Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: Emily Goes to Exeter by M.C. Beaton

Most romances focus on the hero and heroine. M.C. Beaton's Emily Goes to Exeter, the first in the Travelling Matchmaker series, is not like most romances. Instead of centering on the couple at hand, this story takes as its main character Miss Hannah Pym, the long time housekeeper of the late Mr. Clarence of Thornton Hall. It's 1800 and Miss Pym is fascinated by the stage coach, "flying machines," that gallops past the estate every day on its way to Exeter. Upon receiving a bequest in Mr. Clarence's will and encouraged by his kindly brother, she can finally indulge her greatest romantic fantasy, travelling by said stage coach. She arranges her affairs and sets out on what turns into quite an adventure. When the coachman runs the coach into a rut and a storm blows in, the passengers of the coach are stranded at a local inn where the proprietor's wife is under the weather herself. Miss Pym proves to be a keen observer of human nature and a woman of action, taking charge of both the inn and her fellow passengers to keep things running smoothly. She has to contend with one spoiled society miss, badly disguised as a young man, trying to run away from the match her parents have made for her, the match himself, a widow fearful of life alone and the bully she's eloping with, a mild mannered lawyer, and several others as well. As she watches her fellow passengers, she quietly determines to help them along in their romantic lives.

Hannah is a mightily capable character. She's smart and compassionate and thinks the best of almost everyone. She's also a bit of a busybody and it's easy to see that she is perfect as an accidental matchmaker. Her delight in the little freedom that riding the stage coach gives her is infectious. The plot is full of hijinks and the story gives off a feel of true joie de vivre. There's nothing very complicated here and the brevity of the tale means that the other characters are of necessity sketched only in broad outlines but it's a short, light, and charming book for those who are looking for a little lovable sweetness in their historical romances.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review: Devil's Bride by Stephanie Laurens

Stephanie Laurens is one of the biggest names in historical romance, having been prolific for years. She's an "auto-buy" author for many romance fans with at least nine series so far. By far the longest of her series are the Cynster books about the Bar Cynster family. Arguably (there is a prequel written long after the original novel of the bunch) the first book in that series, published way back in 1998, is Devil's Bride about the 6th Duke of St. Ives and his chosen bride.

Sylvester, known to all and sundry as Devil, is the 6th Duke, head of this large and intimidating family. Honoria Prudence Anstruther-Wetherby is a finishing governess on her way to her latest post when, in advance of a coming storm, she stumbles across a young man who has been shot and is bleeding out. No shrinking violet, Honoria tries to stem the tide of blood but cannot do anything else for him until a dark, imposing man on horseback arrives and helps her get the injured man to a woodsman's cottage. The two spend the night in the cottage with the dying man, thoroughly compromising Honoria. In the morning, she learns that her companion throughout the night was Devil Cynster and the dead man, his young cousin Tolly. Devil is determined to marry the lovely governess but she has no intention of marrying him, coming as she does from a family that is his own family's equal. She dreams of traveling the world, seeing Egypt, and remaining free of any marital or maternal ties. But Devil is used to getting what he wants. She stays at his family home throughout the ensuing funeral, meeting and being seamlessly folded into the Cynster family so skillfully she cannot object mostly because she wants to find who murdered Tolly almost as much as the rest of the Cynster men. None of the other women know that he was murdered and Devil doesn't want Honoria anywhere close to the quiet investigation he and the others are conducting so, of course, she inserts herself as often as possible.

Devil is an autocratic and arrogant character. He never doubts that Honoria will eventually cave to his wishes and marry him. And in fact he generally does have the upper hand and plays her so that she has no choice but to fall in with what he wants. But if he is strong-willed and single-minded, so is she, and she fights for the information she wants from him even as she gives ground in other ways. The narration moves back and forth from Honoria to Devil so that the reader sees each move in this game from both perspectives. The sex scenes between these two not quite combatants, not quite lovers are incredibly steamy and if Devil's restraint in the bedroom, waiting for Honoria to agree to marriage, is a little unrealistic, the unfulfilled, or perhaps more accurately unconsummated, desire arcing between them does heighten the sexual tension as the story goes on. As this is the introduction to the Cynster clan, there is an enormous character list in this book and none of the secondary characters are all that well differentiated from the others, with the notable exception of the Dowager Duchess. Laurens introduces each of the family members with a light hand, perhaps in anticipation of them having their own books in the series, which they eventually do. The murderer is never in question in the book, requiring little in the way of uncovering plot lines for the reader. (The characters, on the other hand, are frustratingly blind to the truth right in front of them.) Without much of a mystery, the second half of the book is chock full of extended sex scenes, Devil demanding Honoria agree to what they clearly both want, and her silence on the matter, followed by more hot, sexy times, renewed demands, and more silence (repeat at will). There's a certain something about the book which makes it definitely feel of its time, perhaps the very alpha male hero or maybe the heroine who gives up long cherished dreams without a backwards glance once her hormones fire up, but I am willing to try another Cynster novel the next time I get the urge to read an historical romance and see how I like the rest of the family.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

Chance Developments by Alexander McCall Smith.

The book is being released by Anchor on November 28, 2017.

Amazon says this about the book: Inspired by antique photographs, these five stunning short stories capture the surprising intersections of love and friendship that alter life's journeys. In “Angels in Italy,” childhood friends, separated by circumstance, learn the enduring power of a first love. “Sister Flora's First Day of Freedom” introduces us to a young nun who makes a difficult decision to leave the sisterhood and finds delightful new riches in the big city of Edinburgh. The enchanting “Dear Ventriloquist” tells of a mishap at a Canadian circus that sparks unexpected magic between a gifted puppeteer and a dapper lion tamer. Changing a tire changes the life of a young Irish teacher in “The Woman with the Beautiful Car,” and a young New Zealander learns what matters in life from his grandfather, a WWII veteran, in “He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness.” These charming and poignant stories are a testament to the power of human connection and brim with a grace and humor that could only come from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith.

Review: To Love the Coming End by Leanne Dunic

I had to read Leanne Dunic's slender book, To Love the Coming End, twice to get some sense of the tale contained within what others have called lyric prose. This was certainly not a traditional prose narrative, but rather a fragmentary collection of short meditations with a tenuous story running through them.

The unnamed narrator, an author, traveling to and remembering Japan, Singapore, and British Columbia, writes of loss and her missing or absent lover. She weaves heat, place, and the geological disaster of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in with this self-defining emptiness, this unrelenting void and explicitly draws the reader to the number eleven, not only as a date and a whole number itself but also as a figure of two ones, two people standing together and yet parallel, never coming together, separating in fact. There is a sense here of both connection to the natural world and a dislocation, a loneliness, and a sorrow of incompleteness as well. The language is confounding, hiding as much as it reveals. I had a difficult time connecting with the book. Many of the short, almost prose poems, felt like simply window dressing, a building of atmosphere for what, in the end, was a quite modest and even pedestrian story. Those who enjoy experimental prose/poetry will certainly enjoy this far more than I did, probably find more meaning in it, and can feel quite confident in their intellect surpassing mine as I've clearly struggled with this. Maybe on reads three or four I'd come to a better appreciation but I don't really want to try and tease out any additional meaning and that probably says it all.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Monday, November 20, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed this past week are:

Royally Wed by Teri Wilson
The Paris Secret by Karen Swan
Shelter by Jung Yun

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer
The Lake House by Kate Morton
The Center of the World by Jacqueline Sheehan
A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
The Beauty of the End by Debbie Howells
Country of Red Azaleas by Domnica Radulescu
A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti
Paint Your Wife by Lloyd Jones
The Company They Kept edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
Thousand-Miler by Melanie Radzicki McManus
Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe
Close Enough to Touch by Colleen Oakley
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Hope Has Two Daughters by Monia Mazigh
After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara
Metis Beach by Claudine Bourbonnais
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love by Per J. Andersson
The New York Time Footsteps by various authors
Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

Reviews posted this week:

Royally Wed by Teri Wilson
Kiss of the Highlander by Karen Marie Moning
The Paris Secret by Karen Swan

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

To Love the Coming End by Leanne Dunic
The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault
A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe
City Mouse by Stacey Lender
Cutting Back by Leslie Buck
Siracusa by Delia Ephron
The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon
A Narrow Bridge by J.J. Gersher
The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson
The Heart of Henry Quantum by Pepper Harding
The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler
Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani
How to Survive a Summer by Nick White
Bramton Wick by Elizabeth Fair
The Finishing School by Joanna Goodman
Meet Me in the In-Between by Bella Pollen
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
The Island of Books by Dominique Fortier
Lights On, Rats Out by Cree LeFavour
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar
What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? by Noemi Jaffee
Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
The Talker by Mary Sojourner
When the Sky Fell Apart by Caroline Lea
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
'Round Midnight by Laura McBride
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
Last Things by Marissa Moss
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
Civilianized by Michael Anthony
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki
In the Woods of Memory by Shun Medoruma
Before the Wind by Jim Lynch
Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent
Inhabited by Charlie Quimby
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
You and I and Someone Else by Anna Schachner
Meantime by Katharine Noel
The Portrait by Antoine Laurain
So Much Blue by Perceval Everett
The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber
Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell
How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry
Between Them by Richard Ford
Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol
The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman
The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker
Morningstar by Ann Hood
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman
The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell
The Original Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig
A Season of Ruin by Anna Bradley
Incontinent on the Continent by Jane Christmas
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar
Sourdough by Robin Sloane
A Paris All Your Own edited by Eleanor Brown
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
Living the Dream by Lauren Berry
Lawyer for the Dog by Lee Robinson
Lily and the Octopus by Stephen Rowley
Beginner's Guide to a Head-On Collision by Sebastian Matthews
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
A Well-Made Bed by Abby Frucht and Laurie Alberts
Emily Goes to Exeter by M.C. Beaton
The Book Jumper by Mechthild Glaser
From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
Devil's Bride by Stephanie Laurens
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Shelter by Jung Yun

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrival:

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones came from Algonquin and LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Jones' Silver Sparrow was a beautiful book so I'm looking forward to this novel about a newly married couple whose lives are torn apart by a wrongful conviction that takes years to be overturned.

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday Salon: Snapshots from a childhood in books

Recently I was asked to provide the title of a "lifetime" book that had the greatest impact on me and a brief explanation of that impact. Now if you're a lifetime reader, and I assume that most of you are, the list of books that you could use for this is not a short one. So the question then becomes, which one to use. Will you be judged for answering with less than an acknowledged classic? When I was in graduate school, a well-known professor asked each of us to tell the class about a book that had made us a reader. (Notice she didn't say "the" book, but "a" book. She was clearly a reader herself.) When it was my turn and I said that James A. Michener's Hawaii was a seminal work in my reading life, it was hard not to notice all of the (barely disguised) snorts of derision. And yes, it was clearly different than the rest of the canonical (and the more obtuse and confounding the better) works everyone else had cited but it was in fact a major influence on my reading. Should I have lied?* Even then I knew I shouldn't. Everyone has books, high brow and low that have shaped them but the impulse is surely to always go with the high brow, right? If you can overcome that gut reaction (and maybe you choose a high brow work anyway because it feels right to you), which part of your life should the book come from? Is there one that had a slightly bigger impact than the others on the list? Should you just choose the book whose impact you can most easily articulate? I considered many. Here are just a small sampling.

The Berenstain's B Book by Stan and Jan Berenstain was the first book I ever read by myself. I still remember the feeling of exhilaration of knowing I'd read it myself, running down to tell my mom, who was on the phone in the kitchen (I can still see her twirling the phone cord as she chatted to whomever was on the other end of the line), and insisting on reading it to her right that very moment. Even at that young age, I knew I had unlocked something special.

Socks by Beverly Cleary was the book I checked out of the school library again and again. Despite the fact that this was classed as a "third grade" book, I, a mere kindergartner, had special permission to check it out. I loved this story of the grey kitten with white socks so much I don't know if anyone else ever got the chance to check that book out that year. I can still see the cover of this much loved tale (which doesn't match anything I can find online, interestingly enough) and I wish there was a way for me to get my hands on the certainly long since destroyed library due date check out card I signed over and over again that year.

One of the oldest books I have on my shelf is Jane Eyre. I don't mean oldest in terms of first edition or publishing date but just in terms of which book I personally have owned the longest. My copy came from Scholastic books when I was in elementary school. And no, it's not an abridged version. I adored getting the newsletters that came home from school every month and I went through my copy very carefully, circling the books I really wanted. My parents were always very generous with books but even they had to draw the line somewhere and I remember being told that I had to narrow my choices down; I might or might not have circled close to everything in those pages. It was hard to do but obviously Jane Eyre made my final cut. I loved the book but I think I ordered it as much because it was long as for the story. (Side note: I loved the Scholastic newsletters when my kids were of an age to get them too and ordered not only what they were interested in but books I thought they should want to read because I would have wanted to read them if they existed when I was their ages.)

Like so many girls my age, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume was a revelation and as an adult, I wish I had never done those "I must, I must, I must increase my bust" exercises (if you read it, you know what I'm talking about). But what I remember most is not its matter of fact handling of puberty and the emotional aspect of it that felt so very universal, but instead I remember talking about the book with my best friend Jenni, who lived two doors down. I'm pretty sure we were discussing it in lowered voices (who knows why, as it wasn't a patch on Forever, which I read not long afterwards, for forbidden topics) when my younger sister, clearly overhearing us, wanted to know what a period was. I told her to go ask mom, never dreaming that she'd ask my mother such an embarrassing question. This was probably the last time I underestimated my sister.  Her question earned me an our bodies ourselves talk about puberty and getting your period from my mother. Thank heavens mom (and Suzanne) never knew about Forever!

The World According to Garp by John Irving is the only book I ever hid from my parents. It was on their bookshelves and I have no idea exactly how I came across it since there was no dust jacket to tease me with the contents. (My dad has a thing about using the dust jacket as a bookmark and then throwing it away when he's finished with the book. Please direct all horrified hate mail his way and not to me as I already know this is a heinous crime against literature.) I don't remember how old I was but since I remember the room I read it in, I had to be somewhere between 9 and 14 when I read it. My mom did discover me reading it one day and took it away, replacing it with Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, and telling me that I was a little young for Garp. Since she just put it back on the shelf, I just took up reading it where I'd left off whenever I was home alone. (Sorry mom!) Maybe they were right to think I was too young to read it because to this day, more than a few decades since, I remember the sexy bits quite clearly.

But which book did I actually choose to highlight as the book that had a lifetime impact on me? Well, it was Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. I pulled this off the shelf at my grandparents' house when I was probably a pre-teen and once I finished it, I sat up late into the night for weeks and not only imagined myself as the main character, sobbing at all the tragedy in my imagined life, but I kept the story going in my head long past what the authors had written. I've never actually been brave enough to read the sequel that was written not too many years ago because I still cherish the memory of my childhood visceral response so much.

Everyone should have these books, or ones like them in their lives. What books made you the reader you are?

*For those who need to know if the professor was one of those snorting with derision, she was not. In fact, she lectured the class on snobbery and informed everyone that it was best sellers like this that made it possible for other, less commercially viable, books to be published. She also mentioned that Michener himself funded a poetry prize that wouldn't have been possible if his books hadn't been wildly popular. I did not know this when I offered up Hawaii but it made me happy and my fellow students were properly chagrined at the news.

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