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Review – Carnegie’s Maid

by Marie Benedict

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Coming into this, I knew very little about Andrew Carnegie, and I admit that I wasn’t sure it would be a romance or not. As a book, it’s a fun, engaging read that’s over all too quickly. The author has a crisp voice that I found very well-suited to historical fiction, and the main character in particular is beautifully crafted. Details are excellent, but not overwhelming or gratuitous. The emotional tone is also a glowing point for me–there’s such a good balance. Never any maudlin displays that go beyond believability, while also avoiding the dreaded robotic drone of lacking emotion.

Clara Kelley is from a farming family in Ireland, sent to America to bolster their income. When she arrives, she hears a man call her name. Although she’s pretty sure this posh man in a bowler hat is looking for a different woman with the same name, Clara takes the opportunity. She has to tell some lies and mask her accent a bit, but she makes it to the formidable Mrs Seeley, a placement agency owner who intended the other Clara to be Mrs Carnegie’s lady’s maid. Clara makes herself indispensable by realising that Mrs Carnegie is new to society and needs assurance as well as the high standards she more openly touts. Although Clara’s initial efforts to be a lady’s maid are blustering through with cautious guesswork, she also seeks information from a book in the library, which made her later settling into her role more believable. She meets Andrew Carnegie in the library.

I loved Clara. She’s pragmatic and firm in her convictions. She makes difficult decisions like hiding her true faith (Catholics were not popular) without doing stupid wishy-washy things that would put her in danger of losing her position. She’s realistic and not precious about pondering or accepting hard facts of life. Nor is she unfeeling. When she begins a friendship with Andrew Carnegie, she is careful to protect herself from impropriety and is wary of how a man in his position could easily destroy her life.

She does struggle to make sense of Carnegie’s inconsistent behaviour, and not just in regards to her. I had trouble with his characterisation in this book. Most of the time he reminded me of the classic lionising of Teddy Roosevelt in Hollywood films. Bright, optimistic, and irritatingly unrealistic in the refusal to examine his flaws. Of course, as I said at the start, I didn’t know much about him, so I may have just balked at his personality changing so much dependant on the company he was in.

However, it did hurt the romance for me. They have chemistry. They spend time together. But Carnegie’s behaviour is beyond mercurial. His mother is described as such, and her characterisation bears it out, but Carnegie came across to me as two different people. I found I preferred the ruthless businessman shouting at his superiors/colleagues to the egalitarian nice guy who never has an argument with Clara. He’s too perfect when he plays the love interest. It makes their early encounters look suspect, and I shared Clara’s discomfort whenever he gave her a lavish and inappropriate gift.

The supporting characters are all drawn well and add to the setting and a lot of Clara’s musings and revelations about the world. The household’s cook Mr Ford is her only friend among the servants, and her immediate family and some cousins keep her grounded and show an important contrast between the life she would have had and the one she made for herself. The Carnegies’ snooty society neighbours added some nice colour and drama as well.

Unfortunately, the ending feels rushed. While reading, I felt like Benedict tried to accomplish things that should have already been covered, some of it in an effort to tie the end to the prologue. The prologue set up some expectations that I don’t think ever really saw sufficient delivery. It’s in Carnegie’s point of view, and he thinks about Clara as if she’s a spitfire who often spoke of equality with passion, and I don’t think she ever came across as such a caricature. The pacing is fine, but the ideas introduced in the prologue kind of felt left alone until the end in an awkward and unnatural way.

The epilogue is quite good, though. It’s a thirty years later epilogue that reaches back to the author’s intent on covering Carnegie’s libraries and public works. Every side character I worried about had their subplots wrapped up nicely, and I liked how Clara chose to live her life after leaving the Carnegie household. In all, I’d say that this book is worth the time and the small hiccoughs. Mostly, said hiccoughs made me wish the book was longer, and isn’t that usually a good thing?

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, a Cosy Mystery by MC Beaton

Series: Agatha Raisin Mysteries #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I never realised quite how many Cosy Mysteries I read. There are certainly people who read significantly more–I can think of at least one person who curates quite an impressive database of Cosies–so maybe I fall somewhere just beyond the shallow end of the pool. If I read a glut of them all at once, I begin to feel guilty and/or boring (I used to read other genres!) but it’s so ridiculously easy to breeze through five or six of them in a relatively short time. And Cosies tend to go on as some of the most prolific series you’ll ever see.

Agatha Raisin is one of the long runners that had been on my list for some time. I was already familiar with the author, and accustomed to consuming her work at an exhaustive (possibly unhealthy) pace. The titular character is a snarky middle-aged woman who retires from the cutthroat business of PR to a cottage in the Cotswolds. This could have been a fairly pedestrian setup, if it weren’t for Agatha’s particular quirks of character. She is rude, selfish, an inveterate cheater (in the non relationship way) and she has a painful knack for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Agatha’s insecurities and negative traits make her compelling, while her redeeming qualities make her worth getting to know as a character.

Intending to establish herself in a positive position in her new home, she finds out about a quiche-baking competition and sets out to win it by underhanded means. First she softens up a judge by taking him and his wife to dinner, and then she buys her potentially prize-winning quiche from a shop in London.

Of course it backfires. The quiche kills the judge and not only is Agatha under suspicion for murder, but the whole village knows she cheated.

One thing to look forward to in Cosy Mysteries that doesn’t always pay off for me is the cast of supporting characters. Agatha Raisin has a fair balance of forgettable but serviceable side characters and long-running acquaintances. My absolute favourite is Bill Wong, the detective who becomes Agatha’s first friend in Carsley and generally tells her not to investigate even when he benefits from her investigation. Bill is in his twenties, idealistic about people, and shows most of his maturity through insight. He and Agatha genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and I love seeing their friendship develop over the series.

Cosy Mysteries tend to either rely on a gimmick (witchcraft, knitting, baking) or the main character’s charisma or archetype (older woman, dog-walker, chef–food is kind of a baseline standby for Cosies), however, I’m not sure if that’s the case for Agatha Raisin. She is the centre point of entertainment and I suppose Village Life could be the gimmick/hook. It feels more like a series based around this character who happens to solve mysteries.

The books are all light, quick reads that guarantee some laughs and heartfelt moments. I highly recommend this series for reading in times of stress or depression. Wonderful pick-me-ups.

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Review – The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair, Mystery by Jasper Fforde

Series: Thursday Next #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is one that I had been meaning to get to for literally years. Someone told me that I had to have read Jane Eyre to “get it” and placed a lot of weight on that. I had read Jane Eyre before, but because of that condition, I thought I was supposed to have read it recently and so had determined to wait until I felt like reading Jane Eyre again. This was a dumb thing that kept me from the Thursday Next series far too long.

The truth is, one need not know more about Jane Eyre or the Brontës than one might glean from watching a film adaptation of Jane Eyre before reading The Eyre Affair. It is ideally suited for readers. But that’s more due to the premise of the world that Thursday lives in, with literary special ops and Shakespearean recitation machines.

The Will-Speak machine—officially known as a Shakespeare Soliloquy Vending Automaton—was of Richard III. It was a simple box, with the top half glazed and inside a realistic mannequin visible from the waist up in suitable attire. The machine would dispense a short snippet of Shakespeare for ten pence.

Thursday Next is a LiteraTec agent with a fair bit of baggage. She has no less than two sad tales of failed love in her past, and pain in common with everyone else who made it through the ridiculously lengthy Crimean War. One of the deepest levels of Spec Ops requests her help in apprehending Acheron Hades, a deranged villain who delights in his villainy in rather a moustache-twirly way.

Jasper Fforde has a particular style of writing that inevitably reminds me of some friends I had in Acton ten or fifteen years ago. Jokes come frequently and sometimes without a sense of place or purpose, characterisation and description tend to be sparse, and narrative structure is played rather fast and loose at times. Particularly when events cut forward in order to let Thursday relate them back via her thoughts rather than depict them as they occur. While Hades is a murderous, inhuman sort of bastard, there is a little of the fool in him, as he is cartoonishly delighted by and interested in petty cruelty that makes him feel clever.

I came into this book wanting to love it, expecting something phenomenal. It doesn’t quite reach the level of “phenomenal” but I did love it.

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Review – Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, a Mystery by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It seems funny to say that there’s a lot going on in this book, since it isn’t particularly fast-paced. When pressed, I would call it a Mystery, but that’s an oversimplification. It also works as Women’s Fiction and Indian Fiction, and possibly even Literary Fiction. There’s even a romance, although it’s more of a subplot than a contribution to the multiple genres. The mystery itself takes a backseat most of the time, as the characters’ relationships and emotions are prioritised. I loved it all, from every side. This was the first of the books I managed to read in Recovery, and I’m sure it’s part of the reason I recovered so quickly.

Nikki is a modern sort of woman who struggles with her Sikh heritage. She carries a lot of guilt over her perceived failure to live up to the life her parents wanted her to have, which was made worse by the death of her father. Her life decisions show her desire to break away from tradition and embrace a more western philosophy of living–she left the family home to live in a flat above the pub she works in, lost her virginity long ago, and finds the idea of arranged marriage to be antiquated and undesirable.

When her sister asks Nikki to post a notice on the marriage board in the temple at Southall, Nikki soothes her own opposing views (“It’s against my principles,” she says) by finding the most obscure, covered part of the board. This is a great character establishing moment for Nikki. She isn’t so much lacking in conviction or particularly infused with it. More like opinionated and pigheaded about it, but not confident or secure enough in herself to make a clear stand. She talks a big game, and yet can be cowed by women she considers to be authority figures.

After accomplishing her unwanted task, Nikki comes across a flyer that appears to be requesting a creative writing teacher for a women only class. It appeals to her sense of feminism and drive to be a good person who does good works, and also promises supplementing income. She jumps right on it.

There are many other women whose story this is, particularly Kulwinder Kaur, and they are all strongly informed by past tragedy.  Most have managed to overcome it with a mix of humour and pragmatism. They join the class with the understanding that they’ll be learning basic literacy, and in an effort to escape the dull preschool-like curriculum that Nikki comes up with, the ladies start telling stories about sexual escapades. At first one of them transcribes while the others talk, but over time Nikki provides more streamlined and higher tech aides, such as a tape recorder.

It’s hard to talk about the mystery without getting into spoiler territory. It was one of the things I wasn’t completely aware would be a Thing before reading, although it somehow became one of the things I looked forward to the most. There’s a kind of rhythm to how everything comes up, which meant (for me) that some of the pacing could get a bit too slow while reading through a different subplot and wishing for more information about whatever I was more invested in at the time. While this could be almost frustrating, it did not result in any dropped plot threads.

There’s also a mystery element in getting to know all of the women. More and more come to the class, drawn by the rebellious fun of sharing dirty stories. Sometimes they tell more about the storyteller than a long conversation might ever have done. Everything from the prose to the pacing shines brightest when the narrative is focused on the characters.

The multiple crossing genres in this book make it an engaging read no matter what you’re looking for coming into it. The emotions are genuine and beautifully expressed. The characters are impactful. This is a book that stays with you.

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Thinking about Genre

If you go to TV Tropes (and I won’t link you, as that might be hazardous to your spare time), one of the first things you learn, after “TV Tropes will ruin your life,” is that “tropes are tools.” Genre is a collection of tropes that has been codified through repeated use. Some stories are half-genres (like vampire, werewolf, or zombie fiction), and some are… Westerns,

Genres, as tools, help to convey information to the reader in ways that aren’t necessarily explicit. When you write a Historical Romance, simply knowing that the story takes place in year 18XX in Country Y will tell you a lot about the story before you’ve even introduced the characters. When it’s done well, that is. Not naming any names.

Like the different shades of monster fiction, genres come in micro- and macro- versions, not to mention delicate little slices of subgenre representing mere collections of storytelling devices. Superheroes have seen a surge in recent years, but remember right after The Incredibles and the first X-Men films came out and everyone was taking potshots at capes and spandex? That didn’t get old effing immediately.

I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. In their original context, capes and spandex were part of a very specific collection of tropes (to be precise, circus strong-man tropes), and it’s important to remember and respect that original context. Maybe things have changed since then, but there was a reason for them. It isn’t random, and it certainly isn’t stupid.

Tropes and genres as a topic of discussion may seem modern, even post-modern, but it’s important to note that discussion of storytelling elements goes back to Ancient Greek theatre, and many storytelling elements we take for granted–such as the three- and four-act structure and the happy ending–are very, very old ideas.

Every so often though, you get a movie or a comic or a book or a game that breaks down what we call “genre conventions.”

Sometimes these works launch entire new genres of their own, or they’re the first (or last) nail in the coffin of a particular genre. Don Quixote is a famous work of parody-pastiche that deconstructs the chivalric romance, which was cliched even by the time Quixote was written. Harry Potter wasn’t the first boarding school fantasy, but it’s one of the most notable now.

When the elements of a particular genre become so well-known that you can create a shorthand for the collection of elements themselves, it becomes possible to write in multiple genres within one. Going back to superheroes, you might not consider it this way, but Jekyll & Hyde is about the same sort of questions. Identity, duality of same, the purpose of morality as a social construct, and what drives a pleasant person with a seemingly enviable life to discard it for a shadowy path.

Jekyll was even created by a fantastic serum that turned him into a monster. Obviously no one is ever surprised to learn that story was part of the inspiration for The Incredible Hulk. A less abstract narrative, certainly, which has grown to include elements of acceptance and tolerance, perhaps taken from Beauty and the Beast.

The language of storytelling is a living thing, constantly growing and changing. Storytellers who see success in one area, be it video games, books, or comics–will try to tell a similar (or the same) story in their own medium of choice. And through recombination, sometimes we see the progeny of these adaptations return to their original medium.

Interestingly, genres seem elastic. Though specific tropes may mature in the translation from one medium to the next, a Western is a Western is a Western, and everyone knows that when it comes to zombies–you always aim for the head.

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Book Sorting 1 of ?

This has not been going as well as I had hoped. First off, the books that thought I had in storage are either in the house, or hidden in the back of the storage unit. So some of the books that I have been missing, are still unaccounted for. However, I still have a boatload of books that need sorting.

Some of them are in paper grocery bags, while others are in lidless boxes or in my many many library bookbags. I delved into those and found a lot of books I’m not going to read. Off to donation they will go. Mostly thrillers and the kind of suspense novels that aren’t my thing. I like to think that I can and do read everything, but there are still some genres that I am not enthusiastic about.

Although I’ve only gone through one box and about four bags, I suppose I feel accomplished. I needed to streamline my personal library, and although I was more invested in finding those storage books, I did find some books that I’m excited to add to my shortlist TBR when I’ve cut my current one down a bit more. (it’s still over 40…)

Highlights:

  • ​Some Liz Carlyle Historicals, like The Devil You Know
  • Harlequin Intrigues
  • Kanji dictionary Hubby is gonna need.

On a rather unrelated note, I am still exhausted thanks to the dietary needs of my sweet baby. I thought that I was being super smooth, writing this and the Tash Hearts Tolstoy review ahead of time, but then I realised that I scheduled them for the wrong year. After languishing out the week, now the blog looks like it’s supposed to, and hopefully I won’t make such a dumb mistake again. At least, not the same one.

Adventures in sleep deprivation may well reveal new dumb things of which I’m all too capable.

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Review – Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Tash Hearts Tolstoy, Contemporary YA by Kathryn Ormsbee

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Give me more main characters who love a dead Russian author to the degree of counting him as a boyfriend! That was what initially intrigued me (by design, one might safely assume) and it mostly held up. I loved the way it informed Tash’s romantic asexuality. She’s so easy to identify/empathise with, that I still don’t know if that even reflects on me or if she’s just a well-written teen who is basically cool and decent. Flawed, obviously, but that’s part of the point of the story–she grows up and improves as a person by the end.

For the sake of context, I read this book in the long hours of pre labour. Breathing through increasingly painful contractions isn’t exactly a picnic, so I was glad to have this to ameliorate the stress.

Tash is a fairly sheltered young woman who takes a lot for granted. Her friends are always there for her (including her online crush), she knows where she’s going to school after graduation and what she’ll be studying, and her family is a strong support system. She and one of her best friends produce a Youtube serial adaptation of Anna Karenina called Unhappy Families, which gains an insane boost in popularity when an established Youtuber gives them some positive press.

Her negative reactions to sudden fame are a bit predictable, but they’re also understandable and realistic. I struggled a bit as her bad behaviour clashed with her perception of herself. For someone who professed to be so close to her friends and grateful for the closeness of her relationship with both friends and family, Tash does an awful lot of lying by omission, and generally withholds information to her detriment. While this is certainly part of her character arc and addressed in the text, I couldn’t help thinking that she must have been a pretty shitty friend for a long time if she was so unaware of how to communicate.

Also, for clearly personal reasons, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with her treatment of her mother after the announcement of an unexpected pregnancy. Despite repeated mentions that the pregnancy was unplanned, Tash and her sister both questioned their mother’s reasons for having a baby. How does one have reasons for something completely unplanned? Is this an implication that they think she’s making a choice by not having an abortion? She also gets maligned for “keeping it secret” which is stupid, because especially with a pregnancy at that age, one does not announce it until about the second trimester because of the chance of miscarriage in the first. I get that Tash felt displaced, but I didn’t sympathise.

Although I have to admit that I don’t think I would like Tash’s web series if it were a real thing, the portrayal of the work involved in the production, especially the rough bits like stuff that can ruin a day’s shooting, was wonderful. The young actors run the gamut from Casual and always late to Overly “Professional” and insufferable but suffered because of Talent. The latter character actually surprised me in the end, which was awesome.

There’s some great representation for marginalised teens in this book. Not only is Tash herself asexual, but one of the actors in Unhappy Families is gay, and another is bisexual. It’s all very easygoing and natural, without too much underlining.

Although she is the main character, Tash still manages to take up more narrative real estate than necessary, which has the effect of leaving all of the other characters feeling underdeveloped and some go sidelined overlong because Tash is too wrapped up in herself. It’s brilliantly meta, as it ties directly in to her character arc.

The romance is about as predictable as the Youtube Stardom main plot, but once again, it’s done well enough that I wouldn’t really count that as a mark against the book. Tash’s relationship with her online crush develops slowly, and she gets to enjoy it as one of the things going well for her, but it’s also a major point of stress thanks to her not being out and not having a clue how to come out to basically anyone.

This is a great read overall, but particularly effective if you’re looking for something satisfying and not too twisty or demanding.