Tag Archives: romance

Man and Boy by Tony Parsons

Man and Boy by Tony Parsons

I read #192 Man and Boy by Tony Parsons a couple weeks ago, and my shortest review has to be: like High Fidelity, if he had a kid. As you may remember, I didn’t love High Fidelity and didn’t much care for Man and Boy either, although it was easy reading.

Harry Silver is turning 30, and seems to have the perfect life, the one he always aimed for. He’s successful at work, married to a lovely woman (who has given up her dreams in favour of supporting his career and raising their child), has a lovely boy, a house with a shrinking mortgage and enough money to spend some on daft things, like a 2-seater car when he is part of a 3-person family. Naturally he has to screw up, ruin it all and spend the rest of the novel looking for a new normal that’s half as good as the old one.

On turning 30
I’ve just done this myself,  Big round numbers, like New Year’s Day, are a good opportunity to take stock, and I’d be surprised if there was anyone, anywhere who did that every decade and had nothing left to strive for, no one to miss, nothing done or undone to regret. I do like this quote, from the first chapter:

That’s what thirty should be – grown-up without being disappointed, settled without being complacent, worldly wise, but not so worldly wise you feel like chucking yourself under a train. The time of your life.

Harry is looking back at his life, and is disappointed. He doesn’t feel grown-up enough, exciting enough, rich enough. He definitely doesn’t feel like he’s man enough, and spends most of the novel comparing himself to his father, who fought in WWII and is, in Harry’s eyes, perfect. Harry, who is a first-person narrator, and his father are the best developed characters in the novel. His mother is definitely background, as is Harry’s own wife. His son is a source of joy or a problem, but doesn’t seem to have a second characteristic. (He does like Star Wars though. A lot.)

Not impressed
I didn’t have much sympathy for Harry. Parsons has written an engaging, easy to read book with a good flow, but I thought Harry was self-delusional to the point where his rude awakening was long overdue. I also didn’t quite believe the timeline – I thought he was too young at 30 to be where he’s described as being, if you see what I mean. Unless, that is, being a TV producer on a made-for-cable show pays phenomenally well, which I can’t imagine it does, or house prices have tripled since 1999. 
Most of my contemporaries are working on one of the major life projects he’s got all settled (dazzling career, mortgage, family) with or without a partner, and I certainly haven’t got it all figured out. Harry, incidentally, must have been on track in his career and married by about 25, which is just 2-3 years out of uni, as he has a 4-year old at 30 and met his wife at work.

So Harry has something rather good going on, and then it all collapses, as he does the one thing his wife cannot forgive. Now, despite the laundry list of perfection, I don’t get the impression that either Harry or Gina (his wife) were very happy. Gina, particularly, has given up her dreams of travel and an exciting career (she was trained as a Japanese translator) in favour of staying home and looking after their son full-time. As she’s not happy, I can see Gina’s looking for a shake up, having just turned 30 herself. However, both Harry and Gina seem hasty with the eject button on their relationship. For Gina, there seems to be no middle ground between ‘no work outside the home’ and ‘living in Japan’. I’m pretty sure there are, in real life and even in London, less extreme options. Harry, likewise, when he’s looking after his son full-time declares himself unable to combine childcare with any work. It’s bizarre. I’m in favour of increased levels of state-sponsored childcare anyway, but as free childcare for the preschool set would have allowed each parent in turn to work part-time, and thus prevented the novel entirely, I’m doubly committed to the cause. And in real life, when the money starts to run out, you step away from your dream job and get a bit of work on the side. Or sell the ridiculous, expensive car. Or rent out the London house and move somewhere cheaper for a bit. Or…

I wanted to like this book, as I think it’s a great that there’s chicklit with male main characters. That the book turns on emotional fulfillment in a very ordinary setting, yet is a favourite, is a good sign. Ultimately though, I thought it was all too convenient and the characters and scenarios were unconvincing.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Breaking out from my male protagonist rut, I’ve spent an enjoyable day in Austen land. I even went for a stroll in the countryside and had a cream tea. At #38, Persuasion by Jane Austen is available for free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg.

Persuasion is an enduring love story. Anne Elliot, at an impressionable 19, fell in love with a penniless young naval officer. Her friends, older and wiser, counselled strongly against the match and the young couple parted. Eight years later, chance brings them together again. They are both ready to get married now, but do their feelings still hold strong?

Personal bias
Persuasion seems to be less famous than Austen’s other works, but it was my favourite as a teen so I was surprised and pleased to see it beat out Emma by two places. I don’t like Emma much (you can click through for more detail) but it’s popular and the films have been effective. Persuasion hasn’t had a Hollywood remake, so I feel like its place is based on the merits of the book, not the costumes on the screen.

I’m going to pretend to be unbiased briefly, then go back to why I enjoy this book. Persuasion is the last novel Austen finished, and both the characters and the romance are more mature. One of the reasons I don’t like Emma is that there’s a phenomenal age gap between the male and female leads. And given how close their families are, it just gives me the screaming meemies. In Persuasion, Anne and her beau have had their first Sense and Sensibility style romance, and emerged from it scarred but wiser and fundamentally unaltered. This is the story of second love, a gentler, stronger, more lasting kind.

That said, second love isn’t famous for fireworks and champagne, and this novel doesn’t have either. Although quite a lot happens, there’s less immediate drama than in works like Emma or Sense and Sensibility. Much of what happens is easy to skip over in a short summary of the plot, and yet is essential to the gradual unfolding of the novel. The book blossoms slowly, exploring every aspect of the romance without seeming to ever tackle it directly. It’s cleverly done, but I can see how people would prefer the emotional turmoil and snippy remarks in Pride and Prejudice.

Why this one’s my favourite
I can’t say Anne Elliot is my favourite Austen character. She’s thoroughly self-effacing, dedicating her life to doing her duty by her unpleasant family members to the point where I’d want to shake her if I met her, and would certainly be suggesting moving to a different city or going back to college to train for a job that would allow her to move to a different city. And yet, she doesn’t annoy me in the way that Fanny Price in Mansfield Park does, because Anne, unlike Fanny, does know what she wants. She recognises and accepts her family’s faults, tries to steer them gently towards a better life, and isn’t ashamed to step up and seize her own happiness. While Fanny is almost completely inert, Anne is simply waiting for the right moment.

Anne’s life is shaped by duty to an extent that I don’t recognise, but I respect her choices. They seem more active than Fanny’s. Anne makes a deliberate and conscious decision to not seize her happiness at the expense of another’s, to listen to the advice of her elders, even if it causes her pain, and to act when sees a way to be happy without harming another. And yet, she’s not overly troubled by duty. Her family clearly don’t care for her, and while she is a dutiful daughter, she doesn’t take it to extremes.

Perhaps what I really like about this book is that it seems realistic. Anne’s eventual happiness is down to her own strength of character, her choices. The barriers that must be overcome are all too plausible and human – things like pride, duty, lack of money. And yet there’s a lot of hope in this book. While I don’t believe in the love-at-first-sight / soul mates / destiny school of romance, I do have faith that people can work things out, whether it’s rekindling a flame long since gone dark or preserving the romance in a relationship that lasts many years. It seems like the zip and sparkle of a Hollywood rom-com could dull as quickly as the ticker tape falls, but a romance like this one will grow and grow.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Set in a world where the Scarlet Pimpernel – master spy and rescuer of aristocrats heading for the guillotine – is real, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is an absolute frolic – and as I type, it’s just £1.75 on Kindle and (in my opinion) well worth the money.

The story follows two adventurous girls: Eloise Kelly, modern grad student, and Amy de Balcourt, living at the dawn of the 19th century. Eloise is writing her thesis on the great spies of the Napoleonic wars – the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation – and one of the sources she uncovers is Amy’s diary. In 1803, Amy was following much the same quest, looking to join the spies and lend her strengths to the fight against Napoleon.

Story over fact
To be clear, while this is a novel set during the Napoleonic wars, it’s not trying to be an authentic Georgian work (or if it is, it has missed) – instead, it’s an adventure story with a strong romantic element, set in a fictional universe. The language is modern, a number of the sentiments are very modern and you could probably swap Amy and Eloise without having to do more than change references to jeans to muslins and tube trains to carriages.

This sort of thing usually drives me crazy, but in this case I could accept it because the story triumphs over the facts. It’s like complaining that action movies aren’t realistic – that’s kind of partly the point of the work. The Pink Carnationis a rollicking adventure, in the tradition of Treasure Island or The Thirty-Nine Steps: implausibility is part and parcel of the genre.

I wasn’t really prepared for the anachronisms going in, and while they didn’t bother me after the first couple chapters, I think I would have been happier forewarned. That said, as we established when I reviewed A Tale of Two Cities, I know very little about the French Revolution and its aftermath – and as it seems to be a theme in my reading this year, maybe I should get a history book or two.

I just really like this book
At this point, if you’ve met me, you can imagine me waving my hands around a lot and possibly almost falling off my seat as I try to explain why, for me, the book was more than the sum of its parts – and the parts are pretty awesome. Avoiding spoilers, I liked:

  • Traditional adventure story with girls in the lead roles
  • Kicking ass in a poofy dress
  • Family ties
  • Family support
  • Developed secondary characters
  • Secondary characters who come into their own
  • Napoleon
  • Spying – with disguises and masks and swords, oh my!
  • Romance

A bit cryptic, I’m afraid. But I was really pleased with the ending, which turned a couple of major tropes on their heads, and am saving the second book in the series for a rainy day.

I think what really grabbed me was the happy enthusiasm – Eloise is happy and enthusiastic about her thesis project, excited to make a historical discovery (such a great, geeky theme for a female lead in what’s marketed as a historical romance); Amy is really excited about becoming a spy and bringing down Napoleon (I’m not saying she’s not a little delusional, but great dreams bring great realities, right?) and the author seems to be really enjoying the story she’s writing.

Despite a number of flaws, I’m inclined to give this book my personal feminist thumbs-up – for no other reason that the women in it dream, plan and act with the same scope that male action heroes do. Take down Napoleon armed only with a hair pin and a black mask? Of course we can!

And that is rather refreshing. So if you’re in the mood for a frolic through Paris in 1803, dive in. If you’re looking for something which will help you write a history paper though – stay away.

Beneath Outback Skies by Alissa Callen

Beneath Outback Skies by Alissa Callen

Deep into a drought, Paige Quinn is battling to keep the farm she loves from going under. With her father, a wheelchair user, unable to do heavy farm work, the last thing Paige needs is a city boy taking up her time and using their precious water.

But Tait Cavanaugh is surprisingly at home on the land, and unexpectedly easy on the eye, leaving Paige wondering: does she need him around after all? And if she does, will he stay?

I hadn’t encountered the Random Romance imprint, never mind the author, before I saw Beneath Outback Skieson Net Galley, but that didn’t stop me judging it by the cover, deciding yes please, and requesting a review copy. I’m glad I did, as I enjoyed it a lot.

Beneath Outback Skies didn’t disappoint, and I gobbled it up happily. I’d love to visit Australia one day, and until I can get hold of a plane ticket, books like this are a great way to travel.

Callen delivers a charming love story between two very likeable characters, deeply rooted in a way of life which few people will be familiar with. The drought Paige is battling has lasted five years, and the love story takes place against a backdrop of a community suffering deeply but mostly working together to pull through.

Living next to one of Europe’s largest lakes, water conservation around the home is a hobby, not a life preserver, so diving head-first into Paige’s dry, dusty world was a bit of a shock. Obviously, I don’t know if Callen got it right, but the story is full of small details which make it ring true for me.

As this is a romance, the pleasure is in the journey, the destination preordained. The journey is delectable – I really liked Paige and Tait came across as a really good guy, avoiding the opportunities offered to be an overbearing, entitled nuisance, and despite her troubled past and present, and his keeping certain secrets close to his chest, their blossoming romance felt natural. With two characters I could respect, and would be happy to have round to dinner, an upbeat ending was sweet. The area around the farm and the local town, shops, livestock, people and all, also came alive, which given I’ve got snow out the windows, I thought was a feat worth applauding.

All in all, I enjoyed Beneath Outback Skies, and will be looking out for other books from this author – I’ve already downloaded the sample for What Love Sounds Like, although the cover isn’t nearly as appealing!

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, Random House Books Australia. You can see their page about Beneath Outback Skies here.

The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

Courtney Milan is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. I reviewed Unraveled last year, which I think was the first book of hers I read. Since then, I’ve been trying to get hold of more of her books but it turns out that a lot of them aren’t available in the UK yet. They’re ebooks, they’re for sale on a dozen US sites, but as soon as you admit you’re a UK shopper they vanish out of your basket. It’s very frustrating.

So you can imagine I was pleased when I found The Duchess War on Amazon.co.uk for under £3 (as I write this it’s £2.49). I bought it upon the instant and have been saving it for a rainy day.

The Duchess War is a Victorian romance. It’s set, by my estimate, at roughly the same time as Dracula – trains and the telegraph are new, exciting and a little bit dangerous, and the industrial revolution is in full swing.

Minnie is a quiet, self-effacing spinster. She lives with her great-aunts on a precarious income and her only hopes are that she can marry someone who will take care of all three of them, keep her scandalous past a secret, and maybe do a little good along the way. Well, those aren’t quite all her hopes, but they’re all the ones she’ll admit to.

Enter Robert, Duke of Clermont. He’s in town with a a very different set of goals, but getting married isn’t high up his list – until he meets Minnie.

Romance and beyond
Milan’s novels are romances, but they’re not just about love. Love – as Jane Austen demonstrates over and over – isn’t enough to make a happy marriage, nor is it enough to make an enjoyable romance. Historical novels, especially, can get too focused on the love story to the point where they lose all sense of place and time – particularly if they’re not that well researched.

Courtney Milan avoids all these traps – The Duchess War has an interesting but plausible plot, and both characters have plenty of other things going on in their lives. She also conjures up a sense of place well, from details about industrial Leicester to the novelty of train travel. The story – which is clever and charming – is built on solid foundations.

Why do I recommend thee? Let me list the ways
A few of the things which made me squee at the book, hopefully devoid of context enough not to be spoilers.

  • Victorian, not Regency – I love Regency romances, but a well-done Victorian is rare and special
  • Strong characters
  • Who aren’t implausibly anachronistic (maybe a little unlikely, but I can live with that)
  • And who actually talk to each other
  • Great supporting cast – I’m looking forward to reading more of their stories in later books
  • Wit which is funny and kind
  • Set in Leicester – I don’t have a particular fondness for Leicester, but it is Not London and Not Bath so that intrigues me

Small things, perhaps, but I read a lot of romance novels and Milan’s novels are unusual in many small ways. It’s hard to capture – if you loved Joss Wheedon’s Firefly, it’s like that. Firefly was great because it was sort of straight up clever SF TV and yet more. What made it more than another Star Trek wannabe – the setting, the swearing, the characters, the cattle smuggling… – was hard to capture, so I kept telling people just watch it, OK?

Now, here we are again. Milan’s books are brilliant, just read them, OK? And if you want an even cheaper way into her worlds three of her books are just 49p each right now: The Governess Affair, A Kiss for Midwinter and Unlocked. Each is a complete story, short novel length (201, 126 and 181 pages respectively) and I’ve read and highly recommend all three.

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Lily’s Christmas break is not going how she planned: she’s bored and lonely. At her brother’s suggestion, she leaves a set of clues and dares in a red notebook in her favourite bookstore.
Dash finds the notebook, and sets his own challenges.

The story unfolds over the Christmas holidays, as the two teenagers share adventures and secrets – on paper. But can real life match up to the stories in the red notebook?

I requested a review copy of this book as I thought it would be fun to read. It looked really sweet – and it is. I enjoyed it and would look for other books by the same authors.

Sweet, like Christmas cookies
I liked both Dash and Lily, which is important to me for a romance. If I like one of the characters, the other one needs to be worthy of their affection, and if I don’t like either, well, who cares what happens, right?

But Dash and Lily are sweet but not in a saccharine way. It reminded me of watching my little brother date, or his friends – there’s that distance which means it’s all charming but not too serious (for me, that is).

However, I think if I’d read it when I was a teen, I’d have been wrapped up in it. Despite the title, it’s never clear what kind of happy ending you should expect – a love match is the most obvious, but friendship is possible too. And I liked that.

I’d also have wanted to move to New York – I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so being able to leave the house and go to the movies without either a 5km cycle ride to the train or begging my parents for a lift would have been a dream come true. New York at Christmas is just double plus yum.

How it was written
The authors have an interesting way of working: they each take a character and email each other chapters of the story, taking it in turns until it’s done. (And then edit the heck out of it, I imagine, but that’s not quite so unusual.)

This is described in the introduction to the book – or it is in the ARC, at least – so I knew about it before I began. As a result, I was on the look out. On the whole, I think it works. The two characters sound a little different, but not jarringly so. As someone who has played lots of writing games, I spotted a few places where I thought one author was deliberately setting up a situation so the other could do the big reveal (well, tiny reveal, usually) which would then push the next chapter along. An example (not from the book) would be one character finishing the chapter by saying ‘and here’s the thing you were looking for!’ so the next chapter can start with ‘I had always wanted a…’

It’s an unusual way of working but I think it’s fairly seamless. I’m not sure I would have noticed if I hadn’t been told – much like the two-artist illustrations in Double Act.

I’m not going to say that Dash and Lily was perfect, or that I’d read it again, necessarily, but it was absolutely charming and I’m seriously considering the other two books Cohn and Levithan have written together: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List.

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, Harlequin UK under the Mills & Boon imprint. You can see their page about Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares here.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

I didn’t expect to like #75 Bridget Jones’s Diary as I didn’t have particularly fond memories from when I read it as a teenager. Worse, when I picked i up before Christmas, the opening pages annoyed me so much that I put it down and went back to Great Expectations (my bugbear, this book seems about a million pages of nothing much happening and Pip so needs a slap).

Trying not to leave all the unpleasant books until last, I decided to start it again in January, as the book starts and finishes with New Year’s celebrations. I picked it up again, reluctantly, and whizzed through it in two days – I don’t know if I’d recommend it unreservedly, but I can (now) see why people enjoy it.

All about Bridget
Like Pride and Prejudice, which Bridget is supposed to be based on or at least influenced by (there’s a guy called Mark Darcy, whom Bridget compares to Colin Firth’s wet-shirt version, and who was played by Colin Firth in the movie), this is a book about characters, not events. The diary is all told from Bridget’s perspective and, as with Adrian Mole, she’s something of an acquired taste. The voice  used in her diary entries is so distinctive that I found myself narrating my life in that voice when I wasn’t reading it. It’s like having a radio jingle stuck in your head.

Partly because it’s a diary (plenty of white space around the entries) the book rattles along quickly. It’s a very well-edited diary, for all Bridget’s wailing she sometimes skips whole weeks and rarely repeats herself in the way actual diaries seem to.

As the novel opens and closes with Bridget thinking over her New Year’s resolutions, it’s a particularly interesting read at this time of year – at least, it is if you’re like me (and Bridget) and can’t resist the urge to solve all your problems with a long list.

A bad example
Like Adrian, I didn’t much like Bridget and don’t want to meet her. I quite often felt sorry for her – she’s stuck because she’s obsessed with finding a boyfriend. All her energies are put into recreating herself in a loveable form (dieting particularly) and the rest of her life is on hold until she does. It’s a shame, really, because she’s got brilliant, funny friends, a decent (by the sounds of it) flat in London, a job in publishing (publishing!) and enough money to binge on clothes and pay for an awful lot of drinks out. It’s like watching the characters in Friends complain about how small their flat is, honestly. Either that or the author just never did the math – but I reckon Bridget is spending upwards of £100 on booze alone in a typical week, never mind all the cigarettes, and apparently without putting herself into massive debt. When you’ve got a job in publishing this is basically the hallmark of success.

I realised, rereading the book, that I did take the story to heart – I read the book about ten years ago, and was rather horrified by Bridget’s life: it seems to be ruined by her constant dieting, complicated plots to get / keep / avoid men and the lies she tells in order to look clever. If nothing else, an added push to avoid these things (tempting though they are) has definitely made me happier. Bridget, you’re an excellent example of what not to do. I salute you.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Unraveled by Courtney Milan

Unraveled by Courtney Milan

Unraveled is no trashy romance. It promises a lot and delivers in full. I very much enjoyed it. I bought a copy of this book after reading a review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. The review mentioned two intriguing things:

  1. A historical romance set in Bristol
  2. This line: “When one is threatened by a shadowy criminal figure, one goes to the magistrate that shares one’s bed rather than the shadowy criminal figure.”

Now, if you haven’t read as many terrible romance novels as I have, you might not know that both of these things are rare. Historicals are most commonly set during the Regency period and action takes place in London (during the Season) or in ___shire (out of season). Regency romances very rarely venture to any other city apart from, maybe, an excursion Bath or Brighton.

The quoted line is even more exciting – I’ve lost count of the number of films, books and TV shows I’ve encountered where the conflict between the two love-interests is down to them (a) assuming the worst of the other and (b) each not telling the other something. Personally, I find this frustrating in the extreme as I think that if you’re going to marry someone you ought to trust them enough to tell them your mid-level secrets. I mean, sure, they’ll probably balk if mention you killed a man in Reno but if they flee because you spent a lot of money on a hat, it’s too early to get married. Get thee to some Ren-therapy, my Lord!

What is it about?
It’s a romance (I mentioned that, right?) set in early-19th century Bristol. Smite is a magistrate and Miranda is a witness in his court – again. Under an assumed name. There is a plot (with shadowy underworld figures!) and there is tension between the two (necessary tension! due to their separate emotional histories!) which keeps the book engaging. At the same time, the characters are unusual, sympathetic and charming. (To the reader, I mean, not necessarily to the other characters they encounter.)

Stand out moments
I mentioned a couple above, but I was also pleased that this book has a couple of gay characters. Homosexuality was a hanging offence in Britain at the time (as is mentioned in the text) but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. But gay characters are rarer than a trip to Liverpool in the Regencies I’ve read so far.

You might want to know
This is the fourth book in a set  but it reads well as a stand-alone novel. My only word of caution is that if you read this one first, you will find out who wound up with whom in the first three books: Unveiled, Unlocked and Unclaimed. Unlocked is free on Kindle at the moment, but I haven’t read it.