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.

Book Review: Hounded (Iron Druid Chronicles #1) by Kevin Hearne

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Atticus O’Sullivan leads a simple life. He runs an occult bookshop in Arizona where he sells specialty teas and is mostly sought out by local college kids who want to know if any of his special herbs are actually weed. At home, he is kept company by his Irish Wolfhound and an aging Irish widow from down the street. It’s a quiet existence for someone who still looks young enough to be in college alongside his clientele, but it’s all a deception.

Atticus is an anglicized name he took long ago. He’s actually twenty-one centuries old, and the last living Druid in existence. A fact that still irks one particular Irish deity to no end. And that deity, Aenghus Og, is about to catch up to him. Aenghus wants a mystical sword that Atticus is hiding, one that would give him untold power and a chance to take over his entire pantheon. Atticus has no choice but to protect the sword. But he can’t do it alone.

The druid must call upon his friends–his werewolf and vampire attorney team, a bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and the Chooser of the Slain–to help him face his nemesis. Their two millennia dance has been fun, but enough is enough. Atticus knows that this time it’s him or Aenghus Og, and he’s not ready to die just yet.

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I had a fabulous time reading this book. It was such a fun read that in an effort not to oversell it, I’m going to have to start with the things I didn’t like.

Most of the characters are of Irish, Polish, or Scandinavian origin, so even though they’re hanging out in Arizona, there is an overabundance of European white people. Even the Hindu witch has possessed a red-headed white girl. The cast is mostly monochromatic.

I’m sure that in over 2,000 years, Atticus has learned to work it, but over half the women he meets want to bed him. It started to be more comical than sexy. To be clear, I wasn’t upset about this, I just gave it an eye roll here and there. It was still worth the laughter.

There is more than one possession in the book, and I’ll have to be vague here to keep from spoiling anything, but one of them made me feel terrible for the possessee (is that a word?). The situation tried to be smoothed out, but there was only so much that Atticus could do. I didn’t like it, but it added a depth of character for Atticus. He’s not an altruistic hero. He’s more of a gray area type of main character, and it makes him more interesting.

So there were upsides to a few of the things I wasn’t crazy about. Now to the things I enjoyed.

The humor in this book is sprinkled through in such a way, that I never really stopped giggling. Even though heavy stuff was discussed, I never felt weighed down by it. I don’t need a palate cleanser book to help me recover from the gravity of it all. It was funny in all the right ways.

Oberon. The Irish Wolfhound is more than a companion animal, he’s a great character. He might actually be my favorite character. If someone bought me the stuffed Oberon from Kevin Hearne’s website, I wouldn’t complain.

The widow. She’s amazing. I hope there is more of her in books to come. If she dies at some point in the series, don’t tell me yet. I don’t think my heart could take it. Seriously, if it happens I will straight up ugly cry.

The battle scenes are not drawn out in ridiculous ways. The majority of fights in books and film are way too long compared to the average length of a fight in real life. But in Hounded, I never felt that the battles were unrealistic in length. Also, there is more mental maneuvering at play here. I loved that. Some of the battles are those of wit. My favorite kind.

Also, since I’ve been pretty open on my blog before that I’m a Christian, I’d like to add one more. I appreciate the way my religion is acknowledged by Atticus. It is not my deity that he doesn’t care for, it’s the people (we, the followers) who are the problem. I actually couldn’t agree more on that point.

There are other things I could gush over, but spoilers. I loved this book. I can’t wait to read the next one in the series. Beyond that, I’m signing up for Kevin Hearne’s newsletter and will eagerly look for more of his work to devour.

Highly recommend.

 

Book Review: Leaving Oxford by Janet W. Ferguson

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A year ago, Sarah Beth LeClair was a rising star in her advertising firm in LA, living in Malibu, and living with her doctor boyfriend. But then the accident happened. After that, the freeways, the memories, and the ghosts of LA were too much and Sarah Beth moved back home to Oxford, MS.

Still an advertising prodigy, she’s gainfully employed, but Sarah Beth has a secret. Her anxiety about driving on a highway is so debilitating that she can’t leave Oxford. When she gets outside the city limits, she has a panic attack. So she doesn’t leave.

Oxford is also home to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, and the cutest offensive coordinator of any football team in history. Jess McCoy’s career is on the rise, too. Ever since he decimated his shoulder playing college ball and realized he couldn’t play pro, he’s wanted to coach in the NFL. And the opportunity is right around the corner.

The only problem for Jess is that he meets the beautiful and captivating Sarah Beth and begins to have feelings for her that he’s never experienced before. Suddenly, the thought of leaving Oxford isn’t quite as appealing as it was before…

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Real talk: a year ago I would have loved and adored most of this book (I would have still had a bone to pick, but more on that later). I wanted to love it now. I’m from Mississippi. Ole Miss is the rival to my own alma mater, but I could let that go for the sake of a cute, clean, Christian romance set in my home state. But it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Sigh.

There are several things it had going for it. It had a fun meet cute. It was clean. It was Christian based fiction, which I know is not a pull for a lot of people, but I’m a Christian and I like it. Football. Mississippi. A ridiculous and adorable dog.

A year ago the only thing that would have gotten on my nerves was some of what she wrote about coaching. My family is heavily involved in college sports. In the acknowledgments, Ferguson thanks former members of the Ole Miss coaching staff, so I know she at least asked a few questions. However, there were some inaccuracies that the average reader might not have noticed. Because college athletics were a part of the livelihood of my home for many years, I noticed.

Still, I could have gotten over that. Most people, even hardcore college football fans in Mississippi would have skimmed over it without much thought. I could swallow that. And a year ago, I might have. But after studying crafting and editing blogs and learning to look beyond my own perspective, there are some other things that don’t quite work for me.

Some of the dialogue feels stilted or in the wrong character voice. It’s a small thing, but it happens in several places and suggests an editing issue. And it’s not the only one.

Oxford, MS has never been this white. Is it possible that Sarah Beth’s social circle and the staff she interacts with at Ole Miss, and her office building in LA are all (except one Latino man) white? Yes, it’s possible. But when she writes about Oxford, she talks about driving through or around different areas of town and never acknowledges any character, and I mean anyone who is Black. That’s hard to swallow. The population of Mississippi is nearly 40% Black. That number gets higher in certain areas of the state. The university staff as a whole is about 30% Black. So to write a book set entirely in Oxford, Mississippi and not have a single Black character is at best incomplete. And neither the author nor anyone in the editing and publishing process seemed to notice.

I don’t have anxiety. Sarah Beth’s reluctance to accept her diagnosis and her struggle regarding using prescribed medications could be true to form. I don’t know. But the author’s treatment of diversity makes me think that a sensitivity reader should probably have been called in for this too.

I’m not trying to rip Ms. Ferguson apart. I’m saying that this book had potential, but fell short. It still has some cute scenes. I loved her line about how Mississippians feel about North Carolina and the return zinger. But I feel like this reads more like a manuscript draft than a polished and published novel.

Book Review: The Watchmaker’s Daughter (Book One of the Glass and Steele Series) by C.J. Archer

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India Steele’s father just died and the only good thing about her ex-fiance stealing her family shop out from under her is that he’s her ex-fiance. When she goes to the shop to tell him off, because someone has to, she arrives just in time to ruin his interaction with a would-be customer. The customer, however, doesn’t take India’s dressing down quite the way she expected.

He offers her a job.

He’s looking for a specific watchmaker to fix his very special watch, but he doesn’t know the man’s name, where he works, or even if he is still in London. He hires India, who has intimate working knowledge of the clock industry in London to help him find the man. Since she is without employment, prospects, or a place to live, she accepts.

The mysterious man and his special watch intrigue India; especially when she discovers him using the magical watch to heal himself of some undisclosed illness! On the same day she discovers that a man, possibly matching his description, has just arrived in London from America and is an outlaw on the run.

He’s only in town for a week. Perhaps if she can manage to not get distracted by his handsome countenance, his charming manner, and his motley crew of friends, she can survive the week and claim the reward on his head.

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I love the chemistry between the two main characters in this book. The supporting cast is varied and endearing. It was a quick, fun read that left me wanting to find out where the story goes from here.

Having said that, I do have to say that I think the story suffers from pacing issues overall. There is a subplot that, while it becomes more relevant through the series, feels superfluous in this book. Also, not being a sensitivity reader and coming from the background that I do, I cannot speak for how anybody else will interpret a couple of the characters, but I will say that each of them gets stronger and more developed throughout the series.

As you can see, there are ups and downs, but I liked it. What I considered flaws in the structure didn’t keep me from enjoying the book as a whole, nor will they stop me from desiring to read the next book in the series. It is a good example of a story not needing to be perfect to be captivating.

Book Review: Dark Deeds (Book Two in the Class 5 Series) by Michelle Diener

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Fiona Russell was abducted from Earth and forced into manual labor aboard a ship of unfriendly aliens who beat her, mocked her, and tried to hide her very humanity. She was waiting to die. Until the day a group of murdering pirates boards her vessel and clocks her over the head.

Hot on the trail of those pirates is the handsome Grih Battleship Captain Hal Vakeri. Fiona is a human, which makes her only the second of her kind ever discovered in his region of space. He rescues Fiona, determined to take her back to Battle Center Headquarters and find out how and why she was abducted in the first place, not to mention bring her captors to justice.

But as soon as she gets on board his ship trouble starts. Long range communications are down, The investigation team hasn’t shown up at the rendezvous point, and there could be a traitor on board trying to kill the human who might know too much.

When someone kidnaps Fiona from right under his nose while his ship is docked at a way station, Hal goes after her. She was his charge, after all. It has nothing to do with how attractive she is or the way her singing captivates him so.

The trick is, when he is finally reunited with her, the question becomes who saved who? Before they can answer that question, they are thrown into a tangled web of secret hideouts, alien experiments, and political machinations that could spell trouble for the Advanced Sentient Beings across the galaxy. But alone and cut off from anybody who can help them, except a ship with a child’s personality, they may already be too late.

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I did something so out of character for me that it still surprises me when I think about it. I read a book in a series out of order. This goes against everything inside me. It’s not right. And when I read Dark Deeds, I know why.

Because now I already know the plot of the first book in the series and I have been robbed of the chance to be as delightfully surprised by it as I was by the second. And you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll end up reading the third.

Not all of the aliens we meet are humanoid, the ship is a character, there’s a parrot with a foul mouth, it has a romance arc (but is still a clean read); what’s not to love?

My disclaimer over my love for this story is that I read it because it was suggested to me as a comp for a manuscript that I’ve written. So, clearly, I’m drawn to the themes and concepts.

I will say that at times the pacing felt a little off, and there are a couple of plot points I would argue are a little too convenient. But overall, if you are looking for a good, quick, sci-fi romance, this is a good choice.