Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

873920Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake?

Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

Review:

I know this is a well-loved book but man, I couldn’t get into it and ended up hate reading near the end. My only consolation was that my buddy reader Cara agreed with me!

The setup and the underlying question are interesting – is Fevvers actually a woman with wings, or simply a sideshow fraud? My interest was quickly worn away as journalist Walser joins the circus in order to find out. The plot jumps the rails (literally), and by Part Three I ceased caring about the mystery – I just wanted it to be over.

Now and again there are beautiful images and nice turns of phrase, but most of the time it feels like Carter is trying to be clever, waving and pointing at her sentences as she does so. “Look at this! Isn’t it great?” Sometimes it is, but most of the of the time I’m nonplussed.

One and a half stars rounded up to two – not for me at. all.

Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

37969723._SY475_The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. Briseis was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war, all of them erased by history. Pat Barker offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations.

Review:

This was my first read for the Booktube Prize finals and I gotta say, my expectations were pretty low. I’m not a fan of Greek mythology, though I have been pleasantly surprised in the past (see: The Rose). And while the book is obviously good enough to make it through to the finals, I haven’t heard anything in reviews that made me want to pick it up.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed myself, following the actions of Achilles and the Greeks as they try to take Troy. The plot is solidly put together and I kept getting drawn back to the page in spite of myself.

I’m lukewarm on the writing because it doesn’t stick to a historical tone, throwing in modern idioms and speech. On one level this may be a good thing, making the text more accessible, but it pulled me out of the setting.

The hype around this book stresses that it focuses on the women, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s a re-framing of the myth, but not a reclaiming. Achilles is very much the hero and the protagonist, and hearing the tale from Briseis, standing in the corner, doesn’t change that. Everyone once in a while, though, a passage shines:

As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”

This ended up being a book that I’m glad I read as it was an interesting introduction to The Iliad. I put The Song of Achilles on my TBR as soon as I finished because the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was one of my favorite parts of the myth. Not amazing enough to rise to the top of my ranking, but enjoyable all the same.

Devil’s Daughter by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #5)

40404706Although beautiful young widow Phoebe, Lady Clare, has never met West Ravenel, she knows one thing for certain: he’s a mean, rotten bully. Back in boarding school, he made her late husband’s life a misery, and she’ll never forgive him for it. But when Phoebe attends a family wedding, she encounters a dashing and impossibly charming stranger who sends a fire-and-ice jolt of attraction through her. And then he introduces himself…as none other than West Ravenel.

West is a man with a tarnished past. No apologies, no excuses. However, from the moment he meets Phoebe, West is consumed by irresistible desire…not to mention the bitter awareness that a woman like her is far out of his reach. She’s the daughter of a strong-willed wallflower who long ago eloped with Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent—the most devilishly wicked rake in England.

Review:

West has been developing as a character over the entire course of the Ravenel series so I was excited to see that he is the hero of book five. He’s become an awesome guy and deserves a happily ever after! While Devil’s Daughter is a solid romance in the Kleypas mold I was hoping West’s story would be my favorite of the bunch, but alas.

The good:

  • Kleypas has been writing historicals for a long time and she knows what she’s doing. No major problems with the plot and the characterization is good, making for a solid read.
  • There are many cameos of characters from previous books, both in the Ravenel series as well a her previous Wallflower series. She succinctly reminds us who each person is and no one overstays their welcome, and there’s a nice balance between old and new that didn’t stress me out.
  • Yea for fun banter! I think I like West and Phoebe together best when they’re in this mode, especially the quips over dinner. There’s also a lovely rejoinder to the all to common line, ‘I don’t deserve him/her’ that will stick with me.
  • Phoebe has two small children and they act like children. The one year old is most notable for overturning his applesauce and making a mess, and the preschooler is most interested in playing in the river. No plot moppets here!
  • Part of the non-romance plot revolves around how farming was changing and becoming more technological. Some people wanted to continue the way they always had, but West is committed to changing with the times.
  • Phoebe’s dead husband isn’t villainized, nor is their love put forward as something less than the love between Phoebe and West. They’re merely different, and it tickles me that the book asserts that a person can have more than one “true love” in their life. It’s lovely to see.

The not-so-good:

  • While the kids weren’t plot moppets a cat was used as one. Cute as all heck, moved the plot along… and was never mentioned again once it served its purpose. Gah.
  • I’m done with the trope where a kid is timid around people in general, but gloms onto the love interest because fate. ‘Normally my son’s shy around strangers, but he’s crawling all over the guy I like!’ Sigh.
  • The main conflict starts as stated in the jacket copy, with Phoebe deciding she hates West before he even meets him. It resolves quickly enough then transitions to West worrying that his sordid past will be used against Phoebe’s sons if they get married. Each conflict is fine on its own but they’re not linked together very well, making for some disjointedness.

Devil’s Daughter is another solid book from Kleypas, but considering that I had such high hopes for West’s story I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. Hello Stranger is still my favorite Ravenel book, no question.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

34506912Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend?

Review:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a graphic novel in English, and a single-volume, full-color graphic novel at that. But I visited my mom’s local library on a trip home and this beauty called out to me from the shelf. It was fun to read while sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom.

I’m not sure I’m the best person to review it, though, because I have so little to compare it to. I like the art, the story is stinkin’ cute, and I blew through it in one setting. The queer factor is a plus, too. The only major drawback is that while the art suggests a historical setting the dialogue does not. The conflicting messages messed with my brain.

For now I can recommend The Prince and the Dressmaker as a quick, fun read, but I’ll need few more graphic novels under my belt before I feel comfortable calling it great.

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.

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.