Love across the Pond

When I heard the plot summary of Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, all I could think was, What a gimmick. And when I saw the cover, I thought, Oh, I get it, “chick lit” for gay guys.

redwhiteblueAlex Claremont-Diaz’s mother is the President of the United States, so her family members are under heavy scrutiny. Alex is inevitably cast as the handsome and charismatic “First Son” that everyone romanticizes.

Prince Henry of England (not the heir, but the spare—the second son) is likewise a glittering image of royalty, close to the same age as Alex and with all the advantages and a similar fixation by the public on his every move.

When word gets around, after a couple of meetings, that the two dislike one another, consternation apparently erupts on both sides of the Pond, and diplomatic relations people hastily put together a meet-cute opportunity for the two to prove that the rumors are false and everything is copacetic between the youth of these two allied nations. But the diplomats had no idea, when they encouraged friendship between the royal and the First Son, what a hornets’ nest they would be stirring up!

When I asked a librarian friend of mine if she’d read the book, she tossed off a casual recommendation, saying simply “It was cute!” so I figured it would be just another lightweight romantic comedy for gay teens. Nope. Red, White & Royal Blue wasn’t what I was expecting…and I’m so glad!

I swiftly got past the first part of the book, which was a little cute, if not cutesy, with the I-hate-him-I-love-him turnaround from Alex, and into the relationship proper, which was intense, deep, and precarious, given that one lover was the son of the first female President of the United States and the other was a Prince of England, and there was a lot invested by both sides in remaining discreet. Henry has, perhaps, the most to lose, since the royal façade doesn’t allow for deviation from the hetero pattern of marriage and babies to keep the descendents coming; but Alex likewise faces a certain amount of jeopardy on behalf of his mother—being the first woman president carries the presumption that everyone in the family will act at all times with transparent perfection. His mother, however, doesn’t cherish the same expectations for her children as do the royals. She just wants them to be sure of themselves, and to be happy.

The author was so effective in writing all the things that needed to be here—the sexual awakening of Alex, and Henry, too, to some degree; the non-awkward, rather compelling sex scenes; the wonderful banter (amongst all the fleshed-out characters, not just between the protagonists); the properly scaled-down but still ever-present politics; the romance and joy of falling in love (not in lust or in crush); and, ultimately, the painful but necessary pursuit of the truth of who these two young men want to be.

Casey McQuiston, well done! I’ll look forward to more books from you.

Readers please note: I didn’t realize at first that this book is aimed more at the new adult (18-25) market than at the teen (12-18), so I was a little taken aback at how frankly the sex was described. Not over the top, not explicit to the point of discomfort, but still real and honest beyond most teen fiction. So if you are recommending it, my advice would be not to drop below the senior-in-high-school mark.

 

Heyer surprise

I was browsing in Overdrive and it did that thing where it suggests a book because of other books you have read, and surprise! it was a Georgette Heyer novel I had never read. So I promptly downloaded it to my Kindle, only to receive another surprise…

Talisman1Cousin Kate was certainly not standard Georgette Heyer fare. While presenting many of her books’ usual initial plot points (a penniless but plucky heroine, an unexpected suitor, some previously unknown relatives, a firmly supportive servant), this one turned gothic in the extreme. Rather than a frothy Regency England plot that takes place amongst the diverting events of the London Season, it could easily compete with any of the tomes with a slightly menacing air written by such authors as Victoria Holt, Anya Seton, or (latterly) Barbara Michaels. All the keynotes contained within those books are here too: the magnificent but slightly sterile and dark estate of Staplewood; the cold-hearted aunt with an ulterior motive; the strictly sequestered frail old lord of the manor; and the devastatingly handsome but equally strange and volatile son and heir.

I really liked certain elements of Cousin Kate. It was fascinating to try to figure out exactly why Kate’s Aunt Minerva was making so many kind gestures—inviting her to stay, giving her a new wardrobe—while patently not feeling anything for her (or anyone else). The servants and companions, the cousin, and the heir were all puzzles to be solved. And although the loyal servant—Kate’s former nurse Sarah Nidd—and her crusty but knowing old father-in-law were probably my favorite characters, their good-natured common sense didn’t prevent the slide into pure melodrama. The somewhat abrupt (and pat) ending was less than satisfactory, and left the reader with questions that wouldn’t be answered. I’m glad to have read it, as it was among the few Heyers I had missed; but from now on I’ll stick with rereads of my lighthearted favorites from among her novels.

TALISMAN2The above cover is the latest among many to convey the nature of this book; perhaps if it had had this older but much more accurate depiction, I would have known what to expect!

 

 

Fresh look: old books

A friend reminded me recently of the purportedly “best opening paragraph of all time,” which, according to LitHub author Emily Temple, is the one that opens We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson.

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

always

Whether or not you agree with Ms. Temple, you do have to acknowledge the brilliance of this book, in which two sisters live an exceedingly reclusive life sequestered in Blackwood House, caring for their ill and aged Uncle Julian. The narrative, which is carried by the younger sister, Mary Katherine (Merricat), gradually reveals that there is a sinister tragedy in their past, that the town holds a grudge against the family, and that in fact they are reclusive for good reason. All of Ms. Jackson’s trademark creepiness eventually prevails over the almost mundane initial tone.

Thinking about this book put me in mind of a different book with “castle” in its title. Dodie Smith wrote I Capture the Castle in the 1940s, and its opening paragraph is also beguiling, though with a completely different vibe:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring. I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry
is so bad that I mustn’t write any more
of it.”

captureThis book is also about two proud but poor girls who live a quiet life in a moldering castle, but that’s where the similarity ends. Rose and Cassandra Mortmain live in this ruin with their famously eccentric writer father, his statuesquely beautiful nature-worshipping second wife (who has the habit of wandering naked about the grounds), and their precocious little brother. The father has a massive case of writer’s block, and hasn’t published in years, and the family is all but destitute; the rundown property is all they can afford. When two handsome and wealthy young men move into the neighborhood, the entire household collaborates to change the family’s luck by ensnaring one of them as a spouse for the beautiful Rose. It’s obviously not a feminist tale on that account, but the younger, spunkier Cassandra has aspirations to be a writer, and the book is entertainingly narrated through her journals.

blandingsAnother old book with “castle” in the title that everyone should experience is Blandings Castle, by P. G. Wodehouse, a set of 12 short stories about the dotty Lord Emsworth and his bone-headed younger son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood; his long-suffering secretary, the Efficient Baxter; and Beach, the Blandings butler. The stories add to the main saga, which begins with Something Fresh and continues for 12 volumes. Although in my opinion they are not quite up to Wodehouse’s inimitable pairing of the clueless man-about-town Bertie Wooster with his enigmatic puppet master butler, Jeeves, they are similarly riotous in their mostly fond mockery of the British class system.

And there you have the results of poking about in my reader’s brain for books with little in common beyond a word in their title! Was this too thin a pretext for a book review?

Seduced by a pirate!

I can’t believe I almost missed “Talk Like A Pirate” Day! Arrrgh! But a friend clued me in and, as it happens, I have the perfect book to feature…

pirateAs part of the requirement for my romance readers advisory course
I took during August, I had to choose a book from among award-winners to read as my final assignment. I browsed the ALA best genre fiction lists, and my eye was caught by the word “pirate.” I’ve always loved pirate tales (romance or not), and an additional incentive (since I forgot that the assignment was due the very next day!) was that this was a novella of 100 pages, so I jumped onto Amazon and purchased Seduced by a Pirate, by Eloisa James, for my Kindle.

Griffin (Sir Griffin Barry) was wed to his bride, Phoebe, at the tender age of 17. Problem was, Phoebe was a beautiful and intimidating 20, and Griffin’s physical prowess didn’t live up to his titled consequence—he was a scrawny adolescent with no self confidence. So when it came to “doing the deed” on his wedding night, he cravenly jumped out the window and headed to the local pub with the objective of getting very drunk, rather than confronting his husbandly duties, which he doubted he could perform! The only problem with this scenario: As a highly intoxicated stripling, he presents the perfect temptation.  Press-gangers kidnap him and put him on a ship to the West Indies, and no one knows what has happened to him. Eventually Sir Griffin comes into his own as a pirate, er, privateer on board the Flying Poppy, his own ship, which he thinks he named after his wife (having misunderstood her Christian name at the wedding ceremony). Along the way, he encounters his cousin James, a duke who has similarly fled an unfortunate marriage, and the two of them team up to rule the seas and rid them of “real” pirates for a decade, until both are wounded in a battle. So they solicit and receive pardons from the Crown for their piratical ways, and decide to go home and see how the land lies.

But what happens when a pirate finally comes home to his wife—if she is, still, his wife—and discovers that a lot of unexpected events have taken place during his absence? Will there be a reunion and a consummation? or will the pirate head back out to sea, solitary and cheesed off?

I won’t say that romance will ever become my favorite genre (or even place in the top three), but if it were going to, books like this would definitely aid that progression. James writes with the same kind of esprit as my beloved Georgette Heyer (and this is a monumental statement for me to make!). Her characters, dress, manners, scene-setting, and plot are definitely “up to snuff,” pardon the old-fashioned but entirely appropriate saying. I found this novella to be an unalloyed delight, and the addition of “sizzle” to the basic romantic formula was just explicit enough while still remaining tasteful—and not clichéd, which is the thing most difficult to do in romance.

bukaneerThe only fault I had to find was the abbreviation of the cat-and-mouse aspect of this story. Griffin should have been a lot more disturbed by the changes he came home to find had been introduced by his wife; and Phoebe should have taken a little more time and exerted a little more willpower to resist his wiles. I mean, he didn’t even remember her name right! But, how much can you draw it out in just 100 pages? Probably the fault of the novella oeuvre. I will definitely read another (full-length) of James’s books to find out.

Happy “Talk Like A Pirate” Day!

 

Fresh look: old book

NEW FEATURE: I have so many years of eclectic reading in my past that several friends have suggested I go back and dredge up the memory of books that bowled me over when I read them first, and briefly share them here. I agreed that the chance to revisit some old favorites would be a pleasure. Also, in the context of giving good readers’ advisory services in the library, the truth is that the new books at the top of the bestseller list are checked out, with multiple (or hundreds of) holds, so it’s good to have backup in an old book that might fulfill the same desires as the new one. So here goes…

M. M. Kaye wrote a series of murder mystery/romances called Death in [fill in the blank], from Berlin to Zanzibar, as well as some straight-up romances set in exotic locales and involving typical male leads such as pirates and slave traders. But one of her books stands out far above the rest: The Far Pavilions. Even though she wrote some of them before and some of them after, I feel like all her other books were rehearsals so she could get everything right in this one.

farpavIt’s a long and complicated epic with lots of historical context, and it paints such a vivid picture of India under the British Raj and Britain’s incursions into Afghanistan that you can almost smell the dust and hear the bullets whistling past your ears. The hero and heroine are the products of two separate cultures, and their status as misfits in both societies draws them together as children and reunites them as adults in a poignant love story that plays out against a volatile background of war and empire-building. The book is 958 pages long, and I have read it three times; I’m sure I’ll read it again someday! If you are a fan of historical fiction but are looking for something with a different setting to the ordinary, this book will fulfill those desires.

Angst and romance

That headline may be a little misleading. The angst isn’t necessarily in the romance, it’s more about the romance.

TL;DR—click here to read a summary of this post.

People who claim to be expert (or at least, er, Adept) at readers’ advisory need to be well-rounded enough as readers to be able to recommend books in every genre, but I confess there are a few in which I am not well versed. One is romance; while I enjoy the occasional book dubbed a “cozy,” wherein the romance is not the entire point of the story, I am mostly a novice and a stranger when it comes to reading mainstream romance.

I did read a few Harlequins in my youth, because my mother adored them so they were always lying around the house. And in my 30s, when I was struggling to become a writer, it occurred to me that an easy way to make a buck might be to try my hand at writing one. I went so far as to send away to Harlequin for the specs to their various series, but I was put off by the incredibly stereotypical requirements. There was a set number of pages, a prescribed age range for the man and a similar profile for the woman (men were late 20s to early 40s, while the women had to be 18-24), and a specific story structure to follow. I decided, from the heights of youthful idealism, that this would be a betrayal of principle and never went farther with that aspiration.

No longer are romances planned out in that way—not even those from Harlequin. Not even the sacred HEA (happily ever after) is guaranteed any longer! There are still prevailing formulas, but with a lot more wiggle room. But romance as a genre is still a relative stranger to me, so I enrolled in an online readers’ advisory class for romance to see if I could garner some tips about referring romance readers to their ideal books.

We were assigned two books to read in the second week: A Rogue by Any Other Name, by Sarah MacLean, and What the Librarian Did, by Karina Bliss.

rogue1Of the former, I’m not going to say much, except that if this is supposed to be a good example of a contemporary historical romance, then the bar has been set way too low.

Clichés abounded, human interactions were awkward, dialogue was overdramatic and talky, and historical context was distinctly lacking. A few torrid sex scenes (and the requisite ripped bodice) were just not enough to carry the rest.

On the other hand, What the Librarian Did surprised me. I had low expectations for a Harlequin based on what I used to read in my (long-ago) youth, but this book had good characters with assets and flaws, a believable story line, and a subplot that had nothing much to do with the romance, but was therefore a nice balancer. I liked it!

librariandidThe story follows Rachel Robinson (ha-ha, Ms. Robinson), a university librarian, who has a secret in her long-ago past that is about to come back to haunt her. Meanwhile, new student Devin Freedman is garnering an extravagant amount of attention from everyone except Rachel, who’s never heard of him. Devin, lead guitarist in a wildly successful American rock band, has quit the biz to return to his native New Zealand and pursue a business degree. Rachel encounters him on his first day at school when he arrives to tour the library, and her lack of knowledge about him piques his curiosity, while she takes one look at his bad-boy charms and is intrigued, despite herself. The cat-and-mouse that follows switches off from one to the other, and is made more complex by the intrusion of the secret from Rachel’s past, with which both of them must come to terms.

The first thing I liked is that these characters are both adults in their 30s. There was none of this experienced macho man mentoring the naive young girl nonsense—these are two people with an equal amount of years behind them, multiple relationships (and failed marriages, on Devin’s part), and a lot of complex baggage. But there is also “the spark,” which is the essential ingredient for a really satisfying romance, in my opinion, and Devin and Rachel definitely have it. Add to that wit and humor and the aforementioned plot twist complication, and you have a story. I’m all about the story, so this book made me happy!

Hopefully I can find more like this to give to my readers’ advisory clients.

(One caveat: The cover looks like something from the 1970s meant to appeal to swoony teenagers. Which is one reason why I don’t spontaneously pick up Harlequin novels! I think it highly probably that the best thing ever to happen to romance readers is the anonymity of the Kindle!)BlogDingbat

TL;DR: A Rogue by Any Other Name was clichéd, overdramatic, and poorly reflected its historical context. What the Librarian Did had believable characters, an interesting story line and subplot, and a satisfying ending, and also contained wit and humor.

Charmed by books

After dwelling in darkness with Sharon Bolton for a couple of days, I felt the need for lighter fare. I initially chose these three books because of their titles and covers, which revealed they were all books about books. As an avid reader, I’m always looking for more of those!

charmerThe first one I read—The Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins—also has the element of magical realism going for it. It did, in fact, remind me of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, in some of its elements, notably the two sisters who are dumped at a young age for someone else to raise, and in the fact that books actually talked (maybe out loud or maybe just in her head) to one of the residents of the small town in which the story ultimately takes place.

It was, indeed, a charming book about books, about family and friends, about small towns and the very real dangers of their dying out in the face of progress. It also dealt delicately and accurately with the issue of Alzheimer’s disease.

I would have liked more about the growing-up years of sisters Grace and Hannah, and the parallel years of Sarah Dove, lucky seventh daughter (and the book charmer) of the Dove family of the town of Dove Pond. But after an introductory chapter about each,
we jump to present day when everyone is an adult, and proceed from there. Not that the “there” wasn’t a good tale, I just wanted a bit more of the back story.

I thought the portrayal of Grace was excessively curmudgeonly, although I could understand her point of view. But she could have relented a bit sooner in instances where people were actually trying to help or befriend her, or both.

I liked this book’s gentle quirkiness, and will probably seek out the author’s subsequent stories about the same town.

ninahillThe next book I took up was
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abbi Waxman. Talk about your basic wish fulfillment!

At the beginning, given that you are a person who thinks like me, Nina has it all: A job in a cool bookstore, a lovely guest house lined with bookshelves filled with books, a companionable cat named Phil, and a busy schedule taken up mostly with book clubs and trivia contests.

Only child: check
Likes books better than people: check
Likes cats better than many people: check
Enjoys her work putting together readers with books: check
Likes her routine and doesn’t want to be dynamited out of it: check

Then, Nina discovers that the father she never knew has called her out in his will to receive some sort of legacy, thereby putting her in touch with a raft of unknown and unsuspected brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and cousins…which is in one way kind of a dream come true for a wistful only child who has previously been an observer but not a participant in family life…and in another way kind of a nightmare for a self-sufficient, slightly anxious introvert.

Also, the team leader of one of the competing trivia teams in her league is showing definite interest in Nina…but it will never work out, because he’s not a reader. Oh well… But he IS good looking, and persistent, and maybe…no, definitely not. But…

You can guess how things play out from fairly early on in the book (obvious portents), you can see the “event horizon” clearly, but you’re so caught up in it you don’t really care. This is the ultimate feel-good book for the bookish and the romantic.

overdueI didn’t think I’d be a fan, initially, of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler, by Kelly Harms, because of the whole martyrish deserted mom thing. I mean, I get it, and she had a perfect right, and I’ve been there as the deserted wife, although not with the mom thing piled on top of it; I just didn’t think I’d enjoy a book about it. But I did, quite a bit!

Amy is soldiering on as a single mother after being completely abandoned by her husband and partner, John. When the children were 12 and 9, John went to Hong Kong on a business trip, and never came back. Amy had to go back to work full-time as a school librarian, and scrape absolute bottom to keep her kids in their school and put food on the table. Not only did John desert them, he didn’t pay child support or communicate with any of them for three years. Small wonder that Amy harbors major resentment.

Then John comes back—because he misses his kids and wants to make things up to all of them. They all know that’s not possible, but Amy agrees (with some counseling by her friend, Lena) to give John a week with the kids, and she takes off for New York City on a part-professional, part-personal trip. The week stretches into a summer, and Amy finds herself at loose ends (and somewhat uncomfortable with it) as all her responsibilities are picked up by someone else.

I loved that the book included attendance at a librarian convention, accompanied by a presentation by the protagonist about a concrete idea (Flexthology) on how to promote reading to reluctant teen readers through choice and anonymity. This made the character feel solid and real, and made the subsequent events (even though they were more fanciful) seem plausible and possible. Her makeover (to be featured in a magazine article) by her publisher friend, Talia, was fun (and only a little patronizing). I adored Daniel, the “hot librarian,” and rooted for him despite Amy’s #momspringa (a play on the Amish Rumspringa) dates with other guys. Part of what kept the book going was the witty banter—Harms knows how to write dialogue.

These books all three definitely fit the bill when you’ve been reading a lot of brooding thrillers or books heavy on emotion and description—while there is still poignancy, these authors keep the tone light while exploring some serious issues. They are all three great additions to my rapidly growing “canon” of books-about-books-and-readers!

 

Regency magic?

I’m always looking at other people’s (and publications’) lists, to see if there are stand-out books on them that I somehow missed reading. On a list that was called something like “best sci fi and fantasy books you may not have discovered,” I found a few with which I was unfamiliar and ordered them. The first one I read was Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho.

Most people who reviewed it on Goodreads either lauded it or hated it for one reason: It reminded them of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Some loved it because it had similar characteristics but was “half the length and twice the fun,” while others loathed it because they found it derivative and without the same careful attention to detail given to the subject by Clarke.

I have not (yet) read Susanna Clarke’s 800+ pages, so that comparison sparked no reaction for me; but when reviewers started comparing it to Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, I went back and took a closer look.

sorcerer_front mech.inddThe story takes place in an alternate-reality London, where magic was once a powerful and primary occupation for the upper classes and every prominent family seemed to feature at least one sorcerer accompanied by his familiar. (Women are banned from practicing magic, unless it’s the hedge-witch variety of small household spells to lighten the domestic load.) But in the current day, England’s atmospheric magic is drying up. No more familiars are coming over from Fairyland, and no promising young sons are venturing there in hopes of catching the Fairy Queen’s eye.

Sir Stephen Wythe, the Sorcerer to the Crown, has recently died under mysterious circumstances; his familiar has likewise disappeared, and the man who has taken up his staff to become the new head Sorcerer is Sir Stephen’s foster son, Zacharias, an emancipated slave raised by Sir Stephen to be a thaumaturge. Zacharias, a conscientious, retiring, and painstaking person, would much rather have remained in the background, doing his research into the restoration of England’s magic; his new role throws him to the lions of extreme prejudice, with plots against his life, perilous meetings with the Fairy Court, and speeches at such frightening venues as a school of gentlewitches (he’s cautioning them against the dangers of magic for women). Then he meets Miss Prunella Gentleman, also an outcast because of her lack of good birth and the “dusky skin” that proves she is of mixed race, and Prunella’s aptitude for magic and the effrontery to practice it turn his perceptions upside down.

The book is set in Britain during the Regency period and the Napoleonic wars. Those who compare it with Heyer and Austen say it fulfills their requirements for a comedy of manners with amusing commentary also reminiscent of Wodehouse (the speech at the girls’ school being that example). I didn’t find the language or tone either of them to be reminiscent of Heyer’s lighthearted works, nor were there sufficient social interactions to spark recognition of her influence, and the romantic aspect was almost entirely lacking. I did think perhaps Austen would have enjoyed Cho’s send-up of the nobly born and pretentiously superior, commenting on their bigotry and their assumptions about “good birth” always triumphing over morals and brains.

The book did remind me of some others: Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage, because of the young-ladies-in-training aspect, as well as something about the pacing and language of the story-telling; and Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus book #1), which features a similar setting of an alternate London ruled by stuffily self-regarding magicians. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of Garth Nix’s Newt’s Emerald (in fact, it looks like the same artist for the cover of that book has been employed for Cho’s sequel), which in my opinion pulls off the Heyer tie-in a bit better.

Because I read Sorcerer to the Crown before I looked at any of the reviews (including the blurbs on the back cover), I was initially quite taken aback by both the racism and the misogyny so freely expressed by Cho’s characters. The use of the term “piccaninny” on page four shocked me so much that I almost put the book down. Only the comment of Mr. Damerell, “What an edifying sight for a child—a room full of men several times his size, calling him names,” encouraged me to continue. Likewise, the discovery by Zaccharias that the gentlewitches’ school has been using a killing spell designed to drain the magic from its victims in order to keep its young ladies in line (i.e., magic-free) was a bit daunting. I had not yet put the book in context as a Regency send-up, so for me, the author’s choices were jarringly unexpected for a book written in 2015 by a woman! Once I had figured out the intended setting and atmosphere, I forgave the various liberties, but in this era of extreme care about the way the races and the sexes are portrayed, I have to confess it still left a lingering uneasiness about the book.

My final reaction was primarily that of enjoyment; but I didn’t give it the wholehearted five stars it received from many of its Goodreads fans. Perhaps, for me, Cho simply attempted too much within the context of this one volume. Perhaps I wasn’t in the proper mood to appreciate its quirks. For whatever reason, I didn’t click with it; but that isn’t to say that you wouldn’t. If you enjoyed the Finishing School or Parasol Protectorate books of Gail Carriger, you might like it a lot.

truequeenThere is also a sequel, The True Queen, released just this year, that takes the reader to Janda Baik, the country from whence one of the first book’s main and powerful female characters hails. It received similarly high ratings from those on Goodreads who enjoyed the first book.

 

On the shore

In yesterday’s mail, I received my advance-order copy of Jenny Colgan’s new novel, The Bookshop on the Shore. Although I had just started reading another book, I promptly put it aside, because I was so in the mood for this book. I’d had a difficult week, and Colgan’s signature combination of can-do attitude with gentle romance plus her evocative setting (northern Scotland) were the required remedy.

bookshoreThis novel is not exactly a sequel to my favorite of Colgan’s books—The Bookshop on the Corner—since the protagonist is new. But it is set in the same locale, most of the characters from that book are here in a peripheral role, and Goodreads characterizes it as “Scottish Bookshop #2.”

Zoe is a young mother of a four-year-old son, Hari, who is practically perfect in every way—sweet, loving, smart, well-behaved. The only issue with Hari is that he doesn’t speak. Zoe has taken him to multiple specialists, all of whom conclude that there’s nothing wrong with him, and that he will “probably” speak when he’s ready. This worry is at the top of Zoe’s list, but is by no means the only problem with which she is dealing. She’s living in London in a tiny bed-sit in a bad neighborhood, working at a daycare job inadequate to pay her bills, and her ex-boyfriend, Hari’s father, is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who’s more interested in making it as a deejay than he is in contributing childcare funds to support his son. When her landlord leaves her a rent hike notice, Zoe knows that she will at that point be truly beyond her means, so she appeals to Jaz for help, not expecting much but ever hopeful. Jaz disappoints, as usual, but fortunately the interaction results in a helping hand from an unexpected source.

Jaz’s sister is Surinder, Nina’s best friend from The Bookshop on the Corner, and she has just received a call from Nina, who is desperate to find someone to take over her business (she travels around rural Scotland selling books from a van converted into a mobile bookshop) during the rest of her pregnancy. Surinder sends her Zoe, with Hari in tow. But working in Nina’s business isn’t enough to keep Zoe afloat and also doesn’t provide her with a home, so Nina finds Zoe an evening-and-weekends job as a
live-in au pair to the local “big house” family.

Zoe approaches her jobs with a will to succeed, but rapidly discovers that both are going to be uphill work. She hasn’t Nina’s gift for matching every customer with the right book, and the bottom line is making that obvious during her first weeks with the book van. And the au pair gig seems like a bigger nightmare than her horrible life in London, with three rude, uncooperative children who ominously refer to her as “Nanny Seven,” and a father who is obviously checked out and not coping. But with little other choice, Zoe has to seize her opportunities and make the best life she can for herself and her silent little son on the admittedly beautiful shores of Loch Ness.

This is a trademark delightful tale from Jenny Colgan that fulfills all the requirements her readers have come to expect. The characters are wonderfully delineated (particularly those of the three miscreant children, the curmudgeonly housekeeper Zoe and Nina refer to as “MacDanvers” after Rebecca, and Zoe’s son Hari), and the setting in rural Scotland is, as always, a major factor enriching the scenario with descriptions of nature that make the city dweller long to catch the next flight to Inverness. Colgan has the skill to engage the reader with the protagonist’s plight such that every challenge and triumph are taken personally. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it set me thinking again about whether a retirement in a rural setting would suit me better than my current situation as one of the million citizens of Los Angeles!

bookcornerThe only caveat I have, and I had it with the book’s predecessor, is calling the mobile book van a “bookshop” and depicting it on both covers as a stationary location! Don’t the publishers read their books? There has to be a better title for both books, and better artwork as well. But, I suppose that if you had called this one, for instance, “On the Shore,” where much of the action takes place (both the selling of books and the live-in nannying), it wouldn’t hook in all those readers who want a book about books and readers; and we are a big and focused readership. Oh, well….

 

 

Another flower book

flowerarrangementIn the course of writing my post “Flower power” a couple of weeks ago, I looked at a few lists of novels with flowers as their theme, and decided to expand my repertoire regarding the language of flowers by buying and reading The Flower Arrangement, by Ella Griffin.

In the midst of severe distress over the loss of a much-wanted child, Lara decides to leave her career as a graphic designer and open a shop she calls Blossom and Grow, in the heart of Dublin. Although, as her doubtful husband warns her, the work is backbreaking, the sourcing of the flowers challenging, and the hours long, the venture turns out well, and Lara loves her little jewel of a flower shop with its beautiful pink façade decorated with hand-painted trompe l’oeil ivy.

Like the protagonist in The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Lara has a special gift for putting together the right flowers with the right person (even when it’s by accident!), and this theme of people buying flowers for an apology, a declaration of love, a sick friend, a marker for a special day, or simply a spontaneous gesture carries the plot forward. Each chapter is titled with a different flower and its meaning, and there are delicately detailed descriptions of all kinds of blooms throughout the story.

30xFlorist

This book probably falls into the category of “cozy romance,” or perhaps you could call it relationship fiction? It’s cleverly done, and is definitely the sum of its parts. Yes, I know that’s not the saying, it’s supposed to aspire to be more than the sum of its parts; but in this case it is appropriate and I’m not denigrating it—the parts do come together to make a whole.

I confess, however, that I was a little disappointed by the way the story evolves. In the beginning, I invested quite heavily in Lara’s tale, which is told first, and assumed that the entire book would be about her; instead, it consists of vignettes that, while tangentially connected to her, don’t necessarily reveal or forward her plotline. There is a central cast of characters played by her brother, her father, and other significant relationships, but then we branch out in turn to those characters’ relationships, and also check in on random people who are connected to the flower shop, it’s true, but sometimes by the thinnest of threads. The author does do a good job of weaving them into a cohesive story, but I simply wanted more Lara.

The one thing that tells against this being considered a romance is that you don’t get your  traditional (requisite?) HEA (happily ever after) in the end. Although there are some happy tidings for various people, many loose ends are left, and not because there will be a sequel, I don’t think, but because the author simply wanted them that way. I always think I’m okay with open-ended books until I read one, and then, when I get to the last paragraph and realize my ultimate curiosity won’t be satisfied, I sulk. So this book’s ending made me just a little sulky! I don’t mean to say not to read it, however; it’s a charming, engaging story with a lot of heart, decent writing, great characterization, and an interesting story line.

I had two issues with the physical presentation of the novel: The first was the cover, which, while cute, doesn’t match the description of the shop (thus my little painting, above, to recall the theme of pink!). The second was the title of the book! I don’t understand why the author didn’t call it Blossom and Grow, after the shop; not only would it have been a more memorable title than The Flower Arrangement (which is so generic as to be forgettable, and I did several times when people asked me what I was reading!) but it actually better expresses what happens in the course of the story.

Perhaps Ella Griffin will see this and let us in on her reasoning.