Song Will Save Your Life.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Indian Summers - Season 1, Episode 1 - Recap

Episode 1 – March, 1932 – set in India during the last years of the Raj, this is a series about intersecting English and Indian characters, with a few interloping Americans for good measure.
The British ruling class has escaped to the hills for the summer, but they cannot completely escape the growing unrest in the country as Gandhi and others seek independence. On the other hand, we viewers haven’t seen scenery this beautiful since The Jewel in the Crown, although Outlander provided some pretty stunning scenes of Scotland. Indian Summers was apparently filmed in Malaysia, not India, but it is beyond sumptuous and well worth watching. It begins with a lovely but pensive young woman who is traveling by train with a baby, while opposite her is a grumbling woman in a pink dress, with her son. Both women observe a parade of Indians out in the fields, carrying what appear to be luxury items, including what looks like a rocking horse. A poor Indian boy in the fields also observes these men.

Julie Walters, who played Mrs. Weasley in Harry Potter, is a well preserved older woman named Cynthia Coffin who runs the local English club. She is trying to get the place ready for guests but a bunch of monkeys got in the windows and messed everything up. Don’t you hate when that happens?

The train stops suddenly and, mysteriously, the young Indian boy is on the tracks, avoiding death by an eyelash. Pink dress is furious that the delay means they are likely to miss their connections at the next stop. She starts interrogating the younger woman who answers cagily, but when Pink Dress starts making inquisitive comments about the absent husband, the young woman gets up abruptly and tries to get off the train for fresh air while it is stopped.

“She left her hat!” exclaims Pink Dress. More to the point, she left her baby behind without a backward glance! Nowadays, she’d be reported for neglect! Or not.

Pink Dress’ husband, somewhat Old Testament-looking Douglas, runs the local orphanage and seems nicer than his wife. He jumps off the train to see what happened and finds the boy. His assistant (love interest?), a beautiful young Indian woman (Amber, who won no friends by correcting Pink Dress’s pronunciation of Persephone), also leaps from the train. They get left behind, much to the disgruntled wife’s annoyance. Douglas and Amber rescue the boy and eventually bring him home to be nursed.

Back in what I assume is Simla, an Indian is defacing a British picture with red paint. I am guessing it says something like, “Indian Independence now!” Ralph Whelan, an Englishman, who works for the Viceroy, seems to have the responsibility of dealing with the Indians who no longer seem willing to accept British rule. His job includes things like handling vandalism and reports of cholera. He is offhandedly rude to the natives, including to the apparently worthy, Aafrin Dalal, an ambitious young Indian clerk, who arrives with important dispatches while Ralph is trying to impress his peers.

Aafrin’s family is very respectable and well spoken. He has a younger schoolgirl sister and a pretty sister about his own age who is an ardent nationalist with red paint on her hands. Aafrin guesses what she has been up to and warns her to be careful. She is scornful of his desire to work for the establishment.

Pink Lady who turns out to be Sarah was right – they missed their connection because of the train stopping. As she, her son Matthew, her attractive companion and baby are chugging along in a sort of rickshaw, a fancy car appears with a servant calling, “Miss Alice! Miss Alice!”
Much to the annoyance of Pink Dress, Miss Alice abandons her and is swept away in the Rolls Royce.

The driver turns out to be a childhood friend of Alice’s, insofar as the British and their servants are friends. He explains that the car belongs to the Viceroy and was loaned to pick Alice up. Alice is clearly at the top of the English pyramid and I suspect Pink Dress is far below if her husband is a missionary. This is confirmed when Alice arrives with her baby at a huge and gorgeous house, and hands off her son, Percy, to a handy completely unfamiliar ayah. “He’s not good with strangers,” Alice murmurs but Percy doesn’t complain, perhaps recognizing his mother is about to begin her adventures. This house is full of servants – I wish they would share!
Alice is then welcomed by Ralph Whelan, who turns out to be her devoted older brother. They have not seen each other since she was 8, due to the British tradition of sending their children back to England for health and education reasons. He seems very fond of Alice, despite their separation (too fond? He is very touchy feely for someone who hasn’t seen his sister for 12-15 years and says he ever runs into Alice’s so-called husband, the fellow will regret it! Alice tells him she has made a mess of things – clearly, there is a secret involving this no-goodnik. In the meantime, he is delighted to see her and has even had their childhood rocking horse restored – surely this is what she saw from the window of the train, although how it reached the house so quickly I can’t imagine. More parallel between the carefree ruling class and the laborers.

Pink Dress is still wondering where her husband is. She is also trying to get her favorite silk dress cleaned by an Indian lurking near her home.  She must not have as many servants as Ralphie and Alice.

Aafrin’s mother gives him news about a Hindu girl they know, pretending not to know he is in love with her (has he been gone for four years learning how to be a clerk?). When he reminds her of his feelings, Mother says it’s not a suitable relationship, that he needs a nice Farsi girl. He immediately seeks out Sita and embraces her – no one in this show is very discreet but she says she has no reputation anymore, so perhaps more than Aafrin’s mother knows about their relationship.

Baby Percy is sleeping in a nice basket with the Ayah sleeping on the floor. You can see why it was a shock for the English when they retired and returned to England: it was cold, rainy, and the servants were expensive and less docile. Even at Downton, the staff would expect beds! In fairness, Alice must have coped with the baby all the way from England by herself, so who can blame her for taking advantage of the new nanny. Now, she is writing to her husband Charlie and tells him not to come after them. I assume this means he will turn up by Episode 3.

When Alice explores her brother’s luxurious house, she finds Eugene Mathers lying in hammock outside the house. He reminds me of the eccentric Englishman in A Room with a View – was it Daniel Day-Lewis? He and his beautiful sister Madeleine are staying with Ralph. It is obvious from a mile away that Madeline is interested in Ralph. Like Sarah, she asks about Alice’s husband and says she knows Alice was “let down” and that there was Another Woman. Alice makes it clear she is contemptuous of gossip, but Madeleine doesn’t back down; instead, helpfully pointing out that if Alice is going to pose as a widow (this is not really practical ) she needs to wear a wedding ring and so produces one. Well, Alice needs a friend that isn’t sly Sarah, but Madeleine has ulterior motives.

Cynthia, aka Mrs. Weasley, managed to clean up the mess from the monkeys in time to welcome all her beautifully dressed guests. In England, the proprietress would probably not socialize so freely with the guests but it sounds like Cynthia’s husband was a Good Old Boy from the regiment. Maybe she was left impoverished and runs the club so as to turn an honest penny? Also, it gives her a front row view for all the intrigue going on and even more that she orchestrates.

Several giggly young women tell Ralph, not knowing they are speaking to him, that they are looking for Ralph Whelan. He must be known as a good catch throughout the district but he is not interested. Alice appears at the right moment and tells them to go look on the verandah. Kaiser, a trusty servant (Cynthia’s, I guess) summons Ralph to a quiet room away from the party where Madeline is waiting for him. She said she was responding to a note. Ralph seems surprised, asking, “Kaiser gave you the message?” I missed the note but it must not have been meant for Madeline – however, he shrugs and kisses her. They make love while the servant waits outside the locked door. Later, it appears that Cynthia orchestrated this rendezvous. Cynthia, who is both motherly and possessive toward Ralph, tells him he could be the next Viceroy if he plays his cards right and comes across as “steady” to the right people. She says Madeleine is a rich American and would make a good wife.

While everyone is at the club, Doug and his beautiful Indian assistant, Amber, tend the boy who was nearly run over by the train tracks, and they name him Lazarus.

Back at the club, Sarah, Doug’s wife, is very, very curious about Alice, not knowing she should be more concerned about her husband’s infatuation with Amber. She quizzes Alice, who reveals that after she left India as a child she never saw her parents again, and hadn’t seen Ralph until now. I wonder when her parents died because, as I recall, most civil servants got a sabbatical to England every 5-7 years. If they were as affluent as their children seem, one would have expected Alice to get an occasional visit and not be foisted on an aunt every vacation. Poor child! Sarah sees the wedding ring and probably noticed Alice was not wearing one on the train. Alice foolishly tells Sarah that her husband is dead, so you know he is going to turn up! Sarah asks more inquisitive questions and says she knows they will be the best of friends. Alice knows this is not one tiny bit true. Alice, don’t you know that in addition to nonstop gossiping, these people write lots of letters – it’s not as fast as the Internet but even if Charlie doesn’t chase you to India, someone will reveal your secret. I just hope that Charlie’s secret wasn’t bigamy because even if Alice was an innocent victim, these Brits will treat her like a fallen woman.

Sarah is distracted from Alice when she suddenly sees her silk dress on one of the guests! According to Madeleine, the Indian Sarah trusted to do her dry cleaning has a side business of lending out the merchandise. No consumer protection laws in India!

At the end of dinner, it is time to sing God Save the King and to toast: “To the King/Emperor!” all the Englishmen and women declare.

Ralph tells Sarah he will never go back to England. “They’ll have to kill me first,” he says (I didn't notice any ominous music to warn of an imminent assassination attempt but there should have been!). They walk outside to meet Aafrin (Ralph spitefully told him to find some letters in his messy office and bring them to the club). As Aafrin gives Ralph the letters, a turbaned Indian in white appears and shoots. Ralph is covered with blood but it is Aafrin who was shot. Cynthia and Alice accompany Aafrin to a hospital, where he seems close to death. I wondered if Ralph the target or was Aafrin on someone’s hit list because he doesn’t support nationalism?

Alice thinks Ralph (why don’t they pronounce it Rafe? Isn’t that the English way?) was the target and asks her brother if he knew the assailant. Ralph says no. She persists, “It’s just what he said…” she repeats the word twice. “I know my Hindustani may be rusty but he was calling you demon, devil.” “I expect you misheard,” he replies without hesitation, and reluctantly, Alice responds, “If you say so.”

Episode 1 ends with Aafrin gasping for breath in the hospital (no penicillin for about ten years-will he recover?) and the would-be assassin imprisoned.  Stay tuned for more, and try to catch it On Demand or on if you missed the first one.

Images copyright to PBS

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Storms of War (Book Review)

Title: The Storms of War
Author: Kate Williams
Publication: Pegasus Books, Hardcover, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: What seems to be a carefree English family on the brink of World War I possesses a not very well kept secret – the affable father, Rudolf de Witt, a prosperous canned meat manufacturer, is German born, although he came to England many years ago and married a well-born Englishwoman. He has four children: Arthur, who spends most of the book in Paris; Michael, who is too sensitive to participate in a war; Emmeline, a spoiled beauty; and the youngest, Celia, who is the main character. When war breaks out, the de Witt family is shunned for its German roots, from Emmeline’s arrogant (and not in a charming way) fiancé and the village children spurning a summer fête to the government treating Rudolf as an enemy of the state. Celia is the most interesting character. Like my favorite Vera Brittain, she can’t bear to be left behind when her brother and closest friend are serving in France, so signs up to drive ambulances despite never having driven a car.  This volume follows the de Witt family from 1914 to 1918

Audience: Fans of historical fiction and those who share my interest in women and war work. I have also added this book to my Downton Abbey Recommended Reading List.

What I liked: Author Williams is a historian, known for books about Queen Victoria, Emma Hamilton, and Josephine Bonaparte, and her writing is strong and historically accurate. I never had that moment, too frequent lately in poorly edited books, where one come across an anachronism that completely jolts the reader out of the book. The quality of the writing greatly contributed to my enjoyment of The Storms of War.

I have read dozens of books set during this time frame and, as I mentioned to a friend last night, I am very familiar with all the usual plot variations: heroine in love with family retainer, heroine wants to go to university, heroine misunderstood by family, heroine wants to serve in France like brother, male character can’t handle pressure of battle, shell-shocked soldiers, and many more. However, I felt that Williams handled these well-worn plot elements in a way that made them seem fresh, entertaining, and appealing. I particularly appreciated the vivid descriptions of Celia nerve-rackingly driving an ambulance in the dark in France!
What I disliked: I did not find Emmeline’s behavior convincing, and I became less fond of Celia as the book progressed. She became obsessed with her own concerns, and I found it annoying when she ignored her responsibility to her distraught mother or lied to Captain Russell, the dour but surprisingly understanding officer she drives in London. I guess I like my heroines unflawed, which isn’t really fair!

Source: I read about this book when it was published in England (in fact, I suggested to several editor friends that they acquire it quickly but I guess Pegasus beat them to the punch) and requested it from the Brookline Library. Looking forward to the next book in the trilogy!

(photo above of a woman ambulance driver is copyright to

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Celia's House (Book Review)

Title: Celia’s House
Author: D. E. Stevenson
Publication: 1943, original hardcover; Sourcebooks paperback, 2015
Genre: Light romantic fiction
Plot: In 1905, elderly Celia Dunne decides to leave Dunnian, her lovely home in Scotland, to her great-nephew Humphrey, with the understanding that his family can live there while he is away with the Navy. She assures him that his as-yet unborn daughter Celia will one day inherit Dunnian, and she dies soon afterwards. Once settled in their new home, Humphrey’s children love Dunnian as much as Celia did, particularly the eldest son Mark and a young cousin Deb, whose friendship with Mark influences her fondness for the house and helps her become part of the family. The story follows Mark and his siblings through WWI and to 1942, and sure enough, his youngest sister is another quirky Celia, named for her great-great aunt. The book does not contain much in the way of plot other than a competition for Mark’s affection but it is an extremely pleasant family story.

Audience: Stevenson has a devoted following and fans are delighted to see some of her books back in print. Similar authors include Elizabeth Cadell, Angela Thirkell, and Rosamunde Pilcher.

What I liked: This is a little different from other Stevenson novels: very focused on the family and house and less humorous than her other books (although it begins with an amusing interaction between Celia and her gardener), but appealing in a different way. I liked the descriptions of all the Dunnes and their gossipy neighbors, and I especially enjoyed the scene where Humphrey’s arrogant cousin Maurice learns Humphrey has inherited Dunnian instead of him. There are some allusions to more serious topics: an elderly retainer with nowhere else to go (luckily, she is needed and welcomed by Humphrey and his family), Deb is neglected by her own mother until her cousin Humphrey takes her into his own family, and Humphrey’s beloved wife becomes confused and frail before her time.

Source: I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I really enjoyed this reread and am so glad that Sourcebooks brought it back with delightful artwork and packaging.  
Here's another favorite back in print!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Her Sister's Shoes (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Her Sister’s Shoes
Author: Ashley Farley
Publication: Trade Paperback and eBook, Leisure Time Books, 2015
Genre: Fiction
Plot: Three very different sisters, Jackie, Samantha, and Faith face the challenges of juggling career and family in a small South Carolina coastal town. Jackie, an interior decorator worried about turning 50, is still trying to impress the affluent women who “run” the town (mean girls who have not changed since high school), and has neglected her doctor husband and twin sons in the process. Samantha, the middle sister, has taken on the challenge of running the family seafood market, while dealing with the fallout of a car accident in which her son wound up in a wheelchair. Faith is married to an abusive, crude guy who treats her and her daughter badly but she is too ashamed to ask her family for help. Their mother, Lovie, cares deeply about her daughters’ and grandchildren's happiness but her memory issues prevent her from providing concrete assistance. This story shows the power of coming together as a family.

Audience: Readers of contemporary women’s fiction, and maybe you! Leave a comment if you are interested in reading this book, and I will pick a winner at the end of August. U.S. only, I regret.

What I liked:  As the eldest of three sisters (and one brother), I found this an entertaining, fast-paced summer read, perfect for the beach. I liked the small town of Prospect, South Carolina, and the way the author evokes a caring small town that supports the Sweeney family and their fish business, not to mention some quirky minor characters. Farley does a good job of creating the three Sweeney sisters with distinct personalities, even if they are a bit too clichéd: one is too selfish, one is too much of a doormat, and one drinks too much.  And should the title be Her Sisters' Shoes?  Jackie learns to think about and understand both sisters, not just obsess about herself.

However: I did feel there were way too many crises going on in one family – paralyzed son who was driving in the car accident that killed his best friend, family business threatened, abusive husband, mother experiencing dementia, evil brother-in-law hitting on his wife’s sister, embezzlement, philandering husband, concussed son in hospital, mean girls, attacks, stymied police, alcoholism issues and more.  Overkill?  How can one family be so unlucky simultaneously? Also, for three sisters who seem relatively close, how could they not have an inkling of the troubles the others are dealing with? And how do two of these sisters find eligible single men so easily?  Maybe we should all move to Prospect!  Lots of family drama that all ties up very neatly, if implausibly, at the end but, despite these good natured quibbles, a fun read.

Purchase LinksAmazon, Barnes & Noble

Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours but all thoughts and opinions are my own. I have one copy from the publisher to give away - please leave a comment to enter. You can visit other stops on the tour by clicking on the links below.  Thanks for stopping by!

Ashley’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, August 4th: A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, August 5th: Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Thursday, August 6th: Wall-to-Wall Books
Monday, August 10th: Books and Bindings
Tuesday, August 11th: Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Wednesday, August 12th: Queen of All She Reads
Thursday, August 13th: The Book Bag
Monday, August 17th: Good Girl Gone Redneck
Tuesday, August 18th: My So-Called Book Reviews
Thursday, August 20th: Buried Under Books
Monday, August 24th: Thoughts on This ‘n That
Thursday, August 27th: Ask a Bookworm