Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Review: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

A Countess Below Stairsis a sweeping story of Anna, a rich Russian countess, whose family must flee to England during the revolution. There, after losing all their riches, they must work as servants to earn money. Anna takes a temporary position as a maid for the Earl of Westerholme, but she doesn't expect to fall in love with him, nor he with her. Especially when his not-so-friendly fiance shows up.

A Countess Below Stairs

Things I Liked:
I thought that the writing, some of the time, was very good. I loved the historical atmosphere, the descriptions of setting, especially the Russain culture in England. I pretty much enjoyed the simple, straight forward, and practically perfect story. I do love a good happy ending, most of the time. Here were a few of my favorite quotes:
"It was the last of these [governesses], a gaunt and angular spinster with whose nose one could have cut cheese, that Anna inexplicably chose to worship, enduring at the hands of the Englishwoman not only cold baths and scrubbings with Pears soap and the wrenching open of sealed bedroom windows, but that ultimate martyrdom, the afternoon walk." p.3
"With her stick-like arms, jerky movements and the tendency to whiskers which has been the Nettleford scourge for generations, she relentlessly reminded the onlookers that pink is not only the color of budding roses, but of boiling prawns." p.152
Things I Didn't Like:
The language, while sometimes very beautiful, became too convoluted. Her descriptive passages went on and on for pages. It was like she was trying too hard to make lovely turns of phrase and throw in lots of descriptors. I also thought the book was longer than necessary and the plot quite predictable, but it is enjoyable if you are looking for something fluffy and happy. One final thing that bothered me was wondering what exactly made the Anna and Rupert fall in love? At the first, not much really happens between them.

I enjoyed The Star of Kazanby Ibbotson, despite its also fairly predictable plot
The Season by Sarah MacLean
a bit like the Luxe series by Anna Godberson (which is definitely more risque)

s-factor: none

mrg-factor: none

v-factor: none

Overall rating: ***

So I'm not having much luck with historical fiction recently. Please share your favorites with me and hopefully I can pull myself out of the historical fiction slump!

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  1. I really liked "Chains" by Laurie Halse Anderson

    I imagine you've probably read "Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare. I also like "Calico Captive" by the same author.

    Hope that helps!

  2. Have you ever read Copper Sun by Sharon Draper? It's excellent.

  3. I was similarily 'meh' on A Countess Below Stairs. I highly recommend Eva Rice's The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, which takes place in post WWII Britain. The central characters are young adults who grew up knowing the privations of war-time life and are suddenly plunged into a whole new world after war's end. Great characters and Rice's description of the times is very convincing.

  4. I really felt this novel was blah. Which really disappointed me since I loved the premise. If you enjoy Asian fiction, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is one of my all time favorites. Also the Tudor books by Phillipa Gregory are really good reads.

  5. This is Ibbotson's most predictable, least nuanced characters book. So I know what you mean. It's perfectly frothy fun. My favorite of her is A COMPANY OF SWANS.

    But, if you want to switch gears I HIGHLY recommend THE ROAD HOME by Ellen Emerson White. Sadly, it's OOP but I'm sure your library can get one in. It's about an American nurse in Vietnam and it's YA and it's breathtaking.

    If you're in the mood for something Victorian, I can't say enough about Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey mysteries. SILENT IN THE GRAVE is the first one and is perfectly delightful and skillfully written.

    Lastly, have you ever read any Mary Stewart? She wrote excellent historical/romantic/suspense/mysteries what have you! There are a whole host of them if you like her style. I recommend starting with either NINE COACHES WAITING.

    I'll stop there, I promise. :)

  6. So many great recommendations here! I just finished "These Is My Words" by Nancy Turner and loved it -- great adventure and romance in the Arizona Territory of the late 1800's.

  7. Thank you all so much for your suggestions! Some of them I have read (and loved), but there are many I haven't! Hopefully I can enjoy some historical fiction again!

  8. I'm not a big fan of Ibbotson's hsitorical writing as I generally find her a bit lightweight. Are you familiar with Gillian Bradshaw, a US writer resident in the UK? She has written a great many children's and YA historical fiction books and her earlier work in particular, such as The Beacon at Alexandria, The Bearkeeper's Daughter and The Sand Reckoner are very strong (imho).

    I enjoyed "These is My Words" except for the ending, which felt a little hurried and "The Color of Lightning" is also a good read (although if you've read Lucia St Clair Robson's "Ride the Wind" or Alan Le May's "The Searchers" you will already be familiar with much of the basic source material.)

  9. Andie, I've never heard of Gillian Bradshaw, but I am intrigued! Thanks so much for your suggestions.

  10. Sally Gardner's "I, Coriander" is also good and Patricia Finney, another UK writer, has also written some very good historical novels. I prefer her early Celto-Roman books (you will notice a theme with Gillian Bradshaw) but her Elizabethan novels are good too.

  11. Wow, I've got to be really careful when I ask for suggestions! You guys really filled up my TBR.


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