Tuesday, September 20, 2016

City of Jasmine

The title: City of Jasmine
The author: Deanna Raybourn
Publication: Harlequin MIRA, 2014
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks

Anyone looking for a rip-roaring 1920s adventure in the style of Indiana Jones, Miss Fisher, or my beloved Amelia Peabody, would enjoy this one.  I listened to it on audiobook and quite liked the episodic derring-do of the main characters.

Evangeline Starke (no relation to Iron Man, I presume) is a famous aviatrix in 1920s London.  She's sort of widowed - her husband, Gabriel, left her five years earlier in Shanghai and then went down with the Lusitania.  Or is he dead?  Dun dun dun.  Evangeline has a newspaper photo that might prove otherwise.  So she's off with her eccentric Aunt Dove, a former Victorian adventuress, and their sidekick bird Arthur Wellesley, to Damascus where the picture was taken.  There's lots of exotic details about the city, the desert and the archeological site where Evie ends up. Of course, it wouldn't be a true Indiana Jones-type adventure without a sacred relic, secret identities, double-crosses, lots of guns being shot, evil villains and a plane chase.  And romance, naturally. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

The title: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
The author: Katarina Bivald
Publication: Sourcebooks, 2016
Got it from: The library

If you like books about small towns and reading, this one will definitely appeal to you.  Mix one part 88 Charing Cross Road,  one part Chocolat and one part The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, throw in some cornfields, and you have The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.

Sara is from Sweden and she's never traveled outside her hometown.  Her only contact with the outside world is through books (she's a voracious reader) and her letters to Amy, an elderly woman from Broken Wheel, Iowa, who orders books from the store where Sara works.  When the story begins, Sara is out of work and arrives in Broken Wheel for a three-month visit to see Amy, only to find herself stumbling into the middle of Amy's funeral.  The townspeople insist she stay at Amy's house, and at first Sara is at loose ends, stuck in a houseful of books.  She wants to repay the kindness the townspeople have shown her, but no one will let her.  At last she strikes upon an idea: she will open a bookshop and give away Amy's books to the non-readers of Broken Wheel.

I was fully expecting this book to go all "the books transformed the people forevermore" route, but it didn't quite play out like that.  This book was cozy, and some lessons were learned, but it didn't go in all the directions I expected it to.  (Except: Amy's hunky nephew Tom.  Yeah, that went pretty much how I expected.  You can't have a good book without romance.)  There was definitely some "crazy small town shenanigans" tropes present (the author, like her character, seems to have learned everything about small-town America from the works of Fannie Flagg.)  But this book is as much a love story to other books as it is to small towns, and bibliophiles will delight in the all the references, which remain pleasingly snob-free.  Bridget Jones gets as much love here as Annie Proulx.  Although the ending petered out somewhat, most of the book was a delightful charmer.

Monday, August 8, 2016

At the Altar: Matrimonial Tales

The title: At the Altar: Matrimonial Tales
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: McClelland & Stewart, 1994
Got it from: NB, 1995

On days when I just want a feel-good, happy ending story, I re-read one of L.M. Montgomery's books and everything feels right again. They are my comfort stories, and I have loved rediscovering them after first reading them about twenty years ago.  Of course there's nothing I love more than a good romance and these 18 stories have them aplenty.  What I especially love about them is that most of the characters aren't the "romantic" sorts that the characters themselves dream of.  Often they are middle aged and practical, but Montgomery somehow manages to bring out their romantic sides.

Stories I particularly love in this anthology: "Jessamine": a woman languishing in the city is visited by a farmer who restores her soul by taking her out to see his farm.  He rescues her from having to move west by his proposal.  "Miss Cordelia's Accomodation": an old maid takes a group of factory children to the country for a holiday, and meets a rather accommodating farmer.  "A Dinner of Herbs": a 33-year-old woman who faces having to share a room with a stupid teenaged relative makes a desperate proposal to a reclusive neighbour to avoid having to marry an unpalatable widower.  "The Dissipation of Miss Ponsonby" (my favourite): a 35-year-old woman who was separated from the man she loved 15 years earlier by her father is aided in making a daring escape to a dance when he returns from the west, helped by two younger neighbours who give her a makeover. 

Of course some of these stories were better than others, but every single one was enjoyable.  What can I say about Montgomery's works that I haven't already?  I'll let the editor describe it herself from the afterward: "I read them year in and year out, again and again.  I never tired of their apparent simplicity, finding them more complex than they seemed, their emotions true and believable.  They were part of my innermost being.  But there weren't enough of them."

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Atlas of Lost Cities

The title: Atlas of Lost Cities
The author: Aude de Toqueville
Publication: Hachette, 2016
Got it from: The library

I love reading travel books, but not the normal kind, more like the kind about really weird places almost no one goes to or wants to go to.  It gives me a strange thrill, like when I'm alone in a deserted part of a museum looking at some forgotten display that suddenly transports me to another time and place.  In some ways this book reminds me of Unruly Places, a book I still like to think about from time to time.  The title of Atlas is misleading, because this book is not really an atlas, nor is it solely about cities, and they're not lost, except in the sense that they aren't what they once were (which, really, what place isn't?)

I read this book cover to cover, which is kind of a weird way to read it, since it's not very organized.  The sections are roughly based around continents, but they jump around in  time and place depending on the author's whim.  There's no rhyme or reason to the author's choices, and they're really just little snippets of the history of these places, not encyclopedia entries.  There's not even any real pictures, just drawings, which might disappoint some people but kind of reminded me of a charming Victorian travel guide.  If you're okay with the randomness of it all, you'll probably enjoy this book.  I learned quite a bit about places I knew nothing about, like the town in Pennsylvania that's been on fire since some fireworks were foolishly set off in the 1960s.  There's a lot of weird ghost towns in this book, like places that were built and expected to prosper but were never lived in and just abandoned.  There's also some underwater towns, although sadly no mention of the towns lost to the St. Lawrence seaway.  The author seemed to stick more to lesser-known places that spark the imagination rather than famous lost places, although Pompeii is in here (the only one of the "lost cities" I've actually been to.) 

Monday, July 25, 2016


The title: Devoted
The author: Jennifer Mathieu
Publication: Roaring Brook Press, 2015
Got it from: The library

I was sitting here this weekend, trying to figure out why this book was making me feel so many things and why it felt so incredible that I couldn't put it down.  Then it hit me that this book is kind of like the YA version of The Blue Castle, my favourite book of all time.  And I guess it just shows how much I love stories about women who leave their crazy, oppressive families and find supportive people who guide them into doing whatever the hell they want. 

This book has exploded across my consciousness like a bomb.  It feels like such a beautiful, important, amazing expression of what it feels like to be a young woman who realizes that she's better than what her religion tells her and that there's a whole world out there for her.  It's feminist in a way that reminded me of what feminism really means.  It's a wake-up call to remember that there are so many women all over the world who can't dress the way they want, speak their minds, get an education or even show their emotions.  I take it for granted, but this book made me appreciate just what a rare, precious gift it is for me to be a woman who can go anywhere, say anything, and most importantly, spend my free time however I want. 

Rachel Walker grows up in a family where none of those freedoms are available to her.  She lives in a strictly religious community where her family follows the Quiverfull movement, and her life is similar to the one portrayed by the Duggars on 19 Kids and Counting (and I couldn't help thinking of her family as the Duggars when I read the book).  She's homeschooled by religious textbooks, attends church several times a week, is exhausted by raising her many younger siblings, and lives in poverty.  Her family quotes scripture all day, she must always show "cheerful countenance" and her father is the ultimate authority. When the story opens, Rachel is 17 and knows that she must soon follow in the footsteps of her ultra-pious older sister Faith and get married and start having babies. 

But it's clear from the beginning that Rachel isn't like the rest of her family.  She's smart, and she's sensitive.  She sneaks books and reads them secretly, which as we all know is about the most dangerous and powerful thing a young woman can do.  She starts to feel things and question her family, her religion, her whole way of life.  This book does such a lovely job of explaining just what it's like when you start questioning your faith.  I know because I've been there.  I know how it feels when the truth starts making cracks in a lifetime of beliefs, until you can't stop them as they multiply and suddenly the daylight bursts forth.  It's the most wonderful and exhilarating and terrifying feeling. 

Tears are running down my face, and I try to stop them but I can't.  I can't make sense of the words-not all of them-but something about them makes me catch my breath.  Makes me read them again and again.  Especially the final two lines.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

The fact that this question now exists in my brain makes me feel like a million bubbles are exploding on my skin all at once.  

How long has this question existed? How many other people have asked themselves these very words?  

What is it that I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?  

My wild life?

My precious life?

To be a godly wife to my future husband and raise my children in the service of the Lord.  

It's been my answer all my life. It's always come so easily.

Maybe because I've never asked the question first.

This is important stuff.  This is powerful stuff.  This is the kind of thing that girls should be asked growing up but they don't.  There's an assumption, even if you don't grow up in a cult, that as woman you're going to get married and have babies.  No one ever talks about how there's a whole world out there, a whole lifetime of other satisfying things you could be doing.  And confining yourself to be a slave to your family is like death to an intelligent woman.   I completely understand when Rachel's so exhausted with taking care of her family and trying to be good that she goes into her closet and screams into her dress.  And I completely, absolutely, 100% get it when Rachel thinks about her soon-to-be life:

Please, Father God, don't give me so many babies I can't find a moment's peace to read or think, or watch the sunset.  

...I think about sitting at my parents' dining room table in a few years, responsible for a baby in my belly and a baby in my arms.

I can't breathe.

I stare at my hands, like they belong to someone else. Someone I don't know but who lately seems intent on making herself known to me...

Watching Rachel's growth as she comes to see the truth about her family and her cult is a truly moving experience.  As she slowly connects with someone from the outside world who has managed to escape from the same religion, you just want to cheer her on in her mental and physical escape.  I particularly love Rachel's growing awareness that women can have lustful feelings, and that she has them too.  There's a certain scene when Rachel thinks about a boy she likes that really encapsulates the incredible feeling of romantic attraction:

I think about [him] looking at me like that. And about what it would feel like to know his eyes were on me, unable to look away.

Suddenly, there's a fuzzy tingle running through every fine hair on my arms, down my skin, like a million fuzzy tingles at once. And there's a gentle thud between my legs that makes me catch my breath.

If you want to read a book about what it feels like to realize that you are human for the first time, and experience what true freedom feels like for the first time, I couldn't recommend a better book than Devoted.  Now excuse me while I go revel in my quiet, peaceful, undemanding household where I can research and read and think whatever I want.

Mother-Daughter Book Camp

The title: Mother-Daughter Book Camp
The author:  Heather Vogel Frederick
Publication: Simon & Schuster, 2016
Got it from: The library

We were told back in 2012 that Wish You Were Eyre would be the last in the Mother-Daughter Book Camp series, but here it is four years later and we get an installment that Heather Vogel Frederick swears is positively, definitely the last one. For the final outing, Emma, Jess, Megan, Cassidy and Becca are counselors at Camp Lovejoy in New Hampshire.  Sharp readers may remember the name Lovejoy from the author's previous title Absolutely Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery. Yep: the two worlds cross each other, with a few characters from the Pumpkin Falls story appearing in this one, including the town of Pumpkin Falls and Lovejoy's Books.  You don't have to have read Absolutely Truly to enjoy this, but it helps.

Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of camps, either attending them or reading about them.  However, I was willing to follow the girls there.  This book has a definite summer holiday feel that I would have loved reading about when I was young and on summer break.  In a way it showcases how the girls, now about to enter college, have come full circle and become mentors themselves.  In fact, the "mothers" of the Mother-Daughter Book Club are almost entirely absent.  Instead the girls themselves take over that role by teaching the camp children and organizing a camp book club where they read Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (which I listened to on audiobook before I read this book).

I don't think this was a particularly necessary installment in the series, but I was happy to spend more time with the gang and see how their lives were going.  Fans will enjoy it. I'm just looking forward to more Pumpkin Falls mysteries.

Monday, July 4, 2016

In Total Surrender

The title: In Total Surrender
The author:  Anne Mallory
Publication: Avon, 2011
Got it from: Library book sale

This is one of those books that I have had sitting on my shelves for a few years, and I kept telling myself I should read it.  And then I did, and I have to tell you: this book is INSANE.  It was not what I expected AT ALL.  I thought, yeah yeah, it's going to be your typical dark romance, he's king of the underworld, she's the light that will redeem him, it will be enjoyable and predictable and safe.  I don't even know how to describe how much that did not happen.  It was like stepping on a monorail and expecting a monorail ride, but instead finding yourself upside down in the Scrambler and hanging on for dear life and screaming, "what the hell is happening to meeeeee?"

This book was crack.  I honestly had no idea what to expect from one page to the next.  I mean, beyond that the hero and heroine would get together eventually, of course.  But other than that, this book took every single romantic trope, turned it upside down, whacked it with a stick, and then turned the trope inside out and sewed it back together and still left you going,WHAT IS THIS?

Andreas Merrick is bad.  Really bad.  A bad and mysterious head of a murky crime underworld in Georgian Regency Victorian old times?  Phoebe Pace needs his help to save her family's company from ruination.  Also, because she is a woman with a pulse, she finds his hotness/badness intriguing and sexy.  It's obvious from the very first scene that she wants him bad, and the rest of the book is basically her trying to wear him down while he resists, resists, resists letting her get close.  Her attraction only intensifies in the opening scene when five men come to kill him and Andreas takes them out without a second thought, saving her life in the process.
Most of this book is actually from Andreas's perspective, which is great because otherwise he would be unfathomable.  The book does a fantastic job right away at establishing his character. In the opening pages, he's reading a letter from his brother, who is on his honeymoon (he's the hero of the previous book):

Dear Brother,

Charlotte and I arrived in Italy to a bloody fantastic...

Blah, blah, some festival drivel, blah, blah, happiness, blah.  Andreas skimmed the barely legible note - a page full of sentiment.

As the plot moves along, more and more backstory gets revealed, including Phoebe's motives and her reasons for trusting Andreas.  The interactions between the two are hilarious, with her cheerful unflappability up against his stoniness. Their interactions in the first few chapters are priceless.  You have to give Phoebe credit for standing up to him when he acts like a total ass to her for the first half of the book.  She meets his bad humour with the best of spirits:

"I am a vile man."  He gave her a feral smile, letting the darkness rise.  "The absolute worst you will ever meet."

"That is absurd, Mr. Merrick."  The darkness froze, then began undulating, snapping at an unseen threat.  "How do you know what kind of men I might meet in the future?"

Tilting head, tilting head, tilting head...it would feature prominently in his nightmares tonight.

The fun ratchets up when Phoebe infiltrates his world by winning his men over with smiles and baked goods, much to Andreas's annoyance.  The amusing "win over the thugs" plot is a favourite trope of mine.  It leads to some un-romancelike swearing on Andreas's part, which I found totally hilarious and which I know will probably horrify a lot of romance readers.  In one of my favourite scenes, Andreas is questioning his lackeys to determine just how much Phoebe has won them over and is very displeased with the findings:

Two boys tumbled into the room, one large and fearful, one reedy and eager...The third stalked behind, small arms crossed, jagged scar the length of his forehead.  Belligerent little fuck.

...He turned to the little shit, Tommy, to continue his questions, but a croak emerged from the hulking boy.

"She said my cooking is good," the low voice whispered, some sort of apology edged with defiance, then wrapped in a terrified package.

He looked closely at all three faces, eyes narrowed.  His lips pressed together hard enough to hurt due to what he read there.  They had claimed her as one of their own.

He thought of six ways to insult a man's mother.

I also loved, in another chapter, how frustrated Andreas is by the difference between himself and Phoebe.  After a night of arson, fighting off assassins, and protecting Phoebe's home, he turns up in the morning looking like crap and finds her there:

And here Miss Bleeding Sunshine sat, looking as if just this morning she'd been attended by fairies, baked with elves, and had tea with a unicorn.

This book is not without its problems.  For instance, the business aspect is discussed in great detail at the beginning of the book, but there's not a lot more about it later on to justify all the explanation.  There's also the problem, as many reviewers have pointed out, that the sex scenes are vague and disappointing, especially given all the tension before it.  Phoebe also tilts her head a lot, so much so I was worried she was going to get neck cramps.  The ending also left something to be desired.  Things got wrapped up much too neatly, and I really didn't need a "twenty years later" scene.  It's a pet peeve of mine, and I wish romance authors would stop doing that.  I also know that the fact that Andreas is pretty much a villain will turn a lot of people off.  But I still love this book.  Not in spite of its weirdness, but because of it.