The Heiress Effect (CBR6 #47)

What happens when you aren’t built for the life you’re in? In The Heiress Effect Courtney Milan takes us along with her characters to find out.

I know that’s not the tagline that many would use to convey the point of this historical romance set in 1860s England. There is all the rich historic detail that infuses Milan’s other works in the Brothers Sinister series (and man do I love reading her Afterwords going over those details), we have Oliver Marshall’s quest for Parliament and voting reform and his eventual goal of being Prime Minister while overcoming that he is the bastard son of a duke but raised by Hugo and Serena Marshall (see The Governess Affair) and educated at Eton and Cambridge. We also have Miss Jane Fairfield, an heiress whose wealth makes her a target for the wrong kind of suitor, and suitors she must press off so she can protect her sister Emily, who suffers a mild form of epilepsy, from her guardian who is determined to find a treatment or cure for the malady, even if the treatment is worse than the condition itself. Emily also brings another complication when she begins a relationship with Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian attending Cambridge to become a barrister.

All of the conflicts which come from these various characters are endemic of the time period of the book – the problems of aristocracy, of suffrage, of coverture, of needing a guardian and being unable to escape them, of casual and overt racism, of Empire. Milan is not afraid to dig in to these topics and talk about the things that were really happening in her chosen time period.

For our two main protagonists, each is dealing with something that makes them other. For Oliver it’s his status as a commoner while being known as the brother of the Duke of Clermont (see The Duchess War), for Jane it’s the combination of her hundred thousand pounds (which was left to her by the man who was likely her biological father) and her complete unpreparedness for Society. Oliver was raised to be forthright, to know the difference between what is ethical and what isn’t. In an attempt to correct the ills of the world around him Oliver has decided in a career in politics so that he will be able to do something about the injustices he sees. But, to what cost of his own personality? For Jane she needs to remain unmarried for a year and a half (480 days when we first meet her) to protect the only family she has – her sister. In order to achieve that goal she has made herself a social pariah, but the cost to her emotional health is extreme and has left her friendless and without allies.

Oliver and Jane (and Emily and Anjan) are trying to be what they are not to please others who don’t have their best interests at heart. Each of them has dimmed a part of themselves – the part that in turns attracts the other to them – in an attempt to be who they think they need to be they have become something other than who they are at their cores. In discovering this (Jane first, and then much later Oliver) we get to a story of equals.

I really loved this story.

I love when couples are flawed together, which Jane and Oliver are. I also appreciate greatly when my romance novel reads don’t rely on one character to save another. Both Emily and Jane’s stories resolve in ways that give them full agency, and while Oliver and Anjan are helpful, they aren’t the linchpins. As a full-figured lady myself, I also enjoyed that Jane is not stereotypically skinny (seriously go check out these awesome images of fuller sized ladies from this era), with a 37-inch waistline (which is Oliver’s type!).  She prefers disgustingly bright, garish clothing, because it pleases her, that it offends others is merely a benefit.  And I love when previous works in the series are given shout-outs, such as when Oliver tells Jane about his sister-in-law’s friend who is married to a doctor (see A Kiss for Midwinter), and titles that actually get referenced in the work and mean something  to the narrative.

If it wasn’t clear by now, read these books. They are delightful and I’m excited to read the next three.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read.

Wyrd Sisters (CBR6 #46)

I’ve made my first foray into Discworld.

There was an article on io9 that described the best way to turn your friend into a fan of your particular fandom. If I didn’t know better I would swear a couple of my friends either read or possibly even ghostwrote this article specifically about getting me reading this expansive fantasy series.

I spent much of my life not reading Fantasy. I don’t know why exactly, but I feel it has something to do with having a tough time building the world in my head. Given what defines fantasy: story, everyman characters, evocation of another world, use of magic and the supernatural, a clear sense of good and evil and the quest it becomes clear why certain aspects just didn’t appeal to me, and that certain ones absolutely do (everyman characters, magic and the supernatural, and a clear sense of good and evil are the ones, if you’re interested).

As an adult reader, whose friends are ALL massive fantasy and sci-fi readers, I’ve decided to expand my horizons and see what happens. So far, so good. I’ve read a couple of Neil Gaiman works and have read two of the three Prince of Thorns books (number three will be read soonish. I’m waiting to borrow it.) And they’ve gotten me on the Discworld bandwagon since it hits my sweet spots: satire and parody.

For those of you who don’t know, Terry Pratchett is the author of over 40 works which all exist in the same universe – Discworld, which is itself part of the multiverse. There are many different series within the overall works, and with them many entrance points. So many in fact that there are infographics to help you decide, here’s one now:

reading threads for discworld

I did not actually pick one of the starter books; Wyrd Sisters is the 6th Discworld book, and the second of the Witches Novels. I should have grabbed Equal Rites which my friend also lent me (along with Mort and Witches Abroad), but instead grabbed Wyrd Sisters first without thinking about it very much. I’ll have to wait and see if that’s a terrible problem later when I pick up Equal Rites next (well, next for my Pratchett reading, I’m going to be reading and reviewing a few other books before then).

In my reading of Wyrd Sisters I noticed Pratchett playing with the power of words (Fool tells us as much) and what effect they have on what we remember, and how much we are influenced by our fictions in relation to our history (and the various amounts of fiction which infiltrate our known history).  One of the big themes in the book, and employed by Granny Weatherwax is headology. Headology is made up by Pratchett, but it’s the shorthand in this book (and I have a bet other Witches Novels) for thinking. And one of my favorite Granny quotes is all about it, that everything can be solved if we stop and think about it.

Pratchett plays with archetypes, most specifically the titular Wyrd Sisters. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick are representative of the three fates, and I really enjoy books that play around with that idea. But they also inhabit the Crone, Mother, Virgin archetypes. There are also Fool and Prince archetypes, and the evil queen. But the characters are far from one dimensional as Pratchett builds them up to deliver the story, and commentary, that he’s telling us.

This is also a love letter to Shakespeare. Two of his more famous plays Macbeth and Hamlet are featured heavily in the plotting of Wyrd Sisters. So much so, that the book’s first line of dialogue is the same first line of the play Macbeth “when shall we three meet again.”  There are also allusions to the play within the play from Hamlet which becomes a linchpin in this story, while the one in Hamlet does not have the desired effect.There are other little nods throughout, perhaps my favorite being that when the traveling  the acting company builds a theater they name “the Dysk” which is a very on the nose reference to Shakespeare’s own Globe theatre.

I highly recommend this to you, and look forward to many years of happily reading along in Discworld.

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove (CBR6 #45)

I read this and Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork in the wrong order. I should have read this first. But let’s backtrack.

A portion of my reviews this year are books I am reading for research at work. This has been a nice boon for me, since I can use work time towards my cannonball goals. For research to date I have read Voices from the Back Stairs, Ordinary Days, Extraordinary Times;  The Irish Bridget, Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and Consider the Fork.  I think you may be able to piece together what I’m working towards.

In all seriousness talking about historic foodways is a niche hobby for me and I have cooked on both an open hearth and a woodstove and in a few weeks will be leading a historic cooking class for homeschoolers. So, I needed to get ready with the background information. To that end, I should have read A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove first since it is a more sweeping view of culinary history by intertwining it with women’s history while Consider the Fork is a study of the implements and therefore the history, of cooking.

Here’s the synopsis from Amazon:

Filled with over 50 classic recipes – from federal pancakes to sweet potato pie – and inspirational stories, this book should make you think twice about the food on your plate. It recounts how American women have gathered, cooked and prepared food for lovers, strangers and family through the ages. We find native women who pried nourishment from the wilderness, mothers who sold biscuits to buy their children’s freedom, immigrant wives who cooked old foods in new homes to provide comfort. From church bake sales to microwaving mums, this is a celebration of women’s lives, homes and communities.

Both are very interesting reads, and suggested if this is a topic of interest for you. I felt like I slogged through certain sections of A Thousand Years but I think it has more to do with what I already knew, not what the book has to offer. I also made copies of some of the historic recipes to use in my own cooking, and often found the most interesting portion of each chapter to be the asides about historic recipes and the realities of cooking in different times.

Shotgun Lovesongs (CBR6 #44)

Shotgun Lovesongs caught my eye a few months ago while I was perusing my local bookstore. The book flap synopsis sold me:

“It’s a place like hundreds of others, nothing special, really. But for four friends – all born and raised in this small Wisconsin town – it is home. And now they are men, coming into their own or struggling to do so. One of them never left, still working the family farm that has been tilled for generations. But others felt the need to move on, with varying degrees of success. One trades commodities, another took to the rodeo circuit, and one of them even hit it big as a rock star. And then there’s Beth, a woman who has meant something special in each of their lives. Now all four are brought together for a wedding. Little Wing seems even smaller than before. While lifelong bonds are still strong, there are stresses – among the friends, between husbands and wives. There will be heartbreak, but there will also be hope, healing, even heroism as these memorable people learn the true meaning of adult friendship and love.”

Butler tells us this story through the voices of a group of friends. Each chapter is designated by the first initial of that character and the reader experiences the forward momentum of the story from their perspective, while also being given insight to the events of the past. Perhaps my favorite part of this construction is that we often hear about the same event from multiple perspectives, giving the elusive hint of truth.

But truth, and to an extent loyalty and trust, are the through lines of the narrative. Through much of the early part of the book, I was convinced this was merely a character study, without much of a plot. And perhaps that’s why it took me quite a while to get through it (Goodreads tells me I spent 2 weeks with this book which barely clocks in over 300 pages). But the plot is centered so heavily on what builds a friendship, what destroys it, and how it can be repaired that it felt like nothing was really happening, but everything was happening at the same time.

Nikolas Butler’s first novel is a statement. It’s bold, but not overblown. And for that reason alone, I suggest you read it, I may be giving it 3 stars here, but it’s really a 3.5 book that I just couldn’t quite find my way to giving a 4. Even though it had the following quote:

“America, I think, is about poor people playing music and poor people sharing food and poor people dancing, even when everything else in their life is so desperate, and so dismal that it doesn’t seem there should be any room for any music, any extra food, or any extra energy for dancing.

Life After Life (CBR6 #43)

Life After Life has been on my radar for over a year. It sounded intriguing – what would happen if you lived your life over and over again, and how would minute changes in your choices and actions affect that life? I was intrigued, but not drawn in. My mom read it with her book club late last year and her reaction to the work was “it was different. Not bad, but definitely different.” With that less than stellar review I pushed it further down my to-read pile. Then the ladies of the Go Fug Yourself Book Club on Goodreads decided that it would be the October book choice, and I decided it was time to tackle this winner of many awards.

In this tale of alternate life trajectories, we explore the life of Ursula Todd, born February 10th, 1910. In each new cycle of her life we are drawn back to the beginning, and the book itself starts with the duality of Ursula dying without ever taking a breath and Ursula surviving being born with her umbilical cord around her neck. It is certainly a plot structure that takes some getting used to, as the reader bounces up and down the various timelines of Ursula’s life, but to my mind Ms. Atkinson found the sweet spot between an adventurous and slightly experimental story structure and just telling an interesting tale.

There is a lot I liked in Life After Life. Atkinson’s word choice is crisp and evocative. There is certainly a danger or becoming overly repetitive in revisiting the same scenes but this book doesn’t fall victim to this danger. The characterizations of the various members of the Todd family are clear throughout, which is lovely, since it gave the reader something to latch onto.

As a book about the life of Ursula Todd, this succeeds brilliantly. The portions of the over 500 pages which were about Ursula, her parents, siblings, and her adventures in England and Germany around the advent of WWII were interesting and engaging. Once you get going, the narrative easily carries you along, and it can be easy to ignore everything else you’re doing and simply devour huge sections of the book. In fact I found myself enjoying the book much more when I was able to devote a serious chunk of time to reading it straight through, as opposed to having to pick it up and put it down.

Another aspect of the novel which works well is Ursula’s realization of the significance of her do-overs as they begin to deepen her insight into the events of her life and the lives of her family members. She experiences déjà vu and, occasionally a prescient dread which allows her to change the course of (some of) her histories and those of her family. This insight makes Ursula a fascinating character as she begins to be aware that there is more to life than the timeline she is currently in. It’s hard to say that I enjoyed Ms. Atkinson’s description of life in London during the Blitz or Berlin during the siege, but with large portions of the novel center on the war years in Europe, and Ursula’s participation in them Ms. Atkinson does a superb job of rendering detail without weighing down the forward momentum of the narrative.

Unfortunately, once this book tries to figure out what it all means, it gets a little muddled. Since Hitler is always a popular choice in the game of, “If you could go back in time and kill someone, who would you?” (I mean, it’s even in an episode of Doctor Who) it’s pretty clear that Ursula will make an attempt once she figures out that she’s possibly been given chance after chance in order to try to come back and make things right for Europe. It’s just not really obvious in the end whether the choice is what she’s meant to do. Because that isn’t where we end the book, we end it much where we started.

So, what is Ms. Atkinson trying to say with this work? I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that it’s more about the small choices we make and not the large undertakings.

A Kiss for Midwinter (CBR6 #42)

I admit I got behind in my reviews; I finished this one over two weeks ago. And it was a delicious quick read so having something to say is proving difficult. The third story in the Brothers Sinister books, A Kiss for Midwinter focuses on Lydia whom we met in The Duchess War, and while this story could stand on its own, I would suggest reading it in order with the other books in the series (seriously, read the series).

Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads: Miss Lydia Charingford is always cheerful, and never more so than at Christmas time. But no matter how hard she smiles, she can’t forget the youthful mistake that could have ruined her reputation. Even though the worst of her indiscretion was kept secret, one other person knows the truth of those dark days: the sarcastic Doctor Jonas Grantham. She wants nothing to do with him…or the butterflies that take flight in her stomach every time he looks her way. Jonas Grantham has a secret, too: He’s been in love with Lydia for more than a year. This winter, he’s determined to conquer her dislike and win her for his own. It all starts with a wager and a kiss…

So what did I think? This is a delightful novella in which Courtney Milan works outside the tropes. Milan takes two characters who probably shouldn’t work together, and in lesser hands would have had a very shallow storyline, and instead in 38,000 words gives us deep backstory, honest connection, and love. It’s a marvel, and at times only serves to make me jealous.

So if I feel that way why am I handing it a four instead of five star rating? Because every so often Jonas’ characterization wobbled for me. His reactions didn’t land, or he seemed to fall back on old habits too hard. But this is truly a fantastic piece of writing and should be added to your list if you enjoy historical romances at all.

The Red House (CBR6 #41)

The best things I can say about The Red House by A.A. Milne are that it is a tongue in cheek locked room mystery with an affable amateur sleuth hero and an amusing sidekick. This book was much more of a why-and-howdunnit than a whodunnit (which was a draw back for me), the charm of the work is more in the wit and friendship of the two main characters and their clever allusions to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The Sherlock and Watson stand-ins are Antony Gillingham and Bill Beverley. Antony is arriving at the titular Red House to visit his friend Bill, who is himself a guest of the owner Mark Ablett. What Antony doesn’t know is that he has stumbled upon a little country-house murder mystery. Mark’s ne’er-do-well brother is found dead in a locked office, with Mark also missing, and Antony decides to pick up the craft of sleuthing.

This novel is set just after World War I, and yet the war is never mentioned, which speaks greatly of its tone. Antony is described as the sort who never settles into any one profession for long, where Milne could have simply had him be a returning soldier to explain his lack of career. This is instead a little bit of escapist fantasy, Milne’s try at a genre that was immensely popular in the interwar period, providing an intellectual puzzle to distract the reader from the fact that their world was completely turned upside down.

While the narrative was entertaining enough, Milne did commit a few sins in my opinion. First, the murderer’s confession at the end of the book in the form of a letter left for Antony is a cop out of the first order. The second was in eliminating most of the possible suspects (including all the women, so that there wouldn’t be any love interests) by sending them away early in the story unnecessarily. This made for too few characters and possible villains to keep my attention over several chapters at a time. I picked up and put down this short novel (only 156 pages in my edition) at least a dozen times.

Had it not been for the way in which the mystery is resolved, I would have been tempted to give this ½ a star less. Sure, the culprit might be easy to discover but the how’s and why’s of the last 50 pages were much more pleasurable for me to read than the 100 pages which began the mystery. For those 100 pages I really had to push to finish. The characters were often flat, the pacing was slow and way too much of the book, in my opinion, consisted of lengthy conversations which droned on about the various theories of the crime as well as narrator asides highlighting that this was in fact, a book.