Wednesday, July 19, 2017


#TBRChallenge Reading: Meet Me at Willoughby Close by Kate Hewitt


2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Meet Me at Willoughby Close
Author: Kate Hewitt
Category: Contemporary Small-Town Light British Romance
Wendy Crutcher's Theme: Series Catch-Up

I cheated with this book. It met the theme of the month but not the spirit of the challenge. The book spent one week on my TBR.

Last year, I read Hewitt's A Cotswold Christmas that sets up Wychwood-on-Lea, a quaint village in Oxfordshire, with organic farms stores, expensive clothing, and of course, Yummy Mummies, which all means keeping up with the Joneses. However, in Meet Me at Willoughby Close , we meet Ellie Mathews, a Northern transplant, insecure and barely surviving, definitely not able to keep up with the sophisticated crowd she encounters in Wychwood-on-Lea.

Ellie is a divorced, single mom of a pre-teen who decides to make a fresh start in the Cotswolds. She wants to move away from the domineering and cloying influence of her older sister and parents, who've always been so very helpful in her times of difficulty but have also been so disappointed with her life choices. Ellie has been cowed by them.

Ellie's 11-year-old daughter Abby has been bullied for three years in her primary school in Manchester, which has had a deleterious effect on her personality and body language. Ellie hopes that Oxfordshire will prove to be a fresh start for Abby also, helping to restore her self-confidence and optimism.

Their beginning is inauspicious. Abby continues to shy away from being friendly with the kids in her new school and they, in turn, leave her alone. However, Abby forms an unprecedented bond with the elderly Lady Stokeley of Wychwood Manor, their landlord, which turns her life around and brings her out of her shell. The two understand each other in a way that is unfathomable to Ellie, who feels uncomfortable and unwelcome in Lady Stokeley's presence.

In the meantime, Ellie has met her boss Dr. Oliver Venables, a very well-respected Oxford don. She's to be his personal assistant and her main task is to type up his handwritten nonfiction manuscript on Victorian children. He's stiff and formal and exacting, and she makes a fool of herself from day one. But both notice their inexplicable attraction for the other.

Nothing much happens between them in the first half of the book, which is devoted to the setting up of their respective storylines. Their paths begin to converge more and more past the halfway mark.

I will admit, I spent the first half of the book hating it. I couldn't stand Ellie and thought her whiny and ungrateful. I'm a huge fan of competency: either inherent or learned. Ellie has neither. She doesn't try hard enough and feels entitled that things should go swimmingly for her all the time. Her ingratitude towards her family, who bailed her out multiple times despite her own bad choices, is a testament to her lack of appropriate recognition of it.

However, once Oliver's and her relationship starts developing, Ellie matures, and her growth arc then makes her more responsible and compassionate. I started liking the story thence—however, I never quite got over my initial dislike—Oliver's proficiency has a tempering effect on her, and she has to rise up to meet his level and it's to her benefit. Hewitt has done an excellent job of showing this character growth.

Hewitt's light touch with humor is well-done. So if you like the English village setting and a humorous bent to the story, this may be for you.


Saturday, July 8, 2017


#TBRChallenge Reading: The Black Angel by Barbara Samuel


2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Black Angel
Author: Barbara Samuel
Category: Georgian Romance with the Marriage of Convenience trope
Wendy Crutcher's Theme: Favorite Trope

My most enlightening moment while reading The Black Angel was when Samuel showed that a person can have two good sexual relationships in their lifetime. The first one doesn't have to be bad in order for the second one to be good. What an empowering sex-positive outlook in a book written in 1999! I wish more modern-day historicals would emulate this point of view.

It is true that the first man did turn out to be a cad at the end of the relationship by publicly spurning her and shaming her in front of her peers, but while their relationship was going strong, it was a satisfying intimate connection. Malvern was not abusive or stingy with sexual favors, and Adriana enjoyed herself fully, while not becoming too involved emotionally with him.

Five years ago, Adriana St. Ives, daughter of the Earl of Albury, decided to take Lord Malvern, Baron of Wye and bastard son of the King's brother's mistress, as her lover. Having just returned from Martinique for her first season in the Georgian court of the 1780s, Adriana was ardently pursued by Malvern. She resisted for many months, but finally gave in. She was well aware that Malvern did not offer marriage, only carte blanche, but she accepted anyway. She was heedless of the harm to her reputation and to that of her father and siblings. Friend and acquaintances labeled her as headstrong and selfish.

However, Malvern's bad behavior at the end of their relationship caused Adriana's oldest brother, Julian, to call him out, and the resulting duel ended in Malvern's death and Julian and his brother Gabriel's being labeled as outcasts and banished from England's shores. Adriana's father died heartbroken, his daughter's reputation in tatters and his sons languishing in foreign lands.

Fast forward five years, and penury leads Adriana to accept the suit of Tynan Spenser, the wealthy Earl of Glencove from Ireland. In return for her political influence, he would provide the estate with the cash infusion it sorely needs.

Their wedding day is the first time either of them claps eyes on each other and while Adriana is dazzled by Tynan' beauty, Tynan is disappointed by her lack thereof. Adriana is determined to resist her desire for Tynan, ever mindful of her weakness for the sensual arts. For five years, she's buried herself in the country and kept herself inviolate from storming emotions. Tynan tears her safe world apart by compelling her to come alive again.

The day after the wedding, Julian and Gabriel charge up to the estate from their exile in an attempt to save Adriana from her marriage, only to realize that it's too late. Julian's presence back in England makes him vulnerable again to the scandal of the duel. Malvern's mother, mistress to many in the House of Lords, refuses to let the scandal die. Through her influence, many are determined to make an example of the young earl in outlawing dueling, and Julian is imprisoned in the Tower of London. Julian's incarceration and impending trial is the background on which Adriana's and Tynan's romance unfolds.

I must draw attention to the multicultural cast of characters here. Adriana's father's mistress in Martinique is a freed slave from whom he has two children. What is unusual is that Lord Albury raises these children in Martinique along with the three children from his deceased wife. And he brings his multicultural family back to live in England in a society full of prejudice. I loved Albury for bringing his children up as equals and I loved that the children all love each other equally. (I so wish Samuel would've written all of their stories, so we could see what Georgian society looked like from their eyes and how they managed to make their way in life.)

I had a few issues with some of the motivations in the story.

The whole, buying a seat in the English Parliament to influence the Irish Protestants to be kinder to the Irish Catholics, idea seems far-fetched and misguided. It is the main driving force of Tynan's story in the book and it's a thin pretext to bring him to England. It is true that he admits as much towards the end, but for a supposedly intelligent, level-headed man, he should've never thought this a viable plan. Also inexplicable is how a beleaguered Adriana tarnished by her scandal can provide the political capital that will allow Tynan to buy the parliamentary seat.

The influence Adriana's father wielded over young Tynan seems rather tenuous and incomprehensible. Why would the Earl of Albury choose a young Irish earl as a consort for his eldest daughter? Samuuel explains how the two corresponded and built up a mentor-mentee relationship, but how did this get started in the first place? After all, Albury spent years in Martinique and then was submerged in the scandal perpetuated by Adriana.

The end was rushed given how important it is to Tynan. Somehow, Adriana's life choices and challenges take up so much real estate in the story, that Tynan's are only worried over at the edges of the story. It is true that Julian's life is at stake, but so are the lives of dozens of Catholic men and women on Tynan's estates and surrounding villages in Ireland. Surely, his thoughts and actions should've been aimed more there than with saving Adriana's reputation and her brother's life.

And yet, despite the issues mentioned above, I read this book with the enjoyment and appreciation that comes from reading a complex tale by a great author. Samuel does not shy away from the tricky emotional and moral decisions her characters need to make at different points in the story. None of her characters are required to be likeable at all points in the story. It is okay for the characters to be people, by degrees unaccountable, impenetrable, and foolish, while also displaying uncommon bravery and goodness. Ambiguity is not a negative. Samuel simply asks the reader to have faith in her ability to show her main characters growing into people with integrity and grit and maturity even if the growth is not a smooth curve.


Saturday, July 1, 2017


My Interview with Vassiliki Veros


The ever amazing and fellow romance and children's books enthusiast, Vassiliki Veros, did a fun interview of me for her blog Shallowreader: barely scratching the surface. Here's the transcript.