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: 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.

Book Review: Short-Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer

I read a book (not this one) last week that I should have DNF’d. I didn’t. I had nightmares. A lot of them. I was not okay. This is why some of us who review books provide trigger warnings if we can.

To be honest, I cannot review that book. I could tell you about the well-developed characters and the way trauma was handled in the book, but I can’t bring myself to think that hard about certain plot elements right now. Maybe soon. Maybe never. I’m sorry.

After I finished that book, I needed a palate cleanser. Actually, I needed three, but I started with this one.

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Meredith Hayes knows that people trespass on Archer land at their own peril. The Archer men have secluded themselves for over a decade, ever since their father died, and do not take kindly to strangers. But Meredith also knows that Travis Archer, the eldest, has a kind and compassionate side because he helped her when she most needed it. So when she overhears a plot to burn them off their ranch, forcing them to sell the land, she feels she owes it to Travis to warn him.

Meredith arrives in time to warn the boys, but not without consequence. Suffering from a kick to the head by a fire-frightened mule, she is cared for by the Archers while she recovers. The only problem is that society doesn’t care why she was without a chaperone in a house full of men, her reputation is shattered and her guardian will not allow her to come home because of it. There is only one thing to restore her good name–she must marry an Archer.

Travis is the eldest and the only one who has known Meredith more than the three days it has been since she arrived with her warning. When he and his brothers draw straws to see who will marry her, he makes sure he’s the one who ends up with the short straw. It’s his responsibility, that’s all–or so he tells himself.

But the Archers aren’t in the clear yet. Someone still wants their land and will go to great lengths to get it. Travis and Meredith both want to protect the Archer ranch, but their desire to protect each other scares them far more than any villain ever could. Meredith knows that Travis feels responsible for her, but what she wants is to be more than just a short-straw bride.

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This book was pretty cute on the whole. It was a clean, Christian Romance. If any of those words make you cringe, move on. For me, it was a good book to follow the One That Shall Not Be Reviewed. I enjoyed it, but it isn’t perfect, so I’ll still give you my usual breakdown.

First, the things I liked.

It was a clean read. After the “other book”, I needed that. Romance needed to be sweet and good again.

It’s a period piece set in post Civil War Texas, but it doesn’t pretend that the population of Texas was monochromatic or fair. There is a counterpoint to this coming, so don’t do a happy dance just yet.

Meredith has a disability that stems from a physical trauma in her childhood. While there are characters (never her love interest) who call her names, she is not written as a weaker character or one who laments her injury. It’s not a lot, and there are times that I don’t like the way it’s addressed, but there are so few main characters with any sort of physical disability that I have to appreciate this one.

The dog doesn’t die. The horses don’t die. I know it’s a stupid thing, but I needed this book to be a happy one. And any book that has an animal companion bite the dust is not a happy book. Where the Red Fern Grows almost undid me as a child.

Now, for the other side of the coin.

The non-white characters are few and all serve the same trope-y purpose. They are the hardworking mentor types with very little presence apart from that. So while I’m glad that there is no “white savior”-ness to the story, the old stereotypes are still present.

Also, there is only one type of non-white character. There is a settlement of Black “freedmen”, but there is no evidence in this Texas town of a Latinx population or a Native one. I find that improbable at best and erasure at worst. I don’t think it was intentional on part of the author to do so, but I think by pointing it out in books like this, perhaps more authors will be more intentional about inclusivity.

Meredith is treated as weaker by some of the characters because of her disability. It grated on my nerves, but I think that was intentional. Still, I point it out because if that is going to be upsetting to anyone, I’d like for you to know going in.

It is not at all thematic in the book, but there are a couple of lines in different chapters that had the echo of fat-shaming. It annoyed me more than offended me and it was fleeting, but it was there.

All in all, I still thought it was cute. And it was a good palate cleanser. Though, to be honest, I followed it up with two more for which reviews are coming. Seriously, that one book messed me up and I needed a chance to recover from it. Especially since I needed to be ready for the debut of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse that came out this week. You’ll be happy to know that I’m all through with my palate cleansing and was able to dive into ToL on the day of its debut. I’ll be reviewing that in a future post as well.

Book Review: Prophecy by Lea Kirk

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When an alien race attacks Earth and decimates the population, Alexandra Bock is caught in the crossfire. Captured and locked up with a small group of survivors intended for sale on the intergalactic slave market, she comes face to face with her least favorite thing–more aliens.

Gryf Helyg is part of the Matiran Guardian Fleet that has protected Earth for millennia. Betrayed by one of his own, Gryf is captured in the defeat of the fleet and is locked up with the very people he failed to protect–Earthlings.

Alexandra and Gryf get off to a rocky start, but it soon becomes apparent that their connection is more than tangential. They are each one half of a twelve-thousand-year-old prophecy about the protection, or destruction, of both Earth and Matir. To fulfill the prophecy the two have to bond their souls, forever tying their lives and their fates together. Gryf would do anything to protect Earth, but Alexandra quickly realizes more than her planet is on the line. Their bond could be a blessing to both their people, but it could also break her heart.

If Alexandra can overcome her fear and Gryf can maintain a level head, the two of them could save both their planets. If not, both of their races will be annihilated. But no pressure or anything.

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I love a good sci-fi romance. This book had all of the parts of the equation. Aliens, both good and bad. Rescue missions. Intergalactic stakes. A heroine with bite. But each fell just a little bit short.

The book felt more like a season of a television show than a book. About every three chapters a problem was solved in a very episodic fashion, and with the breaks in between the story was choppy. There was potential, and of course, the story isn’t a Thriller, so the characters have to have a chance to react, but these characters begin a tryst on the outer border of their safe zone while the Watch looks on. They don’t take the threat seriously enough. I have seen this advice given to writers, so I think the intentions were good, but I don’t think the advice was applied to the book’s best advantage.

The Matirans are altruistic in the desire to protect Earth without anything in return. There is no trade, no tax, nothing from Earth–the planet doesn’t even know they exist. There is some weak DNA link from thousands of years ago, but it’s a weak argument for millennia of military resources and maneuvers, so the backstory and premise for their presence are weak.

Also, *Trigger Warning* one of the antagonists is a sexual predator. He impregnates a fifteen-year-old girl. He carves his initials in his victims’ skin to mark them as his possessions. He doesn’t make a lot of appearances, but it’s enough. It definitely affected my overall impression and opinion of the story.

As for our heroine, her bite was muzzled early on and she gives the reins to the Matirans without much fight. She also convinces her new extraterrestrial friends that their tradition of letting the woman make the first move in a relationship isn’t attractive to Earth women.

Your mileage may vary. Maybe this is up your alley. I won’t judge. But it wasn’t my cup of tea.

And to be clear, I’m not saying the author isn’t talented. Her concept for the story was intriguing, in the end, I just thought it could have been executed better, and perhaps without some of the more problematic elements.