Audiobook double feature: Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets and Have A Nice Day

Audible Originals came through for me in a big way this week, as I listened to two terrific productions that really made me happy.

 

Legendary British comic Stephen Fry is our tour guide to the highs and the lows of Victorian society. In popular culture, the straitlaced era is portrayed as one of propriety, industry, prudishness, and piety. But scratch the surface and you’ll find haunting tales of scandal, sadism, sex, madness, malice, and murder.

“They were us in different dress and slightly different codes,” says Fry, whose signature wit and whimsy are in full force in this Audible Original. Find the quirky, dark, and forbidden details and family skeletons that even the most distinguished and conventional households attempted to cover up and hide, as you listen for the humanity beyond the polished veneer of this most fascinating era.

This audio adventure is a fun look at the secrets of the Victorian era, covering everything from fashion to lunacy to sexual orientation, plus sewers, sanitation, Sherlock Holmes, and more. Stephen Fry narrates, explaining the context and the strange stories from that time, and including interviews with historical experts and excerpts from diaries and newspapers of the time — all of which make the tales come to life. Parts of Stephen Fry’s Victorian Secrets are quite sad or disturbing, and some topics were of greater interest to me than others… but all in all, it’s really an informative and entertaining listen.

Audible Original: 7 hours, 33 minutes

 

Have a Nice Day features a live multi-cast script reading captured over two evenings at Minetta Lane Theatre in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Tony and Emmy Award winner Billy Crystal leads an all-star cast including Oscar winner Kevin Kline (President David Murray) and four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (First Lady Katherine Murray) in a performance of this hilarious and poignant story about a man desperately scrambling to put his affairs in order: to save his presidency, his marriage, his relationship with his daughter—and possibly his life.

President David Murray starts the day in crisis. He’s lost control of Congress, has to decide whether to run for a second term, and his wife and teenage daughter are barely talking to him. What’s more, the Angel of Death has sent a rather inept “repo man” who is at the foot of his bed, giving him only one more day to live.

Cast members include Justin Bartha, Irene Bedard, Annette Bening, Chris Cafero, Dick Cavett, Auli’i Cravalho, Billy Crystal, Rachel Dratch, Darrell Hammond, Christopher Jackson, Robert King, Kevin Kline, and Robin Thede.

Have a Nice Day was an unexpected treat! I listened to this all in one go while out for a long walk, and got completely sucked into the funny yet poignant story of a man — in this case, the President of the United States — trying to make things right on the last day of his life. The story is written by Billy Crystal and Quinton Peeples, and features Billy Crystal as death’s messenger. Kevin Kline is terrific, as is Annette Bening and the rest of the cast. The story is sweet, and includes just enough laughs to keep it from getting too sappy. Still, I found myself really moved by the story of a good man trying to make amends to his wife and daughter –while also trying to keep his security detail and White House aides from freaking out over his caught-on-video moments going viral.

This is a relatively short listen, perfect for one of those weeks when your time is limited.

Audible Original; 1 hour, 46 minutes

If you’re an audiobook fan looking for a break from longer books or wanting to switch up fictional pursuits with something a bit different, give one (or both) of these recordings a try!

Take A Peek Book Review: A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell, #3)

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Members of an Egyptian expedition fall victim to an ancient mummy’s curse in a thrilling Veronica Speedwell novel from the New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Julia Grey mysteries. 
 
London, 1888. As colorful and unfettered as the butterflies she collects, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell can’t resist the allure of an exotic mystery—particularly one involving her enigmatic colleague, Stoker. His former expedition partner has vanished from an archaeological dig with a priceless diadem unearthed from the newly discovered tomb of an Egyptian princess. This disappearance is just the latest in a string of unfortunate events that have plagued the controversial expedition, and rumors abound that the curse of the vengeful princess has been unleashed as the shadowy figure of Anubis himself stalks the streets of London.

But the perils of an ancient curse are not the only challenges Veronica must face as sordid details and malevolent enemies emerge from Stoker’s past. Caught in a tangle of conspiracies and threats—and thrust into the public eye by an enterprising new foe—Veronica must separate facts from fantasy to unravel a web of duplicity that threatens to cost Stoker everything. . . .

My Thoughts:

This series is so much fun! I’ve written lengthier reviews of the first two Veronica Speedwell books (A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking), so I’ll keep this one brief. Veronica Speedwell, a (mostly) proper Victorian lady with a penchant for butterflies, scientific expeditions, and hot men, once again becomes embroiled in solving a mystery in order to stave off potential disgrace for her partner Stoker. The plot involves a mummy’s curse, shady explorers, Egyptian gods… and perhaps most importantly, figures from Stoker’s dark past.

The mystery itself is quite fun, and it’s satisfying to get some of the answers we’ve been waiting for about Stoker’s dismal reputation and the scandal that haunts him. Veronica and Stoker still have that red-hot (but unfulfilled) chemistry between them, and the door is definitely open for further adventures and further romantic entanglement.

Veronica is a terrific heroine, and the books in the series feature just the right combination of danger, adventure, and witty dialogue. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell, #3)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: January 16, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Mystery/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #103: Silent in the Grave

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Silent in the Grave
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Published: 2006
Length: 435 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“Let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.”

These ominous words are the last threat that Sir Edward Grey receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, he collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests.

Prepared to accept that Edward’s death was due to a long-standing physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggests that her husband was murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers damning evidence for herself, and realizes the truth.

Determined to bring the murderer to justice, Julia engages the enigmatic Brisbane to help her investigate Edward’s demise. Dismissing his warnings that the investigation will be difficult, if not impossible, Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition a couple of years ago after being introduced to some other of Deanna Raybourn’s works.

Why I want to read it:

The plot itself sounds really engaging — who doesn’t love a Victorian murder mystery? I’ve enjoyed the stand-alone novels I’ve read by this author, and am really enjoying her Veronica Speedwell stories too. The Lady Julia Grey series is quite well-known, and I think it’s about time that I give it a try.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Shelf Control #4: Affinity

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Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

AffinityTitle: Affinity
Author: Sarah Waters
Published: 1999
Length: 352 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

An upper-class woman recovering from a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior has begun visiting the women’s ward of Millbank prison, Victorian London’s grimmest jail, as part of her rehabilitative charity work. Amongst Millbank’s murderers and common thieves, Margaret finds herself increasingly fascinated by one apparently innocent inmate, the enigmatic spiritualist Selina Dawes. Selina was imprisoned after a séance she was conducting went horribly awry, leaving an elderly matron dead and a young woman deeply disturbed. Although initially skeptical of Selina’s gifts, Margaret is soon drawn into a twilight world of ghosts and shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions, until she is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina’s freedom, and her own.

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

At least 4 or 5 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

After reading Fingersmith, I was determined to read as many books by Sarah Waters as possible! Somehow, though, I never quite followed all the way through, and Affinity is one of the books I missed. I do have a copy, and a friend has been urging me to read it for years now. Spiritualists, asylums, Victorian London… sounds perfectly delicious.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

 

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

Book Review: A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell, #1) by Deanna Raybourn

Curious BeginningA Curious Beginning is a delightful Victorian adventure romp that tells an exciting, mostly stand-alone story while setting readers up for an ongoing series. From the talented Deanna Raybourn, a pro at creating period settings that ring true, comes plucky heroine Veronica Speedwell, a no-nonsense young woman who very much knows her own mind.

Veronica is twenty-five years old, and so could be considered a spinster by the standards of that time period, but she truly doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Veronica has been raised by two elderly aunts who adopted her as a young orphan, and ever since she’s been grown enough to exercise some independence, she has set out to see the world while on expeditions to collect the finest and rarest butterfly specimens. A talented lepidopterist, Veronica doesn’t shrink from adventure, scientific or amorous, and has left a trail of lovers behind as well… but with stipulations:

Over time, I developed a set of rules from which I never deviated. Although I permitted myself dalliances during my travels, I never engaged in flirtations in England — or with Englishmen. I never permitted any liberties to gentlemen either married or betrothed, and I never corresponded with any of them once I returned home. Foreign bachelors were my trophies, collected for their charm and good looks as well as attentive manners. They were holiday romances, light and insubstantial as thistledown, but satisfying all the same.

The action kicks off with the death of the Veronica’s remaining aunt, leaving her on her own with no ties and no obligations. Almost immediately, however, she is thrust into danger, as a strange man ransacks her aunts’ cottage and appears on the verge of kidnapping her — which she escapes thanks to the assistance of yet another stranger, Baron von Stauffenbach, who whisks her off to London for protection and promptly stashes her for safekeeping with an associate, a young, dangerous-looking man by the name of Stoker. Stoker has wild hair and tattoos, wears an eyepatch, and is busy trying to taxidermy an elephant when Veronica is deposited into his care. Neither of the two are thrilled by their enforced companionship — but when the Baron is found murdered, they realize that they’ll be spending a lot more time together as they run from both the police and whichever mysterious villains are responsible for the Baron’s death.

Along the way, of course, the tension and hostility between Stoker and Veronica morph into trust, admiration, and perhaps something deeper too, although they’re too busy trying to outwit a host of pursuers and simply stay alive to have time to explore any feelings, romantic or carnal, that might pop up.

Veronica is a super-smart, nerves-of-steel, take-no-prisoners woman. She has a hatpin and isn’t afraid to use it! In temperament and repartée, she reminded me very much of Gail Carriger’s Alexia Tarabotti — proper, demanding, capable, and unafraid, and prone to the most delicious quips and arguments. Her back and forth with Stoker is quite fun:

He shook his head as if to clear it. “I smoked opium once. It felt like listening to you, only rather more mundane.”

Another example:

“Veronica, are you weeping?” he asked suspiciously.

“Don’t be ludicrous,” I returned tartly. “I do not weep. It is a symptom of the rankest sentimentality, and I am never sentimental.”

By the end of the novel, the two have joined a circus, escaped evil henchmen by jumping into the Thames, and burned down a warehouse, among other more sedate approaches to investigation. The mystery of the Baron’s death is resolved in a way that makes clear that while this chapter is more or less complete, there are plenty of loose ends and further threats to deal with in the future.

A Curious Beginning is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, and should particularly appeal to readers who like Victorian settings with plenty of action thrown in. Veronica is a wonderful main character, and Stoker is intriguing — in that dark, broody, mysterious way that just might win him a spot on the “book boyfriends” list of quite a few readers. Together, the two bounce off one another constantly, making it clear that their surface disagreements and irritation are covers for an attraction and connection that are likely to continue deepening as this series progresses.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what sort of adventures await these two. This is a delightful start to a new series, and I look forward to reading much more.

Want to know about some of Deanna Raybourn’s other novels? Check out my reviews of:
Night of a Thousand Stars
City of Jasmine
A Spear of Summer Grass

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The details:

Title: A Curious Beginning
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: NAL/Penguin
Publication date: September 1, 2015
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Thursday Quotables: A Curious Beginning

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

Curious Beginning

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn
(released September 1, 2015)

I’ve just started this new book by Deanna Raybourn, and I’m pretty amused so far. Set in Victorian England, A Curious Beginning centers on Veronica Speedwell, an assertive, independent young woman (and a successful lepidopterist), whose mysterious past seems to be catching up with her. Her tart statements and unwillingness to be pushed around remind me a lot of Alexia Tarabotti of The Parasol Protectorate, and that’s very good indeed.

He shook his head. “I cannot seem to formulate a clear thought in the face of such original thinking, Miss Speedwell. You have a high opinion of your sex.”

I pursed my lips. “Not all of it. We are, as a gender, undereducated and infantalized to the point of idiocy. but those of us who have been given the benefit of learning and useful occupation, well, we are proof that the traditional notions of feminine delicacy and helplessness are the purest poppycock.”

A little confidence goes a long way:

“The moonlight has addled your brain, Miss Speedwell. I have no intention of arming you, much less facing off in a duel.”

I did not take the opportunity to instruct him on the lethal properties of a cunningly wielded hatpin.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Book Review: Lady of Ashes

Book Review: Lady of Ashes By Christine Trent

Lady of Ashes

Violet Morgan is a respectable wife in Victorian London, who also happens to be London’s only female undertaker. Married to a puzzling man who inherited his family’s business, Violet is the one who truly has a passion for making sure the deceased are treated with honor, that their families are supported and guided, and that each funeral is arranged and managed in accordance with the deceased’s station in society. Mustn’t skimp on funeral plumes, glass carriages, or professional mourners!

As the Civil War erupts across the pond, the ripples extend to the United Kingdom as political interests and financial scheming impact all levels of London society, from Windsor Palace all the way to Morgan Undertaking. Violet’s husband and brother-in-law become entangled in seemingly nefarious dealings, and as her husband starts to come unhinged, Violet must find a way to maintain her dignity and her business reputation despite the disintegration of her marriage.

Lady of Ashes is crammed full of plot, so much so that it feels a bit overstuffed. In and of itself, Violet’s establishment in the male-dominated undertaking profession would have been quite interesting. However, the books constantly shifts focus, bringing in US and British politics, the foibles of the monarchy, an orphaned waif, a romantic plot line, and a murder mystery. Ultimately, it’s really just too much.

Which is a shame, as there is much to enjoy in Lady of Ashes. Violet is an interesting character, strong and assertive and committed to her profession at a time when society — and the Queen — made clear that a woman’s place is in the home. Seeing Violet navigate her way against the current, stand up for herself, and carry out her undertaking duties with compassion and grace is quite compelling, and if that had remained the chief focus of the book, I think it would have worked much better.

Instead, a great deal of space is devoted to the politic maneuvering of the US ambassadors to the court of Queen Victoria, the high seas dramas involving blockade runners and naval ships, and the marriage of Victoria and Albert. Even Violet’s story is not smooth, as we jump from her marital woes to a train wreck to her adoption of an orphan without much in the way of transition, and each new development in the narrative feels like an abrupt change in the point of the storyline.

Still, I did come away from Lady of Ashes with some interesting new tidbits of historical data. For example, who knew that embalming became more widely practiced in the US during the Civil War, when the bodies of battlefield casualties had to be preserved for their long train journeys home for burial? I also learned a great deal about royal funeral rites, societal rules regarding mourning fashion, and plumbing and foundation problems in Victorian London. The author has clearly done a ton of research for this book, and provides a comprehensive bibliography of historical sources for further reading.

Do I recommend Lady of Ashes? Yes, but with reservations. Violet is a terrific character, and the portrayal of funerary rites in Victorian England is morbidly intriguing. Much of Lady of Ashes is quite fascinating, but overall, I believe it would have been a better book with a tighter focus. As it is, there’s just too much crammed into the plot for it to feel cohesive, and sadly, the end result is that the story feels scattered.