February’s challenge is to read a book that is part of a series. Given my Harlequin backlog, that’s got to be half of them. This doesn’t double-count for my Harlequin TBR Challenge, those, because I didn’t buy it from the Harlequin site. It’s one of my many other Harlequins!
This novel is the third installment of the From Manhattan With Love series, featuring Daniel and Fliss’s sister, Harriet. Harriet is the shy one who prefers dogs to people and who would love to have a home and family but doesn’t think she’ll ever get there. She has a hard time dating because her anxiety goes into overdrive. She tells herself that she’s happy with her dogs, her friends, and her family, but now that Fliss and Daniel have found the loves of their lives, she’s not just alone but lonely.
Enter Ethan Black, an ER physician Harriet encounters first when she injures her ankle extricating herself from a bad date and then again when Ethan is required to take care of his sister’s dog and Harriet is drafted from dog walking to dog sitting. Ethan is very much not a dog person, but he loves his sister and has a strong sense of responsibility, so there he is, saddled with a spaniel and Harriet.
Harriet is hesitant and nervous about dealing with Ethan, which brings out her long-buried stammer and makes her even more anxious. But she is determined to make sure Madi the dog is treated well, so she whips both Ethan and Madi into line.As they get to know each other she relaxes and Ethan discovers that there are women who will cook and make a home for themselves, not just to land a Hot Doctor.
I had planned on posting much more frequently starting January 2019, since I’m not teaching this semester. Hah. Oh well, at least I’ve been reading.
I finally finished Minds of Winter, which I bought when it was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2017. I restarted it several times because I’d pick it up and put it down and then not remember what I’d read. It’s a big, sprawling book, covering many characters, time periods, and even continents, so it helps to read it steadily. But it’s too big (500 pages) to read all at once!
I finally acknowledged that if I didn’t make it a reading project I wasn’t ever going to finish it. And I did want to. So I skimmed the first 100 pages (again) and then settled in. Readers, the journey was well worth the effort.
There are two storylines. One is made up of various polar explorations, starting with Sir John Franklin’s efforts to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s and the disappearance of his crew and ship. Somewhat confusingly, the historical storyline starts in Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), where Franklin was Lieutenant-Governor before his last voyage. Eventually that authorial decision makes sense to the reader, because other important characters are introduced. This storyline moves on to cover the expeditions in search of Franklin’s ship as well as other polar explorations. It’s very wide-ranging and often confusing to those of us who aren’t steeped in Shackleton, Franklin, and Arctic/Antarctic lore. But hang in there because it really does come together in the end in a way that is more than the sum of the parts.
I decided to join Wendy the SuperLibrarian’s TBR Challenge this year, since reading from the TBR is my main 2019 reading goal. And I do have my towering TBR of Harlequins to get through. January is always short reads, to ease us into the year. I knew I had books in Harlequin’s various short-story and novella lines, and I found a Jeannie Lin short from the Historical Undone line. It is the prequel to her debut novel for Harlequin, Butterfly Swords. I finally read that last year, so The Taming of Mei Lin sounded like a perfect follow-up.
This story is about 40 pages, more of an amuse-bouche than anything, but it packs a nice romance into its brief wordcount, complete with some sexy romantic scenes as well. Mei Lin is the grandmother of Ai Li, the heroine of Butterfly Swords, and her romance with the stranger who comes to town, Shen Leung, provides the ancestral backstory for the novel.
Mei Lin is an orphan who lives with her uncle, aunt, and cousin. She has resisted being married off as the third wife to the local magistrate, Zhou, which displeases both her uncle and Zhou. Mei Lin is adept in the use of butterfly swords and has decreed that she will only marry someone who can best her in a swordfight. Zhou can’t, and the emissaries he sends can’t either. But then Shen arrives. They are a well-matched pair in every way, and Mei Lin thinks this is a best deal she can probably get, but Shen doesn’t seem to want to claim his prize.
Their battle of swords turns into a battle of something more, as Mei Lin continues to fight Zhou’s thugs and Shen tries to stick to his plan to continue his solitary life. The attraction between them is convincing and well depicted, and the sex is integral to the story (as is always the case with Lin’s fiction, in my opinion).
As I said, this is a very quick read but a rewarding one. The cultural milieu is established well despite the word count constraints. If you haven’t read Butterfly Swords, start with this prequel, and if you have, read this for the backstory.
My first book of 2019 is from my regular TBR, an ebook I probably bought because it was on sale. I own three books by Fitzgerald but I’ve never read any of other work despite being a fan of mid-century UK women authors. I picked this one because people were discussing it as part of a Booker-themed reading project at The Mookes and the Gripes GR group. Readers, I loved it.
The story is set among barge-dwellers on the Battersea Reach of the Thames River in the early 1960s. Nella is a wife and mother of two daughters who is separated from her husband. She still seems to love him very much but he won’t live on the boat with her and she refuses to talk to him or visit him in north London, so they are at an impasse. Nella’s river community includes Richard, whose boat is shipshape and whose wife hates living in it; Maurice, a rent-boy who befriends Nella and her daughters and in whom Nella confides; Willis, an aging artist whose boat is barely staying above waterline; and Woodie, who lives half the year alone on his well-maintained boat and half the year on land with his wife. Nella’s children, the frighteningly adult and clear-eyed Martha and the born-to-water Tilda, move among the boats and people constantly and avoid attending their convent school as much as possible.
This is a world of liminality. Everyone is in an in-between state of one kind or another, and while it seems as if nothing is going on, lives are moving and changing, almost imperceptibly. Willis is getting ready to sell his boat, which sets off a chain of related and seemingly unrelated events. Richard’s wife reaches the end of her tether, which changes Richard and Nella’s relationship and brings buried feelings to the surface. Nella’s sister, who lives in Canada and who hovers in the background for much of the story, sending visitors who never arrive, shows up in London at the same time that one of her promised visitors actually arrives at Nella’s barge. The dangers of the rent-boy life finally catch up with Maurice and those around him. After three-quarters of a novel in which things barely seem to happen, everything comes to a melodramatic head.
I do love plane flights for letting me catch up on my reading. I managed two TBR books and a recent release; two of the three were quite short but all were enjoyable.
Harlequin TBR #514: The Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels
Another Neels in my Harlequin ebook TBR that I remembered nothing about, but someone in my Goodreads feed reviewed it positively and I wanted a Christmas read so I read it out of order. As I read, I placed it as a late-era Betty that I didn’t enjoy that much. But this time around it was different. Like most of the newer ones it was shorter than the older ones in terms of wordcount, which meant that the tropes were all there but more sketchily presented. In spite of this, though, the plot point which brings our plain-but-with-beautiful eyes heroine together with her massive-Dutch-Doctor hero was written so effectively that it carried the rest of the story and had me believing in the HEA.
Margo is indeed a vicar’s daugher and lives in a small village where she does vicar’s daughter-ish things and will probably marry a local farmer becasue that’s her best option. Then Gijs van Kessel enters her life and when a tragedy brings them closer together, they embark on a marriage of convenience. There are all the requisite Betty touches: lashings of cream, Margo getting lost and being rescued by Gijs, a Big Mis that delays their mutual declarations of love, and Christmas celebrations. It’s a slight book overall, but it has a couple of scenes that elevate it above the average.
I apparently bought this book in 2012. It’s a backlist historical by Harlequin/M&B, originally published in 2004. Victoria Aldridge published half a dozen category romances, all historicals set in New Zealand. This book has a Marriage of Convenience (MOC) trope, an unbelievably naïve heroine, and a hero with some unusual qualities. If you’ve been looking for non-wallpaper historicals, this is one for you.
Caroline Morgan wants nothing more than to run the family farm and other holdings when her father steps aside, but Ben Morgan refuses to consider a woman for the job. The eligible son of the property adjoining theirs in New South Wales is smitten with Caroline and Ben is pushing for a personal and business union. Caroline, who is naïve and feisty in equal parts (not my favorite combination in a heroine) refuses and runs away to New Zealand, where she hopes to find her mother’s sister, Charlotte.
She does indeed find Charlotte in Dunedin, a bustling city that serves the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s. Charlotte is the owner of the large and luxurious Castledene Hotel, which she inherited from her recently deceased husband. But the hotel is in disrepair, the staff aren’t being paid, the debts are mounting, and Charlotte, who cares nothing about the hotel, is in thrall to the oily and lecherous Mr. Thwaites. Thwaites runs the adjoining bar and makes a healthy profit on it but pays no rent to Charlotte. Caroline knows she can turn the hotel around, but she needs money, and the banker holding Charlotte’s notes won’t lend to a woman.
Enter our hero. Caroline needs a husband and fast, so she pays Leander Gray, a drunk she finds in Thwaites’ bar, to marry her. Of course Leander turns out to be More Than He Seems, and together they start putting the hotel to rights. Plot developments send Charlotte and Thwaites off-page (separately), and the first half of the story has our MOC’d couple working together and getting to know each other. They’re getting fond of each other and Leander has cleaned up nicely, but we still have half a book to go.
The first of my Harlequin TBR reviews is a Harlequin Romance by a new-to-me author, Jennie Adams. I used to buy a lot of HR because I liked the fact that the heroes and heroines were more or less ordinarily people and the settings weren’t over the top. There are a lot of babies in this line, which I prefer in moderation, and I probably picked this because it was baby-free.
It wasn’t a great read. But I read the whole thing, and I get to cross one off the list.
Surprise: Outback Proposal by Jennie Adams
This is an Australian-set romance in the regular Harlequin Romance line. The main trope is older woman-younger man, with workplace romance and road trip as secondary tropes. Sadly, I found the heroine unbearable and I couldn’t believe in the HEA. Jayne is 35, outwardly successful in her career, and attractive. She’s working in the family company and trying to persuade her father, the boss, to promote her to partner, but he’s fixed his eye on a young new male hire as his heir apparent (picture the ambitious shark played by James Spader in Baby Boom but with less charisma). The father is basically a selfish, sexist jerk whose first wife (Jayne’s mother) walked out on him, leaving Jayne and her sister behind. Since then he’s gone through several wives, with each being younger than the last. This upbringing has made Jayne pathologically insecure and distrustful of all relationships. She has no friends we can discern, either. She “socializes” with men to go to events, but these are all entirely chaste encounters so the men don’t stick around.
The hero is Alex, who has his own sad backstory: he was abandoned on the doorstep of an orphanage by his mother and he only learned her name and circumstances when he received a posthumously mailed letter from her. He joined forces with two other boys at the orphanage and made a found family, but he’s also wary of attachment. So we have two damaged people.
Given that, it’s a bit disconcerting that the story opens with Jayne and Alex having an introductory business meeting about a potential contract and half of the exposition and internal monologuing is about how hot they find each other. And in Jayne’s case, how unattractive she must be, given her ancient age. My eyes, they could not stop rolling. There are all kinds of problems that can come with a 10-year age gap between a 25YO and a 35YO, but the obvious one of maturity is brushed aside quickly. No, it’s because Jayne is a cougar and Alex can’t possibly want her.
I don’t read as many romance novels as I did a few years ago, but I never fully stop reading them. And a heavy dose of literary fiction almost demands some palate cleansers, in my case mysteries and romance with the occasional SFF novel thrown in. I usually turn to auto-buy authors or something in the TBR that’s been recommended by someone whose tastes align with me. This time it was Sarah Morgan, one of my favorite authors, who is now writing women’s fiction, and Kate Hewitt, who writes UK-set and UK-style romantic novels. They’re both still recognizably romances, but they have a larger cast of characters, fewer pages devoted to sex scenes without being necessarily closed-door, and characters who are older or at least not usually on their first relationship.
The Christmas Sisters by Sarah Morgan
I’m always a sucker for Christmas stories from Morgan, and this one is set during the holidays in a remote village in Scotland. Three sisters gather at their parents’ house, two coming from New York and the third from down the road (she never left home). All three have family and relationship issues to deal with, as well as a shared trauma in their past that they’ve never really resolved. The trauma resurfaces in an unexpected way, shaping their interactions with each other as well as their romantic choices. This is an intergenerational story, with the parents’ history and contemporary circumstances getting equal billing with their adult childrens’ concerns.
Many romance readers haven’t been thrilled with the shift to women’s fiction, but I haven’t minded it. I’ve always enjoyed books that straddle that boundary, and in the case of UK writers, the books remind me of the types of romantic novels that don’t always make it across the water. There is still enough focus on romance for me to enjoy the stories for that element, but there’s also more going on, and you can have lots of characters without feeling like they’re being set up for their own installments in a multi-volume series.
The Giller Prize was awarded last night and the winner was Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (my review is here). This is Canada’s biggest fiction award at $100,000, and it’s the second time Edugyan has won it.
I thought the Giller longlist was interesting but I wasn’t thrilled with the shortlist. I decided not to read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, having had enough autofiction for the year, and the other two books I read didn’t impress me. Here are my reviews, cross-posted from Goodreads:
French Exit by Patrick DeWitt
This is my first novel by DeWitt and probably not a good place to start. I found this very disappointing. There are flashes of wonderful writing, but the novel doesn’t hang together at all. It starts out as a wickedly satirical take on the obscenely wealthy and ends up as a sentimental fable. I went with the complete unreality of the first part because the writing was deft and I was impressed by DeWitt’s apparent commitment to creating characters who were unlikeable yet interesting (Malcolm was interesting despite being a complete blank in many ways). I didn’t really believe that someone as unpleasant as Frances could be so charismatic, but again, I was willing to buy the setup.
But when the setting shifted to Paris, the satire softened and we were confronted with psychic phenomena, uncomfortable scenes set in a reality that was much harder to hand-wave away as funny (a riot and police action against homeless immigrants in a park, watched by the wealthy and bored, from the vantage point of the latter? Why?), and redemption for people who had done absolutely nothing to get to that point, let alone earn it. The symbolism was on-the-nose (Frances buys Malcolm a bicycle), the coincidences started to pile up, and the characters became imbued with attitudes and beliefs that, had they had them from the beginning, would have saved them from their various fates. This is billed as a “tragedy of manners” but I’m not sure what’s tragic about people reaping what they have very clearly sown, despite more opportunities than most people have to take other paths. Unless the messages are that (a) money doesn’t buy happiness; (b) childhood trauma happens to the rich and the poor; and (c) friends are important even when you’re wealthy. No kidding.
This is a recent release in the US and will be published in January 2019 in the UK. It has received rave reviews from two critics I respect and frequently agree with, Dwight Garner at the New York Times and James Wood at The New Yorker. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but it is his fifth novel and he’s won various writing awards. I was intrigued by the book because I’ve been doing research and writing on why young women are attracted to Islamic extremist organizations like ISIS. I co-authored and presented a conference paper with an undergraduate student and we’re trying to figure out what direction to take it for revision and then submission to a journal. It’s a difficult topic to research because what systematic data exist are usually proprietary, and the topic combines psychology, sociology, and political science. I thought a novel could shed some interesting light on individual motivations and help me think about the project in a different way. Sometimes fiction can illuminate in ways social science can’t, and this seemed like one of those times.
Godsend is a relatively short book in terms of word and page count. The print version is 240 pages. The story is inspired by John Walker Lindh, the young American from California who converted to Islam, went to fight with the Taliban, and was captured, tried, and sentenced to prison in the years after 9/11. Wray was commissioned by Esquire to write a story about Lindh and went to Afghanistan in 2016 or thereabouts to find people who knew him. (This background should have been a red flag for me. As someone who does qualitative research, interviewing people 15 years after the time you’re interested in is not likely to get you factually accurate information, especially about a notorious individual.) While Wray was there, he heard a rumor about a girl who had also joined the insurgents. He was never able to pin down concrete information about her, even whether she really existed, and she was variously described as American, Dutch, or English (he doesn’t say she was white and/or non-Muslim, but that’s implied by the comparison to Lindh). He abandoned the feature story and decided to write a book about a girl using some of Lindh’s backstory.
The novel opens in late 2000 or early 2001 and introduces us to Aden Sawyer, an 18-year-old who lives in Santa Rosa, California. Aden is preparing to leave home and fly to Pakistan to study Islam at a madrassa. She is leaving behind a life she is completely alienated from: her parents are separated, her mother is an alcoholic, and she has no friends. Her father, an Islamic Studies professor, mentions that he can get her a deferment, presumably for her college admission, but she is determined to go. Aden is accompanied by her friend-with-benefits, Dexter Yousufzai, whose family is from Pakistan via Dubai and who has found the madrassa through his connections.
You might be asking how a young woman can attend an all-male madrassa in rural northwest Pakistan, and you’d be right to do so. Aden has this all figured out: she has shaved her head, acquired native garb and will be binding her breasts with an Ace bandage. As a romance reader I felt right at home. Aden has also been studying Arabic since she found the local mosque and converted to Islam, but she doesn’t speak Urdu or Pashto. She’s also very recognizably Western, given her fair skin, cultural ignorance, basic Arabic, and non-exist vernacular skills.