Category Archives: Romance

Unforgiven by Lauren Kate

When I finished the four main books of Lauren Kate’s Fallen series, I said that while I liked the main books, I wouldn’t read any of the spin-off books like Fallen in Love… And then came Unforgiven, billed as book five of the series.

Though it’s listed as a core book in the series, Unforgiven deviates from the main Daniel/Lucinda story to follow Cam, the bad boy angel, as he finds a hope of redemption from Daniel and Lucinda’s happy ending and begins to wonder what happened to Lilith, the woman he jilted because he couldn’t marry in a church.

Maybe I’m getting a bit old for these books, but I was distinctly underwhelmed by Unforgiven. Making a deal with the devil to rescue your lost love from her very own personalised hell sounds like an idea with huge potential, but in reality, it is executed like the plot of a D-list teen movie. While Lilith is an interesting enough construction, Cam’s character- one of the more stand out features of the first four Fallen books- is wiped away almost entirely as he becomes a wet-blanket, Daniel mark two. Much of the original information about Cam and Lilith’s story from the earlier novels is rewritten to fit the needs of this novel, but this then renders the information in the earlier books (remember Lilith, Luce’s nemesis at the school for Nephilim?) meaningless. In the effort to create a middling love story, the contest for Lilith’s soul seems to get lost among the Battle of the Bands plot, and this is only made worse when Roland and Arianne show up in an attempt to link the novel in more closely with the rest of the series.

It seems to me that any book which sees the main protagonist go up against the devil needs to see one hell of a protagonist, and the devil should be the ultimate big bad. In Unforgiven, Lucifer is no more menacing than your average school bully and a great deal less imaginative. If your biggest problem when dealing with the devil is that he’s made you put on weight and your hair thin prematurely, then you’re getting off pretty lightly.

Cam should probably be glad that he wasn’t locked in a room and forced to read Fallen and Unforgiven fanfiction for all eternity…

 

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

When Holly Ansell is woken in the early hours of the morning by a phone call telling her that her older brother Ben has gone missing, her only clues to his disappearance are the diary of a nineteenth century courtesan and a mirror reputed to be a lost treasure from the court of the Winter Queen. As Holly clings these clues, she doesn’t realise that her quest to solve the mystery of his disappearance will draw her into a four hundred year old love story involving the Winter Queen, ghosts and a cursed pearl…

Fusing thriller and romance, Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows is rooted in the historical romance of the Winter Queen and William Craven, but draws in elements of fantasy, evolving to create an alternate history centred on Ashdown Park in which refrains of the original love story echo down through history in a narrative split between the court of the Winter Queen in the seventeenth century, and Ashdown Park in the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

One of the things that I most enjoy about historical fiction is learning about the lives of historical figures, and in this respect the book doesn’t disappoint. Although aspects of the novel are fantastical, the historical details about Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen are factual, and the novel serves to illustrate the profoundly interesting and important life this relatively overlooked Queen had. (For example,even though like most British students, I had studied the gunpowder plot at school, I hadn’t realised that the plotters were ultimately aiming to place Elizabeth on the throne as a puppet queen. I was very drawn to this section of the narrative, and I think it’s a testament to the strength of the novel that Cornick manages the transition between the time periods successfully without losing the reader’s interest.

In many ways, the star of the novel is the location. Some readers may find the author’s decision to create an alternate history for Ashdown Park or Ashdown House problematic, given that the novel is to some extent a historical fiction, but provided you aren’t familiar with the house itself I don’t think that it is problematic to suspend your disbelief, especially given that the novel features a magic mirror!

As a fusion of genres, the novel is a little bit more Philippa Gregory than Dan Brown, in that the emphasis is strongly on the romance and less so on the thriller, but it’s definitely an enjoyable read and I am already planning a trip to Ashdown House to check out the setting- even if the lavender garden doesn’t exist as described in the book.

A New York Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

a new york winters tale colin farrell jessica brown findlayIf you’d told me that I would consider not buying a book because it had Colin Farrell on the cover when I was thirteen, I would have told you that you were mad. Ballykissangel, Falling for a Dancer… I was young, leave me alone.

Anyway, it did nearly put me off buying a copy of A New York Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin which had been released with the poster from the new film, starring the aforementioned Colin Farrell (I’m over it) and Jessica Brown Findlay, but I was intrigued by the blurb which promised:

 

One night in New York, a city under siege by snow, Peter Lake attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it is empty, the daughter of the house is home . . . Thus begins the affair between this Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead; A New York Winter’s Tale is the story of that extraordinary journey.

Who doesn’t like a love that defies death? But despite the blurb, that’s not really what you get. It’s more than that, and less than that. It builds to the point where you’re invested in the lovers, then spits them aside and moves on with the story. A bit like life I suppose.

Helprin is a fantastic writer and has created a vast and imaginative magic realist epic. The book is original, the writing nuanced and many of the minor character are more clearly realised than the main characters in the majority of the bestsellers you will find in bookshops. The problem for me that it slipped around between genres in a way that didn’t add to the story but detracted from it. Audrey Niffenegger showed us that you could have a masterful time-travelling love story, I don’t see a reason why you couldn’t have a time-travelling love story which leads to a quest, but for a reader to engage with a quest story they need to understand what the characters involved are hoping for, what they want or need to achieve. I loved the first three-quarters of this book, but it lost me towards the end as the characters began to run around in a desperate attempt to do something fuelled by a secret knowledge that the reader just didn’t share.

It’s a magical read for the most part, but the plotting towards the end was more than a little lacklustre.

 

My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin (not Robert Browning…)

In Daisy Goodwin’s My Last Duchess, the hopelessly naïve, not especially bright but incredibly rich  and aptly named Cora Cash comes across the pond to England to hunt down a titled husband at her mother’s bidding, even though she half thinks she might be in love with Teddy van der Leyden, the New World’s most eligible bachelor. She meets and falls for her Duke with alarming rapidity, and much of the rest of the novel is spent trying to wedge in references to the Browning poem (numerous chapter titles are direct quotations) while still come out with a happy ending.

As a historical romance, My Last Duchess does its job. The Duke is a suitably Romantic hero, brooding and unpredictable, but for me, there wasn’t enough to convince me that he was in love with Cora or she in love with him. I might have been convinced by a spoilt American heiress’ struggle to fit in with the English aristocracy, but I didn’t buy in to the whole Malteavers/Beauchamp love affair and felt that the novel, especially the storyline surrounding the most interesting character, Bertha, were insufficiently resolved. Having said that, it was an enjoyable enough read for a Sunday afternoon, even if I did hope that Cora might eventually show a little of the spark that the other characters credited her with.

An enjoyable, if not blisteringly good, piece of genre fiction. Just a pity it had to force a comparison with Browning’s ingenious poem.

The Princess Bride

“He held up a book then. “I’m going to read it to you for relax.”
“Does it have any sports in it?”
“Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True Love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest Ladies. Snakes. Spiders… Pain. Death. Brave men. Cowardly men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”
“Sounds okay,” I said and I kind of closed my eyes.”

The Princess Bride

 Call me a philistine if you will (and you may want to after this confession) but last week was my first true encounter with The Princess Bride. Don’t get me wrong, I’d heard of The Princess Bride– there are even Dread Pirates in The Sims for goodness sakes- I’d just never watched the film or read the book. Didn’t even know that there was a book. So when I came across the book in Waterstones I grabbed a copy (then paid for it) to read on the plane to New York.

Moving from The Mortal Instruments series to The Princess Bride, what first struck me was the coincidence that both books used the name S.Morgenstern. Then what struck me was that I wasn’t sure where the book started. I spent quite a while flicking through to see if the preface was full of spoilers or meant to be read. I couldn’t fully decide, it was crazy- was I reading a narrative frame or is this a genuine abridgement? Is this man seriously writing about his wife and son like this? Did his marriage end as a result? Absolutely bonkers. I loved it. Totally madcap.

Technically speaking it’s one of the worst narratives I’ve ever read, and yet the execution of it makes it the best. I can totally understand why it’s such a cult thing, even if Buttercup is in the most part a total drip. The thing is, while you’re reading it, you know that it’s highly probable that it is just a frame. You know that Guilder isn’t a real country (don’t you?) so you know that it’s really unlikely that he’s being pursued by the estate of Morgenstern. But then the crazy stuff with Stephen King and the adaptation of Buttercup’s Baby gets brought in and it doesn’t convince you but it genuinely does make you doubt what you know, and that’s where the genius of the book lies. The elements of “real world” coupled with the derision of the academics and an irreverent manuscript style trick you into suspending your disbelief in a way that some of the most highly respected fiction fails to.

Or maybe I’m just hopelessly naïve. Maybe it was a trick of the jetlag. But I like the idea that this book has made me less cynical. I’m ordering the DVD to watch while I’m in hospital next week.

Happily Ever After by Harriet Evans

happily-ever-afterIf you had to list all the conventions of dodgy “chick lit”, what would be the first things that spring to mind? A heroine an ugly duckling heroine who works in publishing/media/journalism and meets one or more wrong men before blossoming into a swan? A contemporary city setting, possibly London or New York? An irritating friend whose heart is in the right place? A cool friend who acts in underhanded ways?

When I started reading Happily Ever After by Harriet Evans, it seemed to check off all the conventions of bad “Chick Lit” and really annoyed me. I’ve read so many books which make careers in publishing, sound glamorous and easy that when this book started to do the same I was almost ready to throttle the main character Eleanor Bee. As I read on though, I realised that the author was hitting the chick lit check boxes in such a self-deprecating and clever way that I began to enjoy it. I enjoyed it even more when the slightly gauche Elle grows up and learns a few tough lessons about how life and love (and publishing) work along the way.

It starts with a quotation from Northanger Abbey, “She read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.” Rarely have I seen such an appropriate epigraph. I think Jane Austen would approve- Elle B is something of a modern-day Catherine Morland albeit a lot less irritating. She moves credibly from hopeless naivety and weakness to gradually become a stronger, enjoyable heroine.

The beauty of contemporary women’s fiction is that when it is well executed it tackles some really dark themes with warmth and compassion. Elle B has to face some demons and Happily Ever After sits up there with some of the best that I’ve read in this sense. It does obey some of the conventions that you might expect of “Chick Lit” very closely (a fifth of the way through the book I told my editorial assistant that I could guess who the main character would end up with and I was right) but gosh does the author make you work for the ending you expect and hope for. At times I was worried that it wouldn’t all turn out as I’d hoped. But then when an author makes such arch comments about the wonder that is Bridget Jones, the publishing industry and the incestuous world of book people (there’s a lot of office hook ups in this book but I mean incestuous in a hyperbolic, small-world sense and do not mean to suggest that book people interbreed or liaise with their colleagues), you have to expect that there will be some clever tricks along the way.

If you are looking for an enjoyable read which is light but not excessively so then I would definitely recommend this book. At times it is moving, at others it is “snort tea through your nose” funny. It would make a perfect holiday read and I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact, I’ll leave you a quote from Eleanor B which in many ways sums up my thoughts on holiday reading:

“If I work hard all year and have two weeks’ holiday in Greece I don’t want some pale, worthy, boring book about middle-class people in London sitting round debating their stupid, self-satisfied lives. Sometimes I want a private jet and a hooker drinking champagne.”

Happily Ever After by Harriet Evans

The Song of Achilles- Madeline Miller

I’ve always been a fan of classical mythology, though this tends to manifest itself through adaptations because having tried reading translations of The Iliad and They Odyssey, I found them a little dull… I would never cut it as a classicist.

I was quick to buy The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, but delayed reading it because a friend whose opinion I trust made the book sound like Fifty Shades of Troy, all action (if you know what I mean) and no plot. This time they were off the mark.

The Song of Achilles is primarily a love story, yes, but I thought that any sexual allusions were actually pretty tame and completely sympathetic to the story. Miller’s prose is clear and controlled, and the use of Patroclus’ narrative is a masterstroke in characterisation, allowing the reader to grow close to the apparently unremarkable Patroclus who earns the love of a flawed demigod and the wrath of his ambitious mother. As our affection for Patroclus grows, we see each character through his eyes, and share his discomfort as he witnesses the man he loves distorted by his quest for heroism and recognition. As the novel draws towards its inevitable conclusion, the reader is pulled along, unable to resist, wondering which will triumph? Destiny, glory, love?

It comes as no surprise to me that this novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction, it is a stunning debut novel and, for me, a far more accomplished adaptation that the likes of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.

I highly recommend it.

Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend- Sarra Manning

I was feeling pretty down towards the end of this week, so looking for a light, easy read to cheer me up, I picked up Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend by Sarah Manning.

I know that Chick Lit is a pretty controversial term these days- for me it’s less a term denoting fiction written by women as fiction written by former women’s interest magazine editors who’ve put Cosmopolitan in a food processor and baked the pulp into a novel… But controversy aside, this book sits smack bang in the middle of the Chick Lit genre. Hope is a twenty-six year old teacher, who thinks that life is going pretty well and that her biggest worry is throwing a decent dinner party, until she finds her boyfriend of thirteen years kissing her best friend and has to decide what to do…

The book in itself was okay, if you like lukewarm characters who can’t make their minds up, but really not my cup of tea.The on again, off again relationship was irritating, scenes repeating over and over again. It wouldn’t normally be a book I’d bother writing a blog entry about, but I think it deserves some kind of award for the most misleading blurb and book title ever. I still can see where the title came from but it doesn’t reflect the contents of the book, and the teaser “Does true love forgive and forget? Or does it get mad… and get even?” is completely misleading. I thought there’d be a pleasantly twisted tale of revenge. But really? There was no revenge whatsoever and most of the novel consisted of the heroine busying herself with forgiving and forgetting.

If the contents had matched the title and teaser, this might have been an interesting book, but they didn’t and it wasn’t.

The Last Time They Met- Anita Shreve

These beauteous forms,

Through a long absence, have not been to me

As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind,

With tranquil restoration- Tintern Abbey- Wordsworth

When Linda Fallon and Thomas Janes meet at a conference reception in Toronto, it is the first time they have seen each other in twenty-six years and each has been marked by age and personal tragedy. The novel moves backwards in time, starting at the age of fifty-two to follow the lovers through time and across continents, exploring the passion that pulls them together and the circumstances that have forced them apart.

While I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve spotted that I quite like a nice, twisted love story in which the characters get their feelings trampled but still love one another to the point of self-destruction… often because of their own character flaws. Regardless of what that says about me, Shreve does not disappoint on this score. Linda is reticent, filled with catholic guilt and a sense of being unworthy. Thomas is simultaneously direct and evasive, wanting beauty where in reality there can only be suffering.

The reverse chronological order is interesting – almost an inverse of The Prelude by Wordsworth to which Thomas refers as a teen, and which Wordsworth intended almost to track his own poetic development- an important theme in this novel. I would imagine challenging for the writer to create this type of chronology effectively with decisions of what to reveal and what to conceal in order for the story to compel while still having impact when you reach the early life of the characters. Following the characters from middle age, to their years as young adults, to their teenage years, Shreve has managed this literary peep show with aplomb. Despite thinking I knew how the novel would end, I was left shaking and this was not just the fever I find myself confined to bed with. It takes a certain cunning to work a shock ending that quickly and effectively (though if you will analyse in depth it doesn’t always add up and some of the dialogue is… interesting), and Shreve evidently has bags of talent.

*Spoilers ahead*

I’m clearly not the only person to think this. I recognised the name of Linda Fallon the character as that of a romance author I’d spotted around and about. A little googling reveals that this is the pseudonym of Linda Winstead Jones, though I can’t pin point a date at which she started using the name, I suspect that the book may have influenced this- a bit of a hero-worship tribute perhaps?

Thomas Janes appears to be a character in Anita Shreve’s later novel The Weight of Water, which links into some of the events described in this book. I’m quite interested to read this and see how they tie in together, and how much of Thomas’ clearly rich internal life is hinted at.

Though the ending was a shock, and I really liked it, mulling back over the novel I have been considering how it affects my sympathies to the character of Thomas.

When you learn that Linda died in the car crash, and that the flash forward of her life may be what we have been reading, the possibility arrives that we could also interpret the narrative as Thomas’ “enduring struggle to capture in words the infinite possibilities of a life not lived.” Indeed this is strongly hinted at in the last paragraph which talks about a love which exists only in his imagination. Why then, include so much guilt and trauma in Linda’s share of the story? Is this because of the events in her past which associate her with Mary Magdalene in his mind and tinge her with guilt, however undeserved? Or is it a narcissism (suggested by the fact that no version of Linda’s future seems to move on from him) which makes him unwilling to be culpable for his inability to commit to and love his future wives, casting himself in the role of faithful lover by remaining true to the girl he lost at such a young age?

It was something which interested me, especially with the references to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and Keats’ poetry in general which are filled with discussions about the importance of memory and the power of imagination. And maybe all lovers are narcissists- surely you have to be to idealise your love as separate from the other vast swathes of human emotion?

Fallen and Torment- Lauren Kate


My older sister bought me Fallen and Torment by Lauren Kate for my birthday back in December, and though I’d like to think that I’m generally not very snooty about which books I will or won’t read I have to admit that I was wary- like much of the world I have been suffering Twilight Sickness, and these books are in a similar vein.

In Fallen, Lucinda Price is sentenced to time at a school for young offenders having been implicated in a terrible accident. Her strange testimony about shadows gathering has everyone thinking that she’s crazy, or worse, has something to hide. Once there she finds herself torn between two handsome men (as all good heroines in teen romance books seem to do…) the dark and edgy but considerate Cam, and the aloof and somewhat unfriendly Daniel. Now, to most women that would seem like an obvious choice, but Luce has a feeling that she has known Daniel for a very, very long time. Torment is the sequel to this story, in what will be a four part deal.


So, the comparisons to the Twilight books are inevitable. Intelligent young heroine is placed in an unfamiliar environment and relies upon the charms of two supernatural (oh come on, you saw it coming) young men to help get her through. We also have the Twilight love triangle going on, and the character of Daniel is a lot like the character of Edward (an annoying, controlling know-it-all). They’ve even pre-empted the Edward Cullen effect by having some blonde weightlifter pose for promotional material, which I found quite funny. The young man was more a pretty teen than eternally beautiful angel, but I suppose you have to work with what’s available.

Despite this, I think that the Fallen books are infinitely superior. Luce is a lot less annoying than Bella, challenging Daniel’s decision to establish himself in the role of authority figure instead of playing the insipid little wife. I also like the way that the author has made the lines between good and evil a lot more blurred than they are in Twilight making elements of the books less predictable than they might otherwise have been.

Having said that, I suspect that parts of the books might just be a little predictable. And I can’t wait to read the next book to find out how the author will unfurl the story to prove me right!

Oh, and in case you wondered? I’m team Cam. I’m starting that bandwagon rolling.