Category Archives: Books

Reading Romance: “The Morning Gift,” by Eva Ibbotson

BOOK The Morning Gift

Hey, I’m still reading titles off NPR Books’ list of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances.

Sometimes I’m a bit of a slow reader. Maybe I’m not all that engaged by the material, or maybe I’m having trouble grasping it, or maybe the writing is thick and dense and it takes more time than usual to slog through it. Other times … Well, I wouldn’t say I’m a quick reader, because I can only consume the words as fast as my brain can take them in, but I am what you might call a relentless reader. That is to say, I gobble up page after page at my steady pace, unwilling to put the book down even for a moment until I read the end.

Generally, I become a relentless reader at some point during the course of a book. Often it’s near the end, when I’m in a rush to get to the climax and the resolution and see how it all winds up, but sometimes, in a really great book, in a book I’m enjoying quite a bit, my relentlessness kicks in quite a bit sooner. The Morning Gift definitely was one of those books, not because of a built-in urgency to the plot structure or anything — it’s not a thriller — but simply because the characters were so engaging, and I wanted very much for them to come together. I wanted to know — urgently, immediately — exactly how they would end up, and I found myself putting off all sorts of other things in order to get further into this book and find out.

I think it’s always quite an accomplishment for an author to create that kind of driving need in the heart of a reader over a romance novel, because by definition we all know how romance novels end: happily ever after. So to pull me along for that ride, desperately wanting to know when and how things will work out for our heroine and her hero, as well as all the supporting characters we care about, which this book has in abundance, is to build people of substance. As a writer you’ll hear a lot that character drives plot, and that’s certainly the case here. Who Ruth is drives what she does. And the same goes for Quin. And everyone else, to be honest. It makes for a very organic, very touching and believable and sincere story.

I’d recommend this book to anyone.


Reading Romance: “Nine Coaches Waiting,” by Mary Stewart

BOOK Nine Coaches Waiting

This is another entry off of NPR Books’ list of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances.

It’s been quite a while since I last covered one of these titles, for a couple of reasons. In large part, I took a long time to read this one because I’ve spent so much time writing, and it’s never a good idea to read too much when I’m flexing my own creative muscles. But it also took so long because this book, in particular, was really difficult for me to get into.

I have to admit, I chose this book off the list because the somewhat bland name of the heroine — Linda Martin — caught my eye. Those of you who know me probably know why. The other reason I chose the book is the forward is written by Sandra Brown, absolutely my favorite contemporary popular novelist. Beyond that, I didn’t know at all what to expect, and in fact had to remind myself several times that it was supposed to be a romance.

In truth, there’s not much romance to it at all. I mean, there are a couple of potential love interests (presumably so as to leave a little mystery regarding the intentions of one), but other than dear Linda declaring almost out of the blue that she’s in love with one of them, and his somewhat out of the blue acting on those feelings, mostly the book is a dark, mysterious story about a wealthy French family filled with secrets, tragedies and bad intentions, with a lot of near-miss accidents almost befalling the young heir to the family fortune and title.

That being said, once things become deadly dangerous for the young Count and our Linda — his governess — the book turns into a gripping, fast-paced tale. For the last third, I couldn’t read it fast enough. I hated interruptions and I stayed up extra late last night to get it done. And to be honest, I was pretty satisfied with the ending.

Overall, though, I thought the book had several holes in the plotting and was mostly a meandering tour through inconsequential nonsense. There’s a bit about Linda’s past that seems like it might mean something but doesn’t go anywhere, there’s some really confusing goings on concerning pills and drops, and in the first half literally almost nothing of consequence happens. In retrospect, it feels like Stewart was attempting to spring the villainy onto unsuspecting readers after weaving several lanes of misdirection, but the construction was flimsy and the red herrings weren’t deployed with enough impetus, leading to a haphazard mystery and a very lightly developed romance, which needless to say is disappointing on the whole.

So, Mary Stewart is apparently not my thing. The good news is, I still love Sandra Brown and she has a new book out I can’t wait to tackle.

Reading Romance: “Sweet Filthy Boy,” by Christina Lauren

BOOK Sweet Filthy Boy

Going contemporary on NPR Books’ list of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances.

Zut alors! “Sweet Filthy Boy” is one insanely sexy book. If “Sweet Filthy Boy” were on a Chinese takeout menu, it would have AT LEAST four spicy peppers listed next to it. For some, explicit sex in a romance novel can be too awkward or too graphic or simply too much. Not for me. I LOVE a sexy sex scene, and “Sweet Filthy Boy” has about a million of them. Mon Dieu.

It’s become readily apparent (to me, at least, if no one else is paying attention) that most of these books I’ve been reading off this NPR list have been historicals. Not surprising, really, since I’ve always loved historicals that truly evoke a certain time period (my favorite book of all time, for example, is so anchored in the history of New Orleans the author apologizes in an end note for adding a fictionalized event), but kind of surprising to realize how resistant I apparently am toward contemporaries. If I try to analyze it, I can’t say it makes much sense. After all, Sandra Brown is one of my favorite authors and all she writes these days are contemporary romantic thrillers. And I LOVE THEM. But those seem different from typical genre romances, somehow, and I tend to get overly hesitant when thinking of reading a contemporary one of those. Perhaps I think they’re more frivolous or more contrived, since dating in the current day is more casual? Less likely to lead to permanent commitment? I honestly don’t know. I do think it’s hard to keep a contemporary novel truly contemporary, though, with technology being so changeable these days. Sometimes a book is painfully dated by the time I get to it, even though it’s supposed to seem current. And while the easy identification of the era is something I treasure in a historical novel, it’s something I dread in a contemporary one; I want a contemporary novel to feel like it could be happening right now, as I’m reading it, or just last week perhaps. I want that immediacy, and I recognize how hard that is to achieve. To its credit, “Sweet Filthy Boy” feels supremely Of the Moment.

More than being simply current, however, “Sweet Filthy Boy” is honestly charming, with characters and situations that feel true and earned. The book is told from the perspective of Mia, a recent college graduate who meets (and impulsively marries) a supremely sexy Frenchman named Ansel during a wild Vegas weekend. She follows him to Paris, as you do when you find yourself married to someone who lives in Paris who is also the best sex of your life, and in addition to having a super sexy, adventurous time with her new husband, Mia also comes into her own, growing into a confident and expressive woman from someone who was closed up and timid throughout college. In this way, the book really becomes as much about Mia’s personal blossoming as it is about the romance, and it gives the resolution a lot more emotional weight — to the point where I was legitimately tearing up at the end.

The sex, as I mentioned, is very hot, and I think I’ll have to add cerise — cherry — into the lexicon of sexy French phrases that I know, along with ménage à trois, Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir, and J’ai envie de toi. But while the sex is a huge part of the novel, it’s also a vehicle for Mia and Ansel to open up with one another, to be free and open, and ultimately to fall in love. And that’s a very good thing.

I love this book. There is no way in hell I’m not reading everything else by Christina Lauren, starting with the rest of this series. Maybe I’ll get some fun ideas.

Reading Romance: “Venetia,” by Georgette Heyer

BOOK Venetia

Going old school with this one of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances from NPR Books.

I have never before in my life heard of this book, and more’s the pity. Despite being written in the “style” of Jane Austen, it being a Regency historical romance novel written in the 1950s — in fact, the FIRST Regency historical romance novel —  rather than a contemporary novel like Austen’s were, it holds up remarkably well compared to its notable (and legendary) predecessor. “Venetia” may never acquire the sentimental attachment so many people have for “Pride and Prejudice,” it’s every bit as good as “Emma,” whether or not it has a plucky mid-90s cinematic reimagining that changed the face of teen comedies forever. And I like “Emma” a lot.

This is all to say, “Venetia” is fantastic.

Venetia Lanyon is the preeminent Regency heroine. She’s a woman of substance and humor. She’s intelligent and capable and independent. Most of all, though, she has an incredible sense of self that allows her not only to know what she wants out of life, but to know what suits her and what doesn’t. Honestly, I feel like if I’d read more of this sort of thing in my formative years I probably wouldn’t have had the weird fixation with marriage in my early twenties that I did. It feels stupid to say so, but the possibility of declining a marriage proposal never really occurred to me as an option back then, but Venetia declines two specific suitors and the idea of several others. She knows what (and whom) she wants, and nothing else will do, despite society’s dictates. So many of the historical romantic heroines I encounter never really doubt that they will fit into that social strata in some way, but Venetia rejects it completely. It’s refreshing.

“Venetia” is refreshing as a story as well, because there is no stubborn denial of feelings or forced conflict between Venetia and Damerel. On the contrary, they openly like each other, instantly upon their first formal meeting, and their affection for one another only grows from there. Damerel may not think he’s a suitable match for Venetia, but he never doubts he’s in love with her. Moreover, they are the closest of friends and confidantes, kindred spirits who come together. They share sensibilities and ideals and most importantly they like each other tremendously, which is a surprisingly rare trait in quite a few romance novels. Damerel and Venetia’s relationship, in fact, is addressed almost exclusively from this friendship angle, in that they fall in love by way of their compatible personalities and close companionship while their physical attraction is an afterthought — not absent, by any means, but entirely beside the point. Lust, while certainly alluded to by Damerel from time to time, doesn’t come into play, because their attraction is so much more than that. It warmed my heart from start to finish.

I was also impressed with “Venetia” as a novel, in its form and structure. It’s written in the third person omniscient, and it’s done remarkably well, seamlessly weaving in and out of characters’ thoughts, into references outside of anyone’s knowledge, and back again. The prose is incredibly easy to follow — bearing all the style of 19th century language without being overwrought or cryptic — and while the dialogue can sometimes seem stilted and circuitous it’s clear this is because of the mannerisms of the characters and their unwillingness to be too forward, lending even more authenticity to this world.

In short, I really really really liked this book a lot, and I think it should be right up there with the works of Austen in the category of Classic Romance Novels We Love to Read Over and Over, and I think it deserves AT LEAST one quirky cinematic homage. I would watch the shit out of that.

Reading Romance: “The Lotus Palace” by Jeannie Lin

BOOK The Lotus Palace

Yet another of NPR Books’ 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances.

“The Lotus Palace” is one of those rare, yet welcome, historical romances steeped in the culture of its setting — in this case, Tang dynasty China — without any “Western” influences overtaking the narrative. The characters all have distinctly Chinese names, and the couple looking for romance are both Chinese as well. There is no Westerner unfamiliar with the customs of the area, enamored with the exotic nature of their new surroundings; on the contrary, the strict customs and class distinctions of the setting, particularly those that separate our lovers, play a huge role in the narrative.

Yue-ying and Bai Huang are from different worlds, she being an overlooked servant to a courtesan and he being the wealthy son of a nobleman. Those distinctions might be enough to give me pause, fearing that this would be a tale of Lord Bai saving Yue-ying from her circumstances, but for the most part the book manages to avoid such traps thanks to the characterization of Yue-ying, who has a strong will and an even stronger sense of self. In addition to her character, though, Yue-ying’s past is not that of an innocent Huang can educate in the ways of sex, but rather one of a tortured and traumatic existence that has shaped who she is and that she has to overcome on her own, not through Huang’s instruction or guidance but through his patience to let her come to him. It’s one of very few romance novels I’ve read that actually deals with past sexual trauma in a thoughtful and somewhat realistic way, and I appreciate that as a consumer looking for more depth and shading in her stories.

There’s a murder mystery subplot to the book that doesn’t quite past muster, as the so-called investigation tends to go nowhere until the very end, the culprit is completely ancillary to the plot, and it leaves a lot of loose narrative threads lying around, but for the most part “The Lotus Palace” is a good read, made all the more engrossing by its atypical setting and treatment. NPR listed the book as part of a series, so I’d definitely be interested in checking out the rest of the books in the line, and probably more titles by Lin as well. (If there’s anything reading a bunch of books does, it’s make you want to read more books.)

Reading Romance: “Topaz,” by Beverly Jenkins

BOOK Topaz

Technically, this title was not one of NPR Books’ 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances, but it “[came] in a close second” to the Jenkins book the panel actually selected, “Indigo.” And since I wasn’t able to borrow “Indigo” from my library, I went with this one instead.

“Topaz” is very sexy, and the main characters — Katherine, a feisty investigative journalist, and Dixon Wildhorse, a Black Seminole and Marshal of the Indian Territory — create just enough sparks and develop just enough compassion for one another to be really engaging. If the book focused more exclusively on their relationship with one another, I’d like it a lot more. As it stands, however, the novel is pretty unfocused, and, to be honest, far too ambitious, for me to really endorse it.

Author Beverly Jenkins is clearly passionate about her work, and has obviously done a great deal of historical research, but large passages turn into veritable history lessons about the Seminoles, their oppression and struggles against the encroaching white America, and the continued hardships of black Americans following the Civil War. Make no mistake, these topics are fascinating and there’s a lot of information here I’d never been exposed to before — particularly not in standard history classes. Unfortunately, the insertion of all these topics and lessons is fairly clunky, and takes away from the fictional tale of these characters significantly. Honestly, I felt sort of guilty about how distracting the passages were, not only because it’s clear Jenkins felt very strongly about enlightening her readers on these topics (that absolutely warrant enlightening, by the way), but also because I really liked these characters on their merits — they are very funny, and their relationship gets very steamy and sexy, but they’re also just plain likable — and wanted very much for their narrative to do them justice.

Perhaps if Jenkins has edited her areas of historical focus down to one or two, it wouldn’t have been quite as overwhelming. Or maybe if the scope and breadth of their conflicts had been pared down. As it stands, though, there’s just too much going on. It’s disappointing.

I’d heard quite a few good things about Jenkins going into this book, however, so I’ll definitely see if I find “Indigo” a more satisfying read. But I also accept that it’s entirely possible she’s just not for me. As of right now, though, I remain optimistic, because Jenkins definitely draws characters I want to hang around with more.

Reading Romance: “The Duke and I,” by Julia Quinn

BOOK The Duke and I

This title was featured on NPR Books’ 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances.

First off, “The Duke and I” is a horrible title. Let’s just get that out on the table right away. It’s horrendous. Forget the fact that the book isn’t even written in the first person, using Daphne (the would-be eponymous “I”) as the narrator — it uses a series of limited third person perspectives instead —  it’s just an utterly prosaic and unimaginative title. If I was tasked with coming up with a hundred titles for the romance of Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, not one of them would be “The Duke and I.” But if that feels like a ridiculously small thing to get up in arms about, it’s because the rest of the book is pretty great.

For all the books I’ve read — all the romances I’ve read — over the course of my life, very few have ever elicited tears, but “The Duke and I” is one of them. The book isn’t overwrought or anything, either. In fact, it’s pretty standard romance fare, but the characters were so lovely and I was so invested in their relationship that I felt honestly emotional at one point when the two would-be lovers were nearly separated forever. It’s honestly so rare to accomplish that amount of engagement that I definitely take notice when it happens.

Daphne is a fun heroine, because she’s equal parts worldly (having grown up with several brothers) and completely ignorant of the ways between men and women. It’s actually hilarious the way the combination plays out, but it manages to not make her out to be an idiot either. Really well done on the part of author Julia Quinn.

As for Simon, he’s kind of your standard tortured hero, but the torture comes from a real honest-to-goodness authentic problem that is neither too enormous to be dealt with in this format (the alcoholism of a previous hero I recently read comes to mind) nor too superficial to be treated seriously as a source of pain in the hero’s past (and present). It’s not a secret, but I won’t reveal it just because I truly appreciate all the attention the book gives to it. Well done, one again.

In addition, the two work well together. They have a lot of chemistry and charm, and I often found myself chuckling at their back-and-forth. Their set up is sort of preposterous, but thankfully they both sort of know it’s preposterous going in, which blessedly makes it somehow less so. I guess because they’re in on the joke? Whatever the case, they make a lovely and entertaining couple whose interest in one another really comes across on the page — a vital component of any successful romance.

The supporting characters in “The Duke and I” are also quite charming, which is to be expected since apparently every one of Daphne’s siblings has a novel of their own. You can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be checking those out as well. Let’s just hope they have better titles.

Reading Romance: “The Girl You Left Behind,” by Jojo Moyes

BOOK The Girl You Left Behind

This is yet another titled culled from NPR Books’ 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances.

“The Girl You Left Behind” is so unlike most of the romances I read, particularly the vein of romances I’d been focused on prior to selecting it as my next book, it took me a little while to adjust. Once I’d acclimated to the haunting, hypnotic first-person narrative of Part One, however, I couldn’t put it down.

Sophie is a French woman living in her small hometown during WWI, now German-occupied, where she returned after her husband left for war. Sophie lives with her sister — also married to a far-off soldier — her younger brother, and her sister’s two children. Day by day, this family tries to get along, to get through the occupation unharmed, to never give up or give in to the enemy. It’s a heavy existence, the weight of it practically coming through the prose and landing on the reader’s shoulders. Through Sophie’s plight and eventual desperation, though, the one thing that pulls her along is the fervent desire to see her husband again, and to keep him safe.

Part Two is a different animal entirely, as young widow Liv Halston, living in London in the mid-2000s, finds herself slowly being brought back to life, emotionally, by unexpectedly having her social cocoon invaded by a couple of people — an old acquaintance, Mo, who sort of invites herself to be Liv’s new roommate, and a compelling man named Paul, who she can’t seem to get out of her mind. But as circumstances bring Liv and Paul together, other ones push them apart and they both become caught up in discovering what happened to poor Sophie nearly a hundred years earlier in France.

This is a swoon-worthy romance if ever there was one, make no mistake, but the prose feels almost literary. This is not to say that romances can’t, or shouldn’t be, written well, because I am especially picky about that in particular, but there’s a certain way some books are positively transporting that sets them apart. And even though the ending is in part both predictable and, contrarily, facilitated by a Deus Ex Machina, it literally made me so happy that all I could do was cheer and cry and be filled with relief. That’s how invested I was in both the couple of the past and the one in the present. And if her other books are this exceptional, I’m quickly going to become a huge Jojo Moyes fan. “The Girl You Left Behind” is incredible.

Reading Romance: “The Rake,” by Mary Jo Putney

BOOK The Rake

This is another title culled from NPR Books’ list of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances.

I’ve never read a Mary Jo Putney book before, but I knew she was a popular name in the romance genre. If I liked this one, chances are I’d like several more of hers as well, and there’s little I like more than a long list of good books to read.

Overall, though, I’d have to say “The Rake” was just okay. I liked it fine, really, and I definitely appreciated a lot of the things it tried to do, but it didn’t move me or blow me away or anything like that. It was good, not great.

First off, and I realize this is a minor quibble, but it really annoyed the crap out of me after a while, she uses the term rake way too much. Everyone, even Reggie Davenport himself, frequently used the term whenever thinking about him or discussing him with others. I know it’s the title of the book, but it quickly became tiresome.

Additionally, “The Rake” (originally titled “The Rake and The Reformer”) tackles a serious issue in alcoholism, and while it definitely tries to do the disease justice by not relegating it to something easily overcome, it feels kind of weighty for what’s ultimately supposed to be a novel about two people igniting each other’s passions. Lady Alys has an obstacle of her own to overcome, of course, as all good romantic heroines do, but hers — a painful history of not feeling beautiful, of not being worthy of desire — is much more suited to the genre. It’s still a serious issue — it’s not alcoholism, but the book actually does a wonderful job of not diminishing Alys’s pain just because it’s not as bad as it could possibly be; it hurts her deeply, therefore it is to be taken seriously — but it’s one that she can overcome by way of all those passions Reggie’s ignited. His problem tends to leave her on the sidelines, not being one she either has experience with or one she can solve.

Still, the characters were distinct and compelling, and the writing was strong. Given there were certain indications that Reggie’s cousin and his devoted wife have a separate story of their own, I might check out the first book in this Davenport series, at least, to see if it grabs me more. I figure Mary Jo Putney probably deserves that much.

Reading Romance: “A Lady Awakened,” by Cecilia Grant

BOOK A Lady Awakened

Last month NPR Books published a list of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances, as recommended by readers and a panel of romance aficionados. It’s been a really long time since I read straight romances, but they were always a cornerstone of the types of books I was drawn to over the years, and I welcomed an opportunity to go back to them — particularly knowing going in that I was going to be reading good ones. (I’m incredibly picky about my romances, and often hesitant to pick one up for fear it will not meet my standards.)

Obviously, not all 100 titles on the list were going to appeal to me, so I read through the descriptions of each and every book, and I made reservations at my library for all the ones available that had piqued my interest. A dozen or so books later, I was a reading machine.

The first book I tackled was “A Lady Awakened,” by Cecilia Grant, and instantly my latest project felt fortuitous, because this is exactly the kind of romance I love.

Our heroine is Martha Russell, a recent young widow, pious and proper in life, but also daring and bold in her support for women, for education, for betterment, and for security for the poor. And when her estate is threatened to be turned over to her husband’s cruel and criminal brother, she embarks on the outrageous plan to secretly conceive an heir and pass it off as her late husband’s. To this end she enlists our hero, Theo, the local ne’er-do-well, recently exiled from London for being a general wastrel and a disgrace to his family and the title he is set to inherit. All this sounds pretty par for the course for a Regency romance, and it’s not at all surprising that being thrown together in this incredibly intimate way eventually brings the two together emotionally, and obstacles and circumstances are navigated in such a way as to allow for the inevitable happy ending.

What makes the book exceptional to me, therefore, are the small details that enrich the story. Martha is not your typical cold fish, just waiting for the right man to come along. She’s an independent spirit, she knows what she wants, and she’s not easily swayed by what she considers ridiculous. More than that, though, the book is thick enough (I have a longstanding thickness test for my romance novels) that none of the emotional notes happen too quickly. These two have to work for the other’s affection, and that takes time. The flip side of that, though, is that none of the obstacles are too contrived. They need to feel substantial and organic to the setting, and these do. Beyond that, the resolution is not too easy and the characters are not too thin. Like Martha, Theo is not your typical rake, but an honorable man in his own right, who, above all things, respects and appreciates Martha’s ideas and opinions. And that’s what makes her love him in the end.

Overall, what really marks a great book to me are characters I want to stay with, characters whose stories I don’t want to end, and these two definitely fit that bill. And finding out that “A Lady Awakened” is the first in a series of Blackshear family novels, I’ll definitely be seeking the rest out.