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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

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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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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.

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Review – The Love Interest

The Love Interest, YA Gay Romance by Cale Dietrich

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

My hopes were so high for this one, and for at least the first third, I managed to ride on those hopes without their being dashed. The writing style is punchy and funny. Even in first person present tense, the general hatred of which I am still getting over. (it’s a process.)

The opening world-building is a hopscotch court of meta jokes for YA readers. Love Interests are cultivated in a compound where they must hone their bodies to physical perfection, gaze at themselves in the mirror daily, learn pop culture so they can fit in, and fall into two factions categories: Nice and Bad. No names–they go by numbers until they are given a name and additional Pretties-esque makeover when they are assigned to make a person fall in love with them. Two Love Interests compete in a love triangle, and the one who is not chosen is doomed to die. But what happens when the Love Interests fall for each other?

Even in the beginning, I had a lot of minor nitpicks that I had to shelve in order to keep enjoying myself. While I liked the concept of the world-building, I never felt like it was very solid and it was certainly not without irritating holes. Why do they have to have plastic surgery when so much focus is placed on the strain of conventional beauty attained through grueling effort? Why are they stolen children? It didn’t bother me that this is what they were, but there wasn’t really any narrative reason. Why that source for the LIs? Why not test tube babies? Or sentient organic robots? Is this a dystopia or the regular world and the joke is that YA love interests in even straight-up contemporary YA are like this? The given reason for the entire Love Interest Compound is that they are matched to people who become influential/important and will presumably have privileged information with monetary value. This isn’t technically a bad reason, but it’s sort of dumped out there once and referenced after, but never actually explored. Which… describes much of the book.

One of the major indicators that someone was a Bad was that he had a bulkier musculature than a Nice, which didn’t work for me, since in my reading experience, YA Bad Boys are usually skinny angst pots. Exercise is wholesome, as is sunshine, and bad supposedly cool habits tend to be unhealthy things like smoking, so I expect the muscular guy to be Good/Nice. Mileage may vary, I guess, however like so much else that doesn’t work terribly well in this book, it’s evidence of shallow shallowy-ness.

The main character, given the name Caden, is shallow. He thinks that he doesn’t quite fit the label of Nice, but he falls into it anyway because someone else is making that distinction and probably to make some kind of Divergent reference. His perception that he’s too Bad to be Nice doesn’t really go anywhere. Shallow character arc. Dylan is barely a character–he mirrors the Am I Really Bad/Nice? thing but does it better than Caden. Any potential he has as a character is lost in not having a written perspective. The narrative, technical reason he doesn’t have one is so that there can be a big misunderstanding in the latter part of the book to keep him and Caden from getting together. It isn’t even a believable misunderstanding. In fact, given the concept, Caden, Dylan, and the girl should have had their own POVs. Caden is about as exciting as tapioca pudding and can’t carry a book on his own.

The romance is insultingly shallow. In fact, all of the queer content was.  Caden goes through a questioning phase to realisation in such a rote manner that I not only could sing along in a mocking voice, but at one point, I managed to quote something nearly verbatim before the book got to it. His “OMG am I gay?” passage comes off as dated and insincere. It honestly sounds like it was written by someone else, it looks so out of place.

But the romance just made me sad. Why is it that so many books that hinge on an unexpected homosexual attraction fail to depict that attraction as anything other than author mandate? Sure, I could see why someone would find Dylan appealing–he’s good-looking and displays a lot of charming traits. But somehow it felt like the book just skipped over the parts where Caden showed why he in particular fell for Dylan. I was more invested in the romance between Ewan and Archie in A Hero at the End of the World. And I cannot for the life of me tell what anyone might see attractive about Ewan.

When I realised that the romance was never going to feel satisfying, the rest of it sort of deflated. It just isn’t a strong enough narrative. Side characters are nauseatingly, unrealistically nice. A lot of the plot falls flat as boring string holding together set pieces of cool moments. By the end, I was just bored. The concept I had been so excited to read about felt wasted. I hope that this isn’t the last time someone tackles a premise like this. I love meta humour and unexpected couples. I don’t think I killed this for myself with high expectations, though, as I really liked it up to a point. It simply wore me down with unsteady world-building and weak romance.

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Review – An Unseen Attraction

An Unseen Attraction, Gay Historical Romance by KJ Charles (also counts as Mystery)

Series: Sins of the Cities #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I don’t quite have auto-buys when it comes to authors because I tend to take forever to buy books that I desperately want. It drives Hubby crazy. But whatever my own weird equivalent of an auto-buy is, KJ Charles is one of them. Not only does she write gay historical romance as though it is not a gimmick or in a novelty in comparison to heterosexual historical romance, she’s also an excellent storyteller and damn classy.

Clem Talleyfer is an Indian-Englishman who doesn’t quite belong anywhere. He doesn’t speak Hindi and he was otherwise denied that half of his heritage, so he has trouble fitting in on that side, and being dark-skinned and illegitimate are enough to keep him from being considered truly English. He’s also clearly on the autism spectrum, which comes with its own social difficulties. I adored Clem. He’s sweet and self-aware, compassionate nearly to a fault, and loyal. His support network was also lovely.

Clem runs a boardinghouse. One of his tenants is Rowley Green, an intense, bespectacled taxidermist who sees his profession as artistic. The two begin with a quiet friendship of sharing tea and conversation in the evenings. They’re each crushing on the other, but neither is quite ready to risk making a move.

Then one of the other tenants, a massively unpleasant drunkard, turns up on the front steps dead and showing signs of torture.

It’s difficult to articulate what I liked so much about this particular book. There are tonnes of things that I wouldn’t have thought of beforehand that I apparently needed in my life. Polish Mark the PI, Rowley’s artistic musings on the art of stuffing animals, trips to see occasionally cross-dressing acrobats. The romance is a slow burn, which I mightn’t have expected to like, but did. The mystery is amazing, so the less said about it the better: Go Read This is all I have to say on that score.

In fact, just Go Read This.