Welcome to the September Midweek Minis, part two. This week Dabney, Caz, Melanie and Maggie review and rate the books they’ve recently read. There’s a novel by a Pulitzer Prize winner, a WWI suffragette romance, a psychological suspense thriller, a historical romance and three PRNs. Enjoy!
Jennifer Egan’s a storied writer. She won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011 for Welcome to the Goon Squad. Her writings appear regularly in the New York Times. I’ve enjoyed all of Ms. Egan’s books but my favorite is her first The Invisible Circus. I recommended it my 18 year old niece this summer and, after she returned it–she loved it–I read it again.
The book is set in 1978. Phoebe O’Connor has just graduated from high school and is set to attend Berkeley in the fall. Phoebe’s life is to her, however, of little interest. Since her charismatic, troubled older sister Faith committed suicide when Phoebe was ten, Phoebe’s been frozen, unable to move into her future and obsessed with her sister’s past.
A chance meeting in Golden Gate Park with one of the hippies in Faith’s group of wild and alluring friends sends Phoebe on a trip to Europe where she hopes to understand who her sister (Faith was eight years older) was and why she took her life. As is true for most coming of age journeys, the self Phoebe comes to know is her own.
Ms. Egan prose immerses you in Phoebe, in her thoughts and her emotions. Phoebe travels the places her sister did in the months before her death and the each locale is vividly described, tinctured by Phoebe’s slow understanding of who she is. Halfway through the book, in Munich, Phoebe finds her sister’s old boyfriend, Wolf. The Invisible Circus isn’t a love story, but Phoebe’s and Wolf’s relationship is mesmerizing to read.
Readers who expect the modern storytelling Ms. Egan utilized to great effect in The Keep and in Welcome to the Goon Squad will not find that here. Phoebe tells (though the book is not a first person narrative) her story straightforwardly. The Invisible Circus is an elegant novel about love and loss. It remains one of my favorite books. Grade: A-. Sensuality: Warm.
Not by Sight by Kate Breslin is the story of WWI suffragette Grace Mabry and agent for the crown Jack Benningham. Grace crashes a high society masquerade ball as Pandora and from her box she withdraws white feathers to give to the rich young men who are dancing while her brother fights in the trenches. The first feather she gives is to Jack, a known rogue and reprobate whose exploits often land him in the gossip rags.
Jack’s cover as man about town can be a bit exhausting but it gives him an excellent reason to be seen doing odd things late at night. Tonight is no exception; He is at this party for the sole purpose of stopping a rendezvous between a known agent and his slippery accomplice. Thanks to Pandora distracting him he is unable to catch their meeting so he follows the man he knows in the hope he will lead him to the man he doesn’t. Or that at the very least he can capture the man and the government can force the information out of him. But Jack follows the spy right into a trap and finds himself blinded and scarred in a bomb blast.
Fate, or since this is an Inspirational, the hand of God, lands Grace and Jack together again several months down the road. Grace now works for the Women’s Forage Corp, a group similar to the Land Girls but whose main harvest is hay for the horses in the army. Her first assignment just happens to be at Jack’s estate, Roxwood, where he is recuperating. The two develop a tentative friendship but Grace is afraid to tell him that they have met before, the night she gave him the feather. Will their budding romance survive the truth of that awful first encounter?
A lot of this book is typical historical romance fodder: spies, estates, big misunderstandings and feisty conversations between the hero and heroine. What places this story a bit above the rest is that the author changed the time period from Regency to WWI and as a result the history and setting add a bit of interest to the tale.
The novel is an Inspirational, which includes conversations and introspections on faith and the question of where God is when truly horrible things happen to us. I think the author weaved this seamlessly into the plot but it might be a bit heavy handed for some.
Ultimately, while I struggled with how easy it was for Jack to be blind (I’ve worked with the blind, it’s not easy) I enjoyed the book overall. Grade: B-. Sensuality: Kisses.
A psychological suspense novel which serves as both social treatise and dire warning, Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica leaves you thinking – and vaguely frightened.
Heidi Wood calls all those who see a need and don’t meet it do-nothings. Heidi is the polar opposite of that- she works for a nonprofit, rescues stray cats from dangerous situations, and is constantly aware of those around her who might need a helping hand. Which is why it is no surprise that Heidi notices and worries about the young homeless girl with an infant that she sees when Heidi is getting on the train. It is also no surprise when the next time she encounters them, she gives the girl her warm rain parka to wrap the baby in. Also not surprising when she buys the girl a meal. It is surprising – shocking even- when she informs her husband and young daughter that the girl, Willow, and her baby will be staying with them. Indefinitely.
What should happen next is that Heidi, who knows how the system works, helps Willow get on her feet. Instead the two prove to be demanding guests, until Heidi all but forgets her husband and daughter as she cares for their needs. Slowly this sets off a chain of events that lead to an inevitable, startling conclusion.
This book takes a daring look at how our society fails its most vulnerable members and the violent, terrible results that can lead to. The author does a magnificent job of keeping the sand sifting beneath our feet so we are never quite sure what we are looking at or what is really happening. Engrossing, terrifying and heartbreaking this book keeps you guessing to the very end. Grade: B. Sensuality: Subtle.
In The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily May, James Hargrave unexpectedly became the Earl of Arden a year previously following the tragic deaths of his father and brother. On top of having to deal with their loss, and still troubled by his wartime experiences, he also has to contend with the fact that if he is to retain his inheritance, he must take a wife before his thirtieth birthday. This is less than two months away, and as he has so far not found any woman he wishes to wed, so he has travelled to visit his best friend, Harry, Viscount Honeycourt with a view for offering for his twenty-eight year old, red-haired, freckle-faced on-the-shelf sister. James has known Kate forever and thinks that as they at least know and like each other, he might as well marry her as anyone. After all, all cats look alike in the dark, don’t they?
Kate as loved James ever since they were children, but unfortunately for him, overhears the conversation with her brother in which he says quite plainly that he doesn’t love or desire her; he just needs a suitable wife he will be able to get along with and who won’t drive him out of his mind with idle chatter or unreasonable demands.
Knowing that Kate had nursed a youthful infatuation for him, James is fairly confident of success, but when he proposes, her reaction is not what he expects. Knowing that being married to the man she loves so desperately while he has married her merely for the sake of expediency would be torture, Kate turns him down flat, offering instead to find him a wife from amongst the local marriageable young ladies. James really doesn’t want to go down that path, as he hasn’t got time to waste, but he nonetheless agrees to Kate’s plan – on one condition. If none of the ladies she introduces him to take his fancy, then she will marry him herself. Reluctantly, Kate agrees to this, certain that he will find someone else more appealing than he obviously finds her.
James is immediately thrust into a humorous round of teas, dinner parties and outings, but each lady he sees lacks something he absolutely must have in a wife. And not only that, but he gradually begins to see Kate in a different light and to realise that he finds her both attractive and desirable – and that each of those qualities he had found lacking in the other ladies are ones Kate possesses.
It’s not long before James realises that he’s fallen head-over-heels for Kate, and that he doesn’t want to marry anyone but her. But she persists in trying to find him someone else, and finally, in the face of his unequivocal declaration of love, tells him that she’d overheard him talking to her brother and the things he’d said about her.
And thus, the eponymous Earl’s Dilemma. With time fast running out, how can James convince Kate that his love and desire for her are real?
I really liked how the author showed James’ gradual – and initially unwanted – dawning realisation of his growing feelings for Kate. The romance is sweetly sensual, and the central characters are well-matched and likeable. The author adds depth to both their backstories in a credible manner and the emotional connection between them is strongly forged and palpable. I really enjoyed this story and am definitely going to look out for more by this author (who also writes as Emily Larkin). Grade: B. Sensuality: Warm.
I enjoyed Treason by Althea Claire Duffy. In a fantasy world full of intrigue and magic, the spy Elunet (currently masquerading as a housemaid) has been sent to uncover the secrets of House Mellas, rival of her House Corellis. Elunet is set to spy on Tavia, the daughter of the current Lord of the House, and see what she can discover about their business dealings with trade and nearby countries. Unforutnately for Elunet, Tavia is completely uninterested in politics and business. But Tavia does have an interest in transportation spells that could wreak havoc on trade and the other Houses. She also has more than a friendly interest in her maid…..luckily Elunet feels the same way.
There is so much unrealized potential in this story that it almost hurts. The world is fabulous – even with the very brief look we get in this novella, you get a feel for the intrigue and politics, and come on, our main heroine is a freakin’ spy! She’s pretty darn cool! And Tavia, our love interest, is lovely as well – she is pretty much your typical academic, not interested in much outside her studies. The two of them together work really well, which is surprising, again, with how short the story is. Sadly, I was still left wanting more – it was like we only got a peek, when it could have been a full-fledged novel. Instead it was all of 21,000 words. I’m hoping that this is actually going to be part of a series (though there are no hints of one I could find), not necessarily about Tavia and Elunet, but about the world the author created. I would definitely read more. Grade: B-. Sensuality: Warm.
In Soul Selecta by Gill McKnight, love needs a helping hand – in this case, the helping hand of the Soul Selector. She is the one who makes sure that soulmates (the ultimate source of power for the gods, Greek Pantheon style) get together and stay together. But unfortunately, the current set of soul mates isn’t working out right, and now SS is stuck with one girl in the Elysian Fields and the other left pining for something she never knew was there.
This could have been really interesting. Notice the “could have been” there. Unfortunately, the pacing was off, the writing needed a bit more polish, and there was an utterly ridiculous amount of descriptive sex. Most of the characters came across as one dimensional, including our lovely but nameless Soul Selector protagonist. It was a quirky, clever idea, though, and there were parts that were absolutely hysterical – like actually laugh out loud kind of funny. Which shocked me, because I wasn’t really enjoying the book much, but there you have it. Jesse, the one soulmate we follow throughout the beginning, is really obnoxious, and the Soul Selector isn’t much better. As LGBTQA, it was an interesting idea – that these women would be born again and again, meeting each other over and over, but something just got lost in the translation (though I would be interested to see the characters swap genders – who says that a soul is male or female?). Grade: C-. Sensuality: Burning.
Why do I keep reading Christine Feehan? At this point, it is more habit than anything else, because goodness knows this book infuriated me. Incessantly. I like a good alpha hero as much as the next reader, but this whole story took things way too far. Basically, we have Cat Benoit, on the run from the incredibly dangerous (but still somehow sympathetic) Rafe Cordeau, drug dealer and murderer extraordinaire. Oh, and they are both shapeshifters who turn into leopards. Or at least Rafe is – Cat has to wait until she and her inner cat sync cycles (and didn’t I say a big ole’ WTF to that!). Cat has managed to make a new life for herself when she meets Ridley Cromer, martial arts instructor and security specialist.Cat’s finally starting to trust Ridley when she finds out that wait, nope, he’s actually Eli Perez, member of some alphabet government agency (ATF, I think?), and he basically sold her out. Not on purpose, not completely, but that doesn’t really change things. And so now Cat is stuck with him, as Rafe closes in. And here’s the thing – alpha heros need a strong heroine to bring them balance, and to balance the story in general. And instead of a strong heroine, we have Cat, who starts out with so much promise, but ends up disappointing utterly. And instead of a strong hero, we have Eli, who basically spends the whole book first bossing Cat around, and then going behind her back and doing what he wants anyway. Here’s an example: “I’m listening, woman. I’ll always listen to anything you have to say. You’re just talking a lot of crap right now so I’m dismissing what you have to say as the crap it is.” Nooooope. Or how about this: “I tell you to strip naked and dance on the damn table because I like seeing you up there, you do it.” Seriously? What the hell?
Two more things: 1) If she says she doesn’t want it, even if she’s turned on, that still means no. I am so tired of the whole “he know better what she wants” thing. Rape culture, much? and 2) at one point he curls up behind her to go to sleep so his “worn cock had a soft, warm resting place” between her butt cheeks. Classy. There are some things that just don’t need to be said. That was one of them. Grade: D-. Sensuality: Burning.