Monthly Archives: March 2011

Romancing Mister Bridgerton, by Julia Quinn

Title: Romancing Mister Bridgerton (Bridgerton #4)Romancing Mister Bridgerton
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 370 pages
Genre: Regency romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read, many times
Rating: 5 enthusiastic stars

This review carries a mild spoiler warning – I won’t say anything explicitly, but anyone who’s clever enough and hasn’t read the book might put things together, especially once she starts reading.

Y’know, I always say that The Viscount Who Loved Me is my favourite Bridgerton book… and then I get to Romancing Mister Bridgerton, and I think maybe I’m wrong. I love Kate and Anthony, but I love Colin and Penelope, too, and they have a particularly special place in my heart, because they’re writers. You can feel JQ’s love for words coming through here, and while I, unpublished, have to empathize more with Colin’s hesitation and insecurity, everything that both characters say about writing rings so true. It’s an unusual vocation for either hero or heroine in a romance novel, and so I’m glad JQ went there and gave me this opportunity for vicarious delight.

Penelope, too, is an attractive character for any girl who was ever a social outcast — ever convinced she wasn’t pretty enough, ever a wallflower, ever picked-on and belittled and made to feel less than what she truly is. And, yeah, I was one of those girls. I never took it quite as quietly as Penelope did, but I know the feeling all too well. I love the early part of the book, when Lady Danbury takes an interest in her – I love so much of what Lady Danbury has to say whenever she appears, really, but this about takes the cake on a sentimental level:

“Isn’t it nice,” the older lady said, leaning in so that only Penelope could hear her words, “to discover that we’re not exactly what we thought we were?”

Wise words, Lady D. And it is nice. So, with such an underdog heroine, who we’ve seen the butt of jokes and the odd one out for so many books now, it’s a glorious vicarious thrill to see her get everything she deserves from life — fame, wealth, recognition for her talents, and, of course and best of all, the love of her life. It’s a delicious fantasy. I remember loving it when I was an awkward-and-unfortunate sixteen-year-old, and I love it now as an only-slightly-less-awkward-though-thankfully-less-unfortunate nearly-twenty-six year old — with the added comfort now that Penelope finds true love and satisfaction at the age of twenty-eight. Does anyone else find that the older heroines are more attractive than the ingénues the older you get? Nowadays, when I read books where the heroines are 18-20 year old debutantes… well, they just seem so young. Which means I must be getting old, because I know that wasn’t the case when I was 15 and 16 and reading these books for the first time. /digression

I think what I really love in Romancing Mister Bridgerton is Colin’s devotion to Penelope, his protection of her, his pride in her. It’s heart-warming. And he’s a hero for it. Colin’s quest throughout the book is to prove that he isn’t just an empty-headed charmer, and for my money, he succeeds so admirably.

As I said at the top of the review, this book vies strongly with The Viscount Who Loved Me for my favourite Bridgerton novel, and I think part of the reason I can never choose is because they’re such different books and such different couples. I’m attracted to Colin and Penelope for completely different reasons than I’m attracted to Kate and Anthony. With the latter, it’s all fire and spice and combat and pride covering vulnerabilities, with butting heads and cutting wit – and I find all of that very appealing. With Colin and Penelope, it’s a quieter, more sly sort of wit, and a different kind of story. They don’t collide into each other like Kate and Anthony do; they more drift into each other, almost on accident. Colin learns to look at the girl who has, in his own words, always just been “there” in a completely new way, and Penelope has to learn how to de-pedestal the man she’s been in love with for a dozen years and see him for who he truly is. And then, just when the think they’ve gotten their feet under them, everything changes again.

It goes without saying that I would love to read everything Penelope ever wrote, but I bet I’d love Colin’s travel journals, too. JQ put a lot of effort into what little we see of them. I also like to imagine that Colin and Penelope travel a lot in the course of their life together. Paris, Munich, Antwerp, Luxor, Istanbul? They should see the world together.

Overall – I love this book. I’d recommend it to any reader of romance novels, although mostly I don’t have to, because most romance readers I know are already solidly in love with JQ, the Bridgertons, Colin in particular, and this book. But in the event that any of you haven’t read these yet and haven’t been convinced by my first three reviews – read the Bridgerton novels. Seriously. You’ll be glad you did. And technically any of them could stand alone, but I almost think this one less than the others, because it hinges so much on what you learn about Penelope in the earlier novels. You don’t even realise you’re picking it up at the time, but you get to Romancing Mister Bridgerton and… wow. You definitely wouldn’t get the full experience of revelation, I don’t think, if you haven’t read the earlier books.

This is another digression, but re-reading this book also gave me a splendid idea: JQ’s said she won’t write Violet’s love story with Edmund, because we know how it ends and it’s too sad. But y’know who ought to get an absolutely ripping story? Lady Danbury. JQ should totally swing back in time to the rather more raucous 1760s or so and give Lady D some time in the spotlight.

And as a final, I swear, additional note — does anyone know what the story is with the new cover? I mean, what is that? This entire book takes place in London, not at some woodland estate. I so wish we could get the British covers in the U.S. — those are so darling and generally a lot more true to the book than any of the U.S. covers, old or new.


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The Heretic Queen, by Michelle Moran

Title: The Heretic QueenThe Heretic Queen, Michelle Moran
Author: Michelle Moran
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 383 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

Our heroine Nefertari is, in Moran’s book, the daughter of Mutny and the niece of Nefertiti, forever tainted by her family’s legacy of tearing apart Egypt and nearly leading the realm to ruin. (The historical Nefertari’s descent is unknown; Moran takes some liberties, but they make as much sense as other theories I’ve seen). As an unpopular princess, her place in court is uncertain until Woserit, one of the aunts of young prince (soon-to-be Pharaoh) Ramesses, takes Nefertari under her wing, teaching her how to be both an appropriately-behaving princess and an alluring, desireable woman. Woserit and Nefertari both want Ramesses to marry Nefertari and choose her for Chief Wife, over the foolish, superstitious, histrionic Iset — Woserit for more political and practical reasons, Nefertari because she’s been in love with the prince for years. Ramesses marries her, but the battle for supremacy continues for years, as Nefertari combats the common people’s hatred for her (stemming from her family history, hence, the title of the book) and helps Ramesses through a series of political and military challenges.

I tore through this one, really — I had to force myself to put it down last night so I could go to bed at a reasonable hour. Nefertari is more of an active protagonist than Mutny was; she takes more of a role in her own life — once she decides to, at least. It takes a little while for her to decide to be proactive and assert herself, but once she does, the head of steam builds up pretty fast. I love that she used real, valuable assets, such as her skill with languages, to make herself a valuable wife to Ramsses. Watching her triumph over Iset in the petition hall was wonderfully satisfying, and I sort of wish we’d seen more of the politics on that end. The character I found truly fascinating, though, was Woserit. The High Priestess of Hathor had a great, complicated role in the story with a rich background, and I thought she was pretty much the coolest thing happening on the page. I feel like her relationship with her sister had a lot of resemblances to Octavia’s relationship with Livia in Cleopatra’s Daughter, only here you get to see more of it out in the open, and I love to watch that sort of rivalry in action.

The Heretic Queen also took an interesting approach to the biblical exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, without any sweeping dramatics or divine interventions. Ahmoses speaks for his people, monotheists in a realm where monotheism has come to have, after Akhenaten, dangerous connotations. Moran examines some complications — the Habiru are unpopular in Egypt due to their beliefs, but they also make up a sixth of the Egyptian army, and so Ramesses and Nefertari must decide if they can be allowed to leave Egypt, or if they should be forcibly expelled. It’s a more complex and nuanced version of the story than other fictional portrayals, and far more grounded as well.

I liked this one better than Nefertiti, and it has fewer of the flaws I mentioned in my review of that book, but the problem I’m still having with this author is… I wish there was more to each story! She ends the books so early in their lives, with the girls still so young. I wish we’d seen more of Nefertari on both ends, actually — I’d have liked more of her life at the Temple of Hathor, and I’d have liked to have seen more of her as a successive queen. Her entire life with Ramesses was apparently fascinating, we learn in an endnote — so I wish Moran had showed it to us, had given us more of Nefertari’s success and eventual deification during her lifetime. This book could’ve been twice as long, and I’d’ve been cheerful about it. Moran ends her books so abruptly — there’s a lot of build-up, a lot of struggle, a lot of emotional investment, and then not nearly enough time to celebrate Nefertari’s triumph. I could use more denouement out of all of her novels.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and can heartily recommend it to lovers of historical fiction. It’s definitely a light read, not an epic, but it’s thoroughly entertaining. And, for what it’s worth, though this book follows Nefertiti, it stands on its own, so you could definitely read one without having read the other.

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The Valcourt Heiress, by Catherine Coulter

Title: The Valcourt HeiressThe Valcourt Heiress, Catherine Coulter
Author: Catherine Coulter
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 368 pages
Genre: “historical” fiction/romance?
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 1 star

I read this book quickly only because I kept hoping it would get better. There was good material in there, somewhere, I feel sure. It never delivered, though. The characters were flat — no dimension, no development, nothing to make you care about anyone in the story. The story did not hang together at all — no one’s motivations made any sense, there was no sense of cause-and-effect, actions didn’t have plausible consequences… it was a distractingly unsophisticated muddle. The dialogue was distractingly unnatural — stilted in the extreme, not to mention the bizarre accents she had her lower-class characters using, mixing Middle English, early modern slang, and Victorian Cockney cant indiscriminately. And the element of “magick”, as she would insist on spelling it, just plain didn’t make sense. One of the primary mandates of writing fantasy is that magic has to have rules, it has to have constrictions and consequences, and the reader has to know what those are, but there was no explanation whatsoever here. Rather, it felt like Coulter just sort of flung “magickal” themes at the page in the hopes that something would stick. The book would’ve been better off without that element at all — it just made a further mess of an already muddied storyline.

The book also bothered me as a historian — I know that *all* historical romances take certain liberties. You can’t be completely faithful without getting bogged down in details that harm the story. I get that. I’m generally willing to cut fluff fiction a lot of slack — because if it knows what it is, if it isn’t trying to take itself seriously, you can get away with a certain degree of historical vagueness. But this? Coulter goes to the trouble of setting it in a fairly obscure period, or at least one that’s less often dramatized in novels of this kind (late-13th century England, early in the reign of Edward I), setting it up as though that’s going to matter in some way… and then does nothing with it — nothing at all to show that she has any understanding of what late-13th century England was like, or that she did any research on the royal court beyond the names. The personalities of both the time period and the figures in it are just plain wrong. A lot of it was really just painful — the informality of the English court more than anything, for my comfort. Coulter had the king and queen doing things and saying things that the prideful Plantagenets just plain would never have said or done, tolerating horrific affronts to royal dignity, shrugging their shoulders at the ridiculously vulgar way their courtiers were acting… it was absurd. I freely grant, this might not bother someone else, reading the story with less awareness of the historical realities — but compared to some of the really stellar historical fiction I’ve read in the last year, this was a jarring disappointment.

The reason I qualify this book as “romance?” with a question mark is because… well, I know it’s meant to be a medieval romance. I know we’re meant to believe that Garron and Merry have some sort of attachment to each other and will live Happy Ever After. The trouble is that none of that shows in the storytelling. There is nothing in the book to convince a reader that they have any real feeling for each other. They act and react like automatons — and bizarrely programmed automatons at that, taking action only because someone input that stimulus into their systems, not because any emotional or psychological response warrants it. Their “romance” also takes a backseat to the bizarre fantasy elements involving Merry’s mother. The whole story takes a sharp left turn into a ravine about two-thirds of the way through, which only augments the discombobulated feeling of the entire book.

This was my first Catherine Coulter, and, after having heard good things about her, I was really disappointed. I may look for other books of hers that have been more highly rated… but I won’t be bothering with it for a while, at least. Overall, The Valcourt Heiress is a confusing, unengaging, ham-handed quasi-historical mess. I do not recommend it, unless you’ve a penchant for literary masochism.

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An Offer from a Gentleman, by Julia Quinn

Title: An Offer from a GentlemanAn Offer from a Gentleman, Julia Quinn (Bridgerton #3)
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2001
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Regency romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This isn’t one of my favourite JQs, but it’s still charming in its own way. It also has a special place in my heart for being the first romance novel I ever read. I picked it up at the beach when I was fifteen, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

JQ gives the old Cinderella story a spin (as it seems every romance novel author must, at some point or another), but she does it in a very grounded, realistic way. Sophie isn’t a stepdaughter; she’s a bastard, permanently on the outskirts of society because of that position. Her father owns up to his responsibility, but his death leaves her in a lurch, and at the mercy of his surviving wife. When some of the other servants decide to sneak Sophie into the Bridgertons’ masked ball, deciding that she ought to at least get one night befitting the daughter of the house, she Benedict and Sophie suffer love at first sight — but Sophie’s secret keeps them from realizing it for years. This is, in many ways, a quieter story than Daphne’s or Anthony’s, and I think that suits Benedict. It’s also a slower-paced book, without the rapid-fire wit or chaotic circumstances that afflict so many of the Bridgerton siblings.

I usually have a bit of trouble with heroines who lie — a trope that is, for whatever reason, somewhat prevalent in romance novels. It’s mitigated in this book because Sophie doesn’t really outright lie much, she just lets the truth stay hidden, and her circumstances make that more believable than some other heroines I’ve seen. The real hero here is, for me, Violet, who puts in a beautifully good showing, especially at the end. She’s rather magnificent, really, demonstrating that she cares for her children’s happiness above all else. The rest of the family continues to develop well, and we get to see Hyacinth more fully developed here than in earlier novels. This book is also noticeable for being the first time we hear about Francesca’s first, unfortunate marriage — but more on that when I get to When He Was Wicked.

Overall, this book is thoroughly enjoyable if also, for me, a little forgettable. I enjoy it, returning to it, but it’s not a book my mind readily jumps to when I want to recommend a romance novel to someone. That said, it’s an indispensable part of the Bridgerton series, so if you want to read the set, don’t skip this one — Sophie and Benedict come back later on and figure into later novels. So, not as much to my taste, but for readers who prefer a gentler, slower pace and a softer kind of romance, this book would be an excellent choice.


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Nefertiti, by Michelle Moran

Title: NefertitiNefertiti by Michelle Moran
Author: Michelle Moran
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 480 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: new
Rating: 3.5 stars (with prejudice)

Here again, I found myself liking the book more than it merited on any kind of technical appraisal. Nefertiti tells the story of Egypt’s famous queen and the upheaval of the Amarna period through the eyes of her younger sister, Mutnodjmet, known as Mutny. For those unfamiliar with Amarna, it was the western world’s first real experiment with institutional monotheism — Pharoah Amunhotep IV threw over the vast Egyptian pantheon in favour of the sun-disk Aten, for whom he re-named himself Akhenaten. This move created a huge scandal, not just for its blasphemy in the eyes of the Egyptians, but because he seized the money from the temples of the other gods, killed off the priests who objected, and built himself a new capital at Amarna, dedicating his entire life to the worship of the sun, rather than to defending Egypt from her enemies. The famously beautiful Nefertiti, his Chief Wife and Queen who bore him six daughters, is a bit of a shadowy figure in history — she enjoyed unprecedented status and power for a wife, but her life and death are both immersed in questions. Did she support Akhenaten’s religious upheaval, or did she have to go along with it for her own protection? Did she fall into disgrace for a period of time, exiled from the royal presence? Was she ever coronated as an official co-regent? Might she have reigned as Pharoah on her own after his death? How and when did she die? No one quite knows, but Moran plucks out a narrative and chooses a story for her.

It’s an interesting read, and Mutny’s story is certainly compelling. The author takes rather more historical liberties than I care for, and the view of Nefertiti isn’t quite flattering, at least through the first 95% of the book. Her transformation at the end seems to come out of nowhere — she manifests a strength suddenly that there was no hint of before, and it rings false. I’d have preferred it if we’d seen some of that all along, some inclination towards responsibility rather than the utterly frivolous, jealous queen she is through most of the book. So much of Nefertiti’s life, especially her rivalry with Kiya, seems like Ancient-Egypt-Does-High-School. (Also, I wish the map at the front of the book was better — it doesn’t have marked half the places that characters go or talk about in the book). As with Cleopatra’s Daughter, I also wish we saw more of the main figure’s story past early adulthood — we get a little more here than we get with Selene, but not by a wide margin. I’m starting to feel as though Moran has a bad habit of ending her stories too abruptly and too early.

Still, for a quick, fun historical read, it’s decent. I’m not an Egyptian scholar, so if there were glaring errors in accuracy, I didn’t notice them — Moran painted a nice picture of the minutiae of the world. I enjoyed the details of daily life in Egypt, particularly those within the women’s world and Mutny’s herblore. Moran seems to have an affinity for letting her heroines find ways to express themselves (and their intelligence) within the bounds of the historical patriarchies in which they live (Selene’s architecture, Mutny’s medicine, and the theme pops up in The Heretic Queen, the sequel to Nefertiti, as well), and if it may not be entirely accurate, I’m willing to overlook that. I enjoy the touch, because it feels as though, whether or not it’s true to the historical figures, it could be — the actions the women take aren’t so far outside the bounds of normalcy as to be unbelievable.

I couldn’t help, though, comparing this book in my head to the Lord Meren mysteries by Lynda Robinson, a series that I’ve loved for years. They present the Amarna controversy with a lot more nuance and sophistication than Moran does, even though I think they actually have less accuracy as far as bloodlines and relationships are concerned. This is Moran’s debut novel, though, and while it shows, it also demonstrates that she’s improving as she goes along. I need to put her latest, Madame Tussaud, on my to-read list. She’s rather in line with another favourite historical author of mine, the late Jean Plaidy — not always the “best” things around, but an enjoyable indulgence for a major historical geek like me.

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Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison

Title: Dead Witch WalkingDead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison
Author: Kim Harrison
Year of Publication: 2004
Length: 432 pages
Genre: urban fantasy/magical realism
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars

I read this book on recommendation from a friend at work, and I will confess to initial leeriness. For all of my occult interests, I’ve never much enjoyed either paranormal romances or the newly-hot genre of vampire literature, and I was worried that this series might fall too much into those categories. I found the alternate universe premise interesting, though, and I do love a good dystopia, so I felt that my friend’s suggestion was worth giving a try.

I feel like I shouldn’t have enjoyed this book as much as I did. There were a lot of things that bothered me about it, and yet, I kept reading. It’s definitely something I put in the “brain candy” category, though that’s no detriment to it. The premise is certainly intriguing, though I’m not sure the execution is quite as neat-handed as it might be. The basic concept is that humanity genetically engineered its own destruction, releasing a virus (carried by tomatoes) that killed off a significant portion of the human race. In order to keep the world and society functioning, the paranormals came out of the woodworks — witches, vampires, pixies, leprechauns, werewolves, you name it. They’re out in the open now, but the two societies aren’t fully integrated — there’s a lot of tension, as you might expect. Frequently the narrator mentions something that needs explaining, but never explains it, or only gets back to it chapters later, which is confusing and distracting. But the concept is compelling enough to carry it along, and the plot rolls along at a decent clip. I was constantly wanting to know more, wanting to know where things would go, and wanting to know more about the world Harrison created. Unfortunately, she didn’t always deliver. I understand wanting to build mystery and suspense, but to leave so many unanswered questions at the end of the book, not about the plot itself but about the world — well, it was frustrating. I do appreciate that she delineated her world’s rules for magic and the price attached to its use, although somehow it seems a bit… narrow? But perhaps that will open up more in later books.

I think I’d like this story better in general if it was in third-person rather than first. It’s just so difficult to do exposition well in first-person; it always comes out awkward. A lot of it comes off as “Oh yeah, and here’s this thing I forgot to mention earlier,” which can be a bit jarring. And I’m not sure I’m completely sold on the heroine yet — she’s a witch and a bounty hunter, with a blend of competence with complete ineptitude that comes off as a little strange, and I find her overreactions, especially to her vampire roommate, a little annoying. She also just doesn’t seem all that bright in some places, making decisions for really questionable reasons, trusting indiscriminately, displaying a total lack of consistency in how she responds to threats and other interactions — but none of it in a charming-ingenue way, rather in a sort of dim-bulb way. I’m fonder of the two pixie characters, Jenks and his wife Matalina, who are more complex than I initially guessed they would be. I also think I’ve guessed the secret of the villain, Trent, and I hope (and suspect) that we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

Dead Witch Walking was a quick read, and 3 stars is right for it — it’s a middling book, enjoyable but not stunning, with a world that is intriguing but doesn’t seem fully built, or at least not fully explicated. I’m frustrated by unanswered questions, inconsistencies, and ambiguities. I’ll definitely be reading the next book in the series, though, since I’ve heard it gets better as it goes along. I’m willing to give Harrison a decent chance at ironing some of these problems out.


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The Viscount Who Loved Me, by Julia Quinn

Title: The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgerton #2)The Viscount Who Loved Me, Julia Quinn
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2000
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Regency Romance
New or Re-Read?: re-read oh, so many times
Rating: 5 extra-shiny stars

I love, love, love, love, love this book. It’s one of my favourite romances of all time. So, be forewarned — This is a gushing review.

This book is really where JQ hits her stride as a writer — it’s entirely without the flaws of some of her earlier books. Anthony and Kate are delightful in every way. Stubborn, proud people, who absolutely do not intend to fall in love with each other — which  makes watching them do so is such a thrill. Their banter is magnificent — I’m a sucker for quick wits and snappy repartee, and Anthony and Kate do not disappoint. They’re just magnificent in their bull-headed opposition, and then they way they have to come to trust each other is beautiful. They go from hate to milder antagonism to friendship to love. I adore them.

Not without cause is JQ called our modern Jane Austen — she has the talent for it, and this book in particular owes a debt to Pride and Prejudice, as its hero and heroine fall victim to those sins. But, they overcome them. I don’t think it’s any accident that the heroine is called Kate, either — the book contains a fair few subtle allusions to The Taming of the Shrew as well (my particular favourite being a reference to Kate wearing an unbecoming cap — it’s sly, but I can’t think it’s a coincidence). JQ makes the tropes quite her own, though, through the quick, witty language and the overwhelming passion that Anthony and Kate feel for each other. She also gives both hero and heroine touching points of vulnerability. Kate and Anthony both want, so much, to be so strong, all the time, for everyone around them. This is probably among the reasons I feel such strong affinity for them both, as it’s an imperative I feel quite often myself. In order to find love and happiness, they both have to learn to put their shields aside and let the other in, learning that, yes, letting yourself love someone, and letting that person love and trust you in return, can be horribly painful and deeply frightening — but, ultimately, it’s worth it.

Here again, of course, you get a good dose of the Bridgerton family as well. Brothers Benedict and Colin put in a good showing, and then Daphne and Simon (of The Duke and I) show up for a game of Pall Mall — that scene is one of my favourites, not just in this book but in all of romance novels, and was the cause of several long-standing jokes when I was younger between myself and other friends who had read the book. (Fear the Mallet of Death, Gentle Readers). Other memorable scenes include Anthony rescuing dear Penelope Featherington, the wedding, the thunderstorm, and the infamous Bee Incident. In so many places, this book is laugh-out-loud funny, but it also has some gorgeous, tender moments, too. It’s a perfect balance.

And, too, this book has Lady Whistledown giving her incisive commentary on events. I think she’s at her best in this book, too — Certainly more of my favourite quotes of hers come from Viscount rather than the other novels. One of the best:

“Men are contrary creatures.  Their heads and their hearts are never in agreement, and as women know all too well, their actions are usually governed by a different aspect altogether.”

—Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, 29 April 1814

And, once again, it’s fascinating to read this in retrospect, knowing her identity now. You can really see the interweaving of the real person and the persona, how events influence her writing. It’s an excellent bit of cleverness from JQ, and one that can really only be appreciated in retrospect.

Overall — I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I honestly can’t find anything negative to say about it, which is often far from the case even with books I thoroughly enjoy. But this one is just spot-on in my opinion. I’ll leave you with another of my favourite quotes from the book, which quite sums up my own opinions as well:

“Contrary to popular opinion, This Author is aware that she is viewed as something of a cynic.
But that, Dear Reader, could not be further from the truth.  This Author likes nothing better than a happy ending.  And if that makes her a romantic fool, then so be it.”
– Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, 15 June 1814

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Cleopatra’s Daughter, by Michelle Moran

Title: Cleopatra’s DaughterCleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran
Author: Michelle Moran
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 464 page
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 for personal enjoyment, 3.5 for technical merit, averaging out to a 4.

Really lovely — my only real complaint is that it ended too soon! I wanted to read more of Selene’s life as an adult, but that’s largely because I find this whole era so fascinating. I love the collapse of the Roman Republic and the start of the Empire. This book fits in nicely between Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series and I, Claudius, in a way — not that there’s strict continuity between them all, and Cleopatra’s Daughter is definitely lighter fair than McCullough or Graves, but this fits into the gap of years between the two and looks at some characters who get skipped over or glossed in other works.

All of the characters are quite well-drawn. Selene’s reaction to the different expectations of a woman in Rome as opposed to her mother’s Egypt is a great way of getting to her personality — and I love that she finds a way out of the bind. She feels very authentic in her reactions, caught in such a tangle, occasionally taking rebellious risks, but generally finding it easier to acquiesce — and then feeling guilt over her capitulation. Her relationship with Julia is one of the best and most fascinating in the book. They could so easily become bitter rivals, especially over Marcellus, but instead they develop a much more complex dynamic. Julia is spoiled but charming, a little oblivious to Selene’s feelings at times but still a compassionate friend when Selene does need her. It’s also nice how their relationship is sort of the bright mirror to the vicious rivalry between Octavia and Livia — both of whom are intriguing characters in their own right. I’ve always wondered how Octavia must have felt, tasked with caring for her husband’s children by the woman he left her for, and Cleopatra’s Daughter answers that question admirably. My only complaint, again, is that I wanted more — Moran gives you such a strong sense of this deliciously bitter rivalry, but I kept wanting to see more of it, learn more about it, see where it would go. As for Octavian, the man who will be Augustus Caesar, he’s every bit the cold, ruthless pragmatist, sweeping inconvenience out of his path to glory — even when those inconveniences are people, children, relatives… no mercy, no regrets.

There are a few historical glitches, but overall, the picture that Moran paints of late-Republic/early-Imperial Rome is rich, detailed, and a wonderful immersion. The political history is thorough without being overwhelming, and the plot clips along at a decent pace, not dragging. As I said, I would’ve liked a little bit more scope, to see a bit more of Selene’s life — the book ends rather abruptly, tying everything up in one great sweep, and then leaving it to an afterword to tell us what happens to all of the historical figures in the rest of their lives. Admittedly, a lot of that is ground that has been covered elsewhere — not that that necessarily stops authors of historical fiction — but I would’ve enjoyed seeing a more complete view of these characters. As it is, the book drops off when most of them are about fifteen years old — so I did feel a bit cheated at the end.

Overall, though, I can recommend this book as thoroughly enjoyable light historical fiction. This is one where I think my personal enjoyment outstripped the technical merit (thus the split rating) — but I think it’s perfectly possible to subjectively enjoy something beyond what it’s “worth” objectively. It’s definitely a quick read, not as dense as Masters of Rome, but I don’t think less of it for that. Not every book needs to be epic or panoptic (much though I do love books of that type). Cleopatra’s Daughter might be a good introduction to this era of historical fiction for someone not quiet yet ready to leap into heavier works, and it’s also a good bit of brain candy for readers who are already familiar with Roman history and culture, and who enjoy the interpretations thereof in fiction.


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The Duke and I, by Julia Quinn

Title: The Duke and I (Bridgerton #1)The Duke and I, by Julia Quinn
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2000
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Regency Romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-read, for perhaps the 4th time.
Rating: 4 stars

Thus begins my Great Bridgerton Re-Read, and The Duke and I is a solid first entry into this family. In this book, JQ is still shaking off some of her bad habits and beginner’s slip-ups, but there’s definitely an improvement in her writing from her earlier series. (Not that I don’t love those, too, but they do have some marks of a less-experienced author). Simon and Daphne are both interesting characters, though Simon, with his stutter, is the more complex of the two. They get themselves well and truly into a pickle and then have to sort it out and navigate the rocky emotional waters they stir up. I’m still somewhat uncomfortable with Daphne’s method of getting her way, as it’s something that I feel would be far less acceptable with the genders reversed, but, I can live with it. They both do wrong things, and they both have to make up for it. It’s nice to see that in a romance novel, to have both characters at fault, rather than more blame falling on one than the other. My only other character criticism is that I wish we’d seen more of Daphne being considered “a good sport,” a friend, a chum by all the men of the ton, rather than just hearing about it. I didn’t feel like her “one of the boys”-ness was as well-defined as it might’ve been — she certainly stops short of tomboy-hood. Overall, though, both characters are compelling, and you spend the book wanting to see them and their romance succeed.

But, let’s face it, overall the Bridgerton Family and Lady Whistledown steal the show. The Bridgertons are an absolute delight — Who wouldn’t want to be part of that family? I love the interaction between the brothers (and I lost my heart to Colin from the moment he entered the scene), I love seeing Hyacinth in all of her ten-year-old certainty about the world, I love the pea-flinging incident, and I love Violet, especially when she starts bullying her grown sons. They’re just magnificent. JQ knocked it out of the park by creating them as the basis for an extended series.

Then, Lady Whistledown’s cutting wit is brilliant from the start. So much of what she writes is laugh-out-loud funny. I swear, I would have her commentary on every romance novel I read, if I could. I never get tired of her. Re-reading this book is particularly interesting several years on from knowing who Lady Whistledown is (the great revelation happens a few books down the road), and it’s fun to see the connections that are there from the very beginning. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t reveal who Lady W is for anyone who hasn’t read the series — but those who have know what I mean, and it’s such a treat to see the sly dear juxtaposed with her alter ego this early on.

I cheerfully recommend this book — and the whole series — not just to readers of historical romance, but to those who may be leery of the genre as well. The Bridgertons have converted more than one reader that I know of with their charm and humour, so even if this isn’t your typical genre, I would encourage you to give them a try.


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Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Title: BoneshakerBoneshaker by Cherie Priest
Author: Cherie Priest
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 416 pages
Genre: steampunk, historical fiction, AU
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2 stars (and that on credit)

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I’m a big fan of the steampunk aesthetic, and I keep hoping to see it handled well in fiction. But… I found Boneshaker quite underwhelming and something of a disappointment.  The plot doesn’t hold together all that well, and I’m not a fan of the author’s storytelling style. She’s trying to be clever by holding back information, but really it just muddies everything. It doesn’t help that the two main characters spend the entire book not knowing what the heck is going on, and since it’s third-limited from their perspectives, the reader has no idea what’s going on, either. This limitation is particularly troublesome as Priest never fully defines the rules of her universe. She makes blanket statements about the way things are in this AU version of Seattle, but never backs them up with coherent explanations.

I also had trouble visualising. Her descriptions are sort of… bland? I’m not sure if that’s the right word. It doesn’t feel like it should be the right word, for a genre that is so dependent on visual aesthetic — and maybe that’s why it seems so lacking. Priest glances at the aesthetic without ever really doing it justice, without using it effectively. It sort of felt like she left out what could be important details about the setting, so that the major concepts didn’t connect to each other, and I was left trying to fit together pieces that were really blurry around the edges. A lot of times, it seemed like she was depending on the reader knowing Seattle’s topography to do the work for her — and as I’ve never been to Seattle, I couldn’t follow where she wanted to lead. Her descriptions just didn’t grab me, they never went far enough to paint a complete picture, and as such, I had trouble visualising what was going on.

The biggest problem, though, was that I also didn’t come to care about any of the characters, and I always have trouble engaging with a book when that’s the case. I can forgive a book any number of plot meanderings, logic holes, confusing moments, and sparse descriptions if I can get excited about the characters. But Briar and Zeke are as grey and dull as their surroundings. Priest gives us some background on their histories — but, as I said above, never quite enough to feel like you have a grip on what’s going on — but we never learn how they feel about anything. There’s very little introspection from either of them, and, once again, when your viewpoint is third limited, that’s sort of a necessity. Several of the supporting characters had the potential to be far more compelling than the leads, but Priest doesn’t give any of them enough “screen time” to really sell their merits. The result is a plodding, aimless story without any driving personality behind it. She’s also terribly prone to telling rather than showing, and that goes as much for the emotional development of the characters as it does for the setting.

Overall, extremely underwhelming, and I must confess that I don’t at all understand the high praise and considerable hype this book has earned in some circles. I’m bewildered that the book has warranted sequels, and even more astonished that it was nominated for a Hugo.


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