Author Archives: Rachel Anne Calabia

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Outside the Comfort Zone

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Outside the Comfort Zone

For the eighth round of Buy, Borrow, or Bash, I decided to read a couple of romances that are out of my comfort zone. On a whim, I picked up a Christian romance set in the Edwardian era and a holiday romance set in the Victorian era. To top this all off, I picked up a Mary Balogh novel because I’m incredibly biased against novels with the word “mistress” in the title.

(I’m not kidding. I think some words should never be part of a title, words like ho, sluttish, rapine, secret baby… you get the idea.)

So…did these romances manage to win me over to their sub-genres? Let’s take a look.

 

Carrie Turansky’s The Governess of Highland Hall (2013)

The Governess of Highland Hall is like Little Women amped up to eleven: the main character’s a saintly Beth and a maternal Meg rolled into one neat package.

Julia Foster is the plucky daughter of English missionaries, and she’s spent most of her young life in India. Now that her father is ill, her family’s returned home and Julia must take a post as a governess to help pay the bills.

A widower who came into his title recently, Sir William Ramsey hires Julia to care for his two children and his two debutante-aged cousins. He finds himself increasingly attracted to his new employee, but he tries to stifle the attraction. The estate he inherited is bogged down with debt, and a marriage of convenience is the easiest solution to all his problems.

Many obstacles are thrown into Julia’s path—territorial senior servants, Sir William’s douchey brother, an American heiress named Alice Drexel—but Julia always manages to pray and philosophize her way out of difficult situations.

Since the book is marketed as a Christian romance, there are lots of references to prayer and the Bible. Since I was raised a disgruntled Catholic, this bothered me less than I expected it would. After two hundred pages though, it got grating. I’m obviously not the target market of this work.

I also wonder if any readers of Indian descent will take offense at the historically accurate attitude taken by some of the book’s characters. While it’s almost refreshing that the book is brave enough not to be revisionist (in the sense that not all the characters are enlightened), I still question the wisdom of the portrayal. It’s treading on thin ground, really.

It bothers me, too, that Julia refers to India as a whole, and never talks about growing up in a particular region in the subcontinent.

While the book’s main conflict is resolved in the usual fashion, some of the subplots are left at loose ends. Does the housemaid reunite with her stable boy? Does the housekeeper, Mrs. Emmitt, ever accept that the former governess is now her new boss? Do I really care? Does it really matter?

I can imagine the nuns in my old high school stocking the library with this book, and other Christian romances just like it. There’s absolutely no sex, whether implied or explicit. Even a character’s unwanted advances amounted to nothing more than a drunken fumble. This romance is so clean you can serve hors d’oeuvres on it.

heat meter: one chili         final rating: borrow

 

Victoria Alexander’s His Mistress by Christmas (2012)

In His Mistress by Christmas, Lady Veronica Smithson attends a book lecture and makes the rash decision to seduce the charismatic speaker. The man she lusts for is the amateur explorer Sir Sebastian Hadley-Attwater, a well-known adventurer—in every sense of the word. He also happens to be a cousin of a good friend.

Portia, Lady Redwell, almost regrets making the introduction when she finds out what Lady Veronica’s secret intentions. For his part, Sir Sebastian is intrigued by Lady Veronica. He’s returned to England to settle down for good. He’s finally decided he wants to do all the grown-up things he’s expected to do—buy an estate and come into his inheritance—and he’s even willing to add a wife to the mix. So when Lady Veronica presents herself so willingly, it’s difficult for Sir Sebastian not to want her.

Except now, with the idea of marriage just stirring in his brain, Sir Sebastian wants something more than a conquest. He tells Lady Veronica, rather hypocritically, “One does not seduce the woman one intends to marry.”

So what does Sir Sebastian do to get his way? Of course the man decides to lie to everyone. He lies to Lady Veronica so that she visits his estate, thinking that she’s there for a liaison. He then lies to his extended family, saying that they got speedily and secretly married.

Then things happen…

This is one of those novels in which the central conceit runs out of steam way too fast. The heroine wants to be independent but she’s just going the entirely wrong way about it. She starts off as a merry widow with a coterie of female friends; I don’t understand why she feels the need to become a mistress of a particular guy, no matter how attractive. I mean, there are obviously other alternatives, like hiring a string of strapping young footmen. For a rich, smart woman, she has a rather limited imagination.

The scene where Lady Veronica tries her hand at seduction just made me go “eww.” (Really. That’s all I wrote down in my notes. “Eww.” If I can’t be bothered to make notes, it means I really want to forget the scene as quickly as possible.)

I reserve some ire for Sir Sebastian, too. For a gentleman explorer, he’s not quite perceptive. Sir Sebastian’s lack of foresight and his poor communication skills causes most of the shallow conflict in the first place.

Surely there are Christmas-themed romances that won’t make me feel like hurling the book against the wall. After His Mistress by Christmas, I almost wanted to boycott the holiday season. Maybe some other titles in this sub-genre will be more to my liking.

heat meter: three chilies          final rating: bash

 

Mary Balogh’s The Secret Mistress (2012)

This book’s title is incredibly misleading because the main plot has nothing to do with mistresses. Unlike His Mistress by Christmas, Lady Angeline Dudley’s main goal in life isn’t to be some guy’s kept woman.

Impulsive, good-hearted, and yet very sheltered, Lady Angeline is shocked when a strange gentleman mistakes her for a tart. Just because she’s in a posting inn waiting for her brother, it doesn’t mean she has to put up with the man’s lewd suggestions. So when yet another stranger leaps to her defense, Lady Angeline naturally develops a crush on this chivalrous gentleman.

Lady Angeline’s knight in shining armor is Edward Ailsbury, the new Earl of Heyward. All the rakes think he’s dull and he’s okay with that. He’s eager to differentiate himself from his older brother, the previous earl, a man who died recklessly.

Edward’s determined to be responsible and dependable. One of Heyward’s new responsibilities is to get married and secure the lineage. His back-up plan is to propose to his friend, Eunice Goddard. Yet Eunice wants to marry for love.

As the London season begins, Heyward finds himself being pushed in Lady Angeline’s direction. As the most eligible bachelor and debutante on the market, everyone thinks they make a perfect match. But nothing is easy, especially with rakes on the prowl and a pretty bluestocking with a mind of her own…

Apart from the book’s awful title, The Secret Mistress is actually a charming romance. Both the hero and the heroine are developed equally, and they sort out their misconceptions about marriage while finding each other. There isn’t much sex in it, but since I’m a sucker for straight-laced heroes who keep their passions well hidden, I’m not going to pick on Heyward’s gentlemanly behavior. Quality trumps quantity, even with sex scenes.

heat meter: three chilies           final rating: buy

 

The Handwriting is on the Wall

The Handwriting is on the Wall

From the vignette “Window on Walls”:

 

In Mexico: Give the president minimum wage, so he too can feel the rage. 

In Lima: We don’t want to survive. We want to live. 

In Havana: You can dance to anything. 

In Rio de Janeiro: He who is afraid of living is never born. 

 

—from Eduardo Galeano’s Walking Words (1993), translated by Mark Fried

 

 

How to Grow Vegetables from Kitchen Scraps

How to Grow Vegetables from Kitchen Scraps

The view from the dining room. How I loved that walled garden! Some of my neighbors didn't know it existed.

The most useful thing I ever read on Buzzfeed was a post on growing vegetables from scraps. While most of the photos and instructions were filched from gardening websites, the post did introduce me to this amusing subset of gardening.

I once had a beautiful little garden in Manila. Since the Philippines is volcanic in origin,  the soil there is rich with nutrients. Making something sprout is as easy as throwing some seeds on the ground. My pocket garden, however, was initially a struggle to create, as our townhouse had drainage issues and too much shade. It took research and a lot of trial and error before I found the right water-loving plants best for the space. I enjoyed that garden with a fierce love, and I said good-bye to it reluctantly.

Nowadays, vegetable recycling and container gardening brings me the same satisfaction, albeit on a smaller scale. Unlike my old garden, which was planned solely for adornment, vegetable gardening is utilitarian. It’s always amazing to see a new stalk shoot up. But most of these plants aren’t pretty and I derive more satisfaction from seeing my experiments end up on my kitchen table.

 

Celery, Bok Choy, and Lettuce

Leafy greens like celery, bok choy, and lettuce have identical instructions for reuse.

  1. Chop off the butt end of your vegetable. Give it around one to two inches of stalk. Don’t worry if the vegetable butt doesn’t seem to have any roots.

    Yes, I used a child's Spidey bowl for soaking the celery.

  2. Find a nice shallow bowl and fill it halfway with fresh water. Plop your vegetable butt into the container. Place the bowl in a nice, sunny part of your kitchen where you can see it, but keep it out of reach of pets and children.
  3. Check on your vegetable butt everyday (or every other day), making sure to change the water if it gets slimy or gross. New leaves should sprout from the center of the vegetable butt and slowly grow as the days pass. Growth is affected by the time of year and the warmth of the room, so have patience. Sometimes it takes a week before new leaves begin to show.
  4. Once the new leaves begin to sprout around a sturdy new stalk, it’s time to plant the vegetable in some soil. I usually plant vegetables that have gained two or three inches in height from the vegetable butt.

    My celery right after initial potting.

  5. As the plant gets bigger and more robust, it’s possible to harvest some leaves without uprooting the entire plant. With a pair of scissors, just cut off the leaves you need for cooking or for garnishes. The biggest leaves usually droop away from the center and I use those leaves first.
  6. Once you have done this too many times, however, the vegetable will lose some of its flavor. Often it will taste more bitter. When this happens, it’s time to “retire” the vegetable from active kitchen duty and just let it live peacefully in a corner of your garden.

With my own experiments, I found that while celery, bok choy, and lettuce are the easiest to grow. Among the vegetables that grow back in this manner, they also tend to be temperamental with sudden changes in the weather. Try to soak two or three vegetable butts at a time, so if only one plant survives to harvest, you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Garlic 

Garlic sprouts fast but re-growing an entire garlic bulb takes a long time.

  1. Garlic after a few days of soaking.

    While cooking, go through your garlic bulbs and identify the cloves that are already spouting. Separate cloves into two piles—cloves that can be cooked and cloves that should be recycled. Any garlic glove that has random root growth or any tiny green bits peeking out from the top shouldn’t be cooked (the green bits are very bitter). Set these sprouting ones aside for soaking and planting.

  2. Find a nice, shallow bowl. A ramekin can be used, too. Fill the container with your peeled garlic pieces. With the root ends of the garlic facing down, fill the container with a small quantity of water—try not to drown the garlic. Set this aside on a window sill or counter top, again out of reach of pets and children.
  3. Check on your garlic occasionally for growth. The roots tend to grow very fast. A stalk of green should appear on the top of the garlic glove in a few days’ time. If the water runs low, don’t forget to add more.
  4. When the garlic sprout has reached six inches or more, and the roots are perhaps half an inch long, it’s time to plant the individual garlic cloves in separate pots. This may seem like overkill but they grow very fast. I first tried planting garlic with a ratio of four cloves to a big pot. A few months later it was a repotting nightmare—all the roots got tangled with each other and I spent half an hour combing through all the roots gently! Not fun. Save yourself the trouble and plant each little garlic sprout in a medium-sized pot (anything from six or ten inches in diameter would do.)
  5. Four garlic plants to a single pot—not a good idea.

    After a couple of months of regular watering and care, your garlic plant will suddenly dry up and look like it’s dying. It’s not dying, really, it’s just time to harvest! This is the moment you have waited for. Carefully shift through the soil to expose the top of the plant. When uprooting the garlic, take care not to rip out the roots.

  6. Brush off the excess dirt and hang to dry. When the papery skins of your garlic cloves are dry and slightly crumbly, your garlic is now ready to use.

I just harvested my first crop of garlic last weekend and I’m astonished at how small and fragrant the bulbs are. I had recycled ordinary garlic scraps and they came out great. My garlic is half the size and is twice as pungent than grocery store garlic!

Some More Gardening Tips  

  1. My bok choy enjoyed a long, healthy run as the star of my container garden.

    It’s good to use a mix of soil for your pot—I usually mix backyard soil with some organic soil purchased at my local hardware store. I buy the stuff that’s recommended for vegetable or container gardening. Sometimes I throw in a few pinches of nitrogen pellets (usually labeled as slow release fertilizer) into the mix, too.

  2. Make sure your pot has good drainage before putting your new plants in them. I usually use plastic pots that come with pre-cut drainage holes; if the ones you buy don’t have any holes, you must find a way to puncture them or you will risk drowning your plant’s roots with too much water. For this reason, I prefer plastic pots over clay—it’s easier to make holes in plastic. Also, when the plant needs repotting, I find it easier to pull out a plant from a plastic pot than a clay one.
  3. Once potted, don’t overwater your plants. Sometimes the soil can seem bone-dry on top but the soil at the bottom of the pot is wetter than mud. If you feel uncertain about how much water your vegetable needs, look up each plant individually on professional gardening sites. My tomato plant, for instance, liked watering only once a week; it died when it got more, even when the weather got warm. My lettuce, bok choy, and garlic, however, are always thirsty and love a bit of water every other day in the summer.
  4. Repotting is a good habit. I usually repot all my plants every three to four months, to loosen the soil and to make sure the roots have more space to grow. Some vegetables, like bok choy, however, don’t like being repotted, and usually “bolt” or start growing flowers out of stress. Bok choy flowers are supposed to be edible but I like their leaves better. Despite their similarity to bok choy, my lettuce and celery didn’t mind being transferred to larger containers. Plants can be moody, too.

 

Since this post is incredibly long, I will save my potato and apricot stories for next time. I know this DIY project is not unique or ground-breaking but I still enjoyed discovering the quirks of each plant. I hope this inspires you to do the same.

 

Reviews: Graphic Novels by Si Spurrier and Paul Pope

Reviews: Graphic Novels by Si Spurrier and Paul Pope

Slightly different versions of these reviews first appeared online at Another Universe

 

In Numbercruncher, the bureaucratic Divine Calculator controls the flow of souls destined for reincarnation. Trying to buy more time for a particular only ends with despair, since it’s part of a contract to take the place of an agent when death comes again.

Agent 494 is a tired cockney tough who’s only too happy that the newly dead Richard Thyme wants to strike a deal. Thyme, however, is a cunning mathematician who doesn’t play by the rules. Thyme finds a way to go through infinite reincarnations, with all of his memories intact. What ensues between Agent 494 and Thyme is a cat-and-mouse game through lifetimes. The chase has a Death Note feel to it, with the antagonists being equally matched.

Thyme’s willing to go through endless deaths and rebirths in order to snatch a few stolen moments with his beloved girlfriend. Jenny Reed is the book’s tragic figure because everyone she loves dies in cruel and unusual ways. Every time Thyme dies, he’s wearing a different body and a difference face—so Jenny just grows more convinced that she’s cursed. (To make an old reference: she’s like Maggie O’Connell from Northern Exposure, amped up to eleven.) Thyme’s a jerk for not noticing that Jenny feels tortured, and that his reincarnations are the cause of her suffering.

Some readers may disagree with the ending but I found Numbercruncher to be an enjoyable graphic novel with a fresh take on the afterlife.

 

In Battling Boy, the eponymous character is required to embark on a Rambling—a coming-of-age ceremony in which demigods are sent to realms in need of a champion. He’s sent to Acropolis with some power-enhancing shirts, a magic cloak, and a minimum of clues. Acropolis is an embattled city: curfew is enforced because nightmare monsters swallow children whole. Local officials are helpless, and they rely on heroic vigilantes like Haggard West. Sadisto’s gang just killed West, though, leaving Aurora West to inherit her father’s arsenal of weapons and his unfinished fight.

Battling Boy has so much promise, but it’s difficult to determine how the series will flesh out in future installments. So far, it’s a fairly typical coming-of-age story, reminiscent of shonen manga: the first chapters provide solid groundwork for the elaborate setting. A reader needs patience, though, while waiting for the plot to pick up momentum. Sometimes, a reader’s patience is rewarded with something unique and mind-blowing. Sometimes, though, it isn’t.  (Am I damning this graphic novel with stingy praise? I’m sorry. Nowadays I’m overly cautious to throw too many compliments at unfinished serialized comics and story arcs. I’ve been badly burned before.)

Right now, the main strength of Battling Boy is its rich graphic elements. The personalized type, vivid colors, and unusual facial expressions are beautiful and arresting, in the way that urban decay can be beautiful.  Battling Boy is a must-have if you love Paul Pope’s unique visual style.

 

Side Comments of the Month XIII

Side Comments of the Month XIII

All children need a sweater with their names emblazoned in large letters.

1. You know why I like HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver? Because here’s a show that talks about everything a week late, and it makes absolutely no apologies about it. In this speed-obsessed world, oh my God, I have found a kindred spirit.

The show seems designed not to butt heads with Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Last Week Tonight is a weekly show; it deals more with international politics; there hasn’t been a celebrity guest promoting a new book. As an occasional Daily Show fan, this is great. I don’t need to divide my loyalties.

I love Oliver’s outsider view of American politics. It’s amusing that it takes a British comedian to tell an American audience what half the world already knows: “Hey, you guys, you aren’t the center of the universe. Really.” I enjoyed his insightful background on the Indian elections and his insinuations that Pom Wonderful Juice is made with Pomeranians. (The cheeky corporate response can be seen here.) In less than two months, the show has tackled everything from the death penalty to dictators with mommy issues.

Alas, his teeth are awful, his hair is sometimes unkempt, but oh, he does have nice dimples. Not convinced yet? As part of the show, John Oliver also posts silly things on Twitter, like this photo.

 

2. I really miss Space Brothers. Every time Saturday rolls around, I torture myself with the thought, “Will there be an episode tonight?” and the answer is always a resounding no. I can’t remember when an anime hiatus bummed me out so much, mainly because I’m not used to watching an ongoing series.

Ginko smokes too much.

As a consolation prize, every week there’s a new Mushishi episode, and that’s great. The second season of Mushishi started broadcast in Japan last April. It’s amazing  that there’s a seven-year gap between the first and second seasons. Can you imagine a live-action series with a seven-year hiatus? Me neither.

Mushishi focuses on a myriad of supernatural creatures called mushi. Mushi can mimic the abilities or needs of “normal” life forms but they are invisible to most sentient beings. Most mushi can cause major havoc when distressed or disturbed.

Ginko, a white-haired, chain-smoking itinerant medicine man, spends his time researching the various mushi. Ginko’s the only main character and he’s usually a passive observer, when large themes like love, betrayal, death, and disfigurement unfold along the Japanese countryside. The mushi often acts as catalyst to emotions already brewing in the hearts of normal men and women; Ginko’s just there to document the action.

Mushishi is sometimes tranquil, sometimes terrifying, but it’s always thought-provoking. Even the unsettling parts of Mushishi have a calm, dream-like quality to it. I can imagine lots of people being bored out of their skulls with Mushishi. But I like it.

 

Artwork by HBO illustrator Robert Ball. See more of his gorgeous work at beautifuldeath.com.

3. As usual, I’m not going to comment on the latest Game of Thrones episode. I’m going to observe, however, that George R.R. Martin and HBO are now a rare Western example of the “Overtook the Manga” trope. This happens when a television show’s ongoing production is moving faster than the writing of the original material. A show facing this predicament has limited options: create filler arcs, go into alternate continuity, or stop production in order to be a faithful adaptation.

Game of Thrones is simply too popular to stop production. As a live-action series with a cast that ages in real time, this is simply unthinkable. By revealing the plot points (and possibly the ending) of his unfinished novels to the series writers, George R.R. Martin pulled off a Hiromu Arakawa. I’m relieved and excited Martin did this, so the show can keep to their schedule and wrap up ahead of his publication timetable.

(For those unfamiliar with Hiromu Arakawa, she’s the mangaka behind Fullmetal Alchemist. She knew that production on the anime series would go faster than the manga, because FMA was a monthly title. It was gutsy for her to reveal the entire plot of her unfinished series to an entire production crew. What if they “spoiled” it for her readers? What if they didn’t respect her thematic vision?

For FMA, Arakawa’s gamble paid off. The animators decided to create their own arch-enemy and the ending of the first adaptation has a starkly different conclusion than Arakawa’s manga. They killed off characters and created new ones yet somehow managed to keep the flavor of the franchise. I don’t know how many people still love the first anime adaptation but when it first came out, it was pretty damn good.)

Right now, no one can predict where or how A Game of Thrones is going to go. It already has padded out scenarios for some of the main characters. The next seasons will definitely blend book canon, filler, and perhaps some ludicrous leg-pulls. Now knowing Martin’s plot, will HBO pull off a good pragmatic adaptation? Will it just completely fuck everything up? After the show is done, will Martin just turn around and say, “damn it, that’s not what I told them”?

Has anyone else realized that if George R.R. Martin dies now, in situ, the HBO ending might be the only closure millions of readers will ever get?

I repeat: I’m both relieved and excited. I’m also terrified.

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Missed Opportunities

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Missed Opportunities

Some days, I feel horrible that I write such honest reviews. If there was ever a trio of writers I’d want to throw roses at, it would be Julia Quinn, Anne Stuart, and Kate Perry. (Kate, especially, because I met her and she’s a lovely, bubbly woman; I hope she doesn’t crucify me for my opinions.)

Yet I would not be doing my (self-appointed) task and I would be ignoring all my training—in comparative literature and in copyediting—if I didn’t point out certain elements that bother me on a visceral level.

These things probably don’t disturb other readers. Then again, other readers may not see the same missed opportunities. And nothing makes me angrier, I think, than missed opportunities: they separate the decent texts from the glorious ones.

 

There are spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

 

Anne Stuart’s Museum Piece (1984; reprinted 2012) 

I don’t know what to make Anne Stuart’s Museum Piece. It’s a pity because I liked one of her other novels. I like the concept of a romance set in the San Francisco art scene, too.

Molly McDonough is a buyer for the fictional San Francisco Museum of American Arts. She’s a dedicated professional who puts tons of effort into checking the provenance of the pieces she recommends. She grows outraged when another buyer starts snapping up all the good pieces, which drives the prices out of the museum’s reach.

Her competitor is James Eliot, a buyer who works for an extremely rich private collector. In a fit of pique, Molly drafts an insulting letter to her nemesis, accusing him of unethical buying tactics. She writes a polite version too, but in her irritated state, she accidentally sends James Eliot the wrong letter.

The letter gets James’s attention, and soon they start bumping heads more often. They argue over everything, from heirloom pieces to modern art. So far, so good. The book has many visual art references, and that’s great. What isn’t so great, however, is the romance itself.

I suppose I should call Museum Piece a contemporary romance. Yet it was written (and probably set) in 1984, and some of the details make the book oddly quaint by today’s sartorial standards. For instance, the heroine unironically uses a typewriter and wears sexy jumpsuits to dinner parties. Okay, so maybe to a reader in 2014, this might acceptable hipster behavior.

What isn’t acceptable, however, is the hero’s gross sexual behavior. When James first meets Molly, he pretty much forces his tongue down her throat. Later on, when she happens to fall asleep in his presence, he starts groping her even when she already made it clear she didn’t want to be touched.

Worst of all, at one point where Molly starts swearing at him, James actually turns her over in his lap and starts spanking her. His spanking is in earnest, mind you—it’s not play-spanking, and it’s not consensual. The heroine actually starts crying, and she promises never to curse again.

Eww.

I seriously wonder why the publishers reprinted this one.

I know fashions change fairly quickly. Yet some concepts—oh, like mutual consent—never goes out of style.

It makes me sad that the best character in Museum Piece is probably Sebastian Coddaire, Molly’s ex-boyfriend. Sebastian’s a fabulous caricature of a rising young artist. He’s so selfish, he thinks Molly exists to feed and house him so he can create his masterpieces. As a person, he’s almost as bad as the hero; as a character, at least he’s amusing.

As much as I wanted to like this book, I have to say that copies of Museum Piece belong in a private collector’s locked vault: not because it’s so precious, but so the novel goes unread by the unsuspecting masses.

heat meter: four chilis          final rating: bash

 

Kate Perry’s Say You Will (2013)

The first installment of the Summerhill series, Say You Will is a contemporary romance that features Rosalind Summerhill, a San Francisco-based fashion designer with major family issues.

Rosalind just flew back to London to be with her sisters (they’re all named after Shakespearean heroines), in time for the funeral of their father, Reginald Summerhill, the late Earl of Amberlin. The dearly departed was a jerk to most of his family, and he openly humiliated his wife Jacqueline with a longtime mistress, Tabitha Wells.

At the wake, Rosalind spots a good-looking man who turns out to be Nicholas “Nick” Long, a Formula One race car driver (and occasional endorser of designer underwear) in the crowd. Nick just happens to be Tabitha Wells’ step-son, and he was dragged to the wake incognito by Summer Wells. Summer is the earl’s illegitimate daughter, and she’s always been curious about all of her half-siblings she’s never met.

Nick’s immediately attracted to Rosalind but he goes along with Summer’s idea not to reveal their reason for attending the wake. So Nick pretends to be a lawyer (!) while Summer pretends to need a wedding dress (!!) and she asks Rosalind to design her one.

Aside from all these little white lies, the main conflict of Say You Will revolves around a missing will. Jacqueline Summerhill announces that she’s worried that Reginald left the bulk of the estate to Tabitha. Since Tabitha died in the same car crash as Reginald, her heirs might inherit everything.

Instead of doing the sensible thing in this situation, which would be to hire some lawyers and some private detectives, the Summerhill sisters decide to investigate for themselves. Rosalind takes charge, and the silliness reaches its pinnacle when the sisters break into the dead woman’s house. Instead of finding the will, Rosalind finds photos of her new boyfriend Nick and his step-sister all over the place.

If there ever was a moment meant for epic face palming, that would be it.

There’s a certain flatness about the escapades of Rosalind and Nick. For people with glamorous day jobs, both of them are bland people who only seem mildly acquainted with their work. It strains a reader’s credulity: if Rosalind is a top fashion designer, how come she’s never seen Nick before, who has underwear billboards plastered everywhere? Granted, she designs wedding gowns, but still.

Strangely enough, the most interesting section of Say You Will doesn’t involve a Summerhill sister, but a receptionist named Em Shepherd, who works at Summer Well’s law firm.

Em is convinced that she’s in love with Ben Cooke, a man who runs the local nursery. Even if she hates gardening, she volunteers all the time to be near Ben. Her horrible childhood left her scarred and Em thinks she needs a stable guy to complete her. The lady doth protests too much, though, because Em’s also attracted to Joe Winslow, a lawyer who has a big crush on her.

One character—Summer Wells—holds the two romances together, tenuously; yet the two stories aren’t counterpoints to each other in any way. It’s not like Couple A are hot and steamy while Couple B are sweet and tentative. (Do you know who mastered this trope? Iris Johansen. Read her old romances, like Midnight Warrior and Storm Winds, to see what I mean.) In the case of Say You Will, it’s almost as if they were two separate narratives crammed into the same space.

While many might find the concept of the Summerhill sisters charming, I’d have to say I enjoyed reading about Em more. Her sections of the novel felt more sincere and heartfelt, and I really wish more pages were spent on her story.

heat meter: three chilis          rating: borrow for Em

 

Julia Quinn’s Ten Things I Love about You (2010)

This reader’s confession: I’ve read more Julia Quinn than I’ve ever reviewed. Unfortunately, I made notes while reading a Quinn novel I feel ambivalent about. I feel like I have to apologize to the universe for this happenstance, this quirk of fate.

I digress.

Ten Things I Love about You focuses on a weird love triangle between a voluptuous but impoverished debutante, a gross old earl, and the earl’s heir presumptive.

The debutante in question is Annabel Winslow. She has the misfortune of being groomed to marry the earl of Newbury, a man old enough to be her grandfather. The earl is on the lookout for a nubile bride, since he’s determined to leave his estate to someone other than his much-hated nephew, Sebastian Grey.

Sebastian and Annabel meet under unusual circumstances, far away from a ballroom. After escaping her elderly suitor’s groping hands, Annabel stumbles upon a stranger who just finished a liaison with another woman. Loitering in the dark heath, Annabel and Sebastian don’t exchange names, they talk, and then they share a single kiss.

The next day, Annabel realizes her mistake once she finds out the identity of her handsome stranger. Like a dimwit, she tries to conceal her engagement to the earl when she’s formally introduced to Sebastian. And then things happen…

Ten Things I Love about You picks up What Happens in London ends. (It scares me that I actually know this without thinking too deeply about it.) Harry and Olivia Valentine show up and they’re happily married. Sarah Gorely’s gothic novels make a re-appearance too, since it’s revealed to be Sebastian Grey’s pen name. Yes, we have another secret writer on our hands, folks.

These elements usually make up a stellar Quinn novel, yet the novel itself feels lacking. The love triangle is unconvincing; it’s more like a tug of war between the two men. They have issues beyond both of them wanting Annabel. If I was in the heroine’s position, I’d dump them both. Nobody likes to be treated like the spoils of war…right?

Speaking of wars, Sebastian Grey is yet another Regency hero who suffers from bad nightmares, due to the number of people he shot during the Napoleonic wars. While this subplot is underdeveloped, one can reasonably expect that the heroine’s magic hoo ha will provide the ultimate cure.

Perhaps the cynicism of that last statement is misguided; perhaps I’m tired of the trope that love and sex can put an end to PTSD.

heat meter: three chilis           final rating: borrow (if you really like Julia Quinn) otherwise bash 

Lady Whistledown on Editing and the Perils of Self-Publishing

Lady Whistledown on Editing and the Perils of Self-Publishing

“Publish your travel memoirs,” she said.

“I’m not—”

“Publish them,” she said again. “Take a chance and see if you soar.”

His eyes met hers for a moment, then they slid back down to his journal, still clutched in her hands. “They need editing,” he mumbled.

Penelope laughed, because she knew she had won. And he had won, too. He didn’t know it yet, but he had.

“Everyone needs editing,” she said, her smile broadening with each word. “Well, except me, I guess,” she teased. “Or maybe I did need it. [. . .] We’ll never know, because I had no one to edit me.”

 

—from Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (2002)

 

Side Comments of the Month XII

Side Comments of the Month XII

I can’t believe it’s almost been a month since my last post. Bad blogger. Bad, bad, blogger. The weeks have been tough, with me getting a bad case of strep throat. Before I fully recovered from that, I got rear-ended in my first accident in three years. I could say more about this but I feel oddly reticent. I also don’t want to harp on the horrible things. So onwards with the good:

1. I got free books again, and lo, none of them are romance novels: The Moon Sisters and Your Perfect Life are YA; Dark Eden and Fiend are science fiction; Numbercruncher is a graphic novel; The Art of Castlevania is a companion book to a video game; and The Luminaries is an award-winning literary novel.

To be perfectly honest I don’t know where I’m going to find the time to read these texts! If I made time for all the books I wanted to read, I would live forever and never get any sleep.

 

2. Remember the time when I said I only cared about Doctor Who when it affects my friends? I swallow my pride and take it all back. As much as I hate to appear inconsistent, yeah, I pretty much like Doctor Who now, or at least I like it enough to try watching the episodes in order. I used to watch half an episode all the time, mostly when David Tennant’s crazy eyes would get a close-up.

My eleven-year old nephew (ever the completist) recently borrowed the 1996 TV movie and I found Paul McGann adorable. So now I find myself binge-watching Christopher Ecceleston’s episodes, and suddenly all the stuff that I didn’t understand in the 50th anniversary episode makes sense. Yup, my nephew dragged me to watch that at the cinema too.

Perhaps this is a case of fandom by Stockholm syndrome. It’s okay. At least it’s not Pokemon or Twilight. There are just some bandwagons that should never be boarded.

 

3. Speaking of bandwagons, I’d comment on the latest episode of Game of Thrones except I have nothing new to add to that conversation, except a gleeful die Joffrey die

I also have to say, I was quite underwhelmed with Margaery’s necklace. Is that the best King’s Landing had to offer? I don’t think much of their jewelry shops, then. Sansa and Cersei had better bling. Maybe there’s a missing scene where Cersei hoards all the good jewelry for herself?

 

4. Since Space Brothers is on hiatus, I’ve returned to my roots and I’m now on my biennial Honey and Clover kick.

I first watched this series in 2007 and it’s been a perennial favorite for me to re-watch and re-read. With only twenty-four episodes and ten comic book volumes, Honey and Clover may seem like an easy read, but it’s full of unfulfilled longing, with equal parts of humor and melancholy.

Of course it’s about five friends in art school who don’t know what they are doing with their lives.

Honey and Clover helped me discover Spitz, my favorite J-rock band. It also made me aware of the sub-genre of josei manga, which are comic books written for an older female audience.

When I was in university, everyone was reading Banana Yoshimoto. Looking back, Kitchen, N.P., and Lizard could have easily been written and serialized as a josei manga.

I always worry that Hollywood will discover Honey and Clover and think of making an American adaptation—it’s been a popular franchise in Asia over the past decade, with both film and television adaptations, so I think it’s a matter of time before that happens.

Aside from a live-action Evangelion, this is my anime nerd nightmare because I don’t think the dynamic between the main characters will translate well to another culture. I look at the American remakes of Shall We Dance? and Dragon Ball Z and I just cringe.

So, yeah. Honey and Clover. Don’t let the theme song of the first season throw you off. (It’s the only annoying song on the soundtrack.) This series is brilliant.

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Six

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Six

Round Six of Buy, Borrow, or Bash features something unusual: two books that actually meet the five chili rating! Which book is the spiciest read for the month? Find out below.

There are spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

Marion Chesney’s The Loves of Lord Granton (1997; Kindle edition, 2014) 

Not many readers know that romance writer Marion Chesney is also best-selling mystery author M.C. Beaton. With The Loves of Lord Granton now re-issued under Marion Chesney’s other name, I wonder if her mystery fans will cross over and discover this work.

Is there anything in this text that will endear itself to mystery readers? I’m not sure.

In a sleepy village called Barton Sub Edge, the genteel but poor Hadleys have to toady to the local baronet, Sir Giles Crowne, who can take away the family living in a moment’s notice. Sir Giles has a stuck-up daughter, Annabelle, who couldn’t attract a husband during her first season in London. Out of desperation, the baronet invites slight acquaintances to visit. Annabelle’s concerned, though, that the gentlemen will be distracted by the Hadley sisters.

When the novel’s Prince Charming shows up, he’s not the upright citizen he ought to be. Lord Rupert Granton’s a scandal-ridden aristocrat and he visits Sir Giles because he’s bored with London. He’s initially bored with Barton Sub Edge too, until he meets the youngest Hadley daughter, the pretty but wayward Frederica.

Lord Granton shouldn’t even take notice of Frederica. As a sixteen-year old, she’s not yet “out,” and she’s kept in hand-me-down gowns and wears her hair down. Everyone thinks she’s odd because she reads too much and enjoys the outdoors, which is where Lord Rupert finds her.

An innocent friendship blossoms between the rake and the girl, as they share the same feelings of ennui with their social spheres. Social strictures frown upon their secret meetings, however, because Men and Women Can’t Be Friends. Every chat they have is fraught with fear of discovery. Frederica begins to think she’s a fool to sacrifice her reputation for a friend, while Lord Granton refuses to look beyond the surface of his feelings.

The Loves of Lord Granton is a quiet book and a fast read. I think of it as When Harry Met Sally… set in the Regency era. In its own way, it tries to answer that old question, “Can Men and Women Truly be Friends?” The answer is yes. Sort of.

For me, the book has a minor flaw: after it’s repeatedly mentioned that Lord Granton is attracted to Frederica’s innocence, the reader doesn’t get to see any consummation.  The closed door scene we are given just doesn’t cut it. I know it’s a thoroughly traditional romance, I just feel that a passionate reversal of the beginning could have properly concluded the book.

heat meter: one chili          final rating: borrow

 

Sally MacKenzie’s The Naked Viscount (2010) 

Edmund Smyth, Visount Motton, enjoys a spot of amateur spying. He likes it so much that when his neighbor, an aristocratic artist named Clarence Widmore, dies under mysterious circumstances, Edmund breaks into the house to investigate. Was Clarence a French spy or was he involved in something more sinister?

Unfortunately for Edmund, Jane Parker-Roth catches him breaking in. They have a scuffle in the dark, share a passionate kiss, and break a plaster statue of Pan by accident. This leads to Jane finding a hidden clue and she’s excited to search for more.

Against his better judgment, Edmund allows Jane to tag along during his investigation. Their mad search all around London raises the eyebrows of high society, and rouses the attention of Clarence’s killers.

I read The Naked Viscount about a year ago. I thought it was hilarious so I gave its sequel, The Naked King, a try—I wish I hadn’t! Her other novels, too, have gotten spectacularly mixed reviews.

In any case, though, I still found The Naked Viscount funny. The language isn’t period perfect and the premise seems too raunchy to be historically possible. (Handcuffs, for instance, existed by mid-19th century, but probably not earlier than that. Rope bindings would have been more accurate for the time period.)

With a heavy suspension of disbelief, however, The Naked Viscount can be a fun romp. The heroine is spunky and the hero possesses both a graphic vocabulary and a graphic imagination. Where else can you find a historical romance where the hero and heroine bond over removable penises and pornography?

heat meter: five chilis (Why? For the orgies at the hellfire club, the handcuffs, and the indiscriminate use of aphrodisiacs)

final rating: buy (Especially If you want to pretend it’s a fanfiction sequel to Loretta Chase’s Lord Perfect. Somehow I like the idea of Mrs. Parker-Roth Bathsheba Wingate painting a large nude of Mr. Parker-Roth Benedict Carsington that can be seen in a Harley Street gallery for Jane and Edmund Olivia and Peregrine to discover.)

 

Miranda Neville’s Confessions from an Arranged Marriage (2012) 

Minerva Montrose is a political-minded young miss who dreams of making her mark on the world through her future husband. She wants to marry someone she can help propel to the top of the English government. She thinks she’s found her perfect mark in an ambitious Member of Parliament, and she’s eager to talk to him at parties.

Unfortunately, during one of these events, the drunken Lord Blakeney mistakes Minerva for another woman in a dark library. Minerva finds her reputation threatened when half the haute ton sees (or thinks they see) him under her skirts.

The Duke of Hampton, displeased with his heir for causing a scandal, forces the arranged marriage between the two strangers. Minerva takes some time to adjust to Lord Blakeney, who’s the antithesis of everything she wanted. Instead of the bookish, politically-minded mate she hoped to marry, she finds herself shackled to a jock who never cracks open a book.

Lord Blakeney takes time to adjust to Minerva, too. Like the hero of Julia Quinn’s The Lost Duke of Wyndham, Lord Blakeney secretly suffers from dyslexia. Yes, we have another dyslexic ducal heir on our hands. He’s been hiding his affliction by paying off blackmailers and using his retentive memory to absorb knowledge orally. But now that he’s married to an intelligent woman whom he’s beginning to care for, Lord Blakeney is terrified that Minerva will reject him once she knows the truth.

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage has the misfortune of reminding me of yet another book, Madeline Hunter’s The Charmer. If you happen to like that other novel’s preoccupation with Regency-era politics (rotten boroughs, patronage politics, and hunting out Napoleonic spies) then maybe this one will suit.

Even if this book reminds me of other romance novels, Confessions from an Arranged Marriage isn’t unoriginal or trite. It’s a perfectly decent book for a little light reading, and it tackles all its subplots with deftness.

heat meter: five chilis! (Why? For the multiple sex scenes, voyeurism, and that French duke that makes his royal mistress bark like a dog)

final rating: borrow