Historical Fiction · Romance

Born to be Wilde

borntobewilde
by: Eloisa James

Born to be Wilde is James’ newest addition to her Wilde series, which features a ‘celebrity’ family of aristocrats, the Wildes, whose exploits are widely gossiped about and followed in 18th century England.

This installment follows Parth Sterling, an orphaned cousin raised with the Wilde family who is now a wildly successful businessman and banker, and Lavinia Grey, a once-wealthy heiress whose laudanum-addicted mother has left in a bit of a financial pinch. Lavinia finds herself in need of a wealthy husband and though Parth has refused to marry her, he offers to find her a suitable husband.

I love James’ writing but I haven’t been terribly enamored with the Wilde series.  They’re a little more focused on main character drama, when what I’ve always most enjoyed about James’ work is her incorporation of friendships, particularly female friendships. This book was no exception – it was satisfactory but not a stand-out.

Lavinia and Parth had a fiery, annoyed-by-you-but-I-really-like-you relationship which was fun to follow; I definitely enjoyed the bantering between them.  I felt some of the conflict was a tad bit forced, but the chemistry was real and both of the characters were good people, the kind you’d want to hang out with. Lavinia was on a journey of learning to value herself and her talents, and I thought that was a really nice story line. I particularly liked the way it played out; it felt both very empowering and true to the time period.

It may have been that I was reading it just before bedtime but I found it hard to keep track of all the side characters – I kept on forgetting who was who and how they were connected to each other.  I’ve read all the books in this series and maybe I was just tired, but none of the side characters were on the pages long enough to be well-developed and they kept on slipping out of my mind.

One thing that James did really well was her treatment of Parth.  Parth is an Indian-Anglo character; his mother was Indian and his father was British.  He was sent to England when he was 5 and had lived there ever since. He’s very British culturally, but there is a definite acknowledgement that things are different for him because of his mixed heritage.  And it’s rare to find an Indian lead in Western media so clearly represented as sexy (which Parth definitely was! This is one of James’ steamier novels.)

James includes an afterword discussing the relatively accepting attitudes of British society towards Anglo-Indian children in the late 1700s*, which is reflected in the novel (Lord Liverpool, prime minister 1812-1827, was of Anglo-Indian descent.)  This was such a wise decision on her part – it gave her some space where she could include instances of Parth being treated differently, judged and a bit othered, but it didn’t need to be a focal point of his experience as a British citizen. And because she chose to make him culturally British, she didn’t have the opportunity to accidentally mangle Indian culture.

From James’  research, it sounds like Parth’s experience would have been fairly typical for an Anglo-Indian child aristocratic child in this time period. It was a really clever way of including a character of color that was both appropriate for the time period and for the author’s own experience.  I think James has deftly and sensitively added an Anglo-Indian character to the historical romance genre.

So I definitely recommend the book if you’re looking for a unique hero, if you’re a fan of a really nice personal growth journey for the heroine, or if you’d like a good bit of tension between the main characters.  If you’re looking for a supportive female friend group or if you’re not a fan of books that rely heavily on other books in their series, than alas, this may not be the book for you.

*Attitudes drastically changed during the Victorian period, for the worse.

Advertisements
Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Romance

First Star I See Tonight

first star I see tonight
by: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

First Star I See Tonight is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ latest addition to her Chicago Stars series, a contemporary romance series about the players and coaches of the fictional Chicago Stars football team.

I really enjoy Phillips’ writing and this was no exception.  It’s a light-hearted romp, with humor and spirited characters and just a touch of reality.  This installment follows Cooper Graham (who has either two first names or two last names), a retired quarterback breaking into the nightclub business and Piper Dove, the struggling PI who’s been hired to follow him.  It’s written in third person from both their perspectives.

Cooper was a nice, if lighthearted, take on a retired athlete – someone who hasn’t lost everything but still hasn’t found himself. He’s a great male lead: competitive, kind, and just a tad bit overbearing.  He’s definitely the kind of male hero it’s fun to daydream about without ever turning into the guy you’d never want to meet in real life. He actually listens to Piper and, even though the set up is ripe for it, Phillips never allows him to override Piper’s wishes with a

Piper is strong and confident and frustrated by the sexism of the world.  Her father raised her to be the toughest of women and then was unhappy when she wanted to use her skillset to make a living. Though this isn’t the conflict that’s driving Piper, it has clearly influenced her and I really appreciated Phillips’ inclusion of it. I think most women would can relate to a loving dad who wants to raise a tough little girl and then gets frustrated that she never turns into a dainty little lady.  She’s also a little impulsive in a way I didn’t always appreciate, just because she was generally so

Like a lot of Phillips’ work, the book has a bit of adventure and a dash of danger (which does work to push the characters into an “AHA!” moment). The plot moves really quickly without ever losing the fun of it all, something that Phillips particularly excels at. There’s a twist that I saw coming, but being able to see it didn’t take away from the pleasure of reading the book.

But there is a major element that I struggle with in Phillips’ writing that is really troubling for me.  She often includes characters of color as side characters and I feel like she often leans heavily on stereotypes to develop the characters.  They’re often developed characters just…they do feel based on stereotypes. And there’s often a hint of a white savior component.  In this book, she choose to include Muslim characters from an unnamed Middle Eastern…and the white main characters literally save one of the Muslim characters from a cartoonishly evil Middle Eastern Prince.

Now, Phillips does make a point to say not all rich Middle Eastern princes are villains, and she uses the opportunity to (a little clumsily) introduce several important components of Islam in a fairly positive and respectful light.  I do applaud that she clearly thinks bringing in more diverse characters in romance novels is important – it absolutely is. I believe Phillips had positive intentions. And at this point in time, there is certainly some benefit to even a clumsily done inclusion of a sympathetic Muslim woman into mainstream American romance.

But that doesn’t excuse it from its faults, either, or from the fact Muslim women, like all women, deserve to be developed as individual characters in novels, informed, but not defined, by their culture, religion, and/or heritage, and certainly not written based on stereotypes or brought in as a convenient plot point to prove how good the main (white) characters are.  And this isn’t the first time Phillips has handled inclusion of characters of color quite clumsily; she has several books with cringeworthy moments with black characters.  (Though this is certainly the most egregious example.)

So despite how much I enjoyed this book, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it. I don’t want to demonize Phillips for trying and failing, because honestly the genre as a whole is not inclusive and generally not trying. However, I’m also not comfortable recommending the book.

If you decide to read it, maybe pick up Huda Fahmy’s upcoming book Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth of Life in a Hijab as well.  Fahmy writes and draws amazingly funny comics about her own life and I am so excited about her book coming out!  (and, hey, pick it up if you’re not reading First Star I See Tonight, too.)

Historical Fiction · Romance

The Other Miss Bridgerton

the-other-miss-bridgerton
by: Julia Quinn

I’ve said it before, but Julia Quinn is one of my favorite authors.  I was really excited to see she had another Bridgerton book out – this one a prequel to her original Bridgerton series.

The Other Miss Bridgerton follows the adventures of Poppy Bridgerton, a well-bred young lady on her second Season not quite actually looking for a husband.  She stumbles across a smuggler’s cave one day and ends up whisked away on a privateer’s ship with charming Captain Andrew Rokesby, bound for Portugal and adventure. The story is told from both Andrew and Poppy’s point of view, in third person.

This is, of course, a Regency romance, and it’s delightful and witty and incredibly fun to read. Quinn does such an amazing job of writing intelligent, fun, likable, and realistic characters – Poppy is perhaps my favorite character of hers so far!

Quinn easily takes the reader through the delightful twists and turns of an overly inquisitive mind. Nothing Poppy says is random to the reader, but it’s quite clear why it’s out of the blue for the other characters. Poppy’s train of thought is very similar to mine; I’m the kind of person who might be staring at a piece of abstract art and ask, “Why aren’t frogs a more accepted part of American cuisine?” In my head, there’s a clear connection between the art and fried frog legs, but to everyone else in the room, it’s quite the odd response!

I also love Poppy’s response to being kidnapped – she makes the best of the situation but she also doesn’t shy away from being honest about how crappy it is. I think this is probably my favorite part of the book, as Poppy always strives to be pleasant and kind while still holding Andrew accountable for his actions. What’s more, this is behavior that she has from the start of the book, not some grand climax where they communicate and make things all better.  From the very beginning, she expects him to deal with the fact that he has put her in a bad situation, and she never takes on responsibility for the guilt and shame he feels about it. Here is a relationship built on the premise that a woman shouldn’t minimize her emotions so a man doesn’t have to face his. Excellent.

TOMB has a lot more adventure than the average Quinn novel.  I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it, but I was quickly proven wrong. There’s tons of the usual witty banter between the characters and the action isn’t overdone or wildly improbable. It’s fun and fairly nicely balanced. (Plus, this is a romance novel. You know there will be a happily ever after.) The plot moves along at a nice clip but without taking away from the romance and character development.

The main characters fall in love rather quickly, but hey, it’s a romance novel. Quinn does not write super steamy books and this is no exception – there are a few sex scenes, well-written but not incredibly explicit (by romance novel standards, at least!)

If you’re into hot and steamy romance novels, with lots of dramatic and adventures on the high seas, then this book, alas, probably isn’t for you.  But if you want a feminist, fun read with lots of wit, characters you feel like you could be good friends with, and a satisfying happily ever after, then I highly recommend The Other Miss Bridgerton.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Romance

The Traveling Tea Shop

traveling tea shop
by: Belinda Jones

I picked up The Traveling Tea Shop at the library when I was looking for a light, fluffy read to get through my cold with.  This looked like a good bet, and it definitely paid off.

It’s written in first person and follows the adventures of Laurie Davis, a sweets-obsessed British travel agent living in New York. She’s contacted by Pamela Lambert, legendary British bake show host, to organize a baked goods tour of New England. Pamela shows up with her mother and rebellious daughter, forcing Laurie to deal with her own family issues as she’s exposed to theirs.

The story is – oh, I hate this term, but classic chic-lit. I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that it’s light and fun, but there’s a focus on relationships and personal growth within the characters. A perfect beach read for those of us in the southern hemisphere, and a nice cheer up novel for those heading into the depths of winter.

Character wise, it’s good but not great. My favorite character actually left halfway through the novel, which was disappointing. It’s pretty realistic about normal flaws that people have; in particular one of the character has a serious conflict-aversion problem portrayed very well in a kind but negative light.  And the main character is implied to be plump or perhaps plus sized without any of her problems stemming from her self-esteem or a lack of body acceptance.

The resolutions and the ah-ha moment of the main character is a bit over the top for my taste, though. Everything does get resolved and, I think, in a fairly realistic manner – nothing is neatly tied up, but the characters can look hopefully towards the future and I liked that aspect.  But at the same time, a few of the moments and thought processes feel a bit contrived.  Not enough to ruin the story, just enough that it dipped a toe into the Hallmark movie pond.

The romance story lines were really well-done; they were secondary to character development and moved romantically but not unrealistically quickly. I love a book that can have a romance without making it the most important part of a woman’s life – Jones does a great job with this balance.

There is a big focus on baked goods and in that aspect, it’s very well-researched.  (Mostly. Popovers are more associated with Maine than New Hampshire in my experience.) I actually can’t eat wheat, so I am not a huge baked goods fan, but I liked all the descriptions – if you are a fan of baked goods, this might make you really hungry! It includes a lot of real American cooks and places and they’re well-described (mostly – the White Mountain National Forest elevation is way off). It made me really homesick for New England, actually! The author is British and she did some excellent research into iconic baked goods and restaurants of New York and New England.

But…the author is British writing about America and even though the main characters are British, she still missed a few things Americans are going to pick up on. Pound cake is a common American baked good; scones are not. The vast, vast majority of American restaurants and hotels do not serve afternoon tea*, much less with a tiered platter of baked goods.  Virtually every establishment and person in this novel has afternoon tea. We sort things into category; we don’t ‘sort a problem out.’ It wasn’t all-pervasive (the author was wise in choosing British characters) but American readers will definitely spend a few minutes going “wait…what?”

The characters seem to spend a lot of time unsupervised in commercial kitchens, which seems highly, highly unrealistic. but that’s a minor peeve.

If you’re looking for a beach-read type novel with realistically flawed people and a tiny bit of cheesiness, then this book is absolutely for you! If you don’t like a pinch of too-tidy revelations, are jerked out of the story by cultural inaccuracies, or don’t like extensive descriptions of food and places in your escapism novels, then alas, this may not be the book for you.

*specialty tea or British cuisine restaurants might, but you’d have to specifically look for such a place. I lived in Boston for four years and never went somewhere with a set afternoon tea service, nor have any of my friends – they exist, but you’d have to seek them out.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Historical Fiction · Romance

The Summer Before the War

the summer before the war
by: Helen Simonson

This was the second book I picked up on my vacation.  I was deliberating between a book set in India (that I decided to check out of the library) and a history of New Zealand (also library) when I saw Helen Simonson’s name.  Simonson wrote Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I absolutely loved, enough so that her name makes a book an automatic buy.

The Summer Before the War is set in the summer before the first world war.  It revolves around Beatrice Nash, the first female Latin teacher ever hired by the town of Rye, near Sussex, England.  Recently arrived back in England after the death of her father (they had been living as ex-pats), she’s determined to make it on her own as an independent, successful woman.  She meets Hugh Grange, a surgeon-in-training whose Aunt Agatha was instrumental in Beatrice’s hiring, and in the idyllic countryside summer, begins a slow and wonderful romance.

I really enjoyed this book! I didn’t love it as much as I did MPLS, but I found the tone to be the same kind of inquisitive sweetness – not cloying, just pleasant without glossing over the awful parts of life.  Most of the book is a romance set against a depiction of a small English village. There’s the small town politics; the beautiful summer days and strolls in the gardens; the festivals and fairs; and the small dramas of village life. There’s quirky characters and good food and an idyllic day or two to imagine yourself in.

There’s also the burgeoning feminist movement and a truthful examination of the difficulties of being a single woman in the early 20th century.  There’s the Romani people, who come every summer and have for hundreds of years, yet face incredible prejudice. There’s two men who, at great cost, hide how they truly feel about each other and two women who quietly hide that their relationship is more than society would ever expect.

All in all, it’s a more complete picture than I would normally suspect.  Somerset manages to create a sweet and peaceful village that has room for the daily sufferings and injustices often ignored in idyllic settings. The inclusion of such people adds to the magic, mostly, I think, because they feel real without adding a “dark, seedy underbelly” tone.  (There is no dark seedy underbelly to Rye.)  Instead, it’s a gentle acknowledgement of all that was happening in the village and makes me feel like I was truly seeing a slice of life, rather than the cherry-picked good parts.  It made the escapism of the novel more complete to me and much more emotionally compelling.

Of course, after the summer, the war does break out (and the book does an excellent job of letting the reader feels it’s looming throughout.)  Somerset actually follows the novel through the beginnings of war-time and this leads us to my main issue with the book.  While the pacing in terms of action/not-action was fine, I wish Somerset had let the book play out over a longer period of time.  Everything happens in a 6-month span and it just seems short for the final emotional growth and realizations of the characters.  The last few chapters are jam-packed with important events and I wanted a bit more temporal space between them.  I liked the plot line, I liked the characters’ responses, but for some reason, I just feel she needed to stretch out her timeline by at least another 6 months, if not a year.

I also feel like some of her main characters were a little too good; they needed just a tad bit more flaws for me to really invest in them.  It was such a small imbalance that I didn’t even notice it until I was done with the book.  But it there, just a little. Hugh, in particular, could have done with an unkind thought or two.

If you’re a fan of idyllic British country villages, or if you like small, sweet stories in the face of adversity, or if you’re interesting in a more inclusive historical fiction, this is definitely a book you should try.  If you’re looking for a perfectly idyllic world with no real troubles at all, if you’re a big fan of flawed main characters, or if you don’t like big thematic shifts in books than this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you.

Classics · Comedy · Fiction · Humor · Romance

Emma

Emma
by: Jane Austen

I love rereading books by listening to the audio books but I often struggle to find books narrated by women.  I don’t know why, but there are times when I strongly prefer to listen to a woman’s voice over a man’s and while I have plenty of podcasts that fit the bill, it’s harder for me to find audiobooks.  But I decided, after listening to Pride and Prejudice, that I should continue with my Austen adventure and downloaded Emma.

Emma, is, of course, a classic novel by Jane Austen. Written in Georgian-Regency times (thanks Wikipedia!), it follows the titular character through the perils of matchmaking, romance, and growing up.  My audiobook was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who was really excellent. Her voice is elegant and has just the tiniest hint of merriment.

When I first read Emma, I was in early high school.  I only read it the once, so while I knew the plot, I really wasn’t prepared for all the comedy I’d missed the first time around.  I had to stop myself from laughing out loud more than once, and I’m sure that I walked around grinning like a fool while listening.  Austen pokes fun at her characters dryly and deservedly, though kindly.  I missed a lot my first read and I remember thinking the plot dragged a bit.  Now, when I can appreciate the subtle satire and the ridiculousness of the scenes, I didn’t think it dragged at all, even though not much happens in the story.

It’s a cohesive story and solid plot, but what I loved best are the individual scenes that can stand on their own.  My favorite scene involved two rather self-absorbed characters, one quite good-natured, engaged in a conversation where each is determinedly wresting the subject back to their favorite brag every time they speak. I was thoroughly entranced and amused the entire scene – it felt real, funny, and I could definitely think of a few people who it reminded me of!  It could have been taken from the story and read just as a scene and been just as satisfying.

Like all Austen books, some of the references and subtle pokes haven’t aged as well – a very few, but there were times when something was clearly supposed to be obvious and I had no clue what was being referenced.  And, of course, there’s a lot of subtlety and unspoken context going on in the novel, as in any Austen novel.

I will say, the ending did feel like it dragged on a bit and then, when it did end, it felt rather abrupt.  It was particularly noticeable because I was listening to it; I couldn’t start skimming over the last bit after I knew the major problems were resolved.  Austen thoroughly ties up every plot line, perhaps a tad too neatly and leaves the reader completely satisfied.  Her characters are believable and engaging. Overall, despite the more complex language, it’s a great escapism novel.

If you like things to happen in your novel, clear and straightforward writing, or a hot ‘n’ steamy romance, this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you. If, however, you like old-fashioned and sweet stories, you love absurd but realistic humor, or you’re just looking for a book to read in a garden with a glass of wine, then I strongly encourage you to give Emma a read.