REVIEW: Lucy Parker’s THE AUSTEN PLAYBOOK

Austen_PlaybookLucy Parker writes one of my favourite contemporary romance series, “London Celebrities,” with heroes and heroines as denizens of London’s West End theatre scene. In the series’ fourth volume, however, the West End is in the background. Heroine-actress Freddy Carlton (for Frederica, a nod to Heyer?) joins the cast of a “digital mash-up of characters from different Jane Austen books, transplanted into a murder-mystery, house-party scenario. Outcome guided by the choice of the player,” that is, the televison and app audience. All taking take place on a estate, à la Downton Abbey. The estate, 16th-century Highbrook Wells, magnificent and crumbling, is the mortgaged-to-the-gills family home of acerbic theatre critic and Freddy nemesis, James “Griff” Ford-Griffin. Griff can’t afford to say no to the “digital mash-up” and the company of actors, Freddy too, arrives at Highbrook as if it’s Elsinore. Put Griff and Freddy together in this enforced intimacy and let sparks fly: antagonists to lovers, opposites-attract denying their attraction. Not really. This isn’t a criticism. Parker hasn’t written what at first appears to be your romance trope of antagonists-to-lovers. No matter how witty and thick the banter ( it is fabulous), Parker juggles three simultaneous narratives, of which the romance between Freddy and Griff is the gentlest, the most assured of a positive outcome.
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REVIEW: Sonali Dev’s PRIDE, PREJUDICE, AND OTHER FLAVORS

Pride_Prejudice_Other_FlavorsSonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors was everything I wanted in Sharma’s The Takeover Effect. Though it’s distasteful to praise one author at the cost of another, Sharma’s ugh-failure was fresh in my mind as I read Dev’s latest and revelled in it. In all fairness, Dev herself came under my miffed-reader scrutiny as my one foray into her books wasn’t positive. I found The Bollywood Bride overblown, melodramatic, and humorless. Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors is none of those things. Dev bleached the Bride‘s flaws and created a novel that is rich in humor, deeply felt, tender, and moving. Moreover, I’m leery of Austen-homages, finding them derivative (I guess they’re meant to be, so schoolmarm picky of me to say so) and never as good as the original. Dev convinced me otherwise. Her Austen-love comes through as sheer delight and joy in the frothy glory that is Pride and Prejudice. But Dev has wrought something uniquely her own: twisting and turning in Austen’s wake, leaping like a joyful dolphin by taking the familiar, beloved Austen tropes and making them hers. This constitutes Dev’s “other flavors”: coming from teasing out of Austen a remarkable POC-hero-heroine, American politics and the “dream”, class struc-and-stric-tures, family dynamics, and Austen-up-ending gender stereotypes, the most brilliant stroke of which is Dev’s rendering of smarmy Wickham.   
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REVIEW: Lorelei James’s I WANT YOU BACK

I_Want_You_BackAfter using every moment of my meagre work-week-reading-time to finish James’s I Want You Back, I turned the final page, exclaiming “I loved this book!” Because I prefer to have a measured response, I “slept on it”, woke up and thought, “Still love it.” And yet, had I not requested this ARC “blind”, had someone described it to me with detail, it would’ve been the kiss of death. Firstly, it’s written in alternating first-person POV, which I hate. Secondly, and this is not a spoiler because we know this from the get-go, the hero was a cheater. But that’s not all: when the heroine was pregnant, he didn’t support her, even though he was rich as Croesus, and he dragged her through the courts for custody for years, AND he didn’t give her sufficient financial support when he was making a mint as a star Blackhawks defenceman and was independently wealthy thanks to being a Lund. How can this be borne, much less forgiven by a romance reader? … and let’s not say anything about the heroine. I did that frustrated hair-tugging thing every reader knows when they embark on a book, knowing that the DNF-fairy is only pages away from sprinkling her special brand of lip-curling fairy dust. Continue reading

REVIEW: Elizabeth Kingston’s DESIRE LINES

Desire_LinesThough I appreciate a medieval-set romance, I’m aware of its challenges. It is difficult for a romance author to capture the strangeness of the medieval world and still make the romance familiar. Thus far, only two romance authors I’ve read achieve this successfully (mind you, I haven’t read much medieval romance, these are the ones who work for me): Blythe Gifford (Secrets At Court is my favourite) and Elizabeth Kingston. But, like Kingston’s mentor’s books, Laura Kinsale’s, it took me a long time to warm to Desire Lines.
To look to the novel’s opening, “It began in beauty and in blood.” A beautiful, knife-laden young woman, Nan, rescues a Welshman, originally sent to the English King Edward I as obeisance from the young Welshman’s father, Welsh royalty.
(England’s 13th-century conquest of Wales is the historical context of Kingston’s novel.) Gruffydd ab Iorwerth has been knight, prisoner, and captive. He’s lived in the luxury of the English court, then hid for years in a monastery, made friends and enemies, tamed and hunted with his beloved falcons (his marketable skill, important to English lords) and been chained, starved, and beaten.

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REVIEW: Elly Griffiths’s THE STRANGER DIARIES

Stranger_DiariesReaders may be familiar with Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway and Stephens/Mephisto mysteries. I listened to the first Galloway, The Crossing Places, and enjoyed it. I have the next two queued, but you know, too many books, so little time: a reader’s lament. I did make time, on the other hand, for Griffiths’s latest, a stand-alone murder mystery and homage to gothic lit. There’s a sly nod to Georgette Heyer: all the wins. The darn thing kept me reading in waiting rooms (nose stuffed while Kindle pressed to it), through half-hearted lunch-time sandwich-eating, and curled up in my reading chair till late. The Stranger Diaries is a heck of a engrossing read; even when the mystery faltered, Griffiths’s love of gothic lit, uncanny knowledge of teacherly ways, especially English teacherly ways, and insight into love-gone-mad-and-bad obsession saw me hitting those Kindle pages furiously. 

Giving you a sense of what The Stranger Diaries is about makes for convoluted retelling, but spoilers will be avoided. Divorcée Clare Cassidy lives in West Sussex with her 15-year-old daughter Georgia. She teaches English at Talgarth High and works on her book about Talgarth High’s founder, the fictional Victorian writer, R. H. Holland, whose short story, “The Stranger,” frames Griffiths’s narrative. Continue reading

REVIEW: Benjamin Dreyer’s ENGLISH

Dreyer's_EnglishI’ve never read a writing style guide in my life. I once tried to read Strunk and White: ho-hum. ‘Sides, I thought S&T advocated a spare style and I happen to think that, except for tires in real life and heirs in romance, spares should be avoided at all costs. Instead, what I found in Dreyer’s was a fount of delight and—pah to erudition—pragmatic advice. His lessons stick: before writing this, I made sure I knew the difference between “font” and “fount”; between “practical” and “pragmatic” (not much), and how to type an em dash on Mac. I’d never done any of this before. Dreyer’s approach is quintessentially American: he doesn’t hold to rules, but he likes to be correct in a practical, educated way. If there’s a “rule,” and there aren’t many, know it, follow, or better yet, because English doesn’t go by hard and fast (that would be what happens in a romance novel), look it up:

“I have nothing against rules. They’re indispensable when playing Monopoly or gin rummy, and their observance can go a long way toward improving a ride on the subway. The rule of law? Big fan. The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated.”

What I got from Dreyer? Educate yourself and don’t be redundant. His copyediting mantra is “Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension.” Reading him, I was chuffed: I laughed, I nodded in schoolmarmish agreement, snickered, and rolled my eyes at Dreyer’s sly contempt for the stuffily Puritanical “grammar police,” yes, but equally for the neologistically idiotic. 
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REVIEW: Theresa Romain’s LADY NOTORIOUS

Lady_NotoriousTheresa Romain has the wonderful capacity to sustain a delightfully funny, rompish feel to her romances while underlying them with seriousness. Her latest, Lady Notorious, 4th in the Royal Rewards series and one of her strongest novels yet, exhibits this balance. It’s heartfelt romance, adorable hero, loveable heroine, compelling suspense plot, thematically underlined with the idea that love coupled with purpose make for contented lives. Romain brings together her cross-class heir-to-a-dukedom hero, George Godwin, Lord Northbrook, and Bow-Street-Runner heroine, Cassandra Benton, via the mystery surrounding George’s father’s, Lord Armore’s, involvement in a “tontine”, a monetary agreement whereby a set amount increases on interest and is “won” by the last person left living. But many of the tontine’s members are dying under mysterious circumstances. George fears for his father’s and godfather’s lives and sets Cassandra Benton the task of helping him both protect and discover who’s threatening them. Cassandra joins the Ardmore household disguised as a notorious cousin, hence, how the “notorious” made it to the eponymous “lady”. Continue reading

REVIEW: Alyssa Cole’s AN UNCONDITIONAL FREEDOM

An_Unconditional_FreedomI requested an ARC of Alyssa Cole’s An Unconditional Freedom for the most superficial of reasons: I couldn’t resist the hunk on the cover. I’m a sucker for an open-necked shirt, soulful brown eyes, and the man is holding a scroll and lantern … can it get any better? As for the contents, I was open to them, but didn’t go in with any great expectations. What I found was, finally, FINALLY, someone who can put the history back in historical romance. You can’t historically “wallpaper” a history so unjust and ugly: how Cole managed to make me hold my breath with excitement, stop my heart with fear for her characters, and root for a slow-burn romance is testament to her mad writing skills.

At the end of the novel, a seasoned revolutionary in the war against slavery advising the heroine on when to hold’em and when to show’em in this righteous war says: ” ‘First thing you learn about being a Daughter — sometimes you gotta be subtle, and sometimes you gotta burn it all down.’ ” As a Daughter of Romance, Cole sure knows how to be subtle and how to burn it all down, navigating American Civil War history with sureness and skill, steering her characters’ inner worlds with insight and sensitivity and though there are moments when she burns it all down with action, she brings the ship to moor with a light touch of love, commitment, hope, and joy. Her narrative is serious, historically fascinating, and in places, even horrific, but it is never sombre, dark, or hopeless. Its movement is ever towards the light of possibility, even though the journey darkens and the way wavers. Continue reading

Ros Chez Miss B! Ros Clarke’s Review of Kelly Hunter’s UNTOUCHED QUEEN BY ROYAL COMMAND

Untouched_Queen_By_Royal_CommandUntouched Queen by Royal Command is the latest in Kelly Hunter’s “Claimed by a King” series for Mills and Boon Modern/Harlequin Presents. All the books feature royalty in various made-up countries which appear to be located more or less in the Balkans, as far as I can work out. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books: Shock Heir for the Crown Prince and Convenient Bride for the King, so I had pre-ordered Untouched Queen by Royal Command.

I was not entirely prepared for what I got.

In Untouched Queen, Hunter goes all out for high fantasy in this old-school category romance. There are hints of this in some of the back story in Shock Heir, but the central romances in both the previous books of the series are standard category tropes: secret baby and marriage of convenience. The royal settings are effectively evoked, with no more than the usual number of skeletons in closets. Continue reading

REVIEW: Kara Isaac’s ONE THING I KNOW

One_Thing_I_KnowWhen a romance author is recced by Ros Clarke, I seek her out. That’s how I came to new-to-me-inspirational-romance-author Kara Isaac’s One Thing I Know. It was like no inspirational romance I’d read. Hero and heroine, Lucas Grant and Rachel Somers, come with heavy baggage; how their paths cross and they fall in love is a fraught journey. Looking back, they’ve got things to work out, looking forward sometimes seems impossible. That’s the genre’s beauty: all things are possible even when they seem highly improbable.

Rachel has a most unusual profession. She ghostwrites her aunt’s, Dr. Donna Summerville’s, advice-to-the-lovelorn books. Together, they make a lot of money, money that was once most necessary to Donna (when her husband left her to bring up their sons) and now is necessary to Rachel because she pays for her father’s care in a chronic-care facility. Though to all appearances Rachel and Donna are deceiving their vulnerable audience, their actions are understandable, even sympathetic, to the reader. Continue reading