Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Forever Your Earl by Eva Leigh (The Wicked Quills of London #1)

Summary from Goodreads:
Eva Leigh’s irresistible new series introduces the Wicked Quills of London: a group of bold, brilliant female writers whose spirited allure is beyond seductive…

Eleanor Hawke loves a good scandal. And readers of her successful gossip rag live for the exploits of her favorite subject: Daniel Balfour, the notorious Earl of Ashford. So when the earl himself marches into her office and invites her to experience his illicit pursuits firsthand, Eleanor is stunned. Gambling hells, phaeton races, masquerades . . . What more could a scandal writer want than a secret look into the life of this devilishly handsome rake?

Daniel has secrets, and if The Hawk’s Eye gets wind of them, a man’s life could be at stake. And what better way to distract a gossip than by feeding her the scandal she desperately craves? But Daniel never expected the sharp mind and biting wit of the beautiful writer, and their desire for each other threatens even his best-laid plans.

But when Eleanor learns the truth of his deception, Daniel will do anything to prove a romance between a commoner and an earl could really last forever.

Daniel Balfour, the Earl of Ashford, intends to tempt one Mr. E. Hawke, proprietor of the scandal rag The Hawk’s Eye, with an exclusive: a first-hand look at the scandalous activities the rag so gleefully reports second-hand.  He intends to start with an evening at an exclusive gambling hell in Mayfair…except there is no “Mister” Hawke.  “Miss” Hawke, Eleanor, is the proprietor.  Miss Hawke, as a self-made woman in her early thirties, is no milk-and-water simpering ton maiden.  She agrees to Ashford’s plan – with a little help from her friends in the theatre Eleanor captures her story and Daniel’s attention.  Eleanor is the type of woman Daniel didn’t realise he wanted – sharp, quick-thinking, enterprising, takes no crap, and calls him on his BS – but turns out to be exactly the woman he needs.  For his part, Daniel demonstrates to Eleanor that not all noblemen are useless, morally-dubious toffs.  Even if they drive the best phaeton in town.

I really, really enjoyed Forever Your Earl, the first book in The Wicked Quills of London series by Eva Leigh. Now, I’ve been having a bit of trouble with new series lately, particularly from authors that are new-to-me.  The “hooks” are a problem, or the premises are overly-contrived, or the writing falls flat.  However, Eva Leigh – who is a new-to-me author – has put together a cross-class romance series (we’re given a look at Heroine and Hero #2 at the end of Forever Your Earl, so I’m assuming that Heroine #3 will also be a writer – possibly of a document we are tangentially introduced to in this book – and that Hero #3 will also be a dissolute nobleman of some variety, possibly someone we are also introduced to in this book) that manages to stay true to the Regency period yet feels fresh and delivers on the writing.  Given that our heroine Eleanor is a writer, I had expected good quality writing.  This book delivered with a bonus-order of snappy dialogue the way I enjoy it from Tessa Dare (though no dirty math jokes, sigh) and Sarah MacLean.  Eva Leigh is in good company among the stellar line-up of Avon authors.  The theatre back-stage scenes are appropriately chaotic and funny, the scene at the gambling hell is approrpriately sumptuous, the phaeton race is thrilling, and the B-plot is so, so good.  Oh, and there’s a romance, too.  It’s sweet and so appropriate and no one was a complete tool about saying those three little words when it was necessary to say those three little words.

There’s only one thing that I didn’t like about this book and that I felt very bashed-over-the-head by discussions of gender roles and class roles and how men act versus how women act.  It felt too modern for my taste in Regencies and I think I felt this way because it seemed to occur during one single arc very early in the book when Eleanor dresses in drag to go to the gambling hell.  We lost the majority of the gender tension – even though some of the scene was very funny – and I think maybe the discussions could have spread out through the book.  Just to be a bit more subtle.  But that’s a minor thing in a really fun book.

Forever Your Earl is available now, wherever books are sold, AND for those of you who really like it, the next book in the series, Scandal Takes the Stage, will be available at the end of October!

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this novel from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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stuff I read · YA all the way

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (The Gold Seer Trilogy #1)

Summary from Goodreads:
The first book in a new trilogy from acclaimed New York Times-bestselling author Rae Carson. A young woman with the magical ability to sense the presence of gold must flee her home, taking her on a sweeping and dangerous journey across Gold Rush–era America. Walk on Earth a Stranger begins an epic saga from one of the finest writers of young adult literature.

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

Rae Carson, author of the acclaimed Girl of Fire and Thorns series, dazzles with the first book in the Gold Seer Trilogy, introducing a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance, as only she can.

YA series are the worst series to start when only partially finished.  The best ones leave you salivating for more and the first book in Rae Carson’s new trilogy, The Gold Seer, is no exception.

So…hands up, who played Oregon Trail on a PC in the 1990s, 8-bit graphics and all?  And died, a lot?  Seriously, I never ONCE made it to Oregon. I always caught cholera or got bit by a rattlesnake or the oxen died or I ran out of water….clearly, I would never survive in IRL wilderness let alone a 19th century wagon train.

The heroine of Walk on Earth a Stranger, Leah, must disguise herself as Lee-the-boy to escape her nefarious uncle (not a spoiler) and join a wagon train headed to Gold Rush-era California.  With her best friend, Jefferson McCauley, of course.  Leah must also protect her gold-sensing ability – she’s like a dowser but instead of divining water, she can divine specks of gold dust.  The route from her small town in Georgia to the gold fields of California is hard and dangerous.  There are thieves (maybe one of them was sent to find her), disease, starvation, bad water, racist jerks, and a Micawber of-sorts but far less good-hearted than the real Micawber (those of you who’ve read Dickens’s David Copperfield, I’ll let you work that one out).  But Lee grows from a fifteen-year-old girl running for her life into a competent, strong woman through her journey.

Walk on Earth a Stranger is a change from Carson’s previous trilogy, Girl of Fire and Thorns.  Those books were straight-up fantasy based around the premise of god-chosen individuals in a medieval Spanish-like setting who are expected to perform miracles; the heroine, Elisa, must save her adopted country from usurping dictators and balance the flow of magic and religion between two races and religions.  Walk on Earth a Stranger could remain a solid historical fiction series with the exception of Lee’s gold-divining ability.  The historical research is A-plus without bashing the reader over the head with obvious details.  The secondary characters are memorable and diverse.  Carson allows real events like menstruation and childbirth to happen in real time as perfectly normal things (this is important – real girls get periods and real women worried about dying in childbirth so the fact that these are presented as issues one might run into while disguised as a boy or travelling as a woman in a wagon train to California is a way to firmly root characters in reality.  Side note: Lee isn’t the pregnant one, before y’all start freaking out).

I loved the heck out of this book.  Walk on Earth a Stranger is well-plotted, perfectly paced to keep you reading, and formed around a kick-ass young woman who learns to be an adult in one of the harshest environments imaginable.  This first book in the Gold Seer Trilogy wraps up nicely, but I really hope we don’t have long to wait for the second and then the third.

Walk on Earth a Stranger is available today, September 22, 2015, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Summary from Goodreads:

HA! I’m not posting one (reasons).

So, back when I was moderating Barnes and Noble book discussions online, I was given an opportunity to read an advance copy of a debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, and participate in a discussion with the author, Lauren Groff.

Of course, I said yes.

Unfortunately, I wound up bailing on the book after about 20 pages.  I didn’t like the main character, didn’t have any patience for her supposed “problem” (I have a rule about sleeping with bosses, mentors, advisees, etc. for good reasons, many of them), and the monster of the title had yet to make an appearance.  When Arcadia appeared a few years ago, I read the blurb and didn’t feel inspired to try it out.

Hence, we come to Fates and Furies.  Everyone whose reading tastes I respect read the advances and gushed.  Gushed so much.  And yet no one was really giving reviews or talking about the plot.  Just that the rest of us should read Fates and Furies as soon as possible.

So I took that very good advice, surfed on over to Edelweiss, skipped reading the cover copy, downloaded the DRC, and read the heck out of Fates and Furies while on a plane ride last week.

This is a good book, a minutely observed portrait of a marriage between Lotto and Mathilde and all the ways in which good marriages work and how good marriages can mess up and how spouses can not know or not know each other.  And that is literally all I have to say about the plot, because I think the blurb/summary might give away too much.

What I really loved about this book is the structure.  How and when Groff chooses to allow the narrator to comment on the characters.  What parts are structured as a script.  Where the timelines shift back and forth.  And where Groff drops a gear and changes the entire key of the novel.  That is what I really, really liked about this book.

So go out and acquire Fates and Furies from your local bookstore, your ebook retailer, or beat feet to your library before everyone else does.  Put it in your head.  As for me, I’m willing to try Arcadia now or give Monsters of Templeton another shot.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Summary from Goodreads:
In the near future, after a storm strikes New York City, the strangenesses begin. A down-to-earth gardener finds that his feet no longer touch the ground. A graphic novelist awakens in his bedroom to a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub–Stan Lee creation. Abandoned at the mayor’s office, a baby identifies corruption with her mere presence, marking the guilty with blemishes and boils. A seductive gold digger is soon tapped to combat forces beyond imagining.

Unbeknownst to them, they are all descended from the whimsical, capricious, wanton creatures known as the jinn, who live in a world separated from ours by a veil. Centuries ago, Dunia, a princess of the jinn, fell in love with a mortal man of reason. Together they produced an astonishing number of children, unaware of their fantastical powers, who spread across generations in the human world.

Once the line between worlds is breached on a grand scale, Dunia’s children and others will play a role in an epic war between light and dark spanning a thousand and one nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights. It is a time of enormous upheaval, where beliefs are challenged, words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse.

Confession: I have only ever read Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (sorry, Midnight’s Children, I’ll get to you someday…I hope).  So I came to Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights without a lot of expectations aside from expecting some weird, given the blurb.

There’s a lot of weird.  Two Years is a weird, crazy ride of a novel.  Apocalyptic, ur-fairy tale combined with political and cultural commentary.  And humor, humor of the absurd that makes you double-take because it’s wrapped up in the fantastical events of the end of the world, known as the War of the Worlds (Rushdie peppered the book with literary references, Candide by Voltaire being a very obvious one).  There’s a baby that causes corrupt people to visibly rot if they touch her.  There’s a woman who takes revenge on a lover by hitting him with lightning bolts.  There’s a gardener who wakes up one morning to find that he is gradually rising into the air.  And the world starts going crazy with super-weather events and political meltdown.

What ties all this together are the jinni and jinnia – the “genies” of legend, both male and female, good and evil, who go to war over the future of humanity and the philosophy of religion and reason – and the descendants of a union between a powerful jinn princess and a human man.  Rushdie uses the idea of Shahrazad and the tales of 1,001 nights as a way into his fantastical timeline with some beautiful interpolations of fairy tales from different cultures.

Two Years is an interesting novel but it’s almost too over-stuffed, filled with what seems to be a cast of thousands.  There are so many moving parts that I started to lose track of them all.  There are the four Great Ifrits, two dead philosophers, the jinnia Dunia, Dunia’s descendants, random family members/acquaintances/who knows what hangers-on of the descendants, and members of the populace at large and each of these has vivid description and narrative timelines criss-crossing one another.  If it weren’t for the fact that Rushdie has a way of writing sentences that slip into the brain like “buddah” Two Years would be a hard novel to read.  I liked it but I didn’t want to marinate in the sentences in the same way I did when reading The Satanic Verses.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is available today, September 8, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

dies · stuff I read

Mãn by Kim Thúy

Summary from Goodreads:
A triumph of poetic beauty and a moving meditation on how love and food are inextricably entwined, Mãn is a seductive and luminous work of literature from Kim Thúy, whose first book, Ru, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, received a Governor General’s Literary Award and won the nationwide book competition Canada Reads.

Mãn has three mothers: the one who gives birth to her in wartime, the nun who plucks her from a vegetable garden, and her beloved Maman, who becomes a spy to survive. Seeking security for her grown daughter, Maman finds Mãn a husband–a lonely Vietnamese restaurateur who lives in Montreal. Thrown into a new world, Mãn discovers her natural talent as a chef. Gracefully she practices her art, with food as her medium. She creates dishes that are much more than sustenance for the body: they evoke memory and emotion, time and place, and even bring her customers to tears. Mãn is a mystery–her name means “perfect fulfillment,” yet she and her husband seem to drift along, respectfully and dutifully. But when she encounters a married chef in Paris, everything changes in the instant of a fleeting touch, and Mãn discovers the all-encompassing obsession and ever-present dangers of a love affair. Full of indelible images of beauty, delicacy and quiet power, Mãn is a novel that begs to be savoured for its language, its sensuousness and its love of life.

Mãn is a book that I might probably have picked up and read all on my own.  It was slated for feature in the Discover Bay at the store (I walk past the display multiple times during a shift) and I like to pick books out of that list.  However…some smart person at Kim Thúy’s publisher decided to purchase sponsorships for Book Riot podcasts so for a week-and-then-some this book was in my ears.

Of course I had to have it.

Mãn is one of the best, best books I read or will read this year.  It is a beautiful, slim, delicately wrought novel comprised of tiny flash-style chapters and a word for each chapter translated into Vietnamese in the margin.  (Aside: the physical design of Mãn is soul-destroyingly beautiful.)  It is a the story of a woman trying to find where she belongs in the world.  It is the story of a culture that has held onto so many of its traditions even as its people are forced to disperse around the globe.  It is the story of ordinary people who make sacrifices.  It is a story of how food can convey emotion and memory.  All of this is packed into 140 spare, quiet pages.

A perfect novel for a rainy, quiet evening.  I’ll definitely have my eye out for Ru in the future.