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Wednesday Reflections #31 – Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

Via: Daily Prompt – Faint & Dancing

the-rules-of-magic-9781501183874_hrTitle     Rules of Magic

Series     Practical Magic #00

Author     Alice Hoffman

Genre     Historical Fiction | Magical Realism | Fantasy | Witches

Publisher      Simon & Schuster

Publication Date      October 10, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     New York and Massachusetts in the 1960’s

ISBN     1501137492

Synopsis: The Owenses are one of the oldest witch families of the New World, their lineage dating back to Maria Owens, who fell in love and had an affair with a married man, John Hathorne, who in order to hide his sins, branded her a witch and tried her during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. A brokenhearted Maria, then already pregnant with Hathorne’s child, had cursed her own future family to caution them from ever falling in love – a curse that would bring ruin to anyone they fell in love with. For generations, witches of the Owens clan tried to escape the curse, leaving their family home in the little town of Massachusetts to find a “normal life”, as did Susanna Owens. But magic born of blood cannot be eschewed and so Susanna instituted rules to keep her children from discovering their magical heritage. Yet Franny, Jet, and Vincent always knew they were different and, like any other children, they broke all the rules. The eldest Franny was difficult but intelligent and inquisitive; she always thought the fact that birds flocking to her was a curious power to have, but being protective of her siblings, chose to turn a blind eye to her abilities. Jet was the beautiful kind mediator; she could read minds but chose not to reveal what she discovered out of respect for others’ privacy. Vincent, the first male to be born into the family, was heart-stopping handsome and possessed a gift for music; his charismatic ability to cast a lure on others was discovered soon after his birth when a mesmerized nurse had tried to steal him away and he was the first of the siblings to enjoy wielding his powers. However, by the summer Franny turned seventeen, all three Owens children had their turns in experimenting with their abilities. And though they were not aware of any elderly Aunt Isabelle, when Franny and her siblings were called to visit her to learn about magic, they were excited to go. Over the course of the following few months, the siblings come to learn about their family history and power as well as the privileges, responsibilities, and tribulations that come with it. And over the span of the next few decades, the siblings come to learn how everything they learned from Aunt Isabelle was absolutely true.

Experience: I had originally planned to do the review for this novel the Wednesday before Halloween. However, I had just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South at the time and my head was still too full of Margaret and Thornton, so I put off reading Rules of Magic for a couple of days. Then it took me two weeks to finish reading this book – not because it was boring but because it was so languidly mystical.

Despite the topic of the novel, the central theme of the story was truly family and love. If one begins reading the book with expectations of bangs and pops, or potions and spells, one could sift through the entire plot without extracting more than a handful of notes. Rather the magic lay within the dedication Franny placed in ensuring her brother and sister were well taken care of, the undying love Jet possessed in her heart for a man born of the enemy to her bloodline, and the pursuit of self-worth that Vincent ventured upon even as he simultaneously accepted the magic in him while despising the fate his power portend. And through all this, each sibling must come to an understanding with the curse put on their love life and find the grounds upon which they build their own future – but not without plenty of encouragement and protection from each other. The life of magic is not for the faint of heart. The story demanded that it be read with heart and patience because patience is what each of the characters required most to endure all that entailed their inheritance.

The characters were so well developed that it was difficult for me to accept they were not real. It was as though Hoffman truly watched their lives unfold over the decades and were summarizing the events as she remembered them. There were little action or dialogue, the book having been written mostly in exposition, speaking more about how each character interpreted what their magic was and how their experiences with magic confirmed or refuted their original theories. And while this bode that I could not chase through the book in a hurry to reach the end – au contraire it rather slowed me down because there was no opportunity to skip a line lest I miss out on an important thought trail from one of the characters – the passages were by no means prosaic but rather lent the narrative a spiritual quality.

Having both read and seen Practical Magic, I felt Hoffman produced a historical account of the ancestors of Sally and Gillian, the protagonists of the original book. And in the process, quite dispelled the assumptions both the sisters of Practical Magic and I, as a reader, made about the aunts. Whereas in Practical Magic the aunts appeared rather matter-of-fact about their heritage and thought it pointless to shield their wards from the injustice magic rendered upon the family, both personal and social, here, we come to realize how much the aunts concealed about their own lives from Sally and Gillian. Once the girls became their charges, they set aside their past and allowed the girls’ happiness to become the central concern and were more than happy to let them live their lives and discover magic on their own terms without piling their own past fears, disappointments, losses, or even triumphs to overshadow the lives of their wards. While Rules of Magic may be faithfully read as a stand-alone and one need not have read or watched Practical Magic before venturing onto this book, reading Rules of Magic did give me a better understanding of the Frances and Jet in Practical Magic. I cannot help but respect the aunts in the original more for reading about the sisters in the prequel.

As for the “rules of magic”, Hoffman does share many of them – first as instructions and then with the exceptions tot he rules. We are allowed to experience the rules as the siblings (returning to Franny, Jet, and Vincent) successfully break them, come to accept them, and then learn to circumvent them, each playing a cat-and-mouse tango with fate in their turn. It was delicious to watch sisters and brother experiment with the unique power inherited by each as well as the general rules they found in their family grimoire – and even the forbidden texts meant to lead them astray of the course of “not to bring harm”.

Although, I must say few of the witches or wizards in this book cared much for that mother of all rules, harming others and self frequently enough to get out of binds. If anything, I think this was one place where Hoffman could have added a little – including some direct consequences of the magical manipulations the siblings and their aunts rendered would have brought on consistency to the rules. However, all we get to read about is a few blisters from telling uncomfortable lies. Yes, the siblings face their share of hardship but those seem to be unavoidable lessons of their inherent magic rather than the consequences of harms they cause others. Apart from this inconsistency, I think Hoffman wrote yet another masterful tale, weaving together an utterly believable myth.

Recommendation: It will be a bit of a slow read, I tell you, but if you’re into magic and if you’re into the power of family, this book is for you.

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Wednesday Reflections #28 – The Bad Luck Bride by Janna MacGregor

Via: Daily Prompt – Believe & Tame

51mhw3wneol-_sx303_bo1204203200_Title     The Bad Luck Bride

Series     The Cavensham Heiresses #01

Author     Janna MacGregor

Genre     Historical Romance | Regency Romance

Publisher      St. Martin’s Press

Publication Date      May 02, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     England, 1812

ISBN     1250116139

Synopsis: Lady Claire Cavensham, the only child of the late Duke of Langham, is a veritable heiress and beauty. But that does not save her from being the subject of a cruel joke. The ton believes her to be cursed and the rumor is not wholly unwarranted. As a child, she was in a freak flood accident that resulted in the demise of her parents. To top that, she lost four fiancés in three years to death, disease, dismemberment, and debt, in that order. But on the night that her latest intended reneged on their engagement, one of England’s most sought-after bachelors Lord Alexander Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke, offered to rescue her by announcing their “spot” engagement – one to which she did not agree – to her family and a few stragglers at a ball. Claire finds Lord Pembrooke’s motives highly suspect but feels the pressure to accept his offer if she ever hopes to stamp the rumors of the curse and have a family of her own, which she so intensely desires. Her only condition is that their marriage is a faithful one. Alex readily agrees to her terms and raises it by telling her just how much he desires her. Only, Alex’s pursuit of Claire stems from his determination to ruin his former friend and Claire’s most recent ex Lord Paul for abandoning his younger sister after getting her with child, leading to her suicide. Alex spent the past year systematically driving Lord Paul to destitution by arranging unlimited credit for his high-stakes gaming and then paying for the debts, accepting all his properties as repayment. The final nail in the coffin is forcing Lord Paul to give up Lady Claire, thus relinquishing his potential hold on her inheritance and any means of recovering his possessions. Lord Paul’s only respite is to tell Alex that he has “had” Claire and when Alex discovers that Claire often purchases men’s apparel from the town’s top retailers, he begins to suspect that his new bride may be keeping a lover, despite her advocacy for loyalty. Too bad he is also ardently falling for her. Maybe she is cursed after all…

Experience (some spoilers): Janna MacGregor’s debut novel The Bad Luck Bride is not half bad. However, there was definitely room for improvement – namely, sounder editing. First, let’s discuss all the reasons that made this novel promising:

  • An ominous beginning: The antagonist is the hero’s former best friend, a reprobate whose actions led to the hero’s sister’s suicide, and against whom the hero has sworn retribution. Also, the antagonist has protested that the hero jumped to conclusions by blaming him, so maybe he is not the cause of the sister’s demise?
  • An edgy hero? The hero is deeply loyal to his family and feels no compunction in the manner with which he goes about exacting said revenge, including using the heroine as an instrument in a way that permanently ties an innocent to him. The secret is bound to get out and then where will they be?
  • A heroine with a mysterious past and fraught with scandals: The heroine already comes with her share of problems, the most obvious of which is her streak of misfortunes with men. But she also suffers from PTSD from the event to which she lost her parents, which has led to some eccentricities and secretive behaviors that throw further shadow over her impending marriage with the hero.
  • A failsafe for conflict resolution: Given that the hero is a generally considerate person (apart from his deceptive manner of procuring a bride), he is readily available to come to the heroine’s aid whenever she is in need, namely during storms and carriage rides which set off one of her traumatic episodes. Potential for them to bond as husband and wife. The heroine, having suffered her share of losses, is able to easily empathize with hero’s loss of the sister, thus becoming someone he may confide in. Additional foundation for build a relationship.
  • A rescue marriage: without any prior courtship or even acquaintance portending an extended adjustment period in which we can only hope to see the characters gradually reveal each of their character traits to the other. Maybe heated disagreements with hotter makeup sex? Who knows?

The novel starts on an ominous note with the scent of death and duel in the winter air and proceeds to revenge and a rescue marriage, making for a promising plot. However, halfway in, the tension begins to dwindle, mostly because the narrative gives way to relating the daily events of the couple’s married life in a chronological fashion that was not truly necessary for the development of the story, wasting much of the word limit that could have been better utilized in other efforts. There are plenty of conflicts thrown early in the novel to make Alex and Claire’s marriage a challenging one and I was hoping for some tumultuous disagreements between the two that could have brought out their differences and individualities but these never came. For the most part, I felt there was a loss of focus from the main conflict, which is the secret Alex keeps of how he came to securing his marriage to Claire, and turns to the secondary conflict of his being misguided about her fealty to their marriage. Even then, the secondary conflict is not done full justice because, despite his mistrust, Alex is never exacting with Claire even though in the early stage of the novel, he is so hell-bent on ruining his former best friend, leading to some character inconsistencies. It made me wonder, is he a badass or not? He turned out to be more docile than initially expected. Which is why, when his secrets begin to unravel, we hit the apex suddenly. While in most cases that would make for a great plot twist, here it made the pacing uneven.

Claire, at the receiving end of his manipulation, seems to have got a good bargain out of the marriage. Alex is handsome, titled, wealthy, enterprising, of apparent good character, and loyal to those dependent on him. He seems to genuinely find her desirable despite the rumored curse and is always attentive to her needs. However, if theirs is to be a marriage of convenience (the only explanation for his sudden appearance with a proposal), his end of the convenience should seem entirely improbable to her. Sure, he claims an attraction towards her, but that cannot lead to an offer of marriage to the woman with the worst luck in fiancés and that too on the very first night that they are in company of each other – no matter how large his hero complex or how ready he is to settle down. And just how did he come to know about Lord Paul’s renege of their betrothal anyway? It perfectly warrants her reluctance to accept his offer or end their engagement when he inadvertently accuses her of hiding the extent of her relationship with Lord Paul or telling him to stay out of her bed until he is ready to believe her truthfulness. However, it does not make sense she always puts up her fences after the fact, i.e. informing him she lost her virginity to her first fiancé after the engagement is announced even though she had planned to be honest with him from the beginning in order to give him a choice, telling him she cannot consummate their marriage unless he believes Lord Paul was not her lover after they have already been in bed together, etc. While the motives behind her decisions were believable, the timings of her actions were not. Again, even though I found each plot mechanism employed perfectly plausible, they were executed with too much convenience for me to relate to.

The traits of every character, from principal to supporting, too felt very conveniently brought in and out of focus. I already explained some aspects of inconsistencies in the ways the characters of Alex and Claire were developed. When it came to the villain and Claire’s support system (her uncle’s – current Duke of Langham – family members), the same applied. For one, is Lord Paul meant to be a thorough scoundrel? The evidence surrounding his seduction and abandonment of Alex’s sister is suspicious and we are given hints that it might be a misunderstanding, but then we see him as a gambling addict and he turns out to be a true reprobate when he hurls slander at his intended’s virtue, and again he seems genuinely sorry for his missed opportunities with Claire that pertain to more than her lineage and inheritance – he likes her but also disparages her character to Alex. This is mirrored by the fact that Alex too is using Claire as an instrument of revenge but desires her and cares for her, yet engineers a bet in Lord Paul’s name at a gentlemen’s club that further sullies her reputation (frankly, a man actively contributing to risking his fiancé’s reputation is an irredeemable flaw). But we are meant to see one as a villain while the other is a hero. Yet, what was Alex doing with a potential reprobate like Lord Paul in the first place? For all purposes, Alex seems like a gentleman (other than betting against his betrothed or his mean streak when it comes to revenge) and a responsible member of the nobility whereas Lord Paul is a man with a gambling habit and a propensity to lie about the women in his lives. Yet, apparently they were once thick as thieves, which makes Lord Paul’s betrayal so painful – you know, apart from the resulting death of a sister. I felt that if Lord Paul was mistakenly accused, he could have been presented with qualities to truly redeem him and not just exonerate him – at least to reflect upon Alex as a hero (the companies you keep and all that).

To complement, Claire’s family members each concentrate on the wrong misgivings regarding Alex. Whereas, any reasonable person would wonder at his motive for swooping in with a proposal when Claire needed one most despite never having personally met her, everyone too easily gives in once they determine he is not after her inheritance. If I were the Duke Uncle, I would set the Pinkerton after him to find out exactly why he’s angling after my niece or what’s his connection to Lord Paul that he became privy to the decision to end the engagement at the same time as (or maybe even before) my niece – not agree to the marriage after one night of mulling over. While her aunt seems to be the only one worried that Claire is giving in to a marriage not based on love and romance, her cousin Emma (possible heroine for the next book in the series) is fixated on a rumor she heard that he might have a mistress even though the “overprotective” male cousins gave Alex’s reputation a clean bill. And what is up with Emma anyway? She does not make for a very promising heroine if she can so easily allow Lord Paul to flirt with her after Claire’s betrothal with the man is ended. I mean, where is the sisterly solidarity? It seemed that the novel introduced a lot of characters but did not explore any of them fully or, for that matter, rationally.

It all sounds very dire, doesn’t it? But I will still say that, for all intents and purposes, MacGregor shows a lot of promise as a novelist in her first novel. She had a good plot concept, the beginnings of interesting characters, scintillating conflicts, which all could have resulted in a fine debut. However, I think the tying up of the plot points and rounding off of the characters needed more finesse. For that, I would actually say her editors could have helped her more by providing some fresh perspective. I’m hoping with experience, her storytelling will become more cohesive because she definitely has the potential of becoming a good historical romance author.

Recommendation: Despite the various setbacks in the storytelling, this novel does not make a bad investment of time. What it suffered for inexperience made up for with imagination and, after everything is said and done, I found the read enjoyable. I will definitely read the next book in the series because I see the potential for more tightly written stories and see wish to see how that pans out.

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Wednesday Reflections #26 – Last Man Standing by Jane Ashford

Via: Daily Prompt – Irrelevant & Coincidence

0d4d9e81eab7c76d8e1efaa6be9e06fe-historical-romance-romance-booksTitle     Last Man Standing

Author     Jane Ashford

Genre     Historical Romance, Regency Romance

Publisher      Sourcebooks Casablanca

Publication Date      September 05, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     Regency England

ISBN     1402276796

Synopsis: Ever since her father’s death, Elisabeth Elham has fended for herself by teaching at a finishing school for girls. So when her curmudgeon reclusive elder uncle – a man who cut off both his brother and sister for choosing spouses he did not approve of – dies and leaves her all his possessions as a joke to instigate further family estrangement, Elisabeth chose not to fall for it. Instead, she collects her aunt’s orphaned children, who are almost of age and should have received their share in the will, and brings them to live with her in her new London home. At the advice of her solicitor, she also invites a very eccentric matronly cousin from her mother’s side to act as her chaperone. Soon she finds herself in a flurry of activities that include refurbishing the London house, arranging a complete makeover for the country estate which was left to decay for two decades, bringing up her wardrobe up-to-date, launching one beautiful cousin into society while schooling the other overexcited cousin and his even more unmanageable dog into proper decorum, and, of course, navigating the height of season among the ton. The responsibilities of a newly-minted heiress are many and not the least critical is fending of fortune hunters. Elisabeth’s artless and unassuming air and easy sense of humor endear her to many of London’s eligible bachelors, including a most-sought-after heir to a viscount, a self-proclaimed and jovial fortune hunter, and a Byronic hero with a checkered past from the West Indies, all the while she herself collects a bevy of unconventional friends to occupy her time. Though Elisabeth enjoys her trials and pleasures alike with humor, misfortunes still threaten to set her stoic constitution into decline. Especially, at the risk of losing the regards of the one man she could indeed fall in love with.

Experience: I have been reading romance novels for nearly twenty years now but ventured into historical romances only as recently as 2013. The reason for my general aversion to historical romances was, I’m ashamed to admit, something very superficial – the models on the cover in their usual state of undress. My ultra-conservative mother would have a conniption if she saw me reading them (the fact that some of the stories I have written emanate moderate amounts of steam is not yet known to her). So it was only when I started reading off of tabs that I dared procure my first copy of Regency romance [not including classic literature, of course]. There. I have now revealed the most hypocritical secret of my reading and writing career. String me up if you will, fellow romance readers, I probably deserve it.

You are probably wondering why I have chosen to reveal this about me in this particular post. What does my proclivity to hide the cover arts of some of my favorite novels have to do with Last Gentleman Standing? Well, it’s the fact that those steamy cover arts do deliver what they promise; most historical romances have no trouble fogging up my spectacles every few chapters. The prude in me that my mother managed to instill usually just peruses through them unless they are written exceptionally well or, even better, exceptionally ill [really, some of them are sheer comedy]. So when Last Gentleman Standing did not feature a single such specs-steamer and I discovered that quite a few reviewers condemned the story for it, I decided this book needed my defending.

I should clarify that the fact I found the lack of sex scenes in this book perfectly in-form has nothing to do with my natural diffidence [I already confessed to writing some myself]. Rather that I feel Ashford remained true to a Janeite scheme of romancing. Austen’s heroes and heroines always demonstrated a rather restrained form of courtship. It did not mean that their emotions lacked intensity but only that because they felt it so deeply and consistently, they did not need to prattle on about it to attest its existence. To have discovered the same characteristics present in Elizabeth and her wooers was a rather refreshing promenade down the “original order”. After all, to me, the primary reason for reading Regency romances is the fact Miss Austen is no longer alive and printing new materials.

Moreover, I did not think the main hero was “tame”, as one reviewer put it, but respectful to the heroine’s wishes. I thought he was consistent of character. He fell in love with Elisabeth because she was independent of mind and spirit and very unlike other simpering toadying females of his acquaintance. So if he gave her space, it was because he did not want those very attractive qualities of her to diminish. While he did have one or two spurts of admonishment to issue her way when he felt she took unnecessary risks with her person, he soon reconciled that he had no authority to do so either because she was, after all, an independent woman – perhaps more independent than most women of her time since she was an heiress without a guardian. He was perfectly aware of all her strengths, both intrinsic and extrinsic, and acted with the caution the situation demanded. I thought his wisdom and ability to not be guided by ego rather sexy in itself. He did not need to demonstrate his sexual awareness of her to make me enjoy a secret smile or two or feel the temperature kick up.

The Elisabeth of this story, too, shared a very telling trait with my favorite Elizabeth in literary history. Early in the story, the narrator shared how the heroine had inherited her father’s good humor and ability to take life’s hurdles with a pinch of salt. And throughout the novel, we see just that – Elisabeth brushing off any jittery sensation or blinking away any prickling of the lashes. When her father died, instead of seeking assistance from the family Scrooge, she chose to find employment to sustain her livelihood – it was the quality that made her stand apart in her uncle’s eyes and procured her the inheritance. The same self-sufficiency with a side order of humility that allows her to graciously accept assistance once actually offered is what helps her survive through all the ordeals in the novel. Very admirable quality to have in a heroine.

If the heroine and her hero are not convincing enough that the book is worth the read, there are still a host of very entertaining and very eccentric characters to motivate. Even better, I liked how varied these characters were in their appearances. For example, not all the men who managed to steal the belle of the ball were tall, dark, and dashing, which is like stepping away from one of the cardinal rules of historical romance writing. Also, not all fortune hunters were without a heart. I liked one particular fortune hunter extremely who had a bit of dash in him but moreover was burdened by a penniless title that his mother tried to rectify by being the ultimate Mrs. Bennet, and he felt his shortcomings acutely. My heart went out to his sense of vulnerability that he hid so well behind a jovial demeanor and I dearly hope that Ashford will provide him with a good romantic ending one day. [I think that last bit could be a spoiler… oops! Well, at least there are plenty of other competition for Elisabeth’s hand to keep readers guessing]

Coincidentally, the book was apparently originally titled Bluestocking. And, indeed, when I searched online, Ashford had published a novel by such a name in 1980 with the blurb indicating a very similar plotline and same name heroine. I would love to get my hands on that book and see if it varies in any way because how else does the same book continue to exist simultaneously with two names [I can imagine customers clamoring for their money back]? In any case, the new name is so much more suitable to the plot because indeed it was about a crowd of romantic contestants vying for Elisabeth’s affection as well as hand and fortune and only the most faithful gentleman gets ahead. Moreover, by definition and historical account, to be a bluestocking, a woman would have to demonstrate a certain desire for intellectual pursuit. While Elisabeth was quite intelligent and levelheaded, and even once a teacher, she does not demonstrate particular craving to build her knowledge. She enjoys reading when the opportunity presents her with a good book and circumstances had compelled her to acquire the level of education necessary to survive. This provided her with cognitive independence but it was all very contingent of her various stations in life. No, no, Last Gentleman Standing is a vast improvement to the title.

Recommendation: Though I branched out a bit on my book review for this post, what I’m trying to say is, romance readers, do not write this book off just because it does not offer the usual display of amour. But rather embrace it for the practicality with which it upholds the Puritan nature of a society once lived.

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Wednesday Reflections #23 – Seducing Mr. Knightly by Maya Rodale

Via: Daily Prompt – Pluck

13552311Title     Seducing Mr. Knightly

Series     The Writing Girls #4

Author     Maya Rodale

Genre     Historical Romance | Regency | Adult

Publisher      Avon

Publication Date      October 30, 2012

Format      eBook

Setting     London, Great Britain, 1825

ISBN     0062088955

Synopsis: It has been exactly three years, six months, three weeks, and two days since Ms. Annabelle Swift fell in love with her boss Mr. Derek Knightly, the owner and editor of The London Weekly. This is precisely the amount of time she has been employed as one of the Writing Girls to feature in her own advice column and since the day she laid her eyes on the tall, dark, and determined Knightly. Unfortunately, not only is he totally unaware of her feelings but he seems also oblivious of the fact that she is a living breathing flesh-and-blood single woman worthy of male attention. Exasperated with being continuously overlooked and desperate to get out of her brother’s house where she lives as an unpaid servant and governess to her malicious sister-in-law, niece, and nephews, Annabelle decides to resort to drastic measures – she courageously reaches out to her readers for advice for a change on how to attract the attention of the nodcock! she’s in love with. Suddenly all of London swoops in to assist her cause, sending mails carrying the most outlandish and scandalous advice and, with the additional help from her fellow Writing Girls, she finds herself in lowered bodices and silk unmentionables, waltzing with lords of the ton, flirting up a ruse with fellow male colleagues, and being dropped off home after work by Knightly in his private carriage. Her quarry is finally paying attention but one obstacle still stands in the path of true love. Knightly, who has built his empire and reputation as a media tycoon to raise himself from the status of a by-blow of a late earl, has one other life goal: marry high into the aristocracy so that his half-brother is finally forced to acknowledge him as one of his class. Unfortunately, this puts Annabelle squarely out of the running for his affection… or does it?

Experience: I came to know about Maya Rodale a little late. Only this year, in fact, upon watching the live feeds of the #RomanceisFeminist discussion hosted by Avon Romance at The Strand bookstore in NY, NY where Rodale was on the panel of authors. I appreciated a particular comment she made about being more than willing to “throw historical accuracy under the bus” for the sake of diversity and inclusion. That is precisely what I have found – as much as the realm of believability will allow – since I began reading her works (three novels so far) and thought I should do a review of at least one. I picked Seducing Mr. Knightly because I have a soft corner for heroines who write professionally and this is the most hilarious piece of Rodale’s works I have come across thus far.

Imagine Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy and you will get a rough idea of the kind of scrapes Annabelle gets into in this novel. Short of hitting our hero in the eye with her spilling bosoms, she has done it all – leave a shawl behind to find herself alone with him at work during after office hours, fake a swoon and fall lush into his arms so she can awaken his “baser inclinations”, make all of London – including the hero’s best friends – fall in love with her and defend her heart for her candid attempts to lasso the hero, and climb into his bedroom via a gradually-splintering bark in the middle of the night in hopes of ravishment, etc. And Knightly likewise reciprocates with a steady repeat of “Oh Annabelle, you have some explaining to do” whenever he finds himself at the end of her courtship tactics. It makes the relationship between our heroine and hero positively adorably frustrating – just what good romances require.

But apart from the cat-and-mouse conflict development of the romantic plot, the individual characters of Annabelle and Knightly are also fully plausible. I enjoyed how much pluck Annabelle demonstrates as pushes herself to cross her self-imposed boundaries to blossom out of her shell even as her natural timidity continues to attempt to keep her in check. She may be meek by genetic disposition (her brother shows fairly submissive traits in his marriage too) but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t dream big or aim high. After all, she pulls the wool over her family’s eyes for over three years pretending to go out on charity work while really working for a national newspaper and saving up for rainy days. She continuously challenges her shortcomings and faces her fears, which is a lovely display of feminism.

Our hero too has his demons to fight and has been fighting them quite successfully for over a decade. Being the firstborn son of and earl and a renowned stage actress, he craves acknowledgment from his step family and society. He has slogged day-and-night to build up his newspaper, laboring at the press himself and pushing boundaries of polite expectations, to get himself noticed, following three simple rules of life: “Scandal equals sales, drama was for the pages, and be beholden to no one”. It’s has made him a bit stoic but it has worked for him. And even as his heart tugs while watching Annabelle amidst her antics and his heart begins to unfurl the more details of her he starts to notice, he refuses to examine the burning question being asked in parlors across London, “Who is the nodcock that has yet failed to fall in love with Annabelle?” because he is afraid the answer might demand he surrender his heart to the heroine, which he is not in the position to do. Because all he wants to do is marry Lady Marsden, claim his rightful place in society while avoiding getting his newspaper shut down by her brother Lord Marsden’s mass inquisition against media extortion and nefarious means of procuring news, and kill two birds with one stone. The struggle is real.

Yes, I truly did enjoy reading this book. The only thing perhaps that did not suit me entirely was Rodale’s roundabout way of prolonging the story. While I loved each scene, I found reading through all the inner workings that bracketed each scene that mostly related the same conclusions over and over a bit tedious. Frankly, I felt there was more room for editing and perhaps leaving a little for readers to infer. But this is easily discounted for the fact that the overall content was engaging and oh-so-funny.

Recommendation: Well, if you haven’t read it already, what are you waiting for? I thoroughly endorse this novel as an experienced romance reader.

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Wednesday Reflections #20 – Deep Dish by Mary Kay Andrews

Via: Daily Prompt – Polish

1197456Title     Deep Dish

Author     Mary Kay Andrews

Genre     Contemporary Romance, Chick-Lit, Southern American

Publisher      HarperCollins

Publication Date      February 26, 2008

Format      eBook

Setting     Atlanta, Georgia, USA

ISBN     0061579912

Synopsis: Everything in Regina Foxton’s life is not peachy but she can make do. Sure the kitchen from which she tapes her television cooking program is held together by scotch tape and she wished she had better wardrobe to host in and she wished her new car would run without failures, but at least she finally has her own cooking show and a car and a house and a sweet boyfriend who also happens to be her producer. But then she finds out that she is out of a job because her sponsor has canceled the show because her boyfriend did the sponsor’s child bride. Now she faces a prospect of moving back to her hometown in with her parents and has to tag along her baby sister who is already a handful with her cutting college classes to play on Xbox and party-hardy. Regina Foxton is what one would call has paddled “out of her depth”. But then The Cooking Channel is scouting her show and she really has a shot at landing the major leagues, except there is another cooking show that has rolled into town to vie for the position. Tate Moody is ruggedly gorgeous and his cooking style (kill and cook your dinner) is the polar opposite of Regina’s (Southern meals with a healthy twist) and so are their attitudes toward life. Tate is as popular in the south as Regina and often their viewers’ demographics overlap but the two become enemies on sight. She thinks he’s a brute and he thinks she’s a princess. Sparks fly and the producers at The Cooking Channel ride on the heat wave to host a reality cook-off challenge for the position for their new network chef. What no one, including Regina and Tate, is prepared for though is that some of those sparks are caused by mutual attractions.

Experience: Deep Dish is something that I would refer to as a pretty good read. It’s not what I’d call award-winning literature but far as romance novel goes, it hits the spot and you can polish off and devour (pardon the food-pun) the whole thing in one sitting. Having said that, there are a couple of noteworthy positive things about the way Mary Kay Andrews went about writing the novel, starting with the setting and world-building.

There are some great contemporary romances out there with chefs as the main characters but rarely do they remain as true to the premise of the character’s career as Deep Dish did. In most cases, novels about chefs draw on the sexiness of heating it up in the kitchen with a passive-aggressive chemistry between the hero-heroine and leave it at that. Andrews did not take the shortcut. Instead, she thoroughly researched cooking show productions and sifted through her minefield of knowledge in Southern cooking (she has her own cookbook published) before sitting down to write the novel, allowing the reader to enjoy a very hands-on experience of the stresses of producing a TV program. We even get to pick up on a few recipes of wholesome Southern meals along the way. I loved the quirky addition at the end of the novel where a few choice Southern recipes were shared, apparently created by Regina and Tate themselves.

The world-building was also rather vivid and something I enjoyed a lot. It may be due to my personal preference for geography and maps but halfway through, the story takes you to this island in Georgia called Eutaw Island. Now I looked for it and there is a geological formation in Georgia of this name and a city as well though no island fit for human habitation. But Andrews beautifully illustrated this exotic location with beautiful wild and marine life and delicious local palate. I totally believed it might be a real place until Google told me she made it all up. As a writer, I can always appreciate such in-depth dive into the author’s imagination.

With regards to character development, obviously, it being a chick-lit, Regina’s character received more attention than Tate’s. I thought their passions and insecurities nicely complemented each other. She has a one-track mind about getting her canceled show onto The Cooking Channel; her adversary-and-romantic-interest is a gorgeous man-of-the-wilds who likes to catch what he cooks and does not have the same sophisticated taste as she. You can’t do much wrong with that; in fact, it’s great recipe for romance (sorry, I can’t seem to help myself here).

The rest of the characters equally complement the two MCs and plot. Her ex-boyfriend is a self-serving jerk with enough good looks to get away with it in most circles is using her to get the show running again; her sister is a college student with badass fashion sense who studies less and parties more; her close friend and makeup artist is a bald gay black man; the production people from The Cooking Channel have all the single ruthless attitude as her boyfriend but are at different stages of life; except the assistant producer who is a shoe-in for the secondary romantic plot opposite the sister is a man with a conscious that balances his boss’s lack of one. It was actually all very smoothly written in and I could appreciate the relatability. Although I would have to say none of the major or minor characters stepped too far out of their stereotype – except maybe the hero but this was not fully explored or explained.

Which brings me to the part of the novel that I could not completely see eye-to-eye on. I found it interesting that he was a single red-blooded heterosexual man with natural sex appeal had he would turn down a voluntary booty call from a hot female celebrity and I wanted an explanation. Especially when he showed the same prudence when another hot minor league celebrity (read heroine) offered the same. If Tate was turning down women up and down the southern states despite his hot celebrity status, there must have been a reason. Being one of the MCs, he deserved a little more backstory. And the thing is there was plenty of opportunities to build up the reader’s understanding of the character since Andrew used an omniscient POV in the novel. There are quite a number of times when Tate’s POV was tapped into and that could have been more productively utilized.

But the use of POV, in general, was another thing that I had difficulty aligning with an author of Andrew’s caliber. There were a number of scenes where the POV kept jumping from major to minor to major characters and I did not understand why that was necessary. If an alternate POV was absolutely necessary for a scene, it could have been broken down and presented in separate sections or reflected by the character in question on hindsight. The use of frequent POV-switching in these scenes, though were not haphazard enough to cause distractions or confuse the reader, created a sort of comic book effect – you know, where you have the dialogues in the speech bubbles followed by the fuzzy thought bubbles and then the off-panel comments about the actions? Like the narrator took the most advantage of his/her freedom to source the characters’ thoughts. I guess it was a technique Andrews used to speed up the plot and thankfully it did not injure the reading experience too much for me other than make me conscious of the flaw as a writer.

Recommendation: It was an enjoyable read. There were a few plot elements that reminded me of Welcome to Temptation (an absolute favorite re-read of mine) by Jennifer Crusie, such as the relationship between the sisters and the visit to a new location and video production crew, etc. so obviously I felt right at home with it. And it warms the heart as a straight cut contemporary romance novel. For another, it had great food culture and I have mentioned in a previous blog Books and Cravings They Inspire how much I love it when writers explore characters’ dietary dynamics. Personally, I’m looking forward to reading Andrew’s Homemade Sin.

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Wednesday Reflection #19 – The Ex-Wife’s Survival Guide by Debby Holt

51yq82nv1sl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Title     The Ex-Wife’s Survival Guide

Author     Debby Holt

Genre     Women’s Fiction, Chick-Lit

Publisher      Pocket Books

Publication Date      February 1, 2006

Format      Paperback

Setting     England

ISBN     1416502467

Synopsis: With her twin sons’ yearlong pre-college trip to India coming up, Sarah Stagg is finally ready to put up her feet and spend a little quality time with her actor-husband Andrew, star of their local theater. But Andrew has other ideas. He has been having an affair with his new co-star and soon moves out. Now, with the kids gone and the house empty, Sarah is experiencing an existential crisis. She spends her days waiting for her husband to realize his mistake and come home or wondering how she will spend the rest of her life alone if he doesn’t. Her best friend Miriam suggests she spends her time more productively by doing everything to prove she’s enjoying the independence – especially if Andrew is to find her desirable again – and pushes Sarah to join their town’s upcoming play, placing her at the scene of her husband’s crime. Suddenly Sarah finds herself cast as the female lead and the male lead Martin Chamberlain – an already divorcé with a cheating former spouse – becomes her closest confidante and comrade, and real-life savior too. Sarah’s life turns into a whirlwind of misadventures, between starring in the theater, adopting a psycho-dog bent on killing everything in the neighborhood, helping her neighbors spy on their husbands, and being whisked away to Majorca by her best friend where she enjoys a little fling with her college crush with a potential to relocate. The only problem is Sarah’s still too busy wavering between trying to reclaim her husband and finding solutions at an off-shore island to realize true love may be found in the most unexpected of person living closer to home than she realized.

Experience: It’s been a while but I really enjoyed reading this novel. Ever since I took up full-time writing, it has been really difficult for me appreciate works for the sheer pleasure of the entertainment but The Ex-Wife’s Survival Guide brought me home. It reminded me why I love reading and writing stories so much – for the sheer joy of living many lives. I could totally put myself in Sarah Stagg’s shoes and it was a pretty nice pair to boogie in.

It wasn’t so much that the characters were deeply explored. In fact, everything that took place was only observed from Sarah’s POV, and she is the type of character for whom the other shoe drops only in the distant future. But this aspect of her personality was so consistently pursued that I have to raise my hat to Holt for her patient custody of not revealing the plot to Sarah too soon. Rather, Sarah’s oblivious observations of her surrounding while keen perception into the characters of those with whom she is detached but taking close one’s for granted, all the while wincing and tiptoeing for things to only get worse, was hilariously adorable.

Moreover, Holt isn’t afraid to introduce a host of funny characters. As writers, we are always told to keep the character count limited to those absolutely necessary. Well, since Sarah is a neighborhood sort of gal, her many wacky neighbors are necessary. It is perhaps one of the reasons why no one’s but Sarah’s character is explored in depth. When you have the main character accidentally molesting priests, her maniac dog chewing up the town gossip’s guinea pig, your closest local pal trying to project her need to cheat onto her husband, and your best friend planning romantic getaways without her husband, it is difficult to dedicate much of the text to anyone but the main character. But on the whole, it worked out fine because they each helped to build up or reinforce Sarah’s own flaws and fitness.

However, there was one character I wish who deserved a little more than Sarah’s self-absorption. Martin was such a swell guy, I couldn’t but feel sorry for him. He was dependable and sweet and all things that would make most girls take him for granted, which is exactly what Sarah does throughout the book. But there were a few moments when his dependability and sweetness came out very masculine and I wish there was more of that. As far as the potential hero goes, I wish he stepped out of the shadows a little more and asserted himself. He was fully capable of it. For the sake of the plot, however, he was much sacrificed.

For the most part, the book shows that Sarah is a character to whom things happen rather than one who makes things happen. It wasn’t only being cheated on, but also all the mishaps that followed that were just a great way of preserving that Sarah Stagg had no control over her life. There was such a Bridget Jones appeal to her that made the reading fluent. Of course, as the story progresses, we see her attempting to take a bit more charge and stand up to – or at least try to stand up to – what is right, but she is essentially a pushover. Thankfully, not forever, which was hinted upon somewhere in the middle to keep the reader’s hope alive.

Recommendation: An excellent chick-lit that deserves to be read if you enjoy rom-com and women reclaiming girl power.

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Wednesday Reflections #09 – The Trouble with Dukes by Grace Burrowes

Via: Daily Prompt – Quicken

trouble-with-dukes-ukTitle      The Trouble with Dukes

Series     Windham Brides #01; Windham #09

Author      Grace Burrowes

Genre     Historical Romance

Publisher      Piatkus (Little, Brown Book Group)

Publication Date     December 20, 2016

Format     E-book

ISBN     978-0-349-41543-7

Synopsis: To say Miss Megan Windham is in a pickle would be putting it lightly. All her powerful relations of English nobilities would not be able to save her reputation if words about her youthful indiscretion with a certain Major Sir Fletcher Pilkington were to get out. Worst yet, it would ruin the prospects of her sisters. Unfortunately, the sly Sir Fletcher is bullying her into matrimony and any day her fate could be sealed. Enter Colonel Hamish MacHugh, newly instated Duke of Murdoch and Tingley and commonly referred to as Duke of Murder. He steps in to save her spectacles (she has horrible eyesight) from Sir Fletcher’s boots and ends up enlisting himself to save her reputation when Megan instantly sees through the infamous reports on his character and warms up to his protective nature. In return, she has offers to help him learn to be a duke, at least as much as it would take to properly set his sisters in society because he is reluctant about his new title. During the course of all this exchange, the two come to become confidantes and more.

Experience: There’s just something about Hamish MacHugh that sets butterflies in your stomach aflutter. And isn’t that a primary goal of romance novels, to feel that quickening of breath, the heat pooling in your nether regions, a hope that heroes who would help you slay demons do exist? The hero of this novel accomplished that from Chapter 01. It wasn’t simply his sturdy built or brusque manners, the fact that he is too content with his simple life in Scotland to yield to a title of English nobility thrust upon him, or even how his candid but coarse manners keep creeping out when he reluctantly attempts at being proper for a London ballroom that had me sighing. In his list of imperfections, the one that most had me intrigued was how a man so protective of others would come to earn a reputation as a murderer. And so the pages kept turning.

Then there is the heroine. I adore a heroine in glasses (perhaps because I have to rely on a pair) and, of course, enjoys reading. I liked Megan from the beginning because she seems to be the wily sort who manages to navigate around Sir Fletcher’s scheming for so long until Hamish steps in to assist her. Even after Hamish’s assistance doesn’t resolve the issue entirely, she continues to work her way around the problem, never entirely giving up. She appears to be a damsel in distress but she’s made of tougher stuff. Even lovelier is how she knows what she wants and chases down Hamish, literally has her way with him in the family music room, for it because she is not afraid to risk her heart. This makes a nice change of pace.

I particularly enjoyed the insight into Sir Fletcher’s character. When Burrowes narrates from Fletcher’s POV, we can see that his a thorough villain, able to put on his sheep’s skin effortlessly and charm the society of the ton completely, but his mind works to only serve himself and he takes pleasure in revenge, which he resorts to at the simplest transgressions. Yet, we also get a glimpse into his background to understand, if not empathize, what circumstances may have nurtured such deplorable characteristics. In fact, I felt Sir Fletcher’s character was more accurately and consistently portrayed than any others’ in the novel. It made the plot plausible and the conflict believable.

The book is the first of the Windham Brides series and ninth in the Windham series. And even though many of the characters, mostly heroes, make numerous appearances throughout the novel, this book may be easily read as a stand-alone. In fact, though Megan’s cousins (said heroes from previous novels) came and played their parts to help her and Hamish along, they were not all as call-to-action characters as Burrowes tried to portray them as. I sort of found the bromance between the cousins slightly forced in certain scenes. Rather the camaraderie between Hamish and his younger brother Colin seemed less trifling, even though Colin had fewer active scenes to play than the cousins. But this might be because Burrowes had already explored each of the cousins individually in their own stories and Colin is to be a hero in her upcoming installation of Windham Brides. But I didn’t see the point of re-introducing so many of the cousins in this book if they were not to be given due roles. It was the only part of the novel that I felt out of sync with.

Recommendation: Oh, absolutely! If you like historical romances, this novel is bound to entertain. Admirable heroine, hubba-hubba hero, a villain to make you properly nervous, you’ll be turning the pages. I, meanwhile, have already marked my calendar for the release of Colin’s story (he is expected to hook up with Megan’s younger sister, Anwen).

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