Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review - The Dancing Master

Original Title: The Dancing Master
Series: -
Author: Julie Klassen
Published: January 7th, 2014

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

It could be my least favorite book by this author. It’s impossible not to notice that she has written novels that are a lot better than this one, and although I liked it, and Julie Klassen is an excellent narrator, it didn’t grab me or kept me reading late at night, unlike her other books. The impeccable research and the amazing details make up for an enjoyable read, but The Dancing Master isn’t a five GoodReads stars book, and I’ll tell you why.

Dancing is, hands down, my favorite part in every piece of historical fiction. Nothing is more exciting for me than a ballroom scene, with all the lights, the beauty, the dresses, the jewels, the music, and of course, the dancing that always brings two people closer to fall in love, when something as little as a look, a mere touch of the hands, can be deep and beautiful, and speak volumes. *sigh* Alec Valcourt, the hero in this story, is a dancing and fencing master –a profession that runs in the family–, who comes to Beaworthy with her mother and sister, as an attempt to escape a shameful scandal that forced them to sell their academy in London, and move in with their uncle to start over. But the problem is that, of all the villages in England, they moved to the only one where he can’t practice his profession, because dancing has been forbidden for two decades by an unwritten law established by Lady Amelia Midwinter, following a tragedy involving a dancing master. That doesn’t mean there’s no people interested in dancing, but everyone is too scared of Lady Amelia as to disobey her. And here I get a few points to discuss.

Alec needs to work to support her mother and sister, but no one wants to hire him as dancing master, because of the prohibition. Then Lady Amelia herself hires him, as a clerk, only to prevent him from teaching dancing lessons, but he’s still in need of extra funds, and upon befriending the Allens, he learns that they, besides fencing lessons, would like some private tutoring in dancing, in despite of everything, but Alec doubts, because he doesn’t want to risk his job at Buckleigh Manor. And here it is when Lady Allen says: “Perhaps if I spoke to Lady Amelia, explained that we only want private lessons in our own home, not a public dance. Could she really object?” That line had me rolling my eyes, and l literally yelled at my book “She doesn’t need to know!”. I mean, she forbade dancing, but is she also the owner of everyone’s freedom? Why telling her in the first place? After the end of his working hours in the service of Lady Amelia, she can’t keep telling him what to do, or at least she shouldn’t.

Can we talk about the ban on dancing? In Beaworthy, everyone is scared even at the very mention of the word “dancing”, but nothing, or no one, ever tells me which are the terrible consequences of breaking the [unwritten] law, like if Amelia is some sort of witch or mind reader that can appear summoned by that word, and turn them all into toads if they dared to dance on her watch. Later on, we find out that it has to do with the duel between Amelia’s brother and her former dancing master, John Desmond, to defend her sister Anne’s honor, who was pregnant at the time and pointed at Desmond as the father of her child. As Graham Buckleigh died in the duel, Amelia, in her grief, forbade everything related to dancing masters, to prevent anything like that from happening again. And I, honestly, couldn’t take that with the seriousness it was supposed to have. During the entire book, Amelia complains about Julia being a rebel, always trying to get her way, and having this “unladylike” attitudes, but, how could she expect her daughter to be anything else, if she was raised by one of the biggest brats I’ve ever read? I mean, I understand that Amelia resents everything related to dancing in general, but, why on Earth that meant that every single person in Beaworthy had to stop with their traditions because of it? It’s ok if you don’t dance, but speak for yourself, lock yourself at home if you want to, and don’t attend another ball in your life, but you can’t force everyone else to share that decision. That attitude of “I won’t dance ever again, so no one else can do it either” pissed me off! She made an entire village pay the price of her broken heart, she made her pain everyone’s pain, and then complains about her daughter being a brat! Come on!

But, putting that aside, I actually liked how Lady Amelia is written, as a character that it is both strong and fragile. Her tyrannical stance hides her heartbreak, because she was in love with the man that killed his brother and supposedly was his sister’s lover, and after that, she entered a loveless marriage with a man who didn’t want her, or Julia, knowing that he was raising a child not his own. She always lived ruled by duty, and that doesn’t make her an especially sweet character. Amelia always wanted the best for her daughter and I get it, but her chosen method definitely isn’t the way to proceed, because it’s in human nature to go for that thing that is forbidden. The sterner the prohibition, the bigger the curiosity and the wish to rebel will be. As for Julia Midwinter, Lady Amelia’s daughter/niece, she isn’t the expected heroine you can read in other books by Julie Klassen. I didn’t fully like her. She’s that girl that normally opposes the sensible, levelheaded, and demure protagonist, being a flirt and a rebel. Although I considered her very human, given that, even though a main character has to be likeable, the truth is that not every person out there is likeable. People in real life are selfish, stubborn, and changeable, and very rarely we come across a paragon of virtues. But that doesn’t mean that I liked Julia through and through. She is insufferable at times, always wanting to rebel against her mother’s despotic behavior, and flirting with men in order to catch a husband to get her out of that stifling household she lives on. But, even though she proves herself capable of hitting the Wilcox brothers with her whip and I like that attitude of “you messed with the wrong lady”, she doesn’t do anything of the sort again. Pity, because that could have led to really funny scenes. 

The story revolves more around Julia trying to discover her true parents, after discovering that Lady Amelia isn’t her mother, but her aunt, than around the love story, unlike other books by Julie Klassen. Which isn’t wrong, but I felt that the romance had a lot of potential and wasn’t fully exploited. It’s dancing, after all! One of the best forms of deep touch and romance in historical fiction! I was definitely expecting more. Alec and Julia’s relationship is basically physical, mostly at first, and I just couldn’t buy that instant attraction Alec feels towards her in church the first time he sees her and notices her beauty. After that she proves to be the kind of flirt for which Alec’s family’s reputation was ruined, asking for private dancing lessons she uses to get closer to him than it is appropriate, so he tries to put distance between them. There’s pretty much no reason for their attraction. When they finally kiss, it is truly sigh-worthy, passionate, and not at all what Julia was expecting as she flirted with him, but… they never kiss again. It was so disappointing! In the the epilogue, Julia says that they are engaged to be married, but that kiss, by the middle of the book, was the deepest interaction they had, sharing only a few dances after it, without a truly heartfelt moment before the ending with only the two of them, save for the scenes in the bell tower and in the graveyard, but they barely talk about themselves and their feelings, there’s almost no chemistry between them... And I was looking forward to it. They always struggle to keep their distance, so nothing really allowed me to say, “yes, this two are made for each other, they have to get married”. It’s the first couple written by Julie Klassen that didn’t have me rooting for them. This story is more about Julia’s growing up and finding herself than romance, and honestly, I wanted the romance, especially after having a man like Alec Valcourt, a true gentleman, as protagonist, and the promise of dancing in the title. 

The plot around Julia’s real parents is engaging, and I was truly eager to find out who her father was. Julia finally was content knowing that she had been loved by her parents, but that’s all, her life doesn’t really change after her conversation with Lt. Tremelling. Honestly, the mystery and its resolution wasn’t so engaging as the mysteries Julie Klassen wrote in her other novels, that are gripping and you just need to keep reading to find the answers. There’s a reason why this book took me longer to finish than the others. Again, I’m not saying that I didn’t like this book, but I couldn’t help noticing a few things that contribute it to make it my least favorite by Julie Klassen. First of all, Alec and Julia’s riding scene, Alec’s horse breaks his legs trying to jump a wall, and then, as they can’t save him, Barlow shoots him. Besides being sad, it felt useless, because nothings comes from it, except Alec’s minor injuries, and another scolding for Julia from her mother. I felt that scene could have been cut from the book and nothing would have changed.

After that, already by the end of the book, some things fell a bit flat, when I really wanted more development on them. Like Alec’s father, after that big scandal that drew the plot in the first place. The man just comes back, saying that God’s grace saved him, regains his wife’s love, and then every conflict gets solved. And how…? There was no reunion scene, he just comes back redeemed to close that part of the story, and that’s it, there’s nothing else. As for the other love stories, at least we are told that Walter Allen and Tess Thorne started courting, and eventually they would get married, but what about James and Aurora? I really, really liked that pairing, and I was hoping for a little romance between them after the big finale. But nothing happens, except that James doesn’t make a move to try to court her because she’s still very young, which speaks of a gentleman, but of boredom for me as a reader. After all, we get to know that Uncle Ramsay and Mrs. Tickle got married, when they barely appeared a few times in the entire book, but there’s almost nothing about James and Aurora, that have more page time than them. I know that they aren’t the focus of the story, but I’m just saying that I would have liked a happy ending for them.

Oh, and Amelia and John Desmond! I utterly loved John, he was everything a man should be at the time, a true gentleman ruled by his honor and sense of duty, and any woman he loved would be very lucky. Even though he and Amelia fell in love, and even twenty years later they still loved each other, it disappointed me that they didn’t end up together. After such a drama, it’s not enough for me to read that he spends a lot of time “admiring a certain woman’s auburn hair and dainty figure, her quiet smile and fine eyes”. Seriously, that’s all we get? I wanted something more! Amelia forgave him, yes, but it would have been great if they actually had gotten married, taking that second chance to be together after all those things that delayed them being together, finally leaving the past behind and accepting the grace bestowed upon them. It was sweet, yes, but definitely scarce.

Finally, not too much to add, except that, as always, Julie Klassen’s research shines on its own. She doesn’t start writing a book without a good foundation, and this one isn’t the exception. However, I feel like it could have been a lot better, that there was a lot of potential in the topics she chose, and it wasn’t exploited. From the books by her I’ve read so far, this one is my least favorite, though it doesn’t mean it sucks. Julie Klassen is a good author, and all her books are good. Consider this the weakest among the great ones, that are all of them. Of course, I’ll continue reading! As I said before, I won’t stop until I read each book by this author, as she is one of my favorites, and one of the most talented I’ve ever read!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review - Lady of Milkweed Manor

Original Title: Lady of Milkweed Manor
Series: -
Author: Julie Klassen
Published: January 1st, 2008

Publisher: Bethany House 
*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

I’m totally speechless of how brilliant this book is. It left me with my mouth open, after making me gasp, cheer and almost cry throughout its pages, and makes me want to say to all those writers out there, “this is how you write a historical novel”. Julie Klassen takes the best from both historical romance and fiction, and blends it together to create these wonderful novels that keep you up at night, needing to know what will happen next. She’s definitely one of the best authors I’ve ever read, and anything she writes its guaranteed to have a solid research foundation, an elegant writing, and an emotionally gripping plot that will grab you and won’t let go.

This isn’t your typical Regency story. You won’t find balls, parties, fine dresses and sweet romance on it. It’s overall darker than that. From the very start you know that something went horribly wrong, and Charlotte Lamb, the twenty-year-old protagonist, is about to pay the dire consequences. Already in the first scene, things looked grim, as she packed her belongings to leave her home, knowing that she wouldn’t get anything back from that life. She’s was a fallen woman about to fall even lower. Her family had cut all ties with her, wanted her out of the house as soon as possible, and her father even forbade her maternal aunt to make contact with her, which, in my opinion, is not only overly cruel, but an order there’s no reason to obey; it bothered me that she didn’t decide to break the rules, given that her niece’s situation was a lot more important than her reputation, and she needed her family more than ever. As Charlotte arrived at Milkweed Manor, nothing looked good, not even the house in itself. Honestly, I first thought she was going to enter a brothel, as the implications seemed to suggest. But when Mrs. Moorling said Manor Home for Unwed Mothers, I confess my jaw dropped, and I thought, “this can only go from bad to worse”. That was serious indeed.

Although Charlotte wouldn’t say, it was somewhat guessable that Charles Harris was the father of her child, as there was no other option, save William Bentley (I thought it was him, at first). Charlotte and Charles shared only one unwise night of passion, and although we get to read that scene, there’s nothing explicit; we readers get to know what we need to know, and nothing more, as the book focuses mainly on Charlotte dealing with the consequences of that night. Something I loved about her is how we can read the birth and growing of her strength both as a woman and human being. She paid for her mistakes, but became selfless, and found more love with the other women in the Manor and her son, than with her own family. She got beaten down, but still managed to get up and keep fighting, making the ultimate sacrifice as she gave her son to his father, Harris, in replacement of his own stillborn baby, to save her cousin Katherine from madness. It broke her heart (and mine), but she understood that she was doing what was best for her son. I don’t doubt she would have done anything to take care of him on her own, but at least she knew he would be taken care of. And from that decision on, she grew and became stronger, as she decided to help in the Manor the best she could, instead of sinking in her pain (and she would have had a good excuse for it). Even when she could have re-entered society, she chose not to, as she didn’t belong to that world anymore, after seeing all those things she saw.

On the other hand, we have Daniel Taylor, the hero in this story. He had met Charlotte in the past, as Dr. Webb’s apprentice in Doddington, and had a crush on her. But years passed, he married another woman, and later on, we find out she was also hospitalized in the Manor, and was also pregnant. It was their baby girl, Anne, that Charlotte started nursing with her own milk, giving a new purpose to her torn-apart life, given Lizette’s puerperal insanity, while Daniel took care of her. It’s heartbreaking to see him rediscovering his feelings for Charlotte, as they crash with the love he used to feel for his beautiful wife, now lost to him to madness. He couldn’t deny that he cared for Charlotte, all the while trying to heal and get back the woman he married. It took me a few chapters to start rooting for them, as they were so far away from each other, and with so many issues for their own, because I didn’t see the possibility of a love story, but, as I said before, this isn’t your typical romance.

There’s a few things I would like to mention. First, John Taylor, Daniel’s father. I felt that the plot around him could have been easily removed from the book, and nothing would have changed, save him delivering Charlotte’s baby. Daniel took Charlotte to this Miss Mardsen’s house, in a completely useless scene that doesn’t serve much of a purpose. The topic about John Taylor’s mistakes as a surgeon are briefly mentioned later, but I think that the book could have gone just the same without it. Although a complicated relationship with his father gives Daniel another level of character depth, letting us see how many problems he is dealing with, and his strength as he fights to make everything right, that scene just isn’t useful to any future plot point. On the other hand, William Bentley –Harris’ nephew and heir–, felt like a useless character too. I mean, he acted as Bea’s suitor, but ultimately chose to marry another woman for her money, and, in my opinion, that entire subplot could have been avoided, because it didn’t add much to the main plot. The Lamb sisters already vied over Harris’ admiration and that’s enough, without adding someone else to the mix. I guess his part in the story could be read as a way to say that, even without Charlotte, her father and sister continued with their lives as if nothing had happened, although more bitterly. Their attitude made me so angry! One would think that a vicar would know about forgiveness and righting wrongdoings, but he died without wanting to ever see her again. He chose his reputation and his name over his own daughter! Same as Beatrice, who decided her sister was dead to her, but even after parting ways, she managed to keep vying with her over Harris! I can’t wrap my head around that a family could do that, even back then. It’s already bad enough that Harris, even after professing his “love” for Charlotte, didn’t marry her after ruining her, but becoming strangers with your own family? I can’t understand how someone who loves you (a parent, a sibling) doesn’t consider you a priority, especially when you need them the most.

In fact, the only one willing to help Charlotte, that went beyond rules and gossip, was her cousin Katherine, married to Harris, and foster mother to Edmund (without knowing it). I didn’t like her as a person, but at least she was the only one willing to help her cousin, when her own family deserted her. She never suspected or knew her real son had died at birth, and she died giving birth to her second child, who died along with her. Early on in the book, we are told that pregnancies were risky for Katherine, given her age, so when I read that she was going to have another baby, I could guess she wouldn’t make it. I’ve seen her death referred as a badly written plot point created to open the road for Charlotte to be reunited with her son, but I don’t see it that way, because that, actually doesn’t happen. She gets to see Edmund but doesn’t say a word about her being her real mother, nor attempts to do so.

As for Lizette Taylor’s story, it was a bit hard to swallow, because she wasn’t in her right mind, but it’s brilliantly written how her relationship with Daniel started to crumble, as insanity, jealousy and homesickness took over her. She saw Charlotte as a threat, as she nursed their daughter, and didn’t fail to see her husband’s attachment to her. She was mad, but not stupid, and clearly, the only way to get her out of the way to develop Charlotte and Daniel’s story was her demise. But it was incredibly tragic, and not at all what I was expecting. I confess I almost cry when I thought Lizette, in her madness, had drowned her baby with her, but then I let out a sigh of relief when I read Charlotte had her. As I said, this book is so gripping, that I read it at the edge of my seat, actually concerned about the characters, feeling their pain, and in this particular moment, all the weight of Daniel’s burdens over his shoulders, his confusion, his mixed feelings for both his wife and Charlotte, his helplessness in his attempts to recover the wife he fell in love with, knowing that there was no turning back to what it used to be, and not knowing what to do in regards of Anne’s future. It’s heartbreaking, and for that brilliantly done. It makes these characters a lot more human and relatable.

I loved Daniel and Charlotte’s story. It’s not your typical romance, as there were sad and difficult circumstances what reunited them in the Manor, after so many years. Theirs is not a happy story, but there’s a lot more than romance going on. The two of them are deep characters, they feel like real people, with both virtues and flaws, struggles and fears, and you can understand how and how much they got not only to love each other, but to need each other. After so many years of Charlotte taking care of Anne as if she were her own daughter, after everything they went through together, I understand how they couldn’t have lived without each other, and for a moment it bothered me that they still had this master/governess relationship and formalities between them, when they both knew their bond was a lot deeper than that. For a second in which my heart sank, I believed she had accepted Harris’ long overdue proposal, thinking of her son, but for once she stopped listening to the voice of duty, and thought of her own happiness. Along the whole book, milkweeds are mentioned over and over again, and I loved how they were a metaphor of their relationship, and of Charlotte herself: her family thought her a weed, something that needed to be pulled out from their lives so they could have a perfectly ordered existence, without the blemish of something that would take root and ruin them. But Daniel saw beyond that. He saw her healing powers, her many virtues, merits and talents, that were always there, but nobody cared about, choosing to discard her, to treat her like the disposable weed they considered she was, when in fact, there was so much more in Charlotte Lamb that what met the eyes. I loved Daniel for still loving her and caring for her when the world thought she didn’t deserve more than rejection and her rightful punishment for ruining her reputation, as she were the sole culprit for her situation. She learned from her mistakes and became a better, stronger, person, ready to face the world once more and make her life count, even with all her disadvantages. 

The only flaw in their story is their first kiss! I hate when it is left for the very last page. They literally kiss at the last paragraph before the epilogue, and such a thing is always disappointing. I’d have been rooting for that kiss, and when they finally had it, it ended before we could truly relish on their joy, savoring the moment after so much expectation and sorrow!

A great thing is that there’s not a happy ending for everyone. This is a story of forgiveness, of how love heals the wounds, and states that, as there’s not one perfect life, neither there’s a perfect happy ending. Charlotte doesn’t get her child back, though I had hoped she would at some point, and it left me thinking, once Edmund and Anne get married, will she ever tell him? He deserved to know, and, if she decided to do so, that would be an excellent scene I would read biting my nails. It’s like the story continues, even when we turn the last page. As I said before, these character feel so like real people, that you just know their lives will continue long before the book has ended!

Although I couldn’t do justice to every little detail of this story, and left many things out (like Sally Mitchell and Thomas Cox’s story), I can’t finish without mentioning the excellent research Julie Klassen did before writing this book. I knew nothing about the world of wet nurses and foundlings, and I found it utterly fascinating. It’s clear when an author writes knowing what he/she’s doing, it’s visible when the foundation is solid and carefully studied, and I personally love a book more when it’s actually historical, with everything that means. This story is filled with historically accurate details that make it even more of a gem. Julie Klassen is an amazing, passionate author, and everything she writes is worth reading, as she creates deep, layered characters and stories that will keep you at the edge of your sit. She’s definitely among the best authors I’ve ever read! 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Review - The Tutor's Daughter

Original Title: The Tutor's Daughter
Series: -
Author: Julie Klassen
Published: January 1st, 2013

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

Julie Klassen does it again, delivering a deep, engaging novel you just can’t stop reading. Once again, I found myself staying up late at night, in need of answers, turning page after page, sinking in the mystery and romance, dashed with gothic suspense, this book has to offer. This author is definitely one of the best I’ve ever read, and her passion and commitment for storytelling are visible in the pages of each of her books.

The Tutor’s Daughter is a wonderful gothic romance set in the coast of Cornwall, that starts when Emma Smallwood and her father leave their academy for boys and go to live and teach the younger children of Ebbington Manor, home of the Weston family, whose older sons, Henry and Phillip, both studied with Mr. Smallwood as kids. Emma remembers both from the past, as they played lots of pranks on her as children, and is more eager to see Phillip than Henry, since she recalls him being the kindest, most attentive from the two brothers. But trouble starts head on. From the moment they arrive at Cornwall, things start going oddly wrong. No one shows up when they were supposed to be picked up by a carriage, their rooms aren’t ready when they get to the Manor, the masters of the house have completely forgotten they would arrive that day… And from there, things start to go wrong.

I confess that a part of the mystery didn’t engaged me, simply because I could predict what was going on. The mysterious nocturnal visits to Emma’s room, the handprint on her mirror, the piano playing on its own in the empty music room… That was no ghost. From the moment I read Lady Weston forbidding them to visit the house’s north wing, I knew that the mad man/woman locked up and isolated plot was coming. It isn’t badly written, but it can be seen coming from miles away, and instantly reminded me of another, classic novel with a mad woman locked up in a mysterious, dark, echoing attic (you all know which I’m talking about). It’s not a wrong decision from authors to choose this path, but the thing is that, in my opinion, that other book I mentioned is the first thing that pops into our heads upon reading it. Again, it’s well put, but it’s been read a lot of times before, it’s an overused plot point. Although, as we get to know, this particular madman isn’t exactly crazy; I guessed he was another Weston brother after the brief conversation between Henry and Lady Weston that Emma manages to overhear, but the surprise part for me was to read that Adam wasn’t aggressive, and never meant any harm; he was just curious, as a child, and although the book doesn’t say so, his case sounds more like a case of autism than insanity. It is horrible that having such a child was considered shameful for these grand families, that decided to give them away to be elsewhere, but I loved how Henry still remembered he was his brother, wanted him to have a loving, comfortable home, and loved him for who he was, in despite of everything.

As usual, this book is full of deep constructed characters, and there’s some you love, and some you hate. Emma Smallwood is utterly adorable, and I loved her. She’s smart and organized, and isn’t afraid of anything, she’s bold enough to do whatever is needed, no matter what. I loved the fact that nothing could stop her once her mind was made, and didn’t need anyone’s approval to go ahead with her plans and ideas (when she slapped Lizzie, she did something I had been longing to do myself). Somehow, I felt I could be friends with Emma. Julie Klassen’s characters are always deep and passionate, with both virtues and flaws, and I could truly see some of me in Emma, in her doubts and fears, especially as a Christian, and in that feeling of not-belonging, of not being there, but neither here. As tutors at Ebbington Manor, Emma and her father aren’t servants, but neither part of the family. They are somewhere in the middle, and for the well-organized, always-in-control Emma, that’s a difficult position in which, I believe, most of us have been, are, or will be. And creating a relatable character is key in any piece of fiction, because it can make the reader connect with the character on a deeper level. And Henry! I loved him from page one. He acknowledges he did wrong in the past, and wants to become a better person and Christian. He has to keep his head cool and think as his family’s heir, and that means watching for the state and its grounds, managing finances, and of course, marrying the right woman, which his stepmother already chose to bear the Weston last name (she doesn’t care which brother marries her, as long as one of them does). He is a hero for me, in the way that he doesn’t care what happens to him if that means he can avoid a greater evil. He’s seen enough of men drowning in the sea during storms in the coast, and when his time comes, he does his best to save as many lives as he can. It was very impressive, and mostly because the rescue is based on a real rescue occurred in the area, when a man on horseback was able to rescue sailors from the sea after a shipwreck. Again, Julie Klassen proves how well she knows how to use her research, and how much she cares for historical accuracy.

Even when I was afraid, for a moment, that this book would contain a love triangle (I hate them), I was relieved to find out that it didn’t. I never thought, not even for a moment, that Emma would end up with Phillip. She had fond memories of him, but clearly, she wasn’t going to fall in love with him. She was too smart for someone like Phillip, who always felt like some foolish, soft guy, not at all at the level of what Henry could be. Unlike his brother, Phillip is guided by his feelings and acts upon them, he leaves Oxford at midterm to see some girl of humble origins he’s in love with… I mean, it’s not like there’s too much space for doubting and guessing. Phillip is clearly depicted as somewhat inferior to Henry, and there was no reason for Emma to fall for him, and I’m glad she didn’t, for her relationship with Henry had me rooting for them the entire book, eagerly waiting for them to kiss, and when they did…! *sigh* I read that kiss over and over again, it was beautiful, emotionally open, and raw honest, they stopped thinking and for once listened to their hearts. It’s not like I feared for their lives, but I imagined myself in the whole situation, and it gave me goosebumps (for the record, the flooding chapel, not kissing Henry, but it could be applied to both). Although Emma doesn’t acknowledge her feelings for a big part of the book, she sees Henry’s superiority of character and personality, and how he struggles to improve every day, but knows, the whole time, that he can’t marry her, given her station as the tutor’s daughter. I’ve read many other books in which the characters want to be together, but they struggle to hide their feelings and remain apart from one another simply because they shouldn’t, whatever the reason for that (mostly social standing, but also money conditions, stubbornness, reluctance to accept feelings… you know, the usual), and I liked very much the fact that Emma and Henry know the barriers between them, but they avoid this endless rambling that normally takes lots of pages about all the reasons why the shouldn’t be together. And that’s great, because it speaks of an author behind the book that cares about not exhausting her readers with repeated information, assuming they are smart and don’t need a constant repetition of the same thing over and over again, which happens a lot with other authors. 

After the disaster in the Chapel, I was engrossed with the whole explanations around the mysteries build as the novel moved forward. The plot around Lady Weston was engrossing and I felt outraged, because it was justified. Many times, villains don’t have a believable goal, they exist for the sole purpose of opposing the hero, but you can’t figure out why exactly… But in this case, it has a purpose, and I even understand it. I know why she acted that way, thinking as a mother, going beyond the law for her sons to have something for their future lives. I loved that Rowan decided, in the end, to do the honorable thing, proudly calling Henry his brother and apologizing to Emma for all those pranks, bordering cruelty. But Julian! That prepotency! Upon the ending of the book, seeing him talking to his father and brothers like that, I was thinking “please, sir Giles, slap him as the disrespectful brat he is, he deserves it!”. But he didn’t, instead sending him to the navy. Not everyone gets a happy ending in this book.

There’s something I would like to mention, that doesn’t get completely clarified. Was Phillip in love with Lizzie? That’s probably the only loose end, because everything is an assumption, there’s no clear affirmation that they actually wanted to get married (and they don’t). On the other hand, Aunt Jane’s happy ending left a big smile plastered on my face, because even when she had little part on the story, she was an adorable character and I was very happy that she got to make her delayed dreams come true.

Not much else to add, except that I loved this book, and I wish to do justice to all the awesome little details it has. All authors need the passion Julie Klassen expresses with each page, and of course, I’ll eagerly grab any book with her name on it, because it’s guaranteed to be excellent!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Review - The Girl in the Gatehouse

Original Title: The Girl in the Gatehouse
Series: -
Author: Julie Klassen
Published: January 1st, 2011

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

I plainly, honestly, loved this book. It is my fourth by this amazing author, and when you think things can’t get better, there she does it again. I was pleasantly surprised by The Girl in the Gatehouse, it was impossible to put down, and it got me reading late into the night, because I just needed to know more. 

First things first. I feel compelled to say that not every piece of Regency fiction is to be compared with Jane Austen. That’s unfair, and unnecessary, to say the least. Although in this book, the comparison is needed. And in a good way! I didn’t fully understand it until I got to the very end, although I could read some winks, through the entire novel, to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and mostly, to Mansfield Park. For those who have read the latter, the name Mariah will ring a bell, and remind you the unfortunate but well-deserved ending of Maria Bertram’s character. In The Girl in the Gatehouse, and just like her namesake, Mariah Aubrey has a sister named Julia, an Aunt Norris, and a man she cares for, named Crawford. Such things are not randomly done. In Mansfield Park, our main focus is to see how the poor, resigned and sweet Fanny Price gets her heart’s desire and her happiness, and how those wretched villains that made her life miserable pay for what they did. But Julie Klassen takes that classic novel to a whole new level. She decides, through her heroine, to give Maria Bertram a chance of redemption.

There’s so many good things to say about this book, so many twist and turns, plenty of delightful details, that I don’t even know where to start. It was wonderful, and brilliant. For starters, it jumps straight into action, with Mariah sent away from her home, by his own father’s decision, to live in solitude in an abandoned gatehouse, with only a loyal servant and friend for company, in the grounds of a grand state, where her old, widow aunt lives. We don’t know why, but we can imagine that such fate could only come after a big, resonant scandal. Something happened with Mariah Aubrey that made her fall from grace, and cover her family in shame, and although we are not told what that is, as chapters go by, you are able to piece together the puzzle thanks to the clues scattered through the whole story. Something I really loved about Mariah is that, in despite of her situation and the many limitations forced upon women at the time, considering them inferior to men in all aspects, she chose to make her life count and put her talent as a writer to good use. True, she did it for the money she needed to afford the gatehouse she lived in, but still, she didn’t back up, and continued to write her stories, sure of her talent and the knowledge that her books were good enough to be published. 

On the other hand, we find our hero, Captain Matthew Bryant. He’s a naval officer, and comes from a very strict family who never truly appreciated him for what he is, in despite of his efforts to please them, and his many virtues. There’s no way I could not love him! He’s desperately trying to win over a woman who rejected him years ago, the blonde, beautiful Isabella Forsythe, who is engaged to another man, a fact that he doesn’t care about. He’s sure that, by renting Windrush Court, and inviting her to a house party, along with other guests, he will make her change her mind, and thus, break her engagement to marry him instead. He put all of his efforts to win Isabella, no matter what, and although she wasn’t the woman for him, that nerve and determination are certainly admirable. But he found Mariah before making his plans a reality. They met in the middle of a storm, both real and metaphorical, as they were both weathering a gale of their own by the time he knocked on her door, Mariah struggling with her scandal, her new life, her writing, and her longing for her family and the man she loved; and Matthew, trying to make his life count after years at sea, fighting both in the Napoleonic wars and the home front, dealing with his sister’s past scandal, and his parents, that always focused on everything he wasn’t, clearly stating that they preferred his late brother over him. They didn’t have it exactly easy, but they still knew what they wanted, and went for it. 

Their love story was utterly beautiful, and it had me rooting for them from page one. With every word and encounter, with that soft, unexpected first kiss, and all those almost-kisses, I just saw how they simply had to be together. Both Mariah and Matthew are deeply built characters, and their love goes beyond mere romance. I especially loved that emotionally raw, open moment they shared that night in the gatehouse, only the two them, deprived of sleep, and although it was short, it was a beautiful instant of shared trust, where I could see how much they came to be friends and rely on one another, in despite of all their flaws. Mariah certainly made a terrible mistake when she gave herself to an engaged man she was deeply in love with, later being both discovered in bed together, and she felt devastated when she found out that it didn’t have the same meaning for her than it did for him, because he had the chance to go back for her and propose to make things right, after Isabella Forsythe called off their engagement, but he didn’t, and she was the one paying the steepest of prices, bearing all the weight of society’s condemnation. I liked the fact that James Crawford, in the end, had a chance to acknowledge his guilt, and told everyone what he did, why he did it, and his true feelings about Mariah, stating that he would have chosen the honorable path if his life wasn’t manipulated by his father. But still, in my opinion, that was weakness, because, with enough determination, he could have broken free of that iron fist and made the decision to marry Mariah, facing the consequences that it would bring, if he had seen her worth. But he chose not to; he had the opportunity, and didn’t take it.

I guess that the main moral of this story is something we all need to remember, all the time, because we face it every single day, and that is that our mistakes do not define who we are. God took care of that when His Son shed His blood in that cross, only for love. Mariah got to be an accomplished author, and started writing her own dire past in a novel she titled The Tale of Lydia Sorrow –from which we can learn what really happened that fateful night–, but that book never got to a conclusion, because, although there were consequences to what she did, she decided not to focus on narrating how terrible the price she had to pay was, choosing to burn the pages and leave the past behind. In the end, she was the heroine of her own story because of the decisions she made, and funnily enough, stories are one of the things that unite her and Matthew (that letter of his, at the end, was the sweetest thing). Matthew found out about her scandal, and although he was angry at first, later he understood that Mariah was more than her past, and that she was worthy of being loved, of a second chance. Unlike his first love, she wasn’t fickle and changing like the tide. They were alike because they both had different goals when they met, but upon getting to know each other better, they knew which of them were worthy, and which weren’t. Mariah grew stronger from her experience, in despite of the many tears she shed, and although both of them lived under the pressure of pleasing everyone else, they made the very important decision to stop trying to get the world’s approval, and for once, do what was good for them, attending to their very neglected happiness. 

I wish I could do justice to all of the amazing little details in this novel, and of course, the other but equally important love stories, like Dixon and Martin’s (and Maggie, obviously), Lizzy and Hart’s, and of course, Captain Prince and Amy Merryweather’s. All of them speak of a love that chose to go beyond mistakes and flaws, and the shallow opinion of society, and they warmed my heart, making me root for all of them, wishing for them to find their happiness. Captain Prince’s story is fascinating, and although for a moment I considered it a little unnecessary for the main plot, I was soon engrossed by his life and all those things he did, after he chose not to please convention and society rules, and live by his own decisions, that I couldn’t stop reading. The only thing I wish I could have read is William Hart fighting to rescue Lizzy Barnes from her horrible life at the poorhouse, and although their story is not the main focus of the novel, I would have liked to read a little more development in both of their characters, see them fighting for their love. After all, they had their share of bitterness, but their love took them by surprise and lead to a happy ending.

I say this in all my reviews on books by Julie Klassen, and I’ll say it again. She’s a brilliantly committed author who truly cares about historical accuracy, and makes the effort of sitting there and do her research, when so many others don’t, and it is noticeable in their novels. It’s a pleasure to read a well-constructed book, with a solid foundation. She creates deep, passionate characters, blended with a unique, elegant writing style, and knows how to add the dashes of mystery right when they are needed to keep you turning the pages. She’s probably one of the most talented authors I’ve ever read, and all of her books are a treasure chest I’m always delighted to open. This book is a proof of it, because, how are we so sure that, in Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram didn’t regret what she did, didn’t become a better person after ending up in exile, with only her memories and the reminder of her mistakes for company? How do we know that she wasn’t worthy of being loved, only because social pressure and convention dictated she wasn’t? Didn’t she have the right to a second chance, to truly, deeply fall in love after what happened? Did her mistake and the price she paid made her stronger, or utterly destroyed her? I know that Mariah Aubrey isn’t Maria Bertram, but even so, I chose to believe the first. In Mansfield Park, she was a hateable character, with her spoiled upbringing, her well-trained vanity and the constant praises towards her beauty, her remarkable but dull engagement, and her rivalry with her sister, not only over Henry Crawford, but over every other aspect in life in which they were required to excel. Her future, after the ending of the novel, is a big question mark that Julie Klassen chose to fill with her own tale of redemption, humanizing her, and going to the roots of her scandal. And it is brilliantly done.

Needless to say, I’m going to read each and every one of Julie Klassen’s books, and I hope all of them are as good or better than this one! 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Review - Eve: The Awakening

Original Title: Eve: The Awakening
Series: Eve, #1
Author: Jenna Moreci
Published: August 12th, 2015

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
*THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

I’ve been following Jenna Moreci’s vlog for a while, and every time she mentioned her book, I grew curiouser and curiouser about it, but I just couldn’t get a copy to finally read it, until now. It is my first SciFi novel ever, so I wasn’t sure about what to expect, but I’m definitely impressed. It was amazing! Really good for a first novel! Jenna Moreci is a gifted writer, I will definitely read more by her, and I can’t wait for her second book, The Savior’s Champion, that won’t be a part of the Eve series, but a fantasy romance novel.

I’m a huge fan of Jenna Moreci’s vlog, her videos are funny, witty, and brutally honest about what it means to be a writer. I’m not really sure for how long I’ve been watching them, but I like to replay them almost every day, especially when I’m feeling sad or somewhat sick of the world out there. So, this review will mix both my appreciation as a reader and an aspiring writer, based on my experience as both, and some things I saw on Jenna’s vlog. This is especially important (at least for me) because we rarely ever get to know more about the authors than their books and how they worked on them. But here, it’s different. Jenna shares her personal writing experience, her techniques, and her way to see some parts of the whole process, and gives us tips to improve ourselves, and also to get back to earth, not only in how to write certain parts of our novels, but also to forget a little about that perfect fantasy in which you are already a published and successful writer with tons of books and fans, bringing us to reality with brutal honesty, and telling us how being a writer isn’t just about writing, but also marketing, editing, and, let’s be honest, not getting very well paid (which may be not what we want to hear, but we need to). She’s unapologetically herself, and she reflects that in her writing. And in my opinion, a person who isn’t afraid about being herself at all times, and doing what she really wants to, loyal to her own dreams, and in love with her profession, it’s someone worthy of imitation.

But back to Eve! Every character is unique on its own, each one with special talents and personalities, layers and complex lives. I really liked the protagonist, Evelyn Kingston, and one of the best parts was that I could see many things of me on her. Creating a relatable character is key to feel it as a real person, and Eve falls on that place. She has both virtues and flaws, habits that come to the surface when she’s nervous (we all can think a bunch of them of our own, right?), like picking up her cuticles, and she isn’t a dazzling beauty, she’s just your average girl, with brown eyes and hair, and I could mostly relate to her because of the bullying she suffered through her entire life. Obviously, my case wasn’t like Eve’s, and although I was never physically bullied, it did happen on a daily basis, and verbal bullying is equally bad, it should never, ever be dismissed. But that’s another day’s topic. My point is that Eve is a very strong character. She is the only girl taking combat classes, and although she’s often verbally abused by her classmates for the sole fact of being a girl in an entire male class, she knows how to demand respect, and instead of suffering in silence, she kicks her bullies in the ass and leaves them bleeding and hurting. She’s a no-nonsense person. She demands respect, and has no qualms about demanding the answers and explanations she needs, no matter the station of the person she’s dealing with. She can both beat Chin Dimple up in combat class (loved that part), and yell to Billington’s dean in the face, completely unafraid of him. I love her for that. It’s really fun to see her giving the people who are mean to her what they deserve. She’s been through a lot of horrible things, and she won’t take more of that if she can help it. 

As for her nature as a chimera, I’ve seen other reviews referring to Eve being the world’s most powerful chimera as a cliché, but I don’t see it that way. In my opinion, this is well done. I mean, in a world of evolved humans with special abilities, I would definitely want to know the story around the most powerful of them all, especially considering how regular people despise them. I just hope that in future books we get some kind of explanation around the reason of this evolution of humans into some sort of super-humans (humanovus). Are they evolved so they can fight interlopers, as some sort of natural adaptation to the new threat? That’s only one of my questions. An especially good bonus point is that Eve already knows her powers and instead of reading about her discovering them and learning how to control them, we get to see her in full control of them, and how she teaches someone else to do it (even when nobody taught her, she learned on her own). However, there’s something I don’t fully understand. I can see why people hated and bullied Eve, she has a history around the accident in which her parents died, and she couldn’t control her powers, killing the man who crashed his truck on their car. But I don’t fully understand why people hate chimeras so much. It’s not their fault to have been born like that, but still, I think that, in any case, chimeras should be the ones hating humans, because they are the evolved ones, and hence, superior to them.

As I said, there’s an entire cast of characters that made me laugh and gasp out loud. The sarcastic hacker, JJ, is really interesting, key to the success of their quest, and I definitely want to know more about her backstory, so I hope there’s more about her in future books. Sancho is also really witty, funny, and with a bit of a mad scientist, obsessed with weapons and blowing up things; he says balls every time something goes wrong, it’s hilarious! And he’s loyal to death, he didn’t doubt it when he had to stay back to give their friends the opportunity to escape, and I really feared for his life. I literally left out a sigh of relief when I found out he was alive. And of course, Percy, my dear Percy LaFleur! I utterly loved him! It’s the first time I read an openly gay character, as in other books, they are always secretive about it, but this one is just frank, and amazingly captivating. Rich, eccentric, and proud of it, he’s as capable of shooting an alien in the face as to take you in a one-day trip to New York in his private jet. He’s also a loyal friend, and his date with Madison is the funniest scene of his, and probably in the whole book. Oh, the lengths you go to help your friends, and also thwart an evil menace of winged aliens!

The fight scenes are AWESOME! I don’t know how to describe them, you need to read the book to understand what I mean, but I can tell you feel every punch, every shot, every gasp and scream! And the interlopers’ buildup and anatomy is brilliantly written. I could totally visualize in my head how their fangs protruded from their jaws, protecting their life source, and their overall scary aspect. The whole plot around the beacon, the torq, and the second skin… Pfff! AMAZING!! The final battle, in the interlopers’ lair, is everything you can imagine, and obviously, it is greatly written, with the exact amount of dialogue and action required for it to be fast-paced and climatic, keeping you at the edge of your seat. I won’t say anything more, you need to read it to understand how much. I would like to cover all the details, but I can’t. I just would like to mention the scene at the Meltdown, the chimera club. It bothers me when people in books do not connect the dots, I mean, you found out that interlopers are disguised as humans, hunting for chimeras and dissecting them, but you don’t think that it may be some of them in a place literally full of chimeras, openly displaying their abilities? But again, only Eve and her friends know about it, so I’ll let it sly.

On the other hand, we have the villains of the story, aside from Fairon and the interlopers. They are amazingly well written, as I truly got to hate them all, especially Madison Palmer. She’s a rich, spoiled, child-like bully, who has her life mapped out in front of her, which includes marrying an equally rich guy from her list of possible suitors. I didn’t fully like the words she uses, like barftastic and suckgasmic, but again, she’s the only one who uses them, so they are a reflection of her character. And she’s relatable, in the way that we all know at least three or four Madison Palmers in our daily lives (at least, I do). As for her condition… Yeah, big surprise. Well done, Jenna! Only one thing about her: when Eve found the ashes on Madison’s bed, it was a bit too obvious. I mean, you scribble DIE CHIME in the walls of an entire classroom, but you don’t want to give yourself away, so you spread the ashes in your bed? Right. It was clear that it wasn’t Madison’s doing, because she wouldn’t give herself away that easily. She’s not very clever, but she’s definitely smarter than that.

Heather McLeod is a whole case in herself. She’s also evil, but her malice is cold, and calculated. She’s more machine-like, she goes for her own interests, and I can’t wait for a scene in which Eve gets to kick her ass as she deserves. She’s smart, and scary, and knows when to act, especially if there’s an open wound, and she just has to dig a little deeper to cause more pain, on her favor, obviously. The thing is that, as I read about her and saw how hateable she was, I admit that I considered the possibility that she was an interloper, but then I realized that it was a misleading clue. Again, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t buy it for a big part of the book, but after a few chapters I just knew I should be looking elsewhere, she was the ideal interloper in disguise, so I turned my eyes towards those who seemed too nice, like Professor Clarke, who publicly defended Eve after her humiliation, because, who would do that for a chimera if there’s not a hidden purpose behind it?

As for Hayden, I suspected something wrong with her, simply because she followed Madison around like a lapdog, doing exactly what she was told, and then, she ended up under Heather’s thumb. I found myself thinking, “no, she’s not worth a thing, it can’t be her”, and then, for that very thing, I realized that it was exactly the wrong thing to think; the lapdog would show her fangs at some moment.

And we get to my favorite part! The love story! The bonus point is that there’s no love triangle. Of course, Jenna says that they are the dumbest thing ever, and I agree, so I was sure (and grateful) she wouldn’t write any of that in her novel. Eve and Jason’s story is truly beautiful and it had me rooting for them the entire book. They fall in love with one another through their tutoring sessions, when Jason’s power as a chimera awakens, after having been kidnapped and dissected by interlopers. It may have happened somewhat quickly, but it’s ok. I liked it, anyway, and a lot! Eve has a really hard time letting people in, she’s been bullied and abused her entire life, and being with Jason, she discovers she doesn’t have to pretend to be anything she isn’t. She understands that he wouldn’t hurt her, and finds someone who cares for her and wants to be with her exactly for who she is. She doesn’t make a single effort for him to like her, she just does what she has to, and there’s a no-pretending relationship between them. She never puts up masks when he’s there, she’s purely herself, and they get to know one another at their worst, openly expressing their feelings and opinions. Virtues, flaws, and fears, Jason truly wants everything she is and loves her exactly for those things the world hates her for. He understands that she’s someone not to mess with, and she doesn’t treat him like a weak, sick person, but goes straightforward and tells him all the truths about his nature as a chimera. She opens him to this new world in which he definitely will suffer, as he struggles to dominate his powers, and there’s also a public image to maintain, as his father is a very powerful politician, and considers his name and family tainted by his own son’s nature. But Eve becomes his strength, his reason to fight, the fuel to his fire. One insult towards her is enough for him to go full chimera. His scene beating Chin Dimple up was theproof of his love, because it was the ultimate trigger he needed to unleash his gift towards him and punish him. Needless to say, it was a great scene. And their first kiss! I read it few times and I love how they don’t fight against their feelings once they acknowledge them, knowing that they both want this… I eagerly wait for more scenes with Eve and Jason together, I loved them with all my heart! 

In her vlog, Jenna says that dialogue is a strong point of hers, and that is clearly visible. Most dialogues are written with little or no narrative, and it flows, reflecting the character’s emotions through it. They are strong, and you can practically imagine the characters’ voices in your head, whatever they are saying. And although she says she hates setting the scene and most forms of narrative, she's still good at them! But there’s one thing I especially want to mention, that happens right at the start of the novel. Jenna tells us all we need to know about chimeras right from the get go. She throws all the information we need to understand Eve’s nature, and that isn’t something I fully criticize –everyone has their own style–, but still, I would have done things a bit differently. As an aspiring writer, I’ve been writing since I was ten years old, and I’ve developed my own personal style. I believe that, if you have created an entire race of beings, or in this case, a group of evolved humans, and know everything about them, you shouldn’t give away every single piece of information at the first possible opportunity. You shouldn’t use all your bullets in one shooting, because, that way, you can create surprises and plot twists to use in the future, that will help you surprise your readers, and engross them even more into the story. As the author, you should know way more than you give away, and keeping things to yourself can help you create new powers and abilities that will help in the deepening of this characters’ nature. But that’s just my opinion. 

Another thing I noticed, that it is also mentioned in the vlog, is the very strict outlining. I never truly outlined, I made plans for my stories, but I never strictly followed a previously structured plotline. In my personal opinion, writing should be a mix between outlining, and letting the story flow. I know that just letting it flow on its own can cause plot holes, and other nasty things, but a really structured outline from which I cannot look away…? It’s not for me (at least for now, that may change someday, who knows?). Part of the beauty in writing is to see the character take a shape that perhaps wasn’t what you planned. In short, you should have a plan, but also cut yourself some slack, and at some parts, let your characters tell you some of their story. But that’s just my humble opinion.

Finally, not much left to say (like I haven’t said enough already), except, read this book! And take a look at Jenna's vlog –especially if you are an aspiring writer–, here. If you love SciFi, it is for you! Perhaps I should warn you that it contains a lot of swearing, lots of blood and violence, and some mature content, that I wasn’t completely happy to read, but still, it’s an utterly good book, and you should give it a try! I will, for sure, read the next installments of the series!