Book Review: Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Using glamour is an art form. A young lady must be very skilled to master the art of pulling folds of it from another plane and using it to create images and sounds in this one. And all well-bred young women are expected to be skilled. It is, after all, one of the “womanly arts”.

Jane is nearing the age of spinsterhood and has accepted her fate. Her gorgeous sister, Melody, can wrap men around her finger with very little effort, but Jane is not considered beautiful and feels awkward instead of flirtatious. But working glamour is where Jane shines. Everyone in the county knows of Jane’s particular skill and she is often called upon to entertain during parties.

It is at one such party that Jane meets a professional glamourist. Like all “womanly arts” such as painting and playing music, the paid professionals are actually all men. And Mr. Vincent is one of the most lauded glamourists in all England. But his haughty manner rankles Jane. She wants to learn more about his techniques, but his company tests her composure.

Jane would prefer to dodge the handsome but infuriating Mr. Vincent, but his work is exquisite and she is desperate to know more. As she studies his creations, she tests her own version of his technique. While testing one such technique, one that obscures her from view to anyone outside the fold of glamour, she overhears some distressing things regarding her sister and her latest suitor. Jane must use her skill and her wit to save the family from potential ruin because, in a world where illusions can be pulled from thin air, nothing is quite what it seems.

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This was billed as Jane Austen meets magic and I was sold. I found the series in a used bookstore in the Staff Picks display and bought the series. Jane Austen, magic, discount. That is a powerful combination, my dears. I was all in.

With hints of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and written in an alternate history where magic is quite literally an art form, this hooked me from the first chapter. Having said that, if you don’t like Jane Austen, historical fiction, or alternate histories, stop here. This book isn’t for you. If you are practically squealing with delight, carry on.

As always, let’s visit the high points first.

I like that this wasn’t a simple retelling. It definitely paid homage to specific Jane Austen tales, but it was not the exact same story plus magic. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I enjoyed that this was a little something new.

Jane isn’t beautiful. She knows it and everyone else does too. She is not one of those girls who thinks she’s plain when she’s secretly gorgeous. While not ugly, she isn’t pretty either, and no excuses are made for it. Once or twice she does wonder what it would be like if she were pretty like her sister, but she isn’t the type of character who dwells on it. Her talent with glamour earns her as much praise as her sister’s beauty, even if it feels a bit harder to come by.

She loves her sister, but she does get annoyed by her behavior. Jane is not a saint or a martyr. She hides her feelings behind a mask of propriety, but her ire–and the guilt over the ire–are there. As someone with two sisters, I appreciated that her love for her sister didn’t erase or negate other emotions. You’re allowed to love someone and not like them all the time. But I digress.

On the flipside of the coin, let’s look at the low points.

The magic system can be hard to follow. The rules are clear, but what the characters are actually doing can sometimes be difficult to picture. It is described using terms most often associated with laundry or linens (wraps, folds, sheets), bubbles, and ropes (braiding, knotting). I just had to roll with it at first until it started to make sense.

I have to grade using the same rubric for everyone, so I have to bring up diversity. There isn’t any. Although, I will point out that, having read all but the final book in the series now (I haven’t had time to read the last one, but I do have it), that the author does remedy that. She brings in new characters of different ethnicities and sexual orientations, though the latter is talked around as you would expect for characters living in the early 1800s. But in the first book, nada.

I found that to be true of most of my criticisms of each book. Whatever I found lacking in one book, the next book in the series seemed to address. It’s as if (I know it sounds crazy, but just hear me out) the author was learning from her mistakes and growing as a writer. What a concept. Let’s all try it.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I recommend the series, or at least books 1-4 since I haven’t actually read number five yet. Did you really think I was going to give it a thumbs down? Jane Austen with Magic! The only way this could have hooked me faster was if it had been set in outer space.

Your mileage may vary.

A Family Library

Earlier this summer, my younger child took his first steps. He’s one. It was a big moment. As every parent would be, I was beyond proud of this milestone. I took pictures. I called dad at work. I gave him a big hug and lots of mommy kisses. But I wasn’t the only one cheering him on.

Let me back up a little.

My older child is four years old. During the school year, he attends preschool twice a week. If he gets a good behavior report, I take him to the library as a reward. He loves it. There are toys, games, puzzles, and books. It’s an air-conditioned playground filled with magic and stories. Sometimes when the weather is nice we will also visit the city park’s playground. But his first request is the library.

All throughout my second pregnancy, I marched into the library with my older child and the librarians would give me knowing and sweet smiles when I was a tired, bedraggled mess. When I didn’t show up for a few weeks, but my older child made his appearance with alternating grandmothers, they commented that they couldn’t wait to meet our newest family member.

And then, for months, they let me break the “no food or drink” rule as I brought everything I needed to be prepared for feeding a hungry baby. Granted, it was usually just a bottle of water, but it’s still a rule and they still purposely ignored the fact that I was breaking it.

As he started crawling, the staff would each come to coo at him and cheer him on. And then one day, he did it. Right there in the library, with one of the librarians in the adjacent aisle. He walked. From the fire truck activity table to the bookshelf filled with toddler favorites. Three steps. His first.

Once again, I was allowed to break a rule. This time it was the “no cell phones” rule. I called my husband and in very excited but hushed tones told him that our little munchkin could walk. The librarian spread the word to the other staff members and by the time we made it to the circulation desk to check out my older son’s selection for the week, everyone knew. And they congratulated him (and me). And they asked to take his picture.

They got my permission to use that picture on the library blog. They didn’t tell me when exactly it would happen, but I gladly granted their request.

Well, now the day has come. It wasn’t just a happy moment to add to our library’s specific page. They made my son Patron of the Week for the entire regional system, which covers a lot of our state. The post points out that a library can be a place for a lot of firsts, “first library card, first storytime, first “a-ha” moment, and…your first steps.”

It is such a silly thing to be proud of and excited about, and yet I am. My son’s first “award” is (tangentially) related to books and my book nerd self is loving it. It’s sweet and fun. And it makes me feel more connected to my community in a way. The library staff isn’t just a group of smiling, kind faces that we see each week. They’re almost like extended family. They want to celebrate life’s big moments with us.

They noticed when my older son moved into the “I can read alone!” books. They cheered him on with gusto. And when my younger son started walking, they got out the camera and shared the news like proud grandparents. That’s special to me because my family lives several hours away. My husband has cousins a little over an hour down the road, but most of his family is more than a hop, skip, and a jump too. And it takes a village to raise a child. Knowing that we have people seeking to be a part of our village, at a time when it is easy to feel alone, is a blessing I can’t describe.

So don’t you ever tell me that books don’t bring people together. Because that post is right. The library can be a place for a lot of firsts, including the first time you realize that you’re home, you belong, and you’re a part of something bigger.

10 Things About Southern Cocktails

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Drinking in the South is almost an art form. We take our alcohol seriously. Bourbon is a way of life. Moonshine is a point of pride. And not being able to hold your liquor is a mark of poor breeding.

For those of you who aren’t aware of the doctrine of the Southern Baptist Church, drinking is more than frowned upon. It’s prohibited. However, the old joke runs “What’s the difference between Baptists and Methodists? Methodists will say hello to each other in the liquor store.” Because no matter what the church says, most of the congregation imbibes. How do I know? I’m a Baptist. My father also grew up Baptist and was, for a time, part-owner of the local liquor store. Just to paint you a picture.

There are, however, teetotalers within the South. Most of the ones I know are older ladies. Like my great-grandmother, God Rest her soul. When the doctor told her she needed to drink a beer a day for her circulation, she made my grandfather drive to the next county to buy it for her because she was terrified someone in her Sunday School class would see! Never you mind that my grandfather kept a beer fridge on the porch at his home. And if you don’t think I’ve ever written a character based on that gem of a woman, you’re wrong.

For the most part, though, alcohol is deeply ingrained in the Southern culture. It can wash away the pain of a harsh loss of your beloved alma mater’s athletic team. It can blur the jagged edges of a broken heart. It can ease the tension at dysfunctional family gatherings, unless of course part of the dysfunction is an uncle or two with an addiction issue. Also a common Southern tale.

So get out your shakers, your stirrers, and the key to your liquor cabinet. It’s time to booze it up, Southern Style.

  1. The Mint Julep, a drink long associated with bougie white women in big hats who watch horse races and their significant others in seersucker suits, actually started off as a medicinal tonic over a thousand years ago. The mint wasn’t added until the late 1700s, and it has been made with different bases over the years, but it was in the Southeastern United States that the concoction gained real popularity as a recreational drink.
  2. The Sazerac was created in New Orleans. Its specific origin within the city is controversial, but the recipe first called for cognac. Due to crop failures cognac was hard to come by for a while and rye whiskey was the replacement. I’m a tried and true Southerner and I’ll be honest, I’ve actually never had one of these.
  3. There is an official tailgate cocktail for every university in the Southeastern Conference, as published in the Southern Living Official SEC Tailgating Cookbook. My own beloved Mississippi State’s is the Bulldog Bloody Mary (it’s garnished with pickled okra).
  4. The Old-Fashioned. America’s first cocktail was created down south, but as other drinks created in the same style grew in popularity, people continued to order this one–in the “old-fashioned style”. The drink eventually made its way to the Waldorf-Astoria and its place in history was firmly cemented. But it all started south of the Mason-Dixon.
  5. Mississippi Punch, so named because it originated “somewhere along the Mississippi” calls for light brandy, rum, and bourbon along with some bitters, lemon juice, and granulated sugar. Basically, pour a little of all the best stuff in your liquor cabinet and then add a bit of something without alcohol to make it look like you aren’t just trying to get hammered.
  6. Three words: Sweet Tea Vodka. You’re welcome. Also, pace yourself. It’ll get you faster than you think.
  7. The Hurricane, named because it was originally served in glass from a hurricane lamp, was invented by the Pat O’Brien in New Orleans. Several of my friends and acquaintances have lived to regret Pat O’s signature creation.
  8. It’s hotter than the Devil’s backside down here in the summer, so leave it to Southerners to mix ice cream with booze. Mississippi Mudslides are made with chocolate ice cream, coffee ice cream, milk, and–what else–bourbon. You can even top it with marshmallows.
  9. Folks at the University of Alabama have a drink named after the line of one of their most common cheers. The Alabama Yellow Hammer Slammer is made with three different kinds of alcohol, but you’ll only taste the fruit juices in the recipe. Have you ever wondered how Southern women can possibly wear heels to football games where they will stand and cheer for hours? Drinks like this. Your feet won’t hurt if you can’t feel them.
  10. Everybody has their own special tricks to avoid or cure hangovers because showing up to church on Sunday morning in a pair of sunglasses that covers half your face and slumping down in the pew is a dead giveaway that you’re an amateur. But perhaps the most popular is the “hair of the dog that bit you”, followed closely by Gatorade (also created in the South) and painkillers.

The South has an ugly past, but a wonderful history of creativity. Music, theater, literature. So it should be no surprise that the same creative spirit spilled over into our, well, spirits.

So if you’re writing a character with a bit of a Southern flair and you don’t picture them as the kind of person who drinks beer that’s on tap or whiskey neat, then maybe this will inspire you. Though, if you feel the need to “get into character” I would advise you to pace yourself.

ARC Review: Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris

Available August 28, 2018

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Ellis Reed wants to be a true journalist. He doesn’t count the work he does working for the Society pages as real reporting. He’s biding his time, but in 1931 he’s also not going to complain about having a job–any job–either. Besides, one of the perks of the job is using the newspaper’s camera to take photographs of the things that really speak to him, like the little boys holding a sign declaring that they’re for sale.

Lilly Palmer has enough going on in her life. She has a secret son, a job working for the most demanding newspaper chief in Philadelphia, and a long-term plan that requires her to keep her head down and her nose to the grindstone. But when she stumbles across Mr. Reed’s photo in the darkroom, she can’t shake the feeling that the world needs to see it. She turns it into the chief on a whim.

Ellis is thrilled for the chance to write his first feature story. However, the photo is the catalyst for a journey that neither he or Lilly could have predicted. In the world of prohibition and mafiosos, even an innocent photograph can be dangerous–for the kids in the picture most of all.

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When I first opened this book, I had reservations. It started with a prologue that largely told me where the book was going. The prologue was in first person, but the rest of the book was in third person. I knew I had to finish because, quite frankly, I had committed to finishing it for the purposes of a review. So I bargained with myself. If I could read just a quarter of the book at a time, I could knock it out quickly without needing to force myself through long stretches. I read pretty fast, after all.

I ended up finishing the whole thing in a single sitting. Before I ever got to the twenty-five percent mark, I was enthralled.

The book moves. The pacing and tension pulled me along so that I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next with each scene, but I didn’t feel emotionally worn out from it.

The characters were gorgeously flawed. While I rolled my eyes as the description of each of the main characters as essentially being mainstream beautiful, their characterizations were more interesting to me. Ellis isn’t just a reporter desperate for a story, he’s desperate to succeed because he has a chip on his shoulder and deep-rooted family issues. He has to prove his father wrong about him. He makes bad decisions based on past hurts and good decisions based on a sense of basic decency.

Lilly’s character is a great commentary on the way we treat single mothers in this country. She has a child from a failed relationship who lives with her parents and she has to visit on the weekends because she can’t work and care for her child at the same time. She hides her son from her coworkers because there is a stigma against being an unwed mother. She hides him from her boss because he doesn’t want to have employees who will be unreliable because of “family issues”. She desperately wants to make enough money to change her situation so her son can live with her full-time, but it is a struggle. Her decisions are based on intuition and instinct related to her experience as a single mother.

There are some parts of the plot that can seem a bit outlandish, but set in the days of Prohibition and the Great Depression when organized crime was in its heyday, there is also just enough plausibility to keep you hooked.

On the other side of the coin, there are some areas where the book didn’t score as highly with me. There is one POC character. She’s in two scenes. If I’m going to correct Regency writers, I’m going to do it to Prohibition writers too. There were a lot of missed opportunities to incorporate POC characters.

It also doesn’t portray mental illness in the best way. And that’s putting it mildly. If you are neurodivergent, just be aware that this may not be the best book for you.

Also, there is a scene where one of the main characters kisses someone while in a very serious relationship with someone else. That’s because the “someone else” is more of a plot device than a real character. The same can be said for Lilly’s son. You only meet him a few times and he’s more of a plot device than a character. So while the main characters are well developed, some of the lesser characters get a bit glossed over.

There are sprinkled in facts and descriptions to remind me of the 1930s setting, but the downside of this is that I needed to be reminded. To be truthful, I can’t put my finger on exactly why I wasn’t grounded in the time period setting, but I wasn’t. Your mileage may vary.

In the end, I liked the book both in spite of its flaws and because of its characters. I rooted for them even when I didn’t like what they were doing. So if Prohibition era fiction that features mobsters, corruption, mystery, and just a hint of romance sounds like your type of book, you’ll love this. It’s flawed but interesting.

Becoming a Soccer Mom

At the beginning of the summer, I had grand writing plans. I would sit out in the backyard whilst my children splashed around in our little inflatable kiddie pool or ran through the sprinklers and I would write. Plot holes would get filled, edits would get finished, new stories would blossom.

None of that happened. I’m not the writer version of June Cleaver.

No, our summer consisted of water play, baseball games (of the minor league variety mostly), yelling at the World Cup on TV, trips to see family at the beach or the lake, and a lot of exhaustion. It’s August and I promise that if you let you me, I could sleep until October.

Alas, my nap is not to be. We started a new adventure today. One that will dominate our schedule for the next couple of months, but one that we’re excited about. My four-year-old attended his very first soccer practice.

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Photo by Lorenzo Cafaro on Pexels.com

That’s right, ladies and gents. I’m a soccer mom. A full-fledged, SUV drivin’, uniform cleanin’, family calendar coordinatin’, picture takin’, loud cheerin’ soccer mom. And I have zero shame.

My son begged to play soccer from the moment the sign went up in the city park declaring that sign-ups had begun and you only had to be four to play. Because he can read now, so even if I wanted to ignore those signs and keep walking, he knows.

He begged to play soccer. And, to be honest, he didn’t have to twist my arm or my husband’s either. We let him sign up. And all summer he has been pumped up for this moment. He has played soccer in our front yard at every opportunity–though at four that consists mostly of him dribbling the ball across the yard and then flinging himself down in the grass just for kicks.

But today, he got to practice. He got a jersey, met his team, and ran drills. This kid could not be more thrilled. The unadulterated joy in his eyes would make the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes.

Before we ever left the house, while I was helping him get on his shin guards, his socks, and his cleats, we had a chat. I told him that just because Mama and Daddy like soccer doesn’t mean he has to. If he doesn’t have fun, that’s okay. If he doesn’t like to play, that’s okay. If he loves it, that’s wonderful too, but I would love him either way. Whether he was the best player out there or the worst one on the team, it would not change how much I love him.

He nodded and gave me a hug. And then asked if it was time to leave yet.

Practice went about how you would expect for a team of four- and five-year-olds. There was a lot of tripping, short attention spans, and at least two children stopping midfield to turn and say “Mom! I have to go potty!” In other words, it was adorable. It was also a bajillion degrees, but it was adorable.

In the car on the way home, my child re-capped every moment as if his father and I hadn’t been on the field with him the whole time. He had a blast. But being his mother, I needed full, unequivocal, indisputable confirmation.

“Does that mean you had a good time?”

“Mama, I really really loved it!”

The amazement and wonder in his voice, the reverence–it elicited more emotion from me than I expected. So, that’s it. My fate is sealed. I’m a soccer mom. I might as well buy a sticker family for my car and start monogramming sports bags.

Soccer mom and proud.

Book Review: Full Steam of Ahead by Karen Witemeyer

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Nicole Renard is brilliant, accomplished, and determined. But despite all she is her father is focused on the one thing she’s not: a son. When he falls deathly ill and his fiercest business competitor takes drastic measures to ruin his company, he asks Nicole to find a husband who can serve as his heir to the business. Disappointed that he doesn’t view her as enough, but determined to save the family business, she accepts the task.

When her plans are forced off course by her father’s nemesis, Nicole is stranded in a small town with next to no money and fewer options. She decides to find work and earn passage on the next steamer to her intended destination. The problem is, finding work in late 1800s Texas as a woman is difficult. The only person who seems willing to hire her is the town eccentric.

Darius Thornton is a man on a mission. Several years ago a boiler exploded on one of his company’s steamers. Several passengers lost their lives and many more were injured. Darius was on the boat and nothing haunts him so much as a little girl who he couldn’t save. Now, he runs experiment after experiment to try to determine why so many boilers explode with no warning. If he can make the industry safer, nobody else has to die in the same sort of tragic accident. The only problem is that he is in desperate need of a secretary who can transcribe his notes into something legible and organized so that he can spend more of his time experimenting.

Nicole has great admiration for Darius’ work and he has tremendous respect for her intellectual prowess. As they find their footing by working together, an attraction spawns. Nicole knows she must look for an heir, but she cannot deny her feelings for Darius either. When Darius discovers her intent, he shifts his laser-like focus from exploding boilers to convincing Nicole that he is the right man for her.

But with her father’s competitor closing in on Nicole’s location and with malice in mind, their time is running out. They must decide if they will let the currents pull them apart or cling to their love and forge on together, full steam ahead.

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The concept of this one was cute as a button. It seemed like a good book to read while sitting on a beach on a hot summer day. But there are flaws. And you should know them before you begin it so you can decide if they are something you can live with.

The romance between the two main characters works for me because her attraction to him stems from more than just his countenance. While she does find him handsome, she doesn’t start to see him as such until after she realizes that he’s treating her as an equal. He thinks she’s beautiful from the start, but doesn’t care until after she displays her intelligence and assertiveness.

However, as I mentioned, the story has its flaws. For one, the only non-white character in the book is a former slave who is written in a way that I don’t think many sensitivity readers would give a green light. Very “separate but equal”. I don’t feel good about it.

Another flaw I have is the villain of the story. The motivations barely make sense, how things get resolved feels disingenuous, and worst of all is the climactic scene. When the showdown happens between Nicole and the villain, he is searching for something on her person and forcefully investigates up her skirts. It is almost clinical for his single-mindedness, but in the scene Nicole feels so violated that she raises her head toward the sky and goes catatonic. It could easily cause panic attacks for anyone who has been assaulted in a similar fashion. It only lasts for a couple of paragraphs so it’s pretty easy to skip. Though, the fact that the character suffers zero ill effects (e.g. panic attacks, nightmares, etc) is hard for me to swallow. I get that she’s a strong woman, but that doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not an experience like that would affect her.

Those were the biggest drawbacks to me. It’s up to you to decide whether or not they are deal breakers for you.

 

Book Review: A Change of Fortune by Jen Turano

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Lady Eliza Sumner is the daughter of an English Earl and in the lap of luxury. Or she was. After her father passed away and the title passed to her cousin, she discovered her father’s man of business stole the entirety of the family fortune and her fiancé disappeared when the money did.

Determined to get back her family’s money and bring the blackguard of a money manager to justice, she tracks him to New York where he and his wife are parading around in society using a false English title. Since she has no money and would like to maintain the element of surprise, Eliza drops her honorific and takes a job as a governess in order to track the movement of her own personal nemesis through society. When she gathers enough information on his comings and goings to move-in, she runs head first into trouble.

Hamilton Beckett is a widow with two small children and a railroad business to run. He’s a busy man who wishes that maintaining business relationships didn’t involve having eligible daughters thrust in his path at fancy dinner parties. Especially since he has bigger problems to deal with, like catching the man who keeps sabotaging his business transactions.

When he gets word that the man he’s tracking is in a shady partnership with an English lord, he decides to do a little snooping around in Sir High and Mighty’s mansion. Unfortunately, before he can find much he collides with destiny.

Eliza and Hamilton find that their interests align. They reluctantly begin to work together to save his business and her money. If they can learn to trust one another they could get everything they crave, but they might just lose their hearts in the process.

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This book had a lot of potential. A heist. A period piece. A clean romance. And while there were cute elements to the story, I found that it fell short for me.

Hamilton’s children are used as more of a plot device than as real characters. The precocious little girl and her baby-ish younger brother who instantly love their father’s new friend. Because of the way they are treated in the storyline you know what will eventually happen to them within a few pages of their first appearance.

As so many of the stories I’ve read lately have done, Eliza’s beauty is so directly tied to her tiny waist that when she is trying to remain inconspicuous she wraps wads of linen around her midsection. The only other thing she does to disguise herself is to wear glasses. That’s it. Glasses and a padded waistline and suddenly she’s Little Miss Frumpy who easily hides in the background. But the minute she’s thin and takes the glasses off–poof–she’s the belle of the ball who catches everyone’s eye. At one point she’s told that she can’t possibly go along on a reconnaissance mission because she’s so lovely she stands out in a crowd. Even though a couple of chapters back nobody even glanced at her because of an old pair of spectacles and a thick waist. It’s insulting on several levels.

Eliza and her friend Agatha maintain over and over in the story that they don’t need a man to do things for them, they are equals and should be treated as such. The only problem with this claim is that they are both constantly getting in trouble and the men of the story are coming to their rescue. Even if they manage to start finding a solution on their own, the scene never finishes without men coming to help them get to safety. It’s such a contradiction to the tone that the author seems to want to set with the independent nature of the female characters that it becomes campy.

It has a few other failings, but if these haven’t yet turned you off, I doubt any of the others will. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate this book. I just couldn’t make myself like it either.