ARC Review: Unmarriagable by Soniah Kamal

Publication is set for January 15, 2019. If you liked Pride & Prejudice, you’ll want to make this a belated Christmas gift to yourself.

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Alys Binat teaches English Literature at the British School Group of Dilipibad. Her students both admire her dedication and pity her singleness. Alys, on the other hand, not only doesn’t regret being single but has no plans to marry. But she does attend the most anticipated wedding of the year.

During the first of several days of festivities, her sister Jena falls head over heels for Bungles Bingla, despite the thinly veiled insults bandied about by his sisters. Alys also sees a handsome face in the crowd, but when she overhears Valentine Darsee disparaging her and her choices of reading material to Bungles, she decides he’s not quite so handsome after all.

Unfortunately, as the wedding festivities continue and Jena spends more time with the Binglas, Alys is forced to spend more time with Darsee. Everyone thinks he’s such a catch, but Alys can see beyond his wallet to his snobbish pride and has deemed him unmarriagable.

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This is billed as Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. It doesn’t disappoint. The general plot follows the original, but with a distinctly new flair. There is a line in the book that talks about mixing scones and samosas and that is a pretty good way to describe the story itself.

Our favorite sisters are all present; the beautiful and kind Jena, the flirtatious and boundary-pushing Lady, the reserved and pious Mari, and the artistic Qitty. Set in 2000 and 2001 Pakistan, the Binat family once again serves as a commentary on societal expectations of women and the double standards they face. But there are some new changes that I found interesting, too. For example, Qitty spends much of the novel being fat-shamed by Lady. In the original P&P, I found Kitty to be more of a prop or a throwaway character. Here Qitty holds her own and gets the proper ending that Kitty never did.

Another new aspect of the story is the mingling of different religions and cultures. Before the familial falling out that sentenced the Binats to live in Dilipibad, Alys attended international schools and mentions the influence they had on her worldview. There is a mix of Hindu and Muslim traditions, and even the celebration of a Christian holiday by a beloved aunt, as well as a scene that incorporates the closing of the border to India. And don’t get me started on the wedding events. I need this to be made into a Netflix film ASAP just so I can watch the party scenes.

There were a couple of things that brought me out of the story a little, however. There is a lot of exposition. Anything that was necessary for a non-desi like me to understand what was happening from a cultural perspective, I understood. But there were a few instances, especially early on as she covered the family backstory that info dumping slowed the story down quite a bit.

The other down for me was the head-hopping. The story is in the third person omniscient, but it still pulled me out of the tale to slide from Mrs. Binat’s thoughts to Jena’s to Alys’ to Darsee’s in the span of a few sentences.

I have seen a couple of other reviewers who said they found Alys militantly feminist and unlikeable and they thought the Binat sisters too cruel to each other. I, however, would disagree. Given the cultural contexts of each story, the characters are spot on. The original Bennet sisters were quite cutting and judgemental of each other, especially Lydia and Kitty. And I think that Elizabeth would have been thrilled to see her reincarnation in Alys.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The visual created by the setting gave the story new life. I stand by my opener, go ahead and make plans to give this to yourself as a belated Christmas gift. You won’t regret it.

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.

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.

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.

Book Review: A Great Catch by Lorna Seilstad

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It’s the start of a new century, the twentieth, in Iowa and Emily Graham is not just a suffragist, she’s the president of the Lake Manawa Suffragist Society. She has one goal and one focus–getting women the right to vote. Her aunts, on the other hand, are equally determined to find Emily a husband.

Just when Emily manages to discourage her aunts meddling by accidentally knocking the latest suitor unconscious during an unfortunate game of horseshoes, she finds herself caught off guard by the handsome Carter Stockton.

Carter Stockton has only the summer left to play baseball. He’s the starting pitcher for that Manawa Owls, but come fall his father expects him to take his place in the family business. And if the Owls can’t maintain a winning record, his father may demand he give up the game even sooner. He doesn’t need any distractions. But Emily Graham is more than a distraction. She’s a line drive that he can’t escape.

When an opportunity arises for the Owls to get unprecedented publicity and for the Suffragists Society to make an undeniable statement for women’s rights, Emily and Carter find that their paths are entwined. If they can work together, they might get everything they are hoping for…and a whole lot more.

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If you haven’t guessed, this was one of my palate cleansers that I mentioned a few weeks back. It did its job. It was cute, sweet, and gloriously innocent.

The romance between Carter and Emily is not a slow burn, which isn’t always common among clean reads. Their feelings for one another develop quickly, but being that they are both from upper echelon families in 1901, they must move slowly because propriety demands it. So there is still a push and pull that is fun to see. But it’s not a perfect story.

I love baseball and period pieces, so this was right up my alley. While the baseball scenes didn’t always feel accurate, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t get over or chalk up to turn of the century minor league nuances. While I have a deep love for baseball, I’m certainly not a baseball historian. I tried not to stop and look up facts while I was reading. That helped too.

There is a line about Carter being able to wrap his hands around Emily’s waist and his fingers meeting in the back. That disturbed me because I’m having trouble picturing a woman that thin being healthy. There are a couple of lines like this in the story that make me cringe. Can we please stop judging a woman’s beauty by how “impossibly small” her waist is?

I was also not impressed with the villain’s rationale. He’s willing to kill one threat to his plan, but not another. This is a little too convenient for me. It didn’t feel very well planned out.

There is also zero diversity in this book. The entire cast is upper-class white people.

If you can get past those things, it’s a cute book. If any of those sound like deal breakers to you, skip it.

Book Review: The Keeper by Susan Woods Fisher

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Julia Lapp is going to marry Paul Fisher. They have been engaged for over two years and the time has finally come. But when Paul tells Julia that he wants to postpone the wedding for the second time her heartbreak is only surpassed by her anger. She knows exactly who has influenced Paul: The Bee Man.

He comes to their county every year, bringing his bees with him. He rents them out to farmers to help pollinate their crops and is in high demand, but he always makes time for the Lapp family and tends to spend most of his time with them.

When he arrives, Julia plans to give him a piece of her mind but the truth is that she needs the Bee Man, a.k.a Rome Troyer. Her father’s heart is weak and grows weaker each day. She and her younger siblings cannot run the farm alone. She needs Rome’s help.

Rome is more than happy to help the Lapp family. And he is truly sorry for the hurt he has caused Julia. He even consents to help make Paul jealous enough to whisk his bride down the aisle. But the longer he spends with Julia, the more he realizes he doesn’t want Paul to be the one to marry her. He wants to be the one to hold her hand for the rest of his life. He wants to be more than just the Bee Man. He wants to be a keeper.

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I have an affinity for Amish Romances, and Susan Woods Fisher rarely lets me down. However, there was a subplot in this one that made me undeniably uncomfortable.

The main storyline between Julia and Rome was a classic fake relationship trope and it worked, though it was painfully slow in coming. But in order to help keep things running at the farm, Julia’s uncle enlists the help of a housekeeper and caretaker for her father. The woman is harsh, but in true happily ever after fashion ends up becoming a loved part of the family.

Except that she incessantly fat-shames Julia’s middle sister. She actually refers to her as “the overfed one” several times in the story to her face. And while I’m sure it is supposed to be a good thing that the two of them bond and help the young girl discover her natural talents, never once–not a single time–is any apology ever made for fat-shaming her.

This young girl is so ashamed of herself that she sneaks food and cries in her room because she doesn’t look like her sisters. She laments her place in the family, the community, and life itself. And yet, this person who comes in the home and uproots her role not to mention her sense of normalcy and then name calls and further shames her is somehow seen as a mentor.

The main plot between Julia and Rome was cute enough, but in the end, the subplot left me angry and uncomfortable.