Films worth watching over and over again

Watching and re-watching a film despite knowing the plot, the characters, the outcome and any surprise twists is one of my guilty pleasures. I get totally immersed in re-watching a film I enjoyed the first or tenth time, because it has that indefinable quality that inspires pleasure, joy, anticipation, the shared buzz of quoting favourite lines, laughing at the jokes you have heard so often yet which still raise a smile, or squeaking in fear despite knowing the fright that is just around the corner.

But for every film I love to watch more than once, there are films that I find so boring, predictable, poorly acted or with irritating lapses in internal logic that I wonder how they ever got made, and will never watch again. I wanted to share some of the films that have become part of my cultural identity, films that have quotes I can share with my closest friends and family, who will instantly get my reference.

My repeat viewing ranges from drama, action to comedy, from romance to science fiction. I watch The Martian every time it is on TV because I get so much enjoyment and satisfaction from seeing how Mark Watney (Matt Damon) will overcome the odds to survive alone on Mars while all those wonderfully skilled people back on Earth go to such incredible lengths to rescue him. It has humour, drama, wonderful character interaction, great pacing and a stirring, uplifting message without being preachy (as well as a groovy soundtrack and a laugh out loud reference to the Lord of the Rings, which just happens to be another film trilogy I can watch again and again). I will also watch Inception, The Abyss, Alien, ALIENS, Arrival, the original Star Wars trilogy and 2001: A Space Odyssey because they are all so well made, excellently acted, beautifully paced and crafted, with clever, thought-provoking premises, and just have that quality that enables me to become totally immersed in their worlds and what unfolds onscreen each and every time.

I also have a fondness for romance movies, both dramas and comedies. I love the older, classic film romances such as Random Harvest (1942) based on the 1941 book of the same name by James Hilton (who also wrote Lost Horizon). It’s about an amnesiac World War 1 veteran, Charles “Smithy” Rainier (Ronald Colman) who meets and marries a music hall performer Paula (Greer Garson) but through an accident remembers his pre-war life while forgetting those few years when he met and married Paula. It is incredibly romantic, schmaltzy, as Charles gradually remembers those missing years in a series of coincidences too incredible to be real yet they work. It is beautifully photographed in black and white, touching, heart-warming and with the two leads putting their considerable talents into convincing viewers this love affair is worth visiting time and again. There is one scene where Charles is preparing to marry a young woman, Kitty, sort of a non-blood-related niece (having forgotten he was ever married to Paula) and they are at the church discussing which hymns to play at the service. “O Perfect Love” is played and it is tear-inducing to watch how Charles blanks out, the music obviously carrying him back subconsciously to his marriage to Paula, while Kitty watches tragically, aware there is someone else she cannot compete with. There is a major difference between the character of Paula in the film, and how she appears in the novel (if you have read it) that just adds more complexity to how the movie makers overcame a key plot point.

Another repeat-viewing indulgence, a comedy this time, is 1942’s The Major and the Minor, about a young woman, Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) who finally decides to leave New York City and take a train back to her home town of Iowa, but she has only enough money for a child’s ticket. She disguises herself as a young girl and, after being discovered by the train conductor, hides out in the car of Major Kirby (Ray Milland). Kirby believes she is a child and feels protective towards her. He escorts her back to his military academy where she is wooed by many young men not out of their teens, while she wants to win the Major’s love. It is such a delicate balancing act for Rogers and Milland, who must convince viewers that a grown man harbouring tender feelings for a person he has been led to believe is just a minor (hence the title) is not wrong or even uncomfortable. Because the audience knows the truth, and this is a comedy after all, we are willing to suspend our moral high ground and just enjoy this delicious confection of romance, comedy and misunderstandings.

I can also highly recommend another romantic comedy, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), not to be confused with the appalling 1992 remake starring Dyan Cannon and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The black and white 1945 version is another one of those mistaken situation scenarios, where Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth, a successful author of a popular magazine column, “Diary of a Housewife,” who lives alone in a New York apartment, cannot cook, yet writes about an idealised home life on a Connecticut farm for her legions of fans, including her intimidating boss (all her recipes are provided to her by an eccentric friend who is a great cook). Her boss insists she, her husband and baby (neither of whom actually exist) host himself and Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), an injured soldier over Christmas, and this visit will be featured in a future issue of the magazine. Poor Elizabeth must pretend to be like her magazine image, so an accomplished cook, homemaker and loving wife. What ensues is a series of misunderstandings, comic comings and goings, and a great cast really enjoying themselves. I am not a fan of Barbara Stanwyck in any other film as there is something too hard about her normally, but her acting here, being so out of her depth, is a joy to watch.

A few modern comedies I love to watch time and again include While You Were Sleeping (1995), starring Sandra Bullock as Lucy, a lonely transit worker who has a long-time and from-afar crush on Peter (Peter Gallagher), who she saves from being run over by a train and later meets his family at the hospital. Lucy is inadvertently mistaken for his fiancée, and as she cannot keep the unconscious Peter company while he recovers (and her crush on him continues) unless she has a relationship with him, she allows the misunderstanding to stand. This film works so well because it isn’t just about romantic love, but as Lucy admits later, also about having the love of a family, including parents and siblings, things she has never had. It is a comedy overall, but there is a poignant undercurrent running beneath that fits so well with a Christmas-themed movie. Complicating Lucy’s situation is her growing attraction to Peter’s brother Jack (the wonderful Bill Pullman), who is actually a perfect match for her, unlike the vain, shallow Peter. Lucy and Jack fight their attraction out of decency for the comatose Peter, but watching them fall in love, as well as Lucy and the family coming to love each other, makes for pleasurable viewing. This is one of those times where having a major misunderstanding not cleared up, thereby paving the way for true love, is totally acceptable because it is a necessary plot twist enabling all the events that follow.

Speaking of true love, I would be remiss not to mention The Princess Bride (1987), a perfect gem of a film, filled with romance, adventure, battles, escapes, revenge, death, miracles, comedy, fabulous quotes, gorgeous costumes, sublime music, and true love, naturally. A grandfather reads a book to his initially resistant grandson, who prefers video games, but soon becomes swept up in the adventures of an ill assorted group of people, unfolding against a backdrop of perfect comic timing, classic quotes (well, they have become classics now, “Inconceivable!”, “I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” “As you wish,” etc.) and a fairy tale ending. The fact that the grandfather (Peter Falk) and grandson (Fred Savage) find common ground and grow closer as a result, reflects the growing bonds of the various characters who, similar to the trio of companions to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, redeem themselves or regain their self-respect. A beautiful, wonderful, endlessly delighting perfect little film.

There are so many other romance films, comedies or dramas that I could mention, one memorable offering being My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). What is not to like about this comedy with its clash of cultures, parental expectations, personal frustrations, loneliness, missed opportunities and finding someone who makes your life worth living? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched this wonderful film, and watch it whenever it is on TV, despite having the DVD. Nia Vardalos as Greek spinster Toula is such a delight, easily portraying a dowdy, frustrated, unhappy daughter living at home, who constantly disappoints her father because she hasn’t married “a nice Greek boy” (basically she has yet to meet one she likes, especially when those her father offers are too old, repulsive, self-absorbed, etc.). Toula’s decision to better herself, which includes going back to study, learning new skills, working in an occupation (travel agent) that she enjoys, leads to her blossoming and developing confidence. Meeting non-Greek schoolteacher Ian (gorgeous John Corbett) is both a wonder and an agony for her, as she experiences true and reciprocal love for the first time, but also knows her strict Greek family and relatives won’t accept a non-Greek person as her husband, and that she will cause them misery by choosing a man outside of their religion and culture. There are so many lovely comic touches, including a rogue grandmother, lamb being a vegetarian option, different customs, grotesque bridal dresses, Windex as a cure-all, and the way the secondary characters all contribute a delightfully rich layer of humour and conflict. This is a real guilty pleasure for me because I suspect real life never turns out this beautifully.

Other honourable mentions include:

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) Tom Hanks is a widower, Sam, still grieving the loss of his wife and left to raise their son Jonah on his own. He is lonely but not really prepared for the unseen challenges of getting back into the dating game. Meg Ryan is Annie, engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman) who suffers from allergies and despite being nice doesn’t set her heart on fire. Jonah talks on a radio chat show about wanting to find a new wife and mother for their little family, and from then on, the film follows the separate lives of Sam and Annie as they edge ever closer to actually meeting each other. For a film that leaves the two main characters separate for most of the running time, this is a surprisingly romantic film that explores the magic spark of true love, and finding out that waiting for the right person instead of settling for what is convenient can be hard but worth it.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990) Alan Rickman is Jamie, a man who has recently died but is compelled to visit his grieving partner Nina (Juliet Stevenson), whose raw grief and blistering anger over her loss stops her from moving on. Her need for him keeps him in their home, although his habits, such as having the heating on full blast and inviting other ghosts around to watch videos, soon gets on her nerves. This isn’t a straight romance, more a study of the power of grief and loss, and needing eventually to let go. Both actors are incredible in their roles, especially Stevenson who isn’t afraid to appear as tear-ravaged and on the edge as possible. Watch something light-hearted after this one.

Up (2009) I watched this beautiful animated classic again recently, and the little montage sequence near the beginning showing the courtship and marriage of taciturn Carl and exuberant Ellie must rank as one of the most powerful depictions of a romance from start to end ever filmed. It is about moving on, too, letting go, finding new adventures and challenges, realising there are other lonely or isolated people out there that need love and support, and someone to value them. I dare you not to tear up watching that montage.

The Shape of Water (2017) Starring Sally Hawkins as mute cleaner Elisa and Doug Jones as the creature from the Black Lagoon (really), this is a romance right off the scale, so to speak. Utterly different, beautiful, evocative, with a delicate romance emerging from the nastiness of modern day life, and showing why men are so often revealed to be the real monsters. Elisa has grit and well-honed survival instincts, and her attraction to a gill man is so cleverly depicted that it makes perfect sense, especially her desire to protect and save him from evil military and scientific types. The imagery, production design and music all elevate this movie and make it a unique viewing experience.

An Affair to Remember (1957) Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr meet on a cruise while romantically involved with other people. They make a pact to meet six months hence at the Empire State Building if they are still interested, only an accident prevents one of them from keeping their appointment. A bit dated now, but the snappy dialogue and sizzling chemistry between the leads makes this a perennial delight.

Casablanca (1942) Humphrey Bogart is Rick, the embittered bar owner in war-struck Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman in the luminously beautiful Ilse, who broke Rick’s heart once and seems destined to do it again, but this time at his urging. Riveting, clever, engagingly acted, you get caught up in these lovers’ lives and wish that hill of beans would disappear. Hearing the French sing their national anthem in Rick’s bar over the Germans’ rendition of theirs is a highlight, guaranteed to stir the soul.

When Harry Met Sally (1989) Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan play acquaintances who keep meeting each other while romantically involved with other people, after a disastrous first meeting initially puts them off each other. There is so much good humour, clever dialogue and wonderful acting in this film that it is thoroughly re-watchable. Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby as a couple relieved to have found each other and not have to date any more are so charming in supporting roles, while the vignettes of older couples relating how they first met (played by actors) is heart-warming.

Pride and Prejudice (1995) This BBC TV version, starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Miss Elizabeth Bennet, isn’t a film, but it is as lavishly produced as one. Although my favourite version remains the earlier TV adaptation (1980) starring David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie, this later version has superior production values, gorgeous costumes and lively music, and the advantage of actual English properties and interiors. But regardless of which version you watch, who can go past the wonderful, lively dialogue, the feisty, memorable characters, the depiction of values and a culture set in the late 18th century, and so very unlike our own? Elizabeth Bennet is spirited, intelligent and will only marry for love, and to someone she respects. Mr Darcy is too proud, but also too tightly wound, so needs someone to shake his world up a bit. They are a delightful match, eventually. Endlessly re-watchable.

About Time (2013) Tim (Domhnal Gleeson) meets the love of his life, Mary (Rachel McAdams) and screws things up so badly he has no chance to ever succeed with her. But then his father, played by the ever-wonderful Bill Nighy, reveals a family secret, that all the men in the family can time travel. While Tim uses this ability to woo Mary, there is a price to it, because each time visit inadvertently impacts on other aspects of the timeline, changing things just enough to have a huge outcome in other people’s lives, although only Tim or his fellow travellers know this. I thought this was just going to be a romantic comedy, but the very strong father-son bond and their bittersweet storyline broke my heart. There was so much thought devoted to the concept of using your time wisely, not interfering with things and making the best of what you had, so this was a lot more than a romantic film.

Waitress (2007) This film is difficult for me to watch on its own merits, as the director/writer Adrienne Shelly, who also played a supporting role as fellow waitress Dawn, was murdered shortly after filming ended. But putting that aside, there is also the very painful subject of family violence, with Keri Russell’s character Jenna being downtrodden and bullied by her oafish husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto). She finds temporary relief when involved in an illicit affair with her married obstetrician, Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion in charming form) after she accidentally becomes pregnant by her husband. She also seeks refuge in making pies that often have very unusual names. It is not an easy film to watch because of the controlling and abusive way Jenna’s insecure husband treats her, but it is also inspiring because the love she has for her baby enables her to become assertive and leave her husband.

50 First Dates (2004) I’m not a huge fan of Adam Sandler, but his character Henry’s efforts to woo Drew Barrymore’s Lucy all over again each day in this film was so sweet. Lucy had been in an accident that left her with no ability to acquire new memories (short-term memory loss), just to live over the events of every day prior to the accident. The lengths her father and brother went to in order to protect her and provide her with a stable, loving home were really touching, as was Henry’s efforts to keep reinforcing her memories and his place in her life.

Whatever happened to worthwhile romantic comedies?

I am always drawn towards watching romantic comedies and dramas, so was intrigued when Netflix released three romantic comedies recently: Holidate, Romance on the Menu and Love, Guaranteed. Of these three, only the third one was successful, in terms of being entertaining, with accomplished actors, an enjoyable script, believable conflict and well-rounded characters who maintained their established personalities and didn’t act out of character for the sake of fulfilling those dreadful romance tropes so common still in romance films and novels. That is the biggest problem for me, the fact that despite there being so many good romantic films produced over the years, romance fiction still seems to exist in a frozen time warp where the hero and heroine usually dislike each other at first, suffer a number of stupid misunderstandings that could be resolved with just a few words of clarification, and often portray the heroine as being a successful, confident person who, having met the hero, becomes a simpering, mindless, inarticulate bundle of contradictory impulses and decisions.  The heroes are not as likely to be arrogant, sexist chauvinists these days, but they still act out of character, say cringe-worthy things, smirk a lot, or do something on impulse that just doesn’t make sense.

Romance on the Menu (2020) was the worst of the three films by far, because it appears to have its inspiration in the type of bad Mills’n’Boon books written in the 1970s and 80s. This film was directed by Australian Rosie Lourde, and follows New York restaurateur Caroline (Cindy Busby) who inherits her aunt’s café in the fictional town of Lemon Myrtle Cove, Australia. She has already decided to quickly renovate the café before selling it, but then starts to fall in love with the town, its people, and a local cook and general handyman, Simon (Tim Ross).

The film tries to portray Caroline’s growing re-evaluation of her life, because apparently she comes to like the slower pace of life in Australia (we know this because of the number of different outfits she wears, places she hangs out, and how rarely she actually does anything aside from cook something now and then). She was initially portrayed as a highly skilled, cutting edge chef in New York, independent, intelligent and ambitious. Coming to Australia seems to turn her into a simpering, clueless, indecisive wreck, constantly ambivalent about what she should do. Luckily she can spend endless hours talking to her mother back in New York via Skype, so thank goodness our NBN is so good. Caroline has an ex-fiancé in New York whom she clearly broke up with earlier, yet when he turns up unannounced in Australia, asking for another chance (because she is now successful), we are meant to believe she is still conflicted. But his abrupt arrival provides the classic bad romance McGuffin of a misunderstanding at a crucial moment between Caroline and the Aussie cook and handy man, who seems to be stalking her since he turns up whenever the plot needs him to be there. Most of the secondary cast ham it up, laying on the Aussie drawl and mannerisms with a trowel just in case we have forgotten what country we are in. One woman, a tough café manager, goes through a complete character change, which is not handled in a believable way at all. The drama, such as it is, involving whether Caroline will actually sell the café and return to the New York restaurant she fought so hard to establish, or stay in Lemon Myrtle Cove and follow in her aunt’s footsteps, is never in doubt.

This film suffers mostly from the actors just acting, trying to be cute and whimsical instead of becoming their characters convincingly, and also being hampered by a cliched plot full of predictable, illogical scenarios. The two most painfully awkward scenes involve Caroline and Simon on a beach supposedly hunting for crabs (or something aquatic) and also being locked in a kitchen storage room while they throw food at each other, which is supposed to indicate their passions and free spirited natures. Ugh, it’s just awful. No charm, no convincing sense of two real people working towards being in love, just a real throwback to the older romance plots that give good romance a bad name.

Holidate (2020) is a film about having a date for every holiday or other celebratory occasion most people will experience throughout the year. But if you’re single and don’t want to face the endless questions about why you are still single, and therefore inherently worthless (apparently), the problem is solved by having a no-strings-attached date you can bring each time, whose mere presence will deflect nosy and personal questions. Emma Roberts is Sloane, a 28 year old single woman who likes to wear casual clothes while working from home (so must be a slob), and is mercilessly quizzed every time she goes home by her divorced mother, married and harried sister and man-eating aunt about why is she still single. None of her family appear to be happy in their relationships, so the allure of having a partner escapes both Sloane and the audience. Through an unconvincingly contrived first meeting with Jackson (played by Australian Luke Bracey, a sort of watered-down version of a Hemsworth brother), Sloane is eventually attracted by the idea of using Jackson as her pretend date (he suggests it, strangely enough). Both of them know it is a ruse, although what Jackson gets out of it since he isn’t using Sloane as his pretend date at any of his holiday or family events is a puzzle. A few of his interactions with Sloane wreak of being something a woman thinks a man might do to be romantic, such as rescuing her from her ex-boyfriend and pretending to be her new boyfriend, whereas this just wouldn’t happen in real life.

Jackson actually acts quite obnoxiously for most of the film, praising Sloane’s “tits” and denigrating women who “get clingy because they are hardwired to attach and procreate”. It isn’t clear if he means all this or says it to either deflect Sloane’s interest or to reassure her his intentions aren’t romantic. Naturally, the more time they spend together, the more they enjoy each other’s company, feeling relaxed and able to let down their guard. It doesn’t say much for this film that the only moment I found amusing was when Sloane accidentally took a laxative instead of Alka-Seltzer and Jackson was there to help her tidy up and recover. There were a few genuinely feel-good moments between them, but the movie overall made it so clear these two were supposed to be meant for each other, yet neither one was particularly appealing. Jackson just acted like some macho jerk a lot of the time, while Sloane’s aggressive manner was grating. There was so little chemistry between the two main actors that it was hard to see them falling for each other. The outdated attitudes of most of the secondary characters, who seemed to be there just to repeat ad nauseum the need for women to have a partner, totally ignored the concept of people, women and men, finding happiness in a fulfilling occupation or interest. This approach just seems very out of step with current attitudes, while its attempt at humour was mostly flat and inappropriate. Never to be watched again.

If I hadn’t seen the previous two films, perhaps my reaction to Love, Guaranteed would have been less favourable. I did enjoy it, however, if not enough to want to view it again, although I would rate it as harmless and a pleasant way to spend a few hours. Rachel Leigh Cook plays stressed yet well-intentioned lawyer Susan, who struggles to pay her bills because of her tendency to take on too many pro-bono cases. Into her life steps Nick (Damon Wayans Jr.), who is suing an online dating company that guarantees people will find love, yet he has been on a thousand first dates without this happening. He is quite fussy, and does tend to find fault in every date, almost as though he is self-sabotaging the date rather than risk getting involved (and it turns out there is a good reason for this). Susan is a bit bemused by his tendency to keep a record of every single date he has been on, and even tracks down some of these dates to find out what the women thought of Nick. This reflects both her strong work ethic to have all information that may impact on the case, and her natural human curiosity.

She has a sister to whom she is close, and this sister is married with a child and another one on the way. The very normality of the sister’s life is an oasis of calm for Susan, and it’s refreshing to see a married couple depicted in such a healthy way without being a criticism of Susan’s single state. At first Susan and Nick are clearly just in a professional relationship, and their gradual friendship is refreshing in the way it appears to develop normally and realistically, allowing them time to become friends who like each other before taking the next step. Both of them are decent, good people trying to help others, and they have just been unlucky in love, so the audience is on their side. Finding love with each other looks achievable despite their different backgrounds, and it is so pleasing to see them retain their brains and senses despite developing feelings for each other. The humour is low-key and both actors appear comfortable and convincing, aided by a script that doesn’t stoop to stereotyping or falling back on predictable tropes. So in those terms, it beats the other two films hands down.

Paranormal worlds of Undead author MaryJanice Davidson

As a long-time fan of MaryJanice Davidson and her series of sarcastic, humorous books (including vampires in the Undead series, mermaids in Fish Out of Water, royalty in the Alaskan Royal family series and the Wyndham Werewolves), I was looking forward to reading her latest adventure. This time humans (or ‘Stables’) are unaware that they share the planet with shifters (people who “shift” to animal forms including bear, raptor, wolf, fox, etc.). Davidson’s focus tends to be mainly on female characters who are strong, sarcastic, independent, know what they want, and enjoy lots of sex (which is usually graphically described). They often meet their match in a male who is strong, loyal, patient and, while often lacking in conversation, compensates for this by ensuring the female enjoys lots of great sex.

This novel, the planned first in a new series (A Wolf After My Own Heart is due out in 2021) has, at first glance, a lot of the trademark features of Davidson’s earlier books, so I kept waiting for it to become fun, engaging, edgy and with lots of clever repartee. There is a crime to solve involving the disappearance or abuse of shifter infants and juveniles, which seems to take over most of the available plot space, at the expense of spending quality time reading about the core interaction between the main characters. These are both bear shifters who, before the start of this story, have experienced a strong attraction to each other but not acted upon it. This changes, naturally, when they are both thrown together to help solve the mystery of what is happening to some juvenile shifters. So there is potential for the action between them to heat up, but it seems to move along in fits and starts, having encounters with other characters (I often forgot from one chapter to the next who these people were, or their relationship to the two main characters Annette and David), as well as pauses to talk about shifter and stable inhumanity, making it a bit preachy and ho hum.

The sexual consummation was delayed a few times (I felt this was handled unrealistically, much in the way a film or TV show would throw up implausible obstacles or interruptions to delay sexual gratification and keep viewers tuning in). The male shifter David’s eventual embracing of coupledom with Annette seemed too sudden and unconvincing given his earlier misgivings and resistance to the lure of her shifter charms.

I finished this book feeling the potential for it to be the start of another ripping adventure series (such as the fabulous Undead series) had fizzled out after one attempt. The writer seems to be in a rut, with many of her latest stories having an initially promising idea that appears unable to be fleshed out or sustained in a series, let alone for the duration of one book. This effort was disappointing, especially given the author’s back catalogue of very entertaining series.

If you want to enjoy this writer at the peak of her talent, I’d recommend reading the Undead series with Vampire Queen Betsy, when things were fun, entertaining and the storylines moved along at a cracking pace. There are 15 books in the Undead series, plus an assortment of short stories in anthologies, stand-alone short stories in e-book format, and some crossovers between the vampire, werewolf and mermaid worlds, so once you get hooked (as I did after the first book, Undead and Unwed), you’ll find it hard to resist reading more. The Wyndham series featuring the Cape Cod werewolves are also top-notch in terms of biting humour, adult sex and memorable characters.

In Undead and Unwed, Betsy (Elizabeth) Taylor starts out as a rather annoying, self-centred young woman who obsesses over designer footwear. Through a series of events she becomes a vampire, not just any vampire but the Queen of the Undead. Luckily, she’d just had her highlights re-done so in death she will always have great hair; unfortunately, she didn’t have a pedicure, so her toenails become a lost cause. Becoming a vampire is not a role she embraces, nor does she relish having to live on human blood. Her refusal to become a vampiric stereotype (wearing black, sleeping all day, being basically evil) as well as her constant clashes with older vampires who see her as an upstart and detest the thought of her as their monarch, provides much of the entertainment, as she navigates her way through this new and mystifying undead life. She has two human friends, her lifelong bestie Jessica, who just happens to be a millionaire thanks to her parents’ inheritance, and Marc, an emergency department doctor with a tangled love life. Unlike other vampires, Betsy refuses to abandon her human friends, and her mother is just relieved that her daughter is still around and no longer vulnerable to normal human dangers. Betsy also acquires, albeit unwillingly, a loyal gang of vampire friends, including Eric Sinclair, a smoulderingly hot vamp who just happens to become Betsy’s consort and king, and his loyal sidekick Tina who has a penchant for weird cocktail mixers.

Betsy’s ability as a vampire to tolerate sunlight, go without human blood for days on end, not be burned by crucifixes or holy water, be able to say “Christ” and Jesus” while normal vampires cannot tolerate any of these, and even read another vampire’s  thoughts, is part of a vampire legend foretelling the coming of a vampire queen. Whether she wants the job or not, Betsy appears to be stuck with it. It also transpires that Betsy has a half-sister Laura who just happens to be the daughter of Satan but who tries to reject her destiny by being super-nice. The relationship between the two siblings is a core strength of the series, with their changing attitudes and ideals making for very engaging reading. Having the Devil herself pop in now and then from Hell’s domain to test Betsy is also a refreshing addition to the various challenges that beset Betsy on her way to becoming accustomed to her new life/death.

The series had a number of mini-story arcs told over several books, and to the author’s credit, Betsy developed as a character, becoming more responsible, mature and wise as the series progressed, without ever losing her apparent ditziness and superficial obsession with shoes. While she eventually embraced her role as vampire queen, she never blindly accepted that this meant she had to change how she behaved but rather dragged her vampiric subjects into the modern age – which provided for an entertaining and ongoing struggle.

I have re-read the entire Undead series many times because I genuinely enjoy spending time with snarky, self-absorbed Betsy, who isn’t as shallow as she makes out, being capable of charming people almost unconsciously. Her lively banter with her human and vampire friends, their own lives, the birth of supernatural babies and a reborn zombie, ensured the adventures never lost their interest or charm.

The Wyndham Werewolves series has a few longer novels including Derek’s Bane and Wolf at the Door, plus an assortment of short stories in anthologies, and includes some crossovers with the Undead series. These stories have a lot of gusto and oomph, a larger than life energy possibly due to the werewolves being warmer, stronger, faster and more sexually agile than ordinary humans.

MaryJanice Davidson has also written other series including one about the Alaskan Royal Family (The Royal Treatment, The Royal Pain, The Royal Mess), with non-royals who encounter members of the Alaskan Royal family in a slightly altered timeline where Alaska never became part of the United States.

There is also the Fred the Mermaid trilogy about Frederika Bimm, a half-mermaid, half-human marine biologist who must come to terms with her oceanic heritage and the coming out of mer-folk (Sleeping with the Fishes, Swimming Without A Net, Fish Out of Water, Undead and Underwater [cross-over with the Undead series]). These books, like the Undead series, also feature strong, opinionated, independent women with smart mouths and sharp minds who won’t compromise or settle for second best. Their romantic partnerships aren’t plain sailing but the men in their lives must be equal to these women in order to woo and win them over. It’s the exuberance, wit and constant battling of wills that make these earlier books fun to read time and again. It’s just a pity that the latest outing, Bears Behaving Badly, set in the world of shifters this time instead of wolves, fails to have that same sparkle that would make it worthwhile reading it again or looking forward to reading more entries in this series.

The author has experimented with slightly different settings, some non-paranormal, such as the Danger, Sweetheart series (Danger, Sweetheart; The Love Scam; Truth, Lies and Second Dates), which are quirky, a bit odd, and set out to turn long-established romantic tropes on their head. The series is interesting, with more depth or maturity than the others, as well as being told partly from the man’s point of view for a change, but I haven’t felt compelled to return to them for a second reading.

There is also the Insighter series (Deja Who and Deja New) about a woman who keeps getting killed and reincarnated, so naturally investigates crimes by people with past lives. These two books were clever and entertaining, with a nicely original premise. There is also the FBI series (Me, Myself and Why?; Yours, Mine and Ours; You and I, Me and You) about a woman with multiple personalities/two sisters who also solves crimes.

The only drawback to reading a lot of the books by Ms Davidson is having to suspend disbelief about the very snarky, bad-tempered, rude and often inconsiderate language the various heroines use, without seemingly alienating everyone near them. In real life few people would tolerate being spoken to the way these women speak to others, but it’s something that tends to be accepted in these books because they are fiction and mostly take place in a paranormal setting.

MaryJanice Davidson is a prolific, entertaining and usually fast-paced writer who has been one of my favourite authors for years (as attested to by my packed bookshelves full of her books). While I will keep reading her new releases out of habit and loyalty, I find myself preferring to revisit her earlier works where the humour and personalities keep me engaged and entertained.

The Princess Diarist – exposing a less than majestic past

I really wanted to like this memoir, having thoroughly enjoyed previous works by Carrie Fisher, particularly Wishful Drinking and Postcards from the Edge.

The memoir started out quite amusingly with the author’s recollections about her early acting career and how she came to audition for Star Wars, the film that would catapult her into stardom and change her life.

Not wanting to speak ill of the dead, and it IS sad she is no longer here, but I found this memoir lacked detail, interest, engagement or even a sense that she really cared about what she was writing. There is a strong suspicion that the lure of earning a lot of money may have been a large factor in writing it. I also find it hard to believe that she could have forgotten about this diary she had kept until 2016.

Her audition for the role of Princess Leia was reasonably well covered, although having recounted it so often there seemed to be a lack of spontaneity or engagement when reading it.

Very little was included about the actual making of the film itself, which is what I had hoped to read about (as I imagine a lot of fans would), so this was really frustrating. Surely she could have included some stories about filming, what it was like to work with Mark Hamill, Peter Cushing, or the challenges of special effects, etc. She did cover the media tours but these were of less interest to me.

The middle section, which reprints her diary entries, was the least interesting or creatively inspired part for me. The prose was often purple and so trippy that I skipped over most of it. I read somewhere that she deliberately left untouched all of the entries as she “re-discovered” them, resisting the temptation to edit or polish, so what we see is how she wrote, so I am only grateful she improved so much as she became a more experienced writer.

Her recollections about costume fittings and how the famous bun hair style came to be chosen depicted her as being totally unable to make a decision or be assertive, which is all rather irritating, even if she did lack any actual decision-making power back then. It just reads as though she was a spineless victim, yet given her celebrity parents and upbringing, the question arises as to why she was so lacking in spirit. Yes, she was young and didn’t want to offend or risk losing the role perhaps, but surely she could have offered some opinion! But then we wouldn’t have the hair style that launched a thousand memes and became part of popular culture.

The lack of detail around her actual affair with Harrison Ford felt like a real cop-out, which she blamed on her bad memory brought about by excessive drug taking. I find it hard to believe this time was such a blur, when her diary entries (cringe-inducing as they are) indicated she was quite capable of expressing herself in a brutally raw and honest way. I suspect a lot of this had to do with how much Harrison Ford would have found acceptable to include, even if she didn’t require his permission.

Carrie Fisher had no difficulty being blunt, shocking and confronting in her other writing so why was she so coy here? It almost seemed as though having checked with Ford first about revealing their affair, she then felt compelled to omit anything of interest. I didn’t want a blow by blow account of their sexual encounters, but these details were so glossed over that they lacked credibility, as if she was just imagining how it might have happened to someone else.

The affair itself seemed to be a miserable situation, and while understanding how a teenage actress could be infatuated doesn’t excuse Ford’s almost total self-centredness in using her as a dalliance to alleviate his boredom while away from his wife and family.

Fisher also excused or tried to rationalise Ford’s impenetrability and adultery later in the book, as if afraid of offending him. I thought he emerged as being very callous and not the least bit attractive. He definitely didn’t emerge in a flattering light at all from this recounting.

What most offended me, however, was Fisher’s scathing descriptions towards the end of the memoir about all the fans out there who wanted her autograph, photo, attention or interest. By describing her interaction as “lap dancing”, where she considered she was whoring herself for money, while this may have been how it seemed to her, I just felt offended for all of those fans who were sincerely and keenly interested in meeting their celebrity actor, writer or whoever. If a fan pays a lot of money, and the celebrity has agreed to appear for a fee, then suck it up and treat those fans with respect. They are the people who help keep your career alive.

I actually disliked Fisher by that point, and had she lived and come to a convention I attended, I would never have sought her out for an autograph because I would be remembering the disgust and loathing she felt towards having to resort to this money-earning venture. She may have done an about-face later saying how she actually liked the appearances, but this seemed more a way of covering her back, but you can’t have it both ways.

As an historical artefact, and given she has since passed away, The Princess Diarist is a curiosity piece more than anything else, a once-only read for me. I wonder if a telemovie might ever be made from this, as from her other novels? Perhaps once Harrison has also passed on, but it doesn’t seem likely.

The Boys vs the Not-So-Superheroes

When Hughie Campbell’s burgeoning romance with his girlfriend Robin literally disintegrates before his eyes, he is unwillingly thrust into a violent, vengeful world of humans versus super humans. Welcome to The Boys, released through Amazon Prime in 2019.

I bought the first season on Blu-ray but avoided watching it for a long time as I had read it was incredibly violent, gory and very confronting, and I wasn’t in the right mindset to watch something unpleasant given our current COVID-19 climate. But when I eventually started to watch it, despite the messy in-your-face gore and violence, I was quickly hooked. The violence and bloodshed aren’t all that different from what I’ve seen throughout The Witcher and Warrior Nun, or even The Old Guard, to name just a few examples. I grew accustomed to the frequent bursts of ultra-violence where it wasn’t uncommon for people (and rooms) to become splattered in blood and entrails. I don’t particularly like the gory element, but I was able to accept it as part of the overall action and storytelling.

Basically, the series depicts the war between ordinary humans and super humans (or “supes” as they’re commonly known), using the tantalising premise of people assuming supes are not only superior in strength and intelligence, but also in morals. How wrong could they be? Nearly every supe we meet in The Boys has an issue, which could be to do with how they were raised, or more often because they have tempers and the emotional level of a child or teenager, and what they want they get. They rescue people in strife or danger not because they care about humans, but because it brings ratings, lifts their fan base and allows them to continue enjoying the perks of being so famous. They are not human anymore, and few of them care about humans unless it helps improve their image.

As is typical in these types of stories, there is an evil corporation pulling the strings behind the scenes, Vought, presided over by the mysterious Mr Edgar, who doesn’t put in an appearance until towards the end of the first series. The day-to-day operations of Vought are controlled by Madelyn Stillwell, played with icy ruthlessness by Elisabeth Shue (who was Marty McFly’s flame in the second and third Back to the Future films). Here she is a lot older, with a physique someone describes as being honed on tennis courts. She is tanned, taut, with a killer smile, and raising a baby, Teddy, but we aren’t told who the father might be.

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There are seven superheroes “employed” by Vought, more like a stable of stars, which may be a cheeky homage to the Justice League’s core seven members, with Homelander (Antony Starr) being the uncontested leader of the pack. He has a Superman vibe to him in public, with his whiter-than-white smile, carefully combed brunette locks and wearing a cape consisting of the American flag. He ostensibly rescues people, flying around creating a lot of mayhem whether intentionally or otherwise, which is then carefully covered up by Vought Corporation. He is creepily evil and superbly played by Starr, bringing menace beneath the charming smile that could curdle milk. His team of seven includes Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), who resembles Wonder Woman and has become increasingly disillusioned by the murky deeds the Seven perform. She and Homelander had a thing once, and he still considers her to be his closest offsider. The episode featuring them in a plane may well put you off air travel for a long time.

There is also A-Train (Jessie T Usher), who is so fast he runs like, well, The Flash. He is also the one responsible for the disintegration, literally, of Hughie Campbell’s (Jack Quaid) relationship with Robin. I’ll come back to Hughie and The Boys shortly. There is also the Deep (Chase Crawford) who is obviously a reference to Aquaman, only not very bright and much lower down the Seven’s pecking order than he realises. His encounters with dolphins and other marine creatures provide some of the funniest moments in the series. There is Translucent (Alex Hassell), similar to the Invisible Man, who inadvertently provides Hughie’s initiation into the Boys, and Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell) who might best be described as similar to Batman. These two are the least developed so far, but with Series Two now confirmed, perhaps we will learn more.

Following the retirement of one of the original Seven, Lamp Lighter, a position opens for a new Seven, which is where the naïve, fresh-faced Starlight (Erin Moriarty) comes in, eager to do good, rescue people and capture the bad guys. I’m not sure who she would equate to in the Justice League, perhaps Supergirl? It doesn’t take her long to realise that Vought Corporation maintains a very tight leash over its talent, dictating what they wear, where they go, who they date, and who needs rescuing, which is usually done according to a roster. She is quickly disillusioned, and being so new to this game, isn’t so blindly loyal to the Seven or willing to follow the party line. It also makes her more open to exploring other options, which leads us back to the Boys.

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Hughie Campbell’s world is destroyed when he loses his girlfriend, but he lacks courage, is a daydreamer who grew up idolising the Seven, and feels unable to do anything to get revenge. But then he meets Billy Butcher (Karl Urban speaking in a puzzling Cockney accent frequently punctuated by f and c bombs), who apparently once worked for the CIA. Billy is on a collision course to bring down Homelander, whom he blames for the disappearance and possible death of his wife, Becca, whom we learn once worked for Vought Corporation. Billy sees Hughie as a malleable puppet he can use to get closer to Vought and therefore to Homelander, but he needs more back-up. So Billy calls up favours to old friends, including Frenchie (Tomer Capon), who speaks with an almost impenetrable French accent, and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), who is happily partnered, has a child and no desire to become tangled up again in Billy’s fanatical quest for vengeance. But both Frenchie and Mother’s Milk get caught up anyway, as does Hughie, and the Boys are back and in business. It is when Hughie meets Starlight quite by accident in her normal guise of Annie January that the Boys realise they have found their way in to deal with the Seven, but of course the path to achieving this doesn’t run smoothly. Billy loathes and distrusts all supes, but when Frenchie inadvertently rescues and tames a rogue supe, the Female (Karen Fukuhara), the Boys find they have some super power on their side for a change, which will probably come in handy.

With each episode we learn a bit more about most of the Seven, their pasts and their relationships, few of which seem to have brought them any personal happiness. We also find out that Homelander has an uncomfortably close relationship with Madelyn Stillwell, who seems to know exactly how to manipulate him to achieve whatever secret agenda she and Vought have. When the series begins, she is depicted as very smart, powerful, manipulative and able to get enough dirt on senators and other public figures to help Vought with its secret, ongoing plans (I won’t say what as this is a plot spoiler).

Homelander, who has allowed Vought to call the shots for most of his life, starts to assert himself a lot more, making plans and alliances without Madelyn’s knowledge. It is this growing awareness that he doesn’t need to be ordered around, that he feels he should be in charge, that starts to give the plot its impetus, heading relentlessly towards the uncovering of truths and the fruition of plans that may pave the way for world-wide panic and destruction unless someone can stop it from happening.

The way we have grown up watching fictional super-powered humans fighting for truth, justice and the American way is given a sharp new interpretation in The Boys. Just because one is gifted with superhuman strength, agility or other ability doesn’t necessarily mean they will automatically be similarly superior in morals and ethical behaviour. The Boys themselves aren’t saints by any means, but their experiences have shaped their ambitions and needs, which includes finding a way to expose and possibly curtail or destroy the supes, who are adored like rock or film stars, but far more dangerous. Hughie Campbell goes through a brutal initiation into manhood, becoming able to defend himself and use his wits to survive. He doesn’t lose his humanity or basic dorkiness along the way, and going on this adventure with him, sharing his pain and occasional wins, is constantly enjoyable and full of unexpected plot twists and surprises.

The production values on The Boys is what you would expect nowadays, with the costumes, sets and stunts all top-class. The cast, whether on the side of good or evil, are all thoroughly convincing, and I became quite engrossed by the different relationships, or the way characters’ past experiences impacted on their current outlook and motivations. There is also an enjoyable and ironic use of well-known songs, together with the incidental music composed by Christopher Lennertz, that subtly comments on the action occurring on-screen.

The Boys is not for the faint-hearted or squeamish, but if you like your super hero action to be full on, sharply satirical, fast-paced, deviously twisted and nicely subverted, then you may find this series a refreshing take on a well-established trope. Can’t wait for Season 2.

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The Old Guard – saving an undeserving world

The idea of immortality is enticing unless you actually have to live it. The Old Guard follows the current-day experiences of four warriors with regenerative healing abilities who have secretly protected humanity for centuries, but are starting to wonder if it is worth it any more. They themselves then become targeted for their mysterious powers just as they discover a new immortal. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, this bloody, intense action-thriller is based on the graphic novel by Greg Rucka, and is currently available to watch on Netflix.

The leader of the immortals is Andromache of Scythia, or Andy as she prefers to be called. She has lived so many centuries you can see the weight of it in her eyes, in her speech and manner. As portrayed by the athletic and statuesque Charlize Theron, Andy is believable as a kick-ass warrior who has survived wars and battles using her finely honed fighting skills and wits. She has been around long enough to become inured to others’ suffering, reaching the point of believing humanity is not worth saving any more. Just looking at her furrowed brow and hearing her growled, concise commands, her authority is convincing, her wisdom palpable and her aching desire not to keep on living if she had a choice entirely understandable. She actually says early on that she is “so tired of this”, and any idea that immortality is desirable is quickly dismissed watching her take little joy in defending herself and disposing of the enemy. Her reflexes have become automatic, reducing her to a lethal killing machine. She has a lot in common with her other recent action character Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road.

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She leads a very small, select group of soldiers/warriors, who all have an extremely rare skill set – they’re nearly impossible to kill. Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Andy have been compatriots through centuries of shared adventures, while their fellow soldiers, soul mates Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), have also lived through more than they care to remember. In one revealing exchange, Booker comments that at least Joe and Nicky have each other, while he and Andy only have the grief of memories for company. They have lost other members of their team in earlier centuries. Andy is particularly haunted by the companion she was forced to leave behind, Quynh (Veronica Ngo), who was accused of witchcraft and imprisoned in such a way that it would be enough to drive anyone insane. The thought of similar capture for Andy or any of the others is a fate worse than death, which is why they fight so hard and stealthily to avoid capture.

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Their tight-knit complacency is disrupted by the discovery there is a new immortal just “born”, whom they can see in their dreams, as the new recruit can see them in hers. Soldier Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) is dealt a mortal wound but recovers, and in a series of scenes very reminiscent of Highlander, her former friends and colleagues fear her because she has survived, without a scar, a wound that should have killed her. Being befriended by the immortals of the Old Guard, is not her choice, nor is the thought of outliving everyone she knows and loves. It takes some events to help her adjust to her new normal, and these events form the core of the action. Nile could well become the new leader in the future, but it will still take a steep learning curve to accept her fate.

Of course, stories like these inevitably require a bad guy, one who looks for the profit, or what benefits will come from capturing and deciphering the secret of immortality. This time it is a pharmaceutical executive, Steven Mellick (Harry Melling), who wants to unlock the immortals’ genetic make-up for commercial profit, even if it takes years and requires torturing his captives. Such one-dimensional villainy ensures the audience will want to see him meet a fitting demise. Another player in the drama who starts out similarly unlikable, however, redeems himself, becoming the conduit between the band of immortals and the modern world.

Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a former CIA operative, who lost his wife to cancer and has become obsessed with tracking down the immortals, believing they can help ensure similar suffering won’t happen again to someone else. Copley has researched the Old Guard and can trace them back hundreds of years, based on stories, records, newspaper articles, eye-witness accounts and photographs. For people who go to extraordinary lengths to avoid capture or detection, there seems to be a lot of photographic evidence of them having existed for a very long time. He collaborates with Mellick to help capture the immortals, but along the way his attitude changes once he realises how ruthless and inhumane Mellick is. He also realises what a difference the intervention by the Old Guard over hundreds of years has made to the lives of people around the world, many of whom had descendants who have gone on to save others or invent life-saving technology. To some extent he restores Andy’s faith, enabling her to understand the importance of what she and the others do.

Being an immortal doesn’t mean they can’t be hurt, and eventually there comes a time when the self-healing, regenerative power may no longer work, leaving them susceptible to injury and death. The arrival of Nile as the newest member of the team could mean filling the void left by another immortal who may die soon, or lose their powers. Nile’s skill as a trained soldier, her ability to plan and strategise, makes her a fitting addition to the team.

There are plenty of action scenes, bloody fights and betrayals, plus a few surprise twists, and it is all delivered with such energy and conviction that spending a few hours with these powerful warriors is time well spent.

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The restorative power of Restoree

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If Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice started me on my life-long passion for reading classic literature, then Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight must be held responsible for my equally life-long interest in science fiction and fantasy novels.

I read Dragonflight, which was published in 1968, when I was a teenager in the 1970s.  I was initially confused about who or what Lessa was, what a watchwher looked like, what Thread was, how those enormous dragons could fly, and why it took so long for the Weyrleader F’lar, rider of bronze dragon Mnementh, to realise he loved the feisty Lessa, but repeated readings soon clued me in. I quickly devoured all the Dragonriders of Pern books, and read them repeatedly as well, never tiring of spending time on Pern, with its majestic dragons and fire lizards, Lord Holders, Weyrfolk, artisans and guilds, adventures, romances and scientific discoveries, all while battling the vegetation-devouring Thread organisms. It did have science fiction elements, but its quasi-medieval setting also endowed it with a fantasy aspect.

Anne McCaffrey also wrote other about other worlds and peoples, and has been called a leading practitioner of the “planetary romance subgenre” of science fiction, although I only just found this out when doing some research into her life and achievements. I was surprised to learn in her earlier works she often wrote shorter stories set in the same universe, which were then combined and published as longer works (which was the case with Dragonflight, among others).

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Although I enjoyed reading her other novels, including The Ship Who Sang, The Crystal Singer, and the Tower and the Hive series (including The Rowan and Damia), it was Restoree, her first published novel (1967), that is far and away my favourite non-Dragon book, which I read at least once a year. It has sentimental and nostalgic value for me, like wrapping myself up in a warm blanket, visiting a place I love returning to, with characters that I have come to know so well. It is like comfort food, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Ms McCaffrey apparently said of writing this book that, “I was so tired of all the weak women screaming in the corner while their boyfriends were beating off the aliens. I wouldn’t have been—I’d’ve been in there swinging with something or kicking them as hard as I could” [Dragonholder: The Life and Dreams (So Far) of Anne McCaffrey by her son. Todd McCaffrey, 1999, New York, Ballantine]. McCaffrey was widely quoted as saying that Restoree was intended as a “jab” at how women were usually portrayed in science fiction [Frequently Asked Questions (2007) The Worlds of Anne McCaffrey. Pernhome.com (c) 2010 Todd McCaffrey] (hence this very dated cover below from the 1960s).

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I didn’t realise Ms McCaffrey was having a go at the female stereotypes prevalent in science fiction at the time I first read this story, although I must have been subconsciously aware of the portrayal of women as clinging, weak, screaming, brainless yet pretty creatures needing to be rescued by smart, brave and intelligent men. This was sadly the case in a number of films I used to watch, including Forbidden Planet, Day of the Triffids, The Time Machine, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds.

In a Facebook chat group, someone asked whether anyone else “battled” with Restoree, as they just couldn’t settle into it. I was surprised by this, having no problem reading it, but then I wondered what it was about this novel that captured my interest all those years ago and has never grown stale, old or irrelevant in my life. In further reading online, I now realise that a lot of critics consider this book to be one of McCaffrey’s least impressive or successful, because of its Mills’n’Boon in space scenario. Having read a lot of formulaic romances, I can see the romantic elements at work in Restoree, with a feisty heroine and daring hero having lots of Romancing the Stone-type adventures, battling the bad guys and finding True Love along the way. If this was all there was, I wouldn’t have re-read it a gazillion times. (The hard cover edition below was the original version published by Rapp & Whiting in 1968, and personally signed by the author.)

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What initially drew me into Restoree was the refreshingly candid first-person narrative by Sara, a 28-year-old American librarian, who is suddenly abducted by aliens and wakes up later on another world. For someone like me who had a very sheltered upbringing, this sounded wonderful! As a librarian, Sara knew about a lot of places on Earth, world events and inventions, yet her lack of opportunity to travel (not much money in being a librarian) meant she could only dream of exotic places and different people. Well, that was until she was abducted. I don’t even mind the manner of her arrival on a strange planet. The fact that she couldn’t remember being abducted until much later added a lot of mystery that she must solve, thereby endowing her story with tension and a layer of menace from a variety of people, some of whom were intent on discovering her origins.

I also read a critical review that suggested the author was anti-Semitic because she gave Sara a beaked nose that was the bane of her life, along with dark hair on her arms. Couldn’t it just be that Sara did have an unflattering profile, which added to her lack of self-esteem, her virginal state (no-one wanted to date her) and made her feel unlovable? Her eventual arrival on the strange planet, Lothar, where she is “restored” owing to having been skinned alive by the abducting aliens, the Mil, another space-faring race, means that she now has smooth, golden skin and an ordinary, unremarkable nose, which delights her. Perhaps being “restored”, aka a restoree, gives her the confidence to take part in the adventure of a lifetime, rather than being the unloved, unwanted and undervalued young woman she was viewed on Earth. What she doesn’t know, having spent her time on Lothar since regaining awareness being stuck in a psychiatric hospital for war veterans, is that being a restoree is akin to some kind of hideous Frankenstein’s monster. Anyone caught trying to restore people is arrested, while the restored patient faces instant death. This was because there had been so many shocking failed attempts and patients were often left intellectually damaged, as well as gruesomely scarred by skin grafts where they had been burned, disfigured, or in some cases skinned by the Mil.

The Wikipedia entry for Restoree (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoree) tells us that: Sara comes to her senses in a mental institution on Lothar with no memory of what happened, little knowledge of the local language, and a beautiful, golden-skinned body. At the institution, she is treated as if she were retarded and given menial tasks to do, as are other “restorees” who have been clandestinely salvaged from Mil ships; it is apparently some factor of Sara’s Terran origins that allows her to fully recover from the shock of the Mil ordeal. One of her jobs is to care for Harlan, the deposed planetary regent, who is being drugged into a moronic state. Recognising what is being done, Sara helps Harlan to regain his senses and escape the mental institution. Sara and Harlan then gain the advantage over Harlan’s political enemies, defeat the Mil, solve some of Lothar’s emerging domestic problems and, of course, fall in love.

Luckily for Sara, her patient at the hospital, Harlan, a rugged man (I imagine someone like Karl Urban) is able to put aside his acquired abhorrent reaction to a restoree, and comes to appreciate Sara for who she is, not what she had done to her. The fact that she has the wherewithal to realise he was being drugged, to withhold the drugged food so he can recover, and then aid him in his escape, even sailing a boat (which he never learned to do), all demonstrate that she is a person of many talents. The fact that she has also been able to learn a totally foreign language during her own time of rehabilitation is mind-boggling, although nurses looking after her assumed she was imbecilic because she couldn’t understand the simplest commands at first.

Harlan wastes no time in trying to hit on her when they are sailing away following their escape from the hospital, but her own lifetime of self-consciousness about her nose spoils the moment. “All of me didn’t want him to stop kissing because of the way my heart pounded and my body ached for the feeling of his hands. Yet I didn’t know what to do.” This reticence also leads her to resolve not to presume on his friendship later, as she believes “he was of too much consequence” for someone like her. I found her honesty and lack of vanity (despite imagining her resembling a young Michelle Pfeiffer) to be very appealing, and no doubt it was one reason Harlan was also attracted to her.

Without going on ad nauseum about the plot, key elements involve Harlan being restored to a position of authority, Sara infiltrating the palace where she makes friend with members of the royal family (the drugged Ferrill and the adolescent Maxil) as well as trying to evade enemies including another Regent, Gorlot, and the physician Monsorlit, the latter of whom restored her and believes her struggles with Lotharian language are due to her Mil-inflicted injuries rather than because she is from another planet. There is an attack by the Mil, the largest battle ever recorded, and even the invention of electricity crystals that repel the Mil from landing. This aspect of the book always gets me on edge, wondering if the Lotharians will win against the Mil, despite knowing the outcome, so Ms McCaffrey’s writing hooks me in every time.

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One of my favourite sequences in the book comes towards the end, when Harlan escorts Sara to a remote landing site on Lothar to see if she can identify the remains of humans that were also taken from Earth by the Mil. Up until that point, she still hadn’t regained her memories of her abduction, just remembered gruesome fragments, but now realises with brutal clarity having been skinned alive, as a meal for the Mil! Harlan is green with nausea, aware of what they will see, but refuses to let Sara experience that confronting sight herself alone. What a guy! He thinks she will hate him for having exposed her to this gruesome sight, whereas she just loves him more for having shared that “little death” with her. His uncertainty about whether she actually loves him (despite them having physically consummated their relationship), is also refreshing as it shows he isn’t your typically conceited, arrogant he-man who believes himself to be irresistible.

One thing that has always fascinated me about the ending of this book is why the author chose to have a conversation between Sara and the outgoing Warlord, Ferrill, rather than ending the book with a scene between her and Harlan (who has acted as Regent to the latest Warlord, young Maxil). True, Harlan has gone off to organise the first ever expedition by Lothar to Earth, which his half-brother Jokan will lead, and Sara is in the protective custody of Ferrill (Harlan is his uncle). Sara and Ferrill discuss the future, and the fact that she is no longer incredibly hungry (a strange by-product of her ordeal, apparently). Perhaps having the book end this way points towards Sara’s important contributions yet to come for Lothar, and her role in the Warlord’s family, which rules Lothar, instead of her canoodling with Harlan, which would smack of the typical Happy Ever After ending so prevalent in romance stories.

Whatever the case, I can happily re-read this book from start to finish, not skipping anything, because I enjoy reading about the feisty, capable, ingenious and brave young woman who took on a new world, new people and new adventures, and found herself along the way.

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Sanditon is worth a visit

Sanditon was Jane Austen’s novel that she began but was unable to complete because of her death’, so explains the actor Theo James in all seriousness, who plays Sidney Parker in the ITV television series adaptation (2019).

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I had the pleasure of watching this beautifully photographed and costumed series recently, and aside from the unintentional humour of the quote above, Sanditon continues in the vein of earlier Austen novels, with an often-spirited heroine, a usually misunderstood hero, assorted secondary characters, some of whom are thrown in for comic relief or to display human depravity, and an engaging locale.

Jane Austen died before completing the novel, so with just 11 chapters written, the ever-dependable Andrew Davies (who adapted Pride and Prejudice so brilliantly for TV in 1995) took on the task of fleshing out the story using what little information was provided. There was enough material for him to work out a reasonable set of story arcs for all the characters (who were introduced in those 11 chapters) and he says that he tried to remain true to the spirit of the book when continuing with what was written. I read the fragment of Sanditon years ago, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me and I have never felt compelled to revisit it, until now in its television form.

This production of Sanditon may be the first TV (or movie) adaptation attempted, but there have been several efforts to complete the novel, none of which Davies read beforehand, to avoid being unduly influenced. But as he says, the novel was clearly intended to be a satire on people who went to the seaside in Britain. The majority of these were hypochondriacs (such as the youngest Parker son Arthur and sister Diana, who are obsessed with their various aches and pains, mostly imagined) or seaside enthusiasts.

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Davies also believed that this novel was part of a racier, more licentious age, and this is driven home by his decision to depict the close relationship between Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and his stepsister Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) as being unnaturally intimate. There are many heated glances, feet under tables rubbing against legs, and languid kisses along necks between these step-siblings, that I don’t really imagine Jane Austen would have depicted. Yet given they are not biological siblings, at least it isn’t as incestuous as it might have been.

The heroine is the young, spirited and outspoken country inhabitant Charlotte Heywood, played by youthful and energetic Rose Williams, who often resembles a gentler, innocent Meghan Markle. Through a chance meeting she is invited to come stay with the Parker family in the new seaside resort of Sanditon. Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) is the keen entrepreneur trying to retain the financial support of the local Lady Denham (Kate Reid), who is described by Davies as being a cross between Cruella de Ville and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Sanditon-Sidney-Charlotte

Tom Parker has grand plans for the seaside resort, but first he needs to attract more titled city folk to make the journey and hire out rooms or townhouses for the summer months. Needless to say, his plans go awry, he incurs debts and antagonises the local workers by not paying them, and things start to look decidedly grim, just as they ought when trying to build and sustain drama.

In a departure from her earlier novels, this was the first time Austen introduced a person of colour, the heiress Miss Georgiana Lambe, whom Davies makes the ward of middle Parker son Sidney. He has a dark past, a moody manner and clashes (naturally) with Charlotte. Charlotte befriends Miss Lambe, who is conducting a secret romance with a forbidden suitor, and this leads to more clashes with Sidney.

Sanditon-beach

All of this is reasonably well portrayed, if a little repetitious and with many echoes of characters and situations from earlier Austen novels. The aspect of Sanditon that really engaged my attention and had me wondering how it would end involved the step-siblings Edward and Esther, as well as their impoverished, scheming cousin Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky). Edward is a lazy, womanising and morally corrupt parasite, who has frittered away his inheritance. Both he and Esther are depending on their aunt Lady Denham to leave them her money.

Sanditon-Edward-Esther

The siblings live in the damp and dilapidated Denham Place, which is almost always filmed from the perspective of the nearby pond at water level, as if being viewed by frogs, making it seem an unsavoury place. These two share an intimate bond, with many physical displays of affection, which the audience knows are inappropriate, as do the two characters, since they only do so in secret or when they think no-one is watching. Edward should have been Esther’s protector, defender of her virtue, rather than leading her on, carefully cultivating her blind love and infatuation, and leaving her unable to find anyone else an acceptable alternative.

Esther is courted by Lord Babington (Mark Stanley), a friend of Sidney Parker’s. Lord Babington has a title and money, and find the prickly, sharp-tongued Esther a refreshing change from most of the simpering, sycophantic women of his acquaintance. I loved Esther’s character, too, which hid a vulnerable interior. The actress portraying her, Charlotte Spencer, was a joy to watch every time she was on screen, with her rich auburn hair, pale skin and freckles, and her haughty exchanges with other characters was a delight to witness.

Sanditon-babington

Their cousin Clara was also highly watchable, with what people in earlier times might have described as having a tragic mouth. There was something so engaging about the way she could pout or make her lips tremble with repressed emotion, when you came to know she was actually scheming, self-serving and a cast-iron survivor. The relationship portrayed between her and her cousins was vastly entertaining in its plotting and backstabbing circumlocutions, much more so, I felt, than that between the stereotypical heroine and the brooding hero.

The stinger with Sanditon is that, having reached a very interesting moment in time, we learn that this was the end of Series 1, with a few loose ends still dangling, including the unresolved relationship between key characters. It could very easily have been neatly resolved in its eight-episode arc, so it will be interesting to see if Series 2 ever eventuates and justifies leaving its audience so unsatisfied. There were only one or two aspects that required further attention or explanation, so I cannot see at this point how another whole series would be required to deal with these. But I am happy to be persuaded otherwise, if Andrew Davies can write his way out of this literary corner. At least I was there to witness some happiness for Esther, so the journey has been worth it if only for her.

You’ll be Semi-Charmed, too

I’m always attracted to the type of book that promises to be “perfect for fans of strong, smart, kickass heroines, grumpy, brooding alpha heroes, paranormal mystery and hijinks, and snarky humour”. Semi-Charmed, the first in the Harper Hall Investigations series by Isabel Jordan, delivered on its promises – mostly.

Semi-charmed

The actual investigation (concerning a child abducted by a vampire) didn’t take up much of the book and was resolved early on. The focus was on the will-they-won’t-they interplay between the main characters. There is gorgeous, independent and feisty heroine Harper Hall (not her real name, so this may be resolved in another book) who is psychic, so touching people or objects can induce a strong vision of a crime, location, etc. to help solve a police case.

Her previous partner, Romeo, has skipped town to live it up in Las Vegas, leaving her in debt, and without a partner (necessary if she is to assist with police investigations). This aspect of the book felt unfinished to me, as I would have liked to read some interaction between Harper and Romeo, even in a flashback, to help explain why she chose to work with him in the first place (although she does berate herself for choosing the wrong type of guy repeatedly).

I enjoyed Harper’s sarcastic rejoinders, her independence and refusal to be put in the corner while the men do the hard stuff. This attitude, while admirable, does tend to land her in some sticky situations, but she doesn’t wait to be rescued, preferring to use her wits to escape. She is quick with a put down, such as this one from the first page, “Darlin’, I’m not your type. I’m not inflatable”, and her tendency to react with a quip can diffuse a situation or just show when she is uncomfortable.

Harper is desperate to recruit a new partner, the brawn/hunter to her brain/seer, and thinks she finds him in the suitably tall, dark and moody Noah Riddick, a man of few words who is talented in hunting down and killing vampires. But since vampires have now come out and have legal status, they can no longer be hunted down and killed, which means Noah is out of a job, and Harper’s main line of work is also no longer available.

Noah has a tortured past, doesn’t trust anyone, has a fierce temper and the hunter’s tendency to focus single-mindedly on bringing down his prey. Meeting Harper threatens the lonely yet safe world he inhabits, and he is instantly drawn to her even as he fights this unwanted attraction. Harper appreciates his lack of verbal exchanges, but I would find it frustrating having a man of so few words, just like Geralt of Rivia with his grunts for replies.

There is a secret government organisation, Sentry, that used to coordinate the hunting down of vampires, and this is where Harper’s best friend Mischa Bartone once worked. She is intelligent, feisty and snarky; in fact, almost a mirror image of Harper, except her skills lie in research and locating suspects via computer. I enjoyed Mischa as a character, who proves to be a loyal sidekick to Harper. Her interactions with Harper’s neighbour Hunter, a very old vampire (turned in his 20s) are also entertaining. There is animosity and distrust on her side, while Hunter is patient, intelligent, sympathetic, hot, and definitely interested in a romantic liaison with the prickly Mischa. I would have liked to read more about these two, so perhaps they will also pop up again to resolve their relationship in the next book. I kept imagining Hunter as the actor Wes Studi for some reason, perhaps because the character has a Native American background and talks in a measured tone.

This story wouldn’t be complete without a love triangle, so shifter and law enforcement officer Detective Lucas Cooper filled this thankless role. There is never any doubt that despite his interest in her, Harper is not going to fall for him, especially after meeting bad boy Riddick. It was a bit like reading about Bella, Edward and Jacob; the werewolf never wins! Lucas’ tendency to call Harper “doll face” echoed film noir situations of the 1940s and 50s, but doesn’t sit well as an endearment in the modern era.

There is also a villainous vampire, Phoenix. Although the scenes between Harper and him were gruesome, at least it was more realistic to read about how he tortured her rather than having her rescued in the nick of time before he could wreak sadistic punishment on her.

Towards the end of the story, the impetus falters, mainly because Riddick doesn’t think he should return Harper’s feelings – he’s convinced it won’t end well and he doesn’t want to hurt her. Harper’s desperate desire to change his mind comes across as a tad needy and cancels out much of her earlier independent attitude and spunk. Having a few of their sexual encounters foiled at the crucial moment rather than allowed to be carried through to their anticipated climax also taxed my credulity at times – just how many awkwardly timed interruptions between consenting adults could the author dream up?

Grave-sight

Reading Semi-Charmed reminded me of Charlaine Harris’ Harper Connelly series, also featuring a psychic, but this time one who can sense dead people and how they died. This series is gripping, full of dread and lots of plot twists, with memorable characters and situations, and I’ve read all four books in the series several times because the writing and characters are so beautifully handled. Harper Connelly isn’t snarky but tortured, seeking a sister who disappeared years earlier, and encountering people who want her to find what happened to their dead relatives, while never quite trusting or believing her, or suspecting she was the one who committed the crimes.

undead

If you want really good snarky humour and feisty heroines, look no further than the Undead series by MaryJanice Davidson, which I will review another time.

Holiday reading in Regency land

As hungry people will be drawn to the smell of freshly baked hot cross buns, I will invariably be drawn towards reading anything about English novelist Jane Austen, or one of her novels that has been updated, re-imagined or given a surprise twist. To a lesser extent I am also attracted to novels written in the style or world of Georgette Heyer, so to encounter three books inspired by both authors filled me, gentle readers, with delight.

lost-in-austen

While I cannot claim to be an expert academic in her life and times, I am familiar enough with Jane Austen’s life, gleaned from reading biographies, letters, literary critiques and so on, to spot anything that seems at odds with what is known about her. I like many of the adaptations and new versions, such as Lost in Austen by Emma Campbell Webster, where a modern woman swaps places in time with Elizabeth Bennett. I found the role reversal in that book was well handled and each person’s experiences in a different time and place engagingly presented and well researched. Austenland by Shannon Hale is another enjoyable romp, set in an Austen-inspired mansion where modern day people can act out their secret Austenian fantasies while dressed in appropriate period costumes.

Austenland

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, which was incredibly well researched and speculates what might have motivated Jane’s sister Cassandra to destroy so many personal letters and diary entries to protect Jane’s memory. The author has an elderly Cassandra revisit a parsonage where she hopes to find a cache of missing correspondence from her sister Jane, and remove them before anyone in the family or even an acquaintance seeks to publish them or profit from them.

Miss Austen is a gentle, slow read, with glimpses of what life may have been like for Cassandra after her beloved sister died. It speculates about Jane’s possible romances, and Cassandra’s own doomed engagement, and includes encounters with people the Austens actually knew in their youth, who have also grown older (and more eccentric in some cases). The novel is a pleasure to read, being well researched and with enough of the style of Austen, albeit less formal, to help recapture the world in which these people lived.

Miss-Austen

My next Austenian adventure was Jane in Love by Rachel Givney, promoted as being a “wonderfully witty romantic comedy (that) offers a new side to Jane’s story, which sees her having to choose between true love in the present and her career as a writer in the past”. This description sounded promising so I bought a copy and wasted no time in settling down for what I anticipated would be an enjoyable read.

I was therefore severely disappointed when reading the early chapters of Jane in Love covering Jane’s home life, which the author has depicted as being one of persecution at the hands of her unfeeling mother. What kind of research, if any, did this author undertake? She depicts Mrs Austen as being so keen to see Jane married that she believes her daughter’s hobby of writing will be detrimental, so hunts down and destroys any scrap of paper or quill that Jane might use to record her creative output. Jane is forced to hide her literary ‘stash’ from her eagle-eyed mother, who still manages to find and burn Jane’s manuscript of First Impressions (aka Pride and Prejudice). Where are the documented scenes of Jane’s family life, surrounded by an admiring audience of mother, father, sister and brothers, all keen to be entertained by Jane’s witty, often scathing descriptions of their society? Both parents were educated, and the father particularly ensured both his daughters had a solid education usually reserved for sons. Jane was encouraged by all her family to write, and was equally supported in her efforts to be published. So having Jane’s mother behave so out of character was really irritating.

Jane-in-Love-cover

Another glaring error that indicated a lack of research was the author referring to one of the characters in her book, Sophie Wentworth, an actress, having been gifted a complete set of first edition Austen novels, all bearing the author’s name. Given that a first edition of an Austen novel is incredibly rare and hideously expensive, how likely would it be that the actress would have been given a set? And that’s not the biggest mistake. During her lifetime Jane Austen’s novels were published anonymously, coyly ascribed to “a lady” or “by the author of…”. It wasn’t until several years after her death that one of her brothers arranged to have two of her novels re-published together, this time bearing Jane Austen’s name.

I understand that the author wanted the Jane Austen character in this book to realise she became a famous, popular and published author, so that all her secretive efforts to write were justified, but why not just have the actress show her a set of the novels that weren’t rare first editions, but later ones with Austen’s name on them? This is sloppy research and basically spoiled any nascent enjoyment I might have been experiencing. I struggled through the rest of the book, having to force myself to continue in the face of such a disappointing start. It just never ignited my interest or lived up to the promise on the back cover. (I have since checked out a number of reviews on Goodreads, and everyone else seemed to think it was witty, fun, captivating, romantic – I felt like I have read a different book entirely.)

I found the depiction of Jane Austen in Jane in Love to be unconvincing, as she seemed a bit lacking in wit, was of a nervous disposition and lacked the focus and intelligence her writings indicated she possessed. Where was the witty, biting social commentator, the writer who could entertain her family on endless nights by reading out her latest character assassinations and lively descriptions based on their social milieu? I realise that Jane was flustered by finding herself magically transported to the 21st century, but the continued references to her being a fish out of water without appearing to be able to make sense of her surroundings after a while wore irritatingly thin. The object of her love, a teacher named Fred Wentworth, also failed to live up to his romantic predecessor’s name and character, although he was apparently supposed to be the inspiration for Captain Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion. I never felt convinced of the attraction between Jane and Fred, and had to force myself to read through their oddly awkward conversations and encounters manufactured to heighten dramatic tension.

Far more interesting to me was the space devoted to the thoughts and actions of Fred’s famous sister, actress Sophie Wentworth, who befriends Jane. Sophie is an older actress, terrified of losing her celebrated looks, as well as her director husband who is having an affair with a much younger actress. The scenes with Sophie, interacting with her soon-to-be ex-husband, the younger actress, or even with Jane, are written far more convincingly and engaged my interest. I wanted to find out what happened to Sophie, and her character growth was the one aspect that made this book bearable to read at all. Having her discover that Jane’s six published novels are disappearing the longer Jane stays in the modern world, falling deeper in love with dull Fred, provided the only real sense of tension in what was otherwise a very long, slow haul of a read.

Lady-helen

Far more engaging and extremely well written was Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club, the first book in a series by Alison Goodman, and described as being “Georgette Heyer meets Buffy”. I met the author at this year’s pop culture convention SupaNova in March (not long before the COVID-19 outbreak led to widespread isolation and social distancing), after I talked with another author of paranormal subject matter who recommended I try Ms Goodman’s novels if I liked Jane Austen and paranormal settings. I was pleased not to be disappointed by this recommendation. Although first published in 2016, I hadn’t heard of the Dark Days Club novels, and having finished the first novel, now eagerly await the arrival of the next two books in the series. Set in Regency England, the first novel introduced us to a young woman, Lady Helen, who is not your average simpering miss but an intelligent, spirited, observant person living under the cloud of her mother’s death and apparently treasonous nature.

Regency England, unbeknown to most of its inhabitants, is populated by creatures from the underworld that feed on the emotions of humans. Known as Deceivers, they inhabit human bodies and leave behind a trail of mutilated remains. All that keeps them in check are a small handful of Reclaimers, humans with advanced hearing, sight and strength, assisted by other normal humans who are all part of the Dark Days Club. Lady Helen has been bequeathed two miniature lockets containing her dead parents’ likenesses, plus something else. Helen is gradually introduced to this sinister underworld and the misunderstood people who are all that stand between humanity and depravity, and must eventually make a choice – to either become a Reclaimer herself and wrest back the souls of humans from their devilish demons, or renounce her growing powers in favour of being just a normal young woman.

I enjoy paranormal subject matter when it is combined with romance, adventure, strong characters and not too much overt gore. I also love reading Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, so becoming immersed in a world that had both was a real bonus for me.

The author, Alison Goodman, explained the incredible research she had to undertake in order to ensure the Regency world described in this novel was accurate and believable. She had dancing lessons, wore Regency clothes (complete with stays, corsets and layers of skirts), ate Regency-style food and read as much as possible about the manners, events, towns and living conditions of Regency people. Her research paid off in the form of a novel that was highly engaging to read, full of strong characters and situations, and steeped in Regency life. I am so pleased I stopped to say hello to the author, get my copy of her book signed, and start the adventure of reading about the Dark Days Club.

Next on my reading list? Semi-Charmed, Book 1 of Harper Hall Investigations, by Isabel Jordan (2015), described as being “snarky paranormal romance”, which is just what I love to read. If it is anything like the snarky writing of MaryJanice Davidson (Undead series), I’m in for lots of fun.

Until my next review, stay safe and indoors.

 

Jane in Love – Rachel Givney (2020), Michael Joseph imprint, Penguin

Miss Austen – Gill Hornby (2020), Century Publishers

Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club (Book 1) – Alison Goodman (2016), Angus & Robertson