White Houses by Amy Bloom

35876524Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, “Hick,” as she’s known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as “first friend” is an open secret, as are FDR’s own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick’s bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life.

Review:

Content warning for abuse, rape, and animal cruelty.

This was my first read for the Booktube Prize, and while it wasn’t on my radar at all the description drew me in – a historical f/f relationship! A look at Eleanor and FDR’s open marriage! And written by an lgbtqia+ author to boot. I was happy to pick it up.

Thing is, the book started slow and stayed slow. The narrative is hung on the days after Franklin’s death, when Hickok and Eleanor meet in New York City for the first time in a long time. Some incident is remembered or a letter arrives, and the narrative jumps to a flashback from Hickok’s point of view. Then we move forward a few hours in the NYC timeline and start again.

The narrative centers squarely on Hick (as she is known) and Eleanor’s relationship. After diving into Hick’s past we see how they meet, their “honeymoon” phase, Hickok moving to the White House and becoming known as the First Friend, and the uncertain times that follow.

I only knew the most basic facts about their relationship and very little about FDR’s own affairs so I was glad to learn more. As a whole, though, the book left me underwhelmed. There’s no drive to the plot so we just float along from flashback to flashback, and if I weren’t reading this book on deadline I’m not sure I would have made it to the end. The characters are fine and some, especially those in Hick’s childhood, are memorable, but we don’t see much of them. Historical context is also lacking, and I would have liked to see the characters placed in more concrete moment of time. The plot floats, the relationship floats, the setting floats, and the writing is capable but forgettable. I only marked a line or two in the 300+ pages.

So not a great start to my Booktube Prize reading. As I write this I have a hard time imagining it will be one of the three books I put forward for advancement to the next round. Meh on top of meh.

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Indigo by Beverly Jenkins

13255416As a child Hester Wyatt escaped slavery, but now the dark skinned beauty is a dedicated member of Michigan’s Underground railroad, offering other runaways a chance at the freedom she has learned to love. One of her fellow conductors brings her an injured man to hide, the great conductor known as the “Black Daniel”, but Hester finds him so rude and arrogant she begins to question her vow to hide him.

When the injured and beaten Galen Vachon awakens in Hester’s cellar he is unprepared for the feisty young conductor providing his care. As a member of one of the wealthiest free Black families in New Orleans, Galen has turned his back on the lavish living he is accustomed to in order to provide freedom to those enslaved in the south. However, as he heals he cannot turn his back on Hester Wyatt.

Review:

This is one of Jenkins’ best loved historical romances for a reason – it starts off with a bang and I was hooked from the start. In the last third I started losing interest, but that probably has more to do with me than the book.

The good:

  • I was all in from the start. Hester’s life story riveting, and I love the look at the abolitionist movement in Michigan.
  • Everything is well researched and there’s tons of history here. I learned so much about not only what life was like in this particular time and place, but the laws and events that shaped the era.
  • Racism is a big topic, of course, but Jenkins also dives into prejudice within the Black community at the time and a bunch of other spoilery complexities.
  • There are lots of side characters that we get to know and love, from servants and neighbors to random people in town.
  • The writing is solid, and I would expect nothing less from Jenkins.
  • Hester is a strong woman with a sharp tongue and it’s wonderful watching her do her thing, from helping someone break out of jail to bantering with the hero.
  • Galen is awesome with for consent… until he isn’t.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • This book reminded me of Night Hawk in that the plot isn’t a solid arc. There’s one concern with a slave catcher that drives most of the conflict but it’s forgotten for chapters at a time so people can move from place to place or hold a fundraising fair. It’s not bad, but go in expecting episodic narrative interspersed in the main plot.

The not-so-good:

  • As the romance evolved it got into some not-for-me tropes. There’s the virgin who has sex not knowing it may make her pregnant, and the hero who showers the heroine in luxurious gifts that she doesn’t want and fill up entire rooms.
  • And the claim that he was able to have dozens of dresses made because he’s felt her up enough to figure out her measurements? I’m not buying it.
  • Late in the book Galen takes away Hester’s agency in a very public way that she is unable to fight against. All the side characters are like, “I’m so mad for you! I can’t believe he did that! You must be so mad!” which helps, but she forgives him in less than 24 hours because love, I guess.

If you’re interested in reading Indigo I urge you to check out Wendy the Super Librarian’s review. She talks about it way more intelligently than I can manage at the moment and makes some amazing points about the loose-ish plotting not being a fault because Jenkins is writing what she calls a “community based romance”. Her insight has given me a lot of food for thought so go read that review to soak it in.

All in all a gangbusters beginning fell flat at the end for me but there is still so, so much to recommend this book. 3.5 stars.

The Wicked Wallflower by Maya Rodale (Bad Boys & Wallflowers #1)

Synopsis:

17331378Lady Emma Avery has accidentally announced her engagement—to the most eligible man in England. As soon as it’s discovered that Emma has never actually met the infamously attractive Duke of Ashbrooke, she’ll no longer be a wallflower; she’ll be a laughingstock. And then Ashbrooke does something Emma never expected. He plays along with her charade.

A temporary betrothal to the irreproachable Lady Avery could be just the thing to repair Ashbrooke’s tattered reputation. Seducing her is simply a bonus. And then Emma does what he never expected: she refuses his advances. It’s unprecedented. Inconceivable. Quite damnably alluring.

London’s Least Likely to Misbehave has aroused the curiosity—among other things—of London’s most notorious rogue. Now nothing will suffice but to uncover Emma’s wanton side and prove there’s nothing so satisfying as two perfect strangers…being perfectly scandalous together.

Review:

A 24-hour read can’t be bad! It was also exactly what I needed after two (awesome, but long) weeks of heavy non-fiction.

The good:

  • Our hero is strong, but not an ass. He lets Emma make her own decisions and never forces her to do anything. (Except for that once, but he repents.)
  • Our heroine is smart, witty, and pragmatic. All of her decisions make sense, for the most part.
  • The banter is ample, sharp, and above all fun. Rodale plays up the comedic value almost to the point of absurdity but reins things in just in time. It may be too much for some but I love romances that don’t take themselves too seriously.
  • The ending. Obviously I’m not going to give that away here but I found it very fitting.

The not-so-good:

  • I didn’t like the twists and turns leading up to the very end. After a fun, straightforward story it felt like I was thrown down a twisty slide.

The group of wallflowers reminded me of Kleypas’ Wallflowers, and while this book doesn’t quite reach that mark it is still very good. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series, and more from Rodale.

A Midwinter Night’s Dream by Tiffany Reisz

42903623Two days before Christmas 1871, the newly-minted Baron Marcus Stearns returns to London for the reading of his long-estranged and much-despised father’s will, fully certain he will inherit nothing but the title. He receives the shock of his life when he learns that he and his sister Lady Claire will only inherit their late father’s vast estate if he marries—immediately.

Kingsley, the Baron’s lover and devoted valet, offers a simple solution to a seemingly Herculean task—the Baron should simply marry his beautiful ward Eleanor. Yet while the Baron longs to do just that…he possesses a dangerous secret that threatens to destroy their marriage before it’s hardly begun.

Review:

Reisz releases a short story set in her Original Sinners universe every Christmas, but this year she followed a plot bunny and wrote an 85 page novella. I’m not complaining!  The main characters are reimagined in the Victorian era with Soren as a Baron, Kingsley his valet, and Nora his ward.

If you haven’t read the main Original Sinners series don’t bother with this – you’ll need to get through the first four books or so to understand and appreciate what’s going on here. The vibe is completely “what if”, centering on what it would be like if Nora and Soren actually got married. It’s fun, it’s a good kind of silly, and it has a couple of hot sex scenes. Soren and Kingsley’s bisexuality is discussed in an interesting way thanks to the setting. Reisz even takes a plot device I despise and makes it into something palpable.

Not bad for my first read of 2019.

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn (Lady Julia Grey #1)

6933131“Let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.”

These ominous words are the last threat that Sir Edward Grey receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, he collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests.

Prepared to accept that Edward’s death was due to a long-standing physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggests that her husband was murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers damning evidence for herself, and realizes the truth. Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.

Review:

My part of Japan has been buffeted by tons of typhoons this season.  In anticipation of yet another worrying night I started Silent in the Grave and it was just the escapism I needed.

The good:

  • World building is here and in spades as Raybourn builds out a corner of Victorian London for us.  We don’t see a wide swath but we are shown is well crafted and interesting.
  • The writing grabbed me from the first line.

    To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.

  • This combination of world building and just-my-style writing made this the perfect escapist read.  What, is that a typhoon howling outside?  Sorry, I can’t hear it, we’re on the hunt for a killer!
    Silent in the Grave
  • As you can see in the chart by my estimation it’s a setting-heavy novel, and they are so rare!
  • It’s a very feminist tale at heart.  Some people have gripped about it being unrealistic or too much for the times, but in our year of 2018 I will take whatever feminist escapism I can get, thank you.
  • There are topics I’ve rarely seen broached in lighter historical fiction, like (happy!) lgbtqia+ folx and flattering depictions of the Romani.
  • I didn’t have a firm idea who the killer was… but then again, I never do.

The not-so-good:

  • The espousing of feminist values will be too much for some.  Likewise, historical sticklers will be shocked that a Lady had a conversation about xyz with her brother/servant/whomever.
  • If you know a lot about the Victorian era some parts may feel over-explained.
  • The plot has a bunch of moving parts and there are many characters to keep straight.  It didn’t bother me but it may irk some.
  • If you’re looking for a straight up mystery with lots of investigating you’ll be disappointed.  This is a bit more holistic.  As I keep saying, it was fine by me but others may not care for it.
  • Lady Grey doesn’t always make the most logical decisions.  In fact, she makes a bunch of poor ones, things you can see are wrong off the bat.  A couple of them made me sigh but it was never enough to keep me away from the page.

If you’re interested in this book the best advice I can give is to hunt down a sample of the first chapter.  If you’re smitten rock on, but if it leaves you wanting you may want to look elsewhere.  Personally I can see the flaws but the world and escapism mixed with mystery made this the right book at the right time.  I’ll definitely be reading the next one on a long flight or during a period of exceptionally bad existential angst.

Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #4)

34431673Dr. Garrett Gibson, the only female physician in England, is as daring and independent as any man—why not take her pleasures like one? Yet she has never been tempted to embark on an affair, until now. Ethan Ransom, a former detective for Scotland Yard, is as gallant as he is secretive, a rumored assassin whose true loyalties are a mystery. For one exhilarating night, they give in to their potent attraction before becoming strangers again.

Despite their vow to resist each other after that sublime night, she is soon drawn into his most dangerous assignment yet. When the mission goes wrong, it will take all of Garrett’s skill and courage to save him. As they face the menace of a treacherous government plot, Ethan is willing to take any risk for the love of the most extraordinary woman he’s ever known.

Review:

Kleypas is one of my comfort read authors.  Her historical romance is always solid, and now and then it’s really good.

This one is great.

The good:

  • This is a ‘historical not in a ballroom’.  A good chunk doesn’t even take part in a nice part of town, a change of pace from the usual.
  • Garrett knows what she wants and goes for it.  She wants to tend to poor people in a sketchy part of town so she takes self-defense lessons and is mean with a staff.  A couple of times Ethan is like, ‘You shouldn’t come’ and she’s all, ‘Nice of you to this so, I’m coming anyway’ while never falling into Too Stupid To Live territory.
  • The heroine is based on a real person that I totally have to research now.
  • Ethan says the right thing at the right time but it doesn’t feel forced or fake.

    “In case you weren’t aware, my good fellow, you are in the company of one of the most skilled and accomplished women in England.  In fact, I would say Dr. Gibson has a male brain in a woman’s body.”

    Garrett grinned wryly at his last comment, which she knew had been intended as a compliment.

    “Thank you, Doctor.”

    “Despite my short acquaintance with Dr. Gibson,” Ethan said, “her brain seems entirely female to me.”  The remark caused Garrett to stiffen slightly, as she expected a mocking comment to follow.  Something about how a woman’s mind was changeable, or shallow, the usual cliches.  But as Ethan continued, there was no hint of teasing in his tone. “Keen, subtle, and quick, with an intellect strengthened by compassion – yes, she has a woman’s mind.”

  • We get to see some characters develop over these four books in the Ravenel series and it’s done well, especially with West.  He has blossomed and is almost too awesome now, and to think the next book is his!  I can’t wait.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • This installment has a bit more suspense than other Kleypas novels in that there are happenings all the way through instead of a single, isolated event.  I’m not the biggest romantic suspense person but it still worked for me.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing in particular!  One event is rather unlikely but it’s addressed on the page so I’ll let it go.

My favorite Ravenel book so far.

Beast by Judith Ivory

1130878An exquisite American heiress, Louise Vandermeer is beautiful, brilliant…and bored—which is why she has agreed to a daring adventure: to travel across the ocean to marry an aristocrat abroad. Rumor has it her intended is a hideous cad—a grim prospect that propels her into a passionate, reckless affair with a compelling stranger she never sees in the light of day.

Though scarred by a childhood illness, Charles d’Harcourt has successfully wooed Europe’s most sophisticated beauties. For a lark, he contrived to travel incognito on his own fiancée’s ship—and seduce the young chit in utter darkness. But the rake’s prank backfired. It was he who was smitten—while the hot-tempered Lulu, now his wife, loves only her shipboard lover, unaware it was d’Harcourt all the time! And Charles will never have her heart—unless he can open her eyes to the prince who hides within.

Review:

I’ve been wanting to try some older romances so I went through NPR’s 100 Swoon-worthy Romances list and dug in.  This book caught my eye immediately – the “beauty and the beast” trope is a favorite – so I dug in.

The good:

  • I love flipped expectations and here the beast is temporarily turned upside down.  Louise first meets Charles in shadowy corridors and staterooms, where he plays up a fake exotic angle (more on this later) and seduces her by word and deed.  Only when they meet for “real” she’s put off by his not-so-great looks and the usual fairy tale storyline kicks in.
  • While set at the dawn of the Edwardian era Louise lives as big a life as she can.  Before the novel starts she slipped away from her parents to go gambling in Montreal, and later she pursues her interests even though they’re not the most “ladylike”. Rock on.
  • Louise learned French to a high level in the classroom and her ability, mistakes, and frustrations are superbly portrayed.  She misses words in conversation, she doesn’t know any slang, and her formal speech, while perfect for parties and introductions to society, drives Charles nuts.

    “Tu, tu. Use it”, he said, encouraging the intimate verb construction.  The language used between lovers and friends.

    “I don’t know those conjugations.  My instructor thought they were too intimate.”

    As someone who uses her second, learned language in everyday life it feels all too real and true.

  • I didn’t know a thing about ambergris going in and now my head is full of the stinky stuff.  It’s fascinating.

The questionable:

  • Like it says in the synopsis, Louise gets intimate with her husband thinking he’s someone else entirely.  If this affair-but-not-an-affair isn’t your thing stay away.
  • One of the ways Charles hides his identity is by pretending he’s a Muslim man from Northern Africa, as there are some people by that description on the ship.  It makes him Other and exotic and Louise gobbles it up, often daydreaming about “her pasha”.  On one hand it’s troublesome, and I would rather it wasn’t in the book at all, but Ivory tries to be fair.

    “You must hate the Arabs for that.”

    He shrugged. “Oh, Arabs, Moors, Frenchmen” – he laughed – “Americans. We’re all about the same, good ones, bad ones.”

    Exotic dark-skinned heroes are no stranger to romance (just search for sheikh on Goodreads) and this muddied my already complicated thoughts on the issue.

The not-so-good:

  • The story is split neatly in two with a hot, lusty shipboard part and a wary, hmmm-can-I-ever-like-this-guy part.  Things move quickly while crossing the Atlantic but on land our couple maintains a cautious holding pattern.  There’s also over description in the second half (including what kind of countertops are in a room they spend a few minutes in) and we spend a lot of time wallowing in their repetitive thoughts.
  • In one scene Charles acts completely out of character, flipping the table he and Louise are eating at.  It may have been meant that way – he was so frustrated he did something out of character – but it made me worry for her physical well being. Not cool.
  • Building Louise and Charles’ emotional connection the second time around takes a lot of time and is frustrating, making the ending less satisfying.

All in all Beast has aged well considering it was written twenty years ago.  While the questionable parts still bug me the flipped trope makes for an interesting read.

An Extraordinary Union and A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole (Loyal League Series #1 & #2)

I love historical romances, and while I’ll never turn down a good Regency I’m getting more and more interested in other places and periods.  The Civil War era is often ignored by Alyssa Cole has stepped in with two well researched and plain awesome books, the beginning of her Loyal League series.

30237404In An Extraordinary Union Elle is a former slave that is working as one again, but this time undercover, to spy for the Union Army.  Her path crosses with Malcolm who is also undercover but for Pinkerton’s Secret Service. They discover a Confederate plot and end up teaming up and doing all their sneaky spy stuff to save the day.

To be honest sneaky spy stuff is not my thing but I really like this book anyway.  I love that Elle is smart and has tons of agency and doesn’t let Malcolm’s charm get to her.  The interracial romance has lots of obstacles, as you can imagine, which makes getting over them all the sweeter.  So while An Extraordinary Union isn’t exactly my sort of thing it made me excited to pick up the next book.

34570037A Hope Divided follows Marlie, a free black woman that learned the art of making tisanes, poultices, and other medicines from her mother.  She’s a scientist type, always extending her knowledge and finding ways to hone her craft.  While she’s at it she attends to men at a Confederate prison, using the access to pass coded messages and aid those who are fleeing the South.  There she meets Ewan, who is working for the Union from the inside, and they end up saving each other in turns as they do their thing.

I liked this book even more than the first, mostly because the spying stuff wasn’t as nail-biting.  We get to follow another interracial couple navigate their relationship and this period of history in an unvarnished, unflinching way.  I learned a ton and eagerly await further installments.

Perfect for those who like historical romances that are not set in ye olde England and are true to their time without pulling any punches.

A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell #3)

93938August 1923. All is quiet in the Holmes household in Sussex as Mary Russell works on academic research while Sherlock Holmes conducts malodorous chemistry experiments. But the peace quickly disappears as out of the past comes Dorothy Ruskin, an amateur archeologist from the Holy Land, who brings the couple a lovely inlaid box with a tattered roll of stained papyrus inside. The evening following their meeting, Miss Ruskin dies in a traffic accident that Holmes and Mary soon prove was murder. But what was the motivation? Was it the little inlaid box holding the manuscript? Or the woman’s involvement in the volatile politics of the Holy Land? Or could it have been the scroll itself, a deeply troubling letter that seems to have been written by Mary Magdalene and that contains a biblical bombshell…

Review:

I love this series. It’s been two years since I’ve read the last book and everything came back quickly – the awesomeness of the characters, the interesting mysteries, the glimpses into human nature that are striking, quiet, and earned.

The mystery is good but it’s not the real reason I’m here. I mean, I enjoyed it, of course! The setup is interesting, and it’s always fun to see Holmes surprise Russell in some sort of disguise. But the whodunits aren’t why I keep coming back to the series. It’s the characters. They live and breathe, have faults and tics and ideals and tendencies. They’re people, damnit, and I want to spend more time with them.

At the end of the previous installment the relationship of Holmes and Russell goes through a major change… a change I was afraid would squick me out. I should have known King would have things well in hand, though. A gap of four years between the last book and this means that we miss any troubles our leads may have worked through, instead seeing them now as intellectual partners that have a deeper insight into each other than before.

Are they in love? You bet. But they don’t drool over each other. It’s an intellectual and emotional partnership first, with the physical aspects falling far behind. With both Holmes and Russell being analytical minds insights abound. For example, Russell notes:

An unread paper meant an unsettled mind, and to this day the sight of a fresh, folded newspaper on a polished surface brings a twinge of apprehension.

Some parts are just fun, like Holmes writing to Russell while on a train:

“I should prefer to have the patterns reflected either by your perception or Watson’s lack thereof; however, a stub of lead pencil and this unsavory length of butcher’s paper will have to suffice. (From the expressions on the faces of my compartment mates, none of them has ever before witnessed the miraculous generation of the written word. I shall attempt not to be distracted.)”

My e-library doesn’t have this book so I ended up buying a paper copy. I liked filling it with post its, but not being able to carry it around easily meant it took much longer to finish than I would like. I think it may have been a four star read if I were able to keep the momentum and get through it faster… guess I’ll have to reevaluate when I reread it. (‘Cause I’ll totally reread it!)

In Bed with a Stranger by Mary Wine (McJames #1)

Synopsis:

6025739Brodick McJames is an earl in name only. To secure his clan’s future he needs an English wife. Mary Stanford, daughter of the Earl of Warwickshire, will suit perfectly. He’s never met her, but what matter? She’ll grace his bed eventually, and once she bears his child he need see her no more.

Anne Copper looks just like her noble half-sister, but she was born illegitimate, and can never forget it. The best she can hope for is to stay a serving girl in her own father’s house. But when Lady Mary finds herself betrothed to a Scot, it seems there’s a use for Anne after all . . .

The woman who arrives in Alcaon is not what Brodick expects, and the passion that grows between them promises far more than a marriage of convenience. When fate draws two together, it may take more than a noblewoman’s plot to part them…

Review:

This book is so wrong for me.

First – you can’t tell from the description but it takes place during medieval times. Don’t let the talk of titles make you think it’s a Georgian/Regency/Victorian novel, like I did.

Second – it’s basically a Cinderella retelling complete with evil stepmom, evil stepsister, and a prince (er, Earl) that whisks her away. While of noble blood she keeps doing servant-level stuff. She even has to leave the castle before a certain time comes because… reasons. ~cough~

Third – instalust. Several times the heroine decides to say or do something next time she sees the Earl, but as soon as he walks in the room her mouth goes dry and hubba hubba music starts playing. (They had porntastic music back then, right?)

Third and a half – there were several scenes that went like this:

“Hey, your wife is hot.”
“I know! …you’re not getting any ideas, are you?”
“Nope. But she’s hot. Bet you’re looking forward to tonight.” ~winkwink~
“Am I!”~nudgenudge~

Say no more. -_-

Fourth – it takes someone the better part of a day to die from hemlock poisoning, when it should have taken hours at most. I mean, they didn’t give Socrates his tea, have dinner, sleep a bit, and then watch him die, you know? Even if the poison was weak it would have gone into effect fairly quickly.

Fifth – romances where the girl has zero agency are not my thing. She goes to the Earl in a proxy marriage, she’s pulled this way and that by others, but the only thing she gets to decide for herself is whether she’ll treat the blind girl nicely. (No brainer.)

While completely not a “me” book it somehow managed not to make me mad, so there you are.