Homegoing (CBR10 #47)

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Confession: I took this book out of the library no less than twice before I managed to read it. I was intimidated by the book, both by its content and its acclaim. It has a near perfect five star rating on Cannonball Read and high rating on Goodreads where literary fiction doesn’t normally do so well. I shouldn’t have been hesitant – the book earns its high rating by being one of the most accessible works of literary and historical fiction I have possibly ever read.

In her debut Yaa Gyasi tells a story which is both grand in scope and intimate in its execution, which is often attempted and rarely executed to this level. The book is also nearly flawless. Homegoing follows the descendants of a single Asante woman, Maame, living in late-18th century Gold Coast Africa. Structurally the novel traces the descendant generations of each of her daughters on two continents. One of her daughters, Effia, marries a white Englishman stationed at the fort and her descendants stay in Ghana. Her other daughter, Esi, is captured in a raid and sold into slavery in America. Adding to the nature of the story being told is that each daughter comes into the world into different families and different tribes, completely independent and unaware of the other.

The chapters are vignettes of one person per generation in each line, starting with the two half-sisters.  The chapters follow the next six generations in Ghana and America.  These generations  span over two hundred years of African and American history which includes some of the ugliest chapters each has to offer: colonialism, explicit and implicit racism, and the list goes on. One line has found itself in a land not of its choosing, unwelcome and continually oppressed; the other in the land of its ancestors, but searching for something new and meaningful and struggling to achieve either. The two lines move in concert with one another, across an ocean and in vastly different circumstances, but their shared past unites them in ways they cannot be aware of, and that are gently uncovered for the reader to connect.

Overall, Homegoing took my breath away. The book takes on the big issues that initially scared me away; slavery and the involvement of both the British and African civil unrest, familial ties both pride and resentment, racial identity, segregation, the value placed on female bodies, child raising, and more head on, without blanching from the truth. This is a book that it isn’t afraid of its contents and keeps them from overwhelming the reader.  The characters, the themes, and the sheer ambition of tackling so much time is astounding and could have easily gotten away from Gyasi, and she touched on the possibility briefly through her characters in the final chapters. Gyasi manages the tightrope by keeping the chapters crisp.

The most beautiful part of this book is how wonderfully the whole turns out to be much, much greater than the sum of its parts.  Each individual story is interesting, well-researched and developed in order to be compelling even in the quiet moments.  As a whole, the interwoven stories are a sparklingly nuanced, producing a thought-provoking picture of race, the past, and inheritance.  You can tell Gyasi put an ocean of thought into the whole thing and took greatest advantage of the fellowships she was awarded to put the time in to craft this work. The evidence of the mechanics falls away and we are left with the world, the story, and the characters; and a plain prose that could be confused for simple and unskilled but that would be confusing density with expertise.  Gyasi’s expert craftsmanship shows in the lack of obvious work, which is quite the trick.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

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A Duke in Shining Armor (CBR10 #7)

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The Romance genre is a trope filled place. Like any other genre, its readers are trained for what to look for, and what to expect. I am a well-trained reader, so much so in fact that I went back to Goodreads early on in reading A Duke in Shining Armor by Loretta Chase to make sure that the book in my hand was in fact the first in the series. I am apparently not the only one with this thought: Ms. Chase dedicated a blog post to assuring us, yes, this is the first. My trope instincts went off because Ms. Chase dumps us into action already in progress: the characters know each other, one of the pairs is already married* (but estranged), and a wedding is supposed to be taking place but the bride and groom are both drunk, and the bride is making a run for it out the nearest library window and the best man is setting off to bring her back, if only he can convince her (and himself) that it’s the best plan.

* I am very, very excited and interested in what will be the third book in this series as it will focus on reuniting a married couple (I presume).

I was immediately intrigued. Add into that a heroine who has been overlooked, is a nerdy book girl (Loretta Chase is writing herself and all of us into the story here, I swear), and a steadfastly loyal to his friends male lead and I knew exactly why so many of my romance reading friends were so happy with this book after a relatively lackluster 2017 in Romancelandia. The year was so lackluster in fact that I read only two romances published in 2017 last year (Pretty Face  – which everyone should read after they read Act Like It in time for book three in that series to come out later this year and When Life Happened at PattyKates’ request.)

Ms. Chase does much well in this book, and it’s nice to see her back towards Lord of Scoundrels territory after an enjoyable but not great Dukes Prefer Blondes. In A Duke in Shining Armor Chase deploys a well-paced timeline to keep a short time period from turning into instalove. Chase lays out the historical precedent of how little times affianced couples could expect to spend together in the upper echelons of society in England during the 1830s, and fills a week with more one on one time and varied experiences than many couples featured in romance novels, let alone the real world, would experience, and simultaneously uses the idea of putting a pair together that had spent the better part of a decade keeping each other in their sights we are dealing with people who don’t know each other but would not be considered social strangers. It is just one of many historically accurate details that Chase is known for adding to her writing, and features so prominently on her other blog Two Nerdy History Girls (also a great follow on Twitter for those inclined).  

It was also a bit of a cozy read: there was zero sturm und drang until right at the end. We simply have a bit of an adventure, a bit of a misunderstanding, and some work against social expectations and needs. Olympia and Ripley are well matched, even if we get a little less of who Ripley is on the page, but I expect his character will become clearer as we learn more about his compatriots, the Disgraces.  Oh, and one of my favorite components: a road trip.

I know I’ve told you very little about the book itself, but there are some great reviews to give you more detail there, I’m just going to sit here in my happy feels about a solidly 4 star (creeping towards 4.5 star) book.

 

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Mine Till Midnight (CBR9 #7)

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I said in my review last year of Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter that I was particularly interested in seeing the character of Cam Rohan given his own book since Kleypas had taken the time to develop his character in an interesting way. Mine Till Midnight is that book, and the pairing of Cam and Amelia Hathaway five years after the events of Devil in Winter delivers on the promise, but falters a little in the overall package. It is much closer to the kind of check-in story I was hoping to find in A Wallflowers Christmas.

Mine Till Midnight (ugh with that title – its grammatically incorrect. House Grammarian takes issue) is Cam and Amelia’s story, and it works well: he knows he needs change in his life, so wants to finally abandon his gadjo ways and go back to being a Rom. Instead, the change he needs turns out to be a life with Amelia and taking on the various aspects of the life of her family as she tries to pull them up to respectability but will accept survival without embarrassing themselves. She is take charge and family focused, often to her own detriment.

Amelia’s family is a mess. Her older brother Leo is in a serious depression following an illness and the death of his fiancée, sister Win also suffered the same bout of scarlet fever and is physically diminished, Poppy is in need of a proper debut but they cannot provide one for her, and youngest Beatrix has a slight kleptomania problem in addition to any number of other things. Add in de facto brother Merripen, a gypsy who was adopted by the Hathaway parents following his abandonment and who is desperately in love with Win but won’t say anything about it because of propriety you’ve got one hell of a mess. When the Hathaways inherit, Amelia thinks things will improve, but instead things deteriorate.

Amelia is, to me, a standard eldest sister. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to her: I see some of myself in the way Kleypas builds the character of Amelia. She puts family first, worries over the details that others are only partially aware of, and does not want to let herself love after a heartbreak. Cam is taken with her looks and personality, and finds within himself the desire to put all the various Hathaway troubles to rights especially if that means binding himself to Amelia for good.

As I said, this is a good historical romance. Nevertheless, I’m rounding from 3.5 down to three stars so there must be a reason. There are a couple:

  1. The supernatural stuff. Cold rooms, ghostly presences, a change in the eyes. It was unwelcome, to me, in this continuing of the Wallflowers universe.
  2. All plot threads are left dangling to the last 50+ pages to be resolved. Something could have been resolved earlier, and some receive just a single sentence.
  3. Consent issues. Several times Amelia tells Cam that she does not want to sleep with him wherever they are (often a potentially public or unsecure location) and he goes right about moving things along regardless of her wishes. This is a historical, and in many ways I’m able to make the mental divide between the realities of then and now (particularly with Kleypas since she tends to do a better job than most of sticking with historical accuracies), but given the climate of the world around me right now the idea that Amelia’s bodily autonomy was not respected more often than not left a bad taste in my mouth. Sure, readers love a take charge lead, but taking charge doesn’t mean ignoring your partners input.
  4. Too much story set up for the next books. We spend a lot of time with the fall and redemption of Leo, and many pages are spent with Merripen and Win setting up their book (which is the one I avoid, right?). Some of Kleypas’ best writing is in these scenes, but in combination with the Leo and treasure hunt (seriously, WTF?) it was all too much.

I am looking forward to checking in with the Hathaways during the year, and hopeful for continued sightings of the various Wallflowers.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. Come join us and say fuck you to cancer.

Dukes Prefer Blondes (CBR9 #1)

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Here we are again lovelies. It’s the beginning of another Cannonball Read and I am telling you about a romance novel that I enjoyed and picked up based on the suggestions of other cannonballers. It’s the system at its finest, really.

We almost read this one for Book Club last year, and part of me wishes we had, and another part of me thinks this one would have been a little too tropey as well. And I say that knowing full well that it ended up on Mrs. Julien’s best of list for CBR8.

I don’t normally struggle with reviews, but I’m having a tough time coming up with my point of view on this one. Dukes Prefer Blondes didn’t really grab me out of the gate, and that might be my own fault for reading it before bed on vacation. The book is also fourth in a series, and I haven’t read any of them. You don’t need to, but I could tell there was backstory I wasn’t quite piecing together in the early part of the book.

Our romantic pair in this outing is Oliver “Raven” Radford and Lady Clara Fairfax. She was raised to marry a duke (I believe see book 1 of the series for further details?) and he is a barrister like his father and third in line to a dukedom, but his cousin is only a few years older than him and it looks as though he will continue his life just as it is. Of course, that’s where Lady Clara arrives needing his help to find and rescue a boy from a nefarious crime figure. Drama Ensues.

The parts of the book which focus on the relationship building between Raven and Clara worked for me, particularly when he needs to convince her family to let them wed. But the narrative felt uneven in places, as though the three distinct acts of the book were actually three novellas all about the same characters. I’m not complaining, really, just processing as I type. Ah, I’m a little rusty at this reviewing thing

So, to recap: yes, read this book, but your mileage may vary.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, now in its ninth year. You can join us in reading, reviewing, and saying fuck you to cancer until January 13, 2017 when registration closes. Otherwise, please just come on by and read reviews or keep an eye out for our Book Club posts. All are welcome.

Scandal in Spring (CBR8 #80)

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Here we have the concluding story of the Wallflowers quartet (ok, not quite, there is a Christmas book about a brother that I have already requested from the library even though Mrs. Julien marked it two stars…) and we have arrived at Daisy’s story, our last remaining Wallflower. I’ve had ups and downs with these books this year, but mostly this book ends the series on a good note.

Scandal in Spring shows that Kleypas has learned from her previous outings.  I still feel It Happened One Autumn suffered greatly in the pacing department (I was bored, and that’s never okay) this fourth book tempers the drama of the third, The Devil in Winter with the more reasonable pacing and practicality of the delightful first book, Secrets of a Summer Night (beware the beginning of that review, I probably owe the book a rewrite as it has grown on me in the last several months).

Daisy is the final remaining Wallflower and her father is done waiting for her to find a match. Lillian already nailed the most eligible bachelor in England and his business is secure, now he just needs to marry her off. In order to accomplish this goal, he gives Daisy an ultimatum: find a wealthy peer to marry or marry his protégé Matthew Swift. Daisy is not pleased about this idea.

Kleypas balances the unveiling of Matthew as not a bad man like Daisy’s father as well as moving Daisy out of the kid sister side kick role well. So much so that by the time the deed was done and these two were heading in the same direction I was not expecting the capital S scandal which is unleashed on them in the final quarter of the book. Matthew tells us it’s out there, but not what it is, and it’s a big one. This book rounds up to four and not down to three because Kleypas gives the plot time to unravel itself as it should to be even vaguely historically accurate (which she generally is, her 1840s England is recognizably 1840s) even though she doesn’t necessarily give it the page real estate it could have used. These plot points also continue to round out the cast of characters and build some good will towards them.

I’m on board with Lisa Kleypas and will be moving on to her Hawthorne series in 2017.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. Won’t you think about joining us? Registration is open until January 13th, 2017. 

A Spy in the House (CBR8 #74)

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It isn’t a book’s fault when you’ve read a version of it better suited to your own personal tastes. I feel poorly for nor liking A Spy in the House more, since as a straight on 1850s historical fiction mystery should be right up my alley. I am a fan of Alex Grecian’s Murder Squad series which starts with The Yard, which is the same basic set up, but 40 years later. But I was left underwhelmed.

I think it may be because Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series is more recently in my memory and it was quite a bit more enjoyable for me. Here’s a synopsis from Goodreads so you can decide for yourself if this book sounds like fun to you:

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

While I was finishing this book and contemplating both my star rating (2.5) and my review in general the twittersphere blew up about a YA book The Continent, and one of our favorite authors, Courtney Milan, got involved in the discussion, which meant that I got caught up quick. What it basically boils down to is that persons of color in The Continent were mishandled (racist and demeaning descriptors of POC, per the reports), and people spoke out via the methods available to them. The author and her supporters are falling back on a free expression.

But what stood out to me was Milan’s point and emphasis about reading more POC authors, which is actually how I got to this book in the first place, and realizing that I as a white reader need to be aware of my reactions to what I’m reading.  I can’t just sit back and say “I didn’t connect with this for some reason” and not look into the idea of is it simply that this book is handling a viewpoint different than my own, and different to the conventional story arc? I stepped back from this review and thought about it long and hard. Was the trouble I had because the narrative was typical and from a POC author? I’ve come to the conclusion of no, that my real struggle with this book is that it is Y. S. Lee’s first book, the pacing is slow, and it’s a bit more YA than I prefer. But if you are looking for more insight into the conversations surrounding representation in books, particularly YA, Becky Albertelli and Justina Ireland had a great threads on Twitter as well.

 

It Happened One Autumn (CBR8 #51)

After being less than won over by the first book in the Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas, I decided the thing to do was to keep going. I figured out later that my real issue was with the secondary plot line and have warmed to the style of Kleypas’ writing in the intervening weeks. In the Wallflowers series, Kleypas tracks the lives and loves of four women passed over by the eligible men of the ton and the friendship they develop along the way.

Book two, It Happened One Autumn features American dollar princess Lillian Bowman and the extremely eligible Marcus Marsden, Lord Westcliff. We met both characters in the first installment, Secrets of a Summer Night, Westcliff is best friend and business partner of the swoon worthy Simon Hunt. Westcliff’s protector personality and the adaptability of his character, while still being loyal to tradition, are made clear at the end of that book and I found myself quite taken with the character who is constrained by his title and position, and appears to be content with who he is, even if he knows he doesn’t always come up to the mark against his friends Simon and Sebastian (more on him later). Lillian comes from new money, and in the social landscape of the United States in the 1840s, it was at times difficult to marry off these women, as neither social strata wanted them. Using that, and adding some truly hideous previous behavior on Lillian’s part, Kleypas weaves in the recognizable history I appreciate in these, and gives us a clear picture of the characters we are dealing with, while simultaneously setting them up as diametrically opposed (although I really didn’t need to hear one more time how Marcus was the heir of the oldest noble line in all of England blah blah blah).

For the first half of the book, another house party at Westcliff’s estate, we the reader are supposed to be enamored of free-spirit Lillian’s take on life and how it keeps running at odds with Westcliff’s propriety and be won over by the chemistry they can’t seem to ignore, even though they can’t stand each other.

I was bored.

Boredom is a grave sin in nearly any genre, but it is particularly terrible in romantical fluff books. The set up was good… it was just reminiscent of the previous book in the series. Kleypas writes the hell out of her scenes and her characters, and as Mrs. Julien says “not-fantastic Kleypas is still very damn good”, but I definitely felt as though I was treading water. There were fantastic scenes in there… they just weren’t nearly close enough together to keep the tediousness at bay.

My other complaint is how evil our next hero was made.

Enter Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. A new character introduced at the beginning of the book and set up as Marcus’ rival for Lillian’s affections. He is in need of the money she brings to the marriage mart, and infamous rake that he is, the proper families likely won’t have him. Lillian seems to fit the bill, and she’s available, until Marcus makes his move (and it’s a good move).  If Kleypas had left it here, with the rake as legitimate competition for our heroine’s hand, and then let that play out as it did and leave him without the money he needed I would have been fine. I would even have been on board with *SPOILERS* Marcus’ mother orchestrating Lillian’s kidnapping and attempting to loop Sebastian in, and Sebastian not doing anything to help Lillian escape. *END SPOILERS* But with the lengths the last quarter of the book goes to in order to villainize Sebastian, I have epic Romance Trope Concerns. I adore a reforming a rake storyline (although Wounded Hero is really more my cup of tea), but Sebastian was already established as a rake… I don’t know that I needed more, and it’s never a good sign when you are editing a book in your head as you read it.

The next book, with Evie and Sebastian is universally loved (I think) around the Cannonball – I remain cautiously optimistic, but the two drawbacks combined on It Happened One Autumn keep this at three stars.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.