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.

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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.

Romance

Waiting on You

Image

 by: Kristan Higgins

I picked up this romance novel at Rite Aid a week or so ago (along with ice cream and pop chips; it was not a good day) on the recommendation of two of my favorite authors, Eloisa James and Julia Quinn.  With a double whammy, how can you go wrong?

And I didn’t.  While not my favorite romance novel ever, it was probably the best one from a new author I’ve picked up in a long, long time.  The characterizations were really good, with the main characters and most of the supporting characters being extremely well-developed.  There were one or two supporting characters that came across as a little “type-y” rather than depending on Higgins’ characterization to develop, but it certainly wasn’t an egregious overuse.

The plotline was good – it’s one of those “old love comes back to town” kind of deals.  I’m really fond of that plot device – I think it makes for a more believable bond between the two main characters.  And Higgins put a pretty interesting twist on it here, without making it too angst-ridden.  The pacing was really nice; at no point did I feel like it was either dragging or leaving me with my head spinning.

The book itself was light and full of humor.  I don’t think it actually made me laugh or chuckle at any point, but it certainly worked as an escape mechanism.  One of the things I liked best is how Higgins handled secondary relationships between the main characters and their friends and family.  Without overshadowing the main relationship of the book, Higgins manages to make them important to the characters’ development and believable.  It helps to round out the characters, but it also makes the book seem more grounded in reality.  Family and friends generally are an important part of any life decision and it’s always weird to me when authors neglect those relationships in favor of a romantic relationship.  Higgins struck an exceptionally good balance, I feel, especially for a contemporary novel where it’s so easy to create situations where the characters can be removed from their families.

The book draws a lot from Jane Austen’s Emma and at first, I thought it was going to be a little too much “men are like X and to trap them women must Y.”  That is not an attitude I’m fond of at all.  But instead, Higgins used that set-up to create some interesting situations and invert those expectations.  (Much like Austen’s Emma, so perhaps I should have expected that, rather than risking brain damage by rolling my eyes so hard during the first few pages.)

There was lots and lots of sexual tension in this book but very little actual sex.  (I don’t recall reading any, although sometimes I just skim over those scenes.)  I was kinda meh about this aspect of the book – didn’t think a lot or a little of it.

All in all, if you like contemporary romances that are light and fun, you should definitely give Waiting on You a try.  It was a very good bit of escapism.  If you like your romances heavy sexualized or dark, or if you like them completely focused on the relationship between the two main characters, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Romance

The Sum of All Kisses

thesumofallkisses

by: Julia Quinn

I love Julia Quinn. She’s one of my favorite writers. I love her sly humor and witty dialogue; I love that her characters are people I could be friends with. I adore that if someone told me I seemed like one of her heroines, I would feel complimented.

The Sum of All Kisses is Quinn’s latest book and the third book in the Smythe-Smith quartet. The hero, Hugh Prentice, is a bit of an ass. It’s not his defining characteristic, by any means, but it is there. He’s truly nice, but sometimes says things that are a little mean.  And then he realizes he has done wrong and apologizes.  He doesn’t need to fall in love to respect others’ feelings; he just doesn’t always adequately consider his words before he speaks.

The heroine, Lady Sarah Pleinsworth, is caring, intelligent, and just a bit selfish.  Not a spoiled brat, completely oblivious to other’s pain; just a wee bit too focuses on how things affect her. (Also, she decides to work on this not because the hero teaches her a lesson but through an interaction completely separate from Hugh! Sigh…)

It’s so nice to have characters who are truly realistically flawed – good people who screw up sometimes.  So very nice.

The Sum of All Kisses is light and fun.  There’s witty banter, amusing situations, and great fun throughout.  I love that her characters seem to understand just how lucky they are.  Here, Sarah’s understanding that not everyone has a loving family dynamic – that her family is loving and normal but others’ may not be – is what sets her up to help (save) Hugh during a particularly sticky situation.  Without those moments of understanding, I don’t think I would have bought her kick-ass save the day moment – but as it is, I absolutely love it.

This book has a villian-esque character, different for Quinn.  I’m not sure if I like the way she handled it – on one hand, it was brilliantly over-the-top and on the other hand – well, it was over-the-top.  I can’t decide if it worked amazingly well or if it fell short of being brilliant.

However, Quinn does handle painful situations delicately enough to respectfully convey pain without darkening the light tone of the book. Shit may happen but that doesn’t mean your life is either dark and scary or transformative and healing.  Sometimes you work through your issues and have a rather normal story.

 Like many romance novels, TSoAK has a short timeline, yet at the end it’s hard to believe the characters have only known each other for a few weeks.  I attribute this to the conversations of the characters.  They don’t hold discourses on Plato, but they banter and converse and think.  The conversations hold unexpected depth, in that the characters truly connect through talking: through a shared sense of humor, point-of-view, or uncommon trait. 

As for the sex scenes, TSoAK had a fair amount of petting leading up to the main event, which I thought added some nice tension. Quinn’s not super-explicit – you know what’s going on but you’re not fed detail after detail.  And they do help the plot get along, rather than the plot revolving around them.

In short, if you like light and fluffy romance novels with unexpected depth here and there, or if you have a thing for witty, intelligent characters, genre aside, you should read The Sum of All Kisses, or any Julia Quinn.  If you like your books hot and heavy, or if you’re a big fan of action-y rescue plots, than maybe this isn’t the book for you.  (But! I encourage you to try Julia Quinn even if you don’t think you like romance novels. Don’t let hate of a genre keep you from an excellent author.)

So –

Romance · Science Fiction

Archangel

by: Sharon Shinn

I decided to reread Archangel when I ran across it at Barnes and Noble.  I had mixed feelings about it last time which I hoped to resolve.

The book is set in the world of Samaria, where angels and humans live together in harmony guided by Jevoh, the almighty, all-powerful god.  The angels speak to the god for humans, interceding by prayer in the form of song.  The beginning of the book hints the Jevoh is actually the spaceship Jehovah, in orbit around the planet, which is why the flying angels’ voices are able to reach the ship and receive a response whereas the humans’ voices don’t, with a few exceptions.  The people of Samaria don’t know this; they think the god is real.

The premise of the book is really interesting.  The peoples of Samaria have a whole religion based around a ship, which is programmed to respond to song.  Yet there’s a lot of talk about fearing, loving, and respecting the god, and being able to feel the presence of the god inside oneself.  I’m not quite sure what to make of that; on one hand, those who don’t follow the religion of the planet are clearly the bad guys, but on the other hand, the whole religion is based around a ship floating in outer space.  Is it a critique of religion?  Or is the book saying the foundation of the religion is less important than the faith and belief of the followers?  Most of the world exists in a Catholic Church-like hierarchy, but there is a group of nomadic people, the Edori, who believe the god is equally close and listens equally to all. (Although you can conclusively prove they are wrong.)

Throughout the book, there is the implication that morality cannot exist outside of the religion in which the people believe – Jevoh calls most intensely for peace and harmony among the people – but the whole religion is based on a lie.  Is the book saying religion is necessary; that people cannot exist with a punishment-based morality system? Or it is trying to say it is inconsequential what the god is, as long as following its will brings about goodness?  I’m not religious myself, so in one light I think the book is fascinating and in the other, I think it is dead wrong.

There’s also attempted critiques on capitalism and money, but they are inconsistent and not well-developed.

I entirely dislike the two main characters.  The book follows the story of Gabriel, Archangel-to-be, and the woman Jevoh picks for his wife, Rachel.   Gabriel is ruled by pride and a rigid sense of right and wrong.  He is completely unable to compromise or even be diplomatic.  This, in my opinion, makes him a terrible person to lead.  He is trying to rid the world of exploitation, slavery, and inequality, so good, and yet the way he handles it leads to unnecessary conflict.  Were he more flexible in his understanding of the world, the situation could have ended much differently, and for the better.

Rachel is ruled by emotions – driven almost completely by anger, fear, and pride.  Much of the conflicts between them are caused  miscommunication or a refusal to communicate, which is my least favorite plot device in the entire world.  It is not that hard to talk to people!  Though she is strong-willed and independent, she also lacks the ability to compromise, empathize, or communicate and is, again, a terrible person to lead a world.  In fact, together they may be one of the worse ruling couples since Marie Antoinette and Louis the XVI, although the book doesn’t acknowledge any of their weaknesses as real hindrances to doing their job.

So at the end, I’m still conflicted about this book. It has some interesting things to say about religion, certainly, but I find the main characters, while well-written and -developed, awful.  If you like science fiction dealing with religion, or romances with strong female characters where miscommunication is a central conflict, you should give this book a try.  If you think that adults in positions of power should be able to communicate, or if you don’t like religion playing a leading role in your books, than this may not be the book for you.

Fairy Tales · Romance

Once Upon a Tower

Once Upon A Tower

by: Eloisa James

This book is part of James’ fairy tale series – it’s (very)loosely based upon the story of Rapunzel.

Our heroine is Edie, a lady who plays the cello rather brilliantly.  It is only her gender that keeps her from becoming a famous cellist, but Edie, only daughter of a wealthy earl is happy with her lot in life nonetheless.   Attending a ball despite her illness one night, she makes the acquaintance of Gowan Stoughton, a Scottish duke (and yes, that first name does make some of the more erotic scenes just a wee bit confusing.  Or, at least, it did for me.)  He falls in love at first sight, proposes, and the rest, is well…

Quite complicated, actually.  I really like James and I thought that this book shone in ways that some of her latest works haven’t.   First of all, Edie’s parents (father and significantly younger stepmother) are the product of a fairy tale romance and they find themselves struggling after the happily ever after.  Layla is unable to conceive a child, there’s a complete lack of communication, and there’s absolutely no understanding from either party of the importance of communication.  (They just don’t work like that, you understand!)  Layla and Edie are good friends, and depictions of female friendships are truly sets James apart from other romance authors.   Though her parents’ relationship is a very secondary part of the story, it dramatically affects Edie’s love story.

Layla is also young and flighty and, though a good friend to Edie, not always the best source of wisdom, which does help create the major plot point.  The juxtaposition of a couple just finding their happily ever after with a couple answering the age-old question of what comes after the HEA is rather brilliantly drawn.  It also gives a sense of richness to the ending; that even though our hero and heroine may (do) find themselves back in wedded bliss, there are other obstacles that must be overcome.  Takes away a bit of the tint from the rose-colored glasses, if you will.

The other absolutely amazing part of this book – truly wonderful, I loved it so much – is that the sex isn’t great.

In fact, it’s terrible.  The physical attraction is there, mind you, but neither party really knows what they’re doing.  And it’s a huge point in the book; it is the pivotal issue around which several major issues rest.  James handles it beautifully – Edie’s feelings upon being unable to orgasm, when her husband so desperately wants to please her, and the choices she makes in response are realistic and, I think, felt by modern women still.  Gowan’s reactions and emotions are equally well-depicted and I imagine very relevant, though I am less familiar with the social pressures men feel than with the ones women feel. (James has used bad sex before but neither so well nor so prominently.) And the solution to the bad sex is not, as it is in so many romance novels, more sex.  Edie is thrust into the throes of passion by his magic manhood, nor does her magic womanhood suddenly endow him with the skills of a Casanova.  This despite the fact that they’re both so very attracted to each other! In fact, sex only worsens the problem exponentially.

The solution, the reader begins to believe, is what Dan Savage himself would preach – communication.  Do they begin to communicate? Does Edie ever orgasm?  Does she come down from the tower?

I’ll quickly note that I did not much care for the epilogue – one could very well not read it and still be satisfied with the ending.  In contrast to what I wrote earlier, it is a little too pat and happily ever after for my tastes; epilogues often are.

If you, dear reader, love romance, novel love romance, or are looking for an honest depiction of a common problem that is ignored in most of literature, you should read this book – even if you don’t like romance novels, you should give this one a shot. If you read romances for the torrid sex scenes or if you like stories featuring Casanovas, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.  Although it is excellent and everyone who wants to be in a relationship should read it.  Just sayin’.