Kim’s Review of Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

bigcoA few years ago I read a novel entitled The Replacement Wife. It had a similar premise to this one: a woman with cancer searches for a replacement spouse for her husband. This entire idea intrigues me because I feel like if I were to become terminally ill, my first thought would be for my spouse and his future well-being and happiness. The Replacement Wife turned out to be one of the worst books I’ve ever read, and generally made me nervous to read any novel with a similar plot line in the future. For some reason when I heard about Before I Go by Colleen Oakley something niggled in my brain to give it a chance and I’m so glad that I did. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year to date.

Plot from Goodreads:

A heart-wrenching debut novel in the bestselling tradition of P.S. I Love You about a young woman with breast cancer who undertakes a mission to find a new wife for her husband before she passes away.

Twenty-seven-year-old Daisy already beat breast cancer three years ago. How can this be happening to her again?

On the eve of what was supposed to be a triumphant “Cancerversary” with her husband Jsack to celebrate three years of being cancer-free, Daisy suffers a devastating blow: her doctor tells her that the cancer is back, but this time it’s an aggressive stage four diagnosis. She may have as few as four months left to live. Death is a frightening prospect—but not because she’s afraid for herself. She’s terrified of what will happen to her brilliant but otherwise charmingly helpless husband when she’s no longer there to take care of him. It’s this fear that keeps her up at night, until she stumbles on the solution: she has to find him another wife.

With a singular determination, Daisy scouts local parks and coffee shops and online dating sites looking for Jack’s perfect match. But the further she gets on her quest, the more she questions the sanity of her plan. As the thought of her husband with another woman becomes all too real, Daisy’s forced to decide what’s more important in the short amount of time she has left: her husband’s happiness—or her own?

When starting out reading a book like thisyou have to prepare yourself for the tumultuous ride of emotions you’ll be taken on. Before I Go was one of the most heart-achingly beautiful journeys I’ve ever had the pleasure (and privilege) of reading. In a way the book isn’t about a specific plot, but more about the emotional journeys that the characters take with themselves as well as each other.

Front and center is Daisy. Cancer survivor patient. Wife. Best friend. Worrier. Keeper of socks. She puts forth great effort in making sure her charming husband eats, has clean clothes, and exists socially outside of work. She worries that when her cancer wins he’ll be devastated and defeated. Her single most important job and function becomes finding him a new partner. Little does she realize that undertaking this quest will shake and test the very foundations of her marriage (and also her friendship with BFF Kayleigh). Daisy’s attempts to be stoic, strong, and self-sufficient backfire. Her inability to let Jack see how weak the cancer is making her and how much his comfort would give her strength pushes him away from her. He ultimately stops pushing her, which in turn begins to make her anxious and doubtful that finding him a new wife would solve everything. This back-and-forth emotional tug of war will have you crying, laughing, and learning from beginning to end. And while Daisy eventually figures out that it’s ok to grieve for yourself, it’s not ok to let that grief make the grief of your loved ones any less important.

Through Daisy, Oakley teaches us extremely valuable lessons. Live your life to the fullest. Spend time with the people you love. Do things that make you happy. Life offers us no guarantees. We never know which day will be our last, so live up to the potential every day offers. Oakley’s masterful and emotional storytelling will have you recommending this book to everyone and adding her to your favorite author lists in quick succession.

5 out of 5 Stars

Special thanks to Gallery Books for my review copy via Netgalley!

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley
Gallery Books (2015)
Hardcover: 320 pages
ISBN: 9781476761664

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Kim’s Review of Unmasking Juliet by Teri Wilson

ujtwLast year I read Unleashing Mr. Darcy by Teri Wilson and absolutely loved her modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. It was completely charming  and filled with flirtatious dialogue that hooked me from the beginning. When Wilson announced that she was working on a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet I was nervous and excited! I mean Romeo and Juliet is completely romantic but also totally depressing. I couldn’t wait to see if Wilson could win me over again, so as soon as Unmasking Juliet became available, I started reading.

Plot from Goodreads:

Ever since she was a little girl learning to make decadent truffles in her family’s chocolate shop, Juliet Arabella has been aware of the bitter feud between the Arabellas and the Mezzanottes. With their rival chocolate boutiques on the same street in Napa Valley, these families never mix. Until one night, when Juliet anonymously attends the annual masquerade ball. In a moonlit vineyard, she finds herself falling for a gorgeous stranger, a man who reminds her what passion is like outside of the kitchen. But her bliss is short-lived when she discovers her masked prince is actually Leo Mezzanotte, newly returned from Paris and the heir to her archenemy’s confection dynasty.

With her mind in a whirl, Juliet leaves for Italy to represent the Arabellas in a prestigious chocolate competition. The prize money will help her family’s struggling business, and Juliet figures it’s a perfect opportunity to forget Leo…only to find him already there and gunning for victory. As they compete head-to-head, Leo and Juliet’s fervent attraction boils over. But Juliet’s not sure whether to trust her adversary, or give up on the sweetest love she’s ever tasted…

Unmasking Juliet is, in a word, delightful! Wilson writes such pleasant romances that you can’t help but be warmed by them. I think a crisp fall day, curled on your couch with a soft, cozy blanket is the best way to enjoy her novels. Her ability to creatively turn classic novels into contemporary pieces is astounding. I was wondering how she was going to have two warring families hate each other on the scale that the Capulets and Montagues did, and if she could effectively include a balcony scene! I’m happy to say that Unmasking Juliet is a resounding success.

If any of you out there have read Laura Florand’s Amour et Chocolat series (see reading bff Kelly and my review of book one here) and have enjoyed it, you’ll already know that there is something incredibly sexy about a man who knows what he’s doing with chocolate. And a chocolatier that puts his heart into his product to show his love for a woman….that’s even sexier. Leo is oozing with sex appeal. I loved how Wilson was able to give Leo some of Romeo’s actual lines from Romeo and Juliet and not make them sound cheesy and outdated. Her mixing of the prose was flawless and beautifully crafted.

Next up in Wilson’s re-imagined classics series is a new take on My Fair Lady, entitled Unschooling the Professor, due out in December. You can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be purchasing that book the day it comes out.

Romantic, alluring, beautiful, and creative, Unmasking Juliet is a story that will make you believe in the power of true love.

5 out of 5 Stars

Unmasking Juliet by Teri Wilson
Harlequin (2014)
Paperback: 368 pages
ISBN: 9780373778751

Special thanks to Harlequin for my review copy via Netgalley!

Kim and Sam’s Review of Landline by Rainbow Rowell

lrrSo if you haven’t heard of Rainbow Rowell yet, let staffer Sam and I gush over her for you. She’s an author who writes both Adult and Teen contemporary fiction. She champions the people whose voices aren’t always heard. The voices of the different. The small. The people who sometimes need a push in the right direction. Her stories take you on emotional journeys that irrevocably change you (you can read my gushing reviews of her teen novels Eleanor and Park here and Fangirl here.) Today, Sam and I are discussing her latest adult venture, Landline.

From Goodreads:

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems besides the point now.

Maybe that was always besides the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

Sam: I must start by saying that I have yet to meet a Rainbow Rowell book that I didn’t like (thanks to Kim). That said, there was something about Landline that was EXTRA awesome. What I liked most is that Rowell used her YA formula with a married couple on the brink of big changes and decisions. I found Neal and Georgie more than relatable, they were parts of myself in a way I haven’t seen in a book. Not for a long time at least.

Kim: I think what made this book SO special for us, Sam, is that we’re married, and have been with our partners for several years. So we immediately could relate to the ups and downs of Neal and Georgie’s marriage.

Anyone that’s been in a long-term (read: very long) relationship will tell you that at some point you feel comfortable with your partner. That honeymoon period doesn’t necessarily end, but it evens out. There isn’t a crazy mad dash to spend every second of your day with your other half. You feel comfortable in silences. You can wear your sweats and yoga pants with them. Your love becomes more than that immediate infatuation present with new love. However what keeps a marriage together is making sure that comfort doesn’t become laziness.

For Neal and Georgie their marriage has become a bit TOO comfortable. They don’t talk about their hopes and dreams and wishes anymore. It’s become a focus almost solely on Georgie’s hopes and dreams and wishes. When Neal takes the kids to Nebraska for the holidays and leaves her behind, she is finally faced with what her life would be/could be without them. And when her old landline gives her the opportunity to talk to a young version of Neal, she finds that the person she swore the rest of her life to might be the one with all the answers.

Sam: I think that Young Neal in particular is such an interesting character because to me he represents  a typical 18-year-old faced with the dilemma: “what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” So, here is this kid from Nebraska who sets off for the West Coast to study marine life because he has never seen the ocean. (There is something poetic about going too far away to study something so “romantic.”) Then he hates it. Because at 18 who knows what they want to do? BUT he meets this girl. And maybe he doesn’t know who he wants to be, but he knows who he wants to be with. THEN their relationship gets so comfortable that they marry , have children, and still he’s never figured himself out, so he stays home. He falls into the homemaker role, becomes the center of his kids’ universe, a universe that Georgie admits is hard to be part of. I do appreciate that by the simple fact that Present Neal LOVES his kids, he ends up doing exactly what he wants.

Kim: I totally agree with you! Young Neal puts all his faith for his future into his love for Georgie. It doesn’t matter to him early on that he’s unsure of his future. His future IS Georgie, and that’s enough for him. I can seriously relate to Young Neal because when I met my husband I was just like Young Neal. Sure I had dreams for my future, but everything got completely reworked once he entered the picture.

This is another thing married people would probably agree with us on. As important as your dreams and future hopes are – finding a way for your partner to be part of them will always matter more. In this we see how selfish Georgie is/has become. Present Neal is a homemaker so that Georgie can see her dreams come true. But what dreams does Georgie ever help Present Neal accomplish?

Sam: Yes. I agree, though I think the subtlety is that she never helps him uncover a dream. In many ways he’s still lost because his world is so wrapped up in hers. What’s worse: a dream never accomplished or one never found?

Kim: Damn. Good question.

Sam: Then there’s Georgie. She’s been able to pursue every dream she’s ever had and she’s found success in it. With her best (awful) friend, Seth, they have found success in the TV comedy writing world. What I like about Georgie’s relationship with Seth is that you can tell it’s hard. I liked seeing Georgie struggle with him because it amplified the feeling that her moments on the phone with Young Neal were easy.

Kim: UGH Seth. I have SO many thoughts on him.

Sam: I try not to.

Kim: HAHA! My first thought is, “how blind is Georgie that she can’t see that Seth doesn’t have her best interests at heart?” Like HOW can you consistently call someone your best friend who doesn’t care that your marriage is ending? Like Georgie tells Seth that Neal has gone to Nebraska with their kids and he sees her falling apart a little more each day without them. All Seth cares about is writing their show.

At what point do you ask yourself is my dream worth my best friend’s downfall?

Sam: My blood is boiling just reading that. He’s not a good person and his influence on her is sad. He knows how to manipulate her. The way he speaks to and about her is alarming and the fact that she can’t see it despite the lovely things that Neal says and does and draws is baffling.

Kim: Completely agree. Present (and Young) Neal is a complete foil to Seth. Seth provides Georgie with NOTHING that she needs. Neal, on the other hand, is unconditional in everything he offers her. It’s heartbreaking to see how blind Georgie has become to that.

Sam: My heart hurt when Neal’s late dad picked up the phone that first time. How wonderful to get a moment with someone after you thought there wouldn’t be another. I think it’s amazing that Georgie was the one to hear his voice an extra time because it’s that reminder that sometimes the last time you see someone, or talk to them, or tell them you love them is the last time.

Kim: SUCH A GOOD POINT. Georgie takes her comfortable marriage and her comfortable husband for granted. Something I’m sure we’ve all done to a loved one at some point. Talking to her deceased father-in-law is one of those “come to Jesus” moments that really makes Georgie evaluate her present path.

I also think that seeing her younger sister falling in love for the first time with the pizza delivery person is another “come to Jesus” moment. To realize that love can be fleeting and to grasp it when you’re luckily given the chance to….well it all helps Georgie realize how important and necessary Neal is in her life.

Sam: So the pizza delivery person might be the most badass and swoonworthy character in the book (not counting Neal…of course.) Side note: I LOVE the expression “come to Jesus” and will now use it at least twice this month. Double side note: I would really LOVE to read a whole book about sister and said delivery person…

Kim: LOL to your first side note. And YES YES YES YES to your second.

Dear Rainbow,

Sam and I would REALLY love for you write that story. Like omg please do it.

Love,

Kim & Sam

Sam: *whispers* This is where you have your “come to Jesus” moment.

Kim: In the end what makes this story so amazing is its bottom line: True love always offers you a chance at redemption.

Sam: That and the fact that it is so damn magical. To truly rediscover all of the best parts, maybe long forgotten parts, of your person is such a beautiful idea. After reading Landline my eyes were open once again to the amazing, loving, sweet person that I get to spend every day with. That’s a gift. Thanks for the magic, Rainbow Rowell.

Kim’s Rating: All the stars in the universe for this book.

Sam’s Rating: What Kim said.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Press (2014)
Hardcover: 320 pages
ISBN: 9781250049377

Kim and Kelly’s Dueling Review of Laugh (Burnside #2) by Mary Ann Rivers

lmarIt’s not a surprise that Kelly and I are back, together again, reviewing another Mary Ann Rivers novel. We are both in love with Mary Ann’s characters, stories, and the way there are ALL the feels in her books (you can also read my review of her first novella, The Story Guy, and our review of Heating Up the Holidays.) Kelly and I jumped for joy when Mary Ann announced her Burnside series. We loved the first book in the series, Live, so much that we wrote our review as a love letter to Mary Ann about it. The second book in the series, Laugh, blew us away (as expected). Thus, we are here to fan girl all over it and its main character, Sam.

From Goodreads:

Dr. Sam Burnside is convinced that volunteering at an urban green-space farm in Lakefield, Ohio, is a waste of time—especially with his new health clinic about to open. He only goes to mollify his partner, suspecting she wants him to lighten up. Then Sam catches sight of Nina Paz, a woman who gives off more heat than a scorcher in July. Her easy smile and flirty, sizzling wit has him forgetting his infamous need for control.

Widowed when her husband was killed in Afghanistan, Nina has learned that life exists to take chances. As the daughter of migrant workers turned organic farmers, she’s built an exciting and successful business by valuing new opportunities and working hard to take care of her own. But when Sam pushes for a relationship that goes beyond their hotter-than-fire escapades, Nina ignores her own hard-won wisdom. She isn’t ready for a man who needs saving—even if her heart compels her to take the greatest risk of all: love.

Kim: I need to start off by saying that this book was a balm for my soul. Sam Burnside is in MANY ways an extreme version of myself. We’ve both been diagnosed with ADD and have had it be debilitating for us in some way, shape, or form. We’re both highly obsessed with needing the people around us be happy. This results in us trying to fix all their problems or protect them from hardship. While you may be saying, “Hey! That’s a pretty generous thing to do,” it’s my unfortunate duty to tell you that it often results in animosity from the people we love, much to our chagrin. They perceive us as interfering with their lives. Lives that they need no help with.

I can tell you firsthand it’s really difficult growing up like this. Knowing you’re struggling with concentration issues, hyperactivity (for some ADD people), and a constant sense of letting everyone around you down all the time. It certainly doesn’t help when people tell you that you don’t work hard enough, tell you everything you do is wrong, or tell you that you’re just too _____. A lifetime of feeling this way begins to make you feel less and less adequate of a person until you find people who realize you are filled with an fathomless amount of love.

Kelly: I really wish we’d known each other when we were younger. I would have been OK with a fathomless amount of love. 🙂  [Here’s my own personal rant: I will never understand why people choose to go through life thinking the worst (or, at least, not thinking the best) of the people around them. I don’t understand why it took people so long to figure out that you, Kim, are amazing. And, shifting to the fictional, I don’t understand why Sam’s own family was so perfectly blinded to his sterling qualities. I cannot fathom why anyone would tell him to be anything other than what he is.]

Kim: First, you’re the best. Second, I totally agree with your above statement. Sam is NOT a bad guy. He’s a doctor who wants to open up a clinic in his hometown to help people who are struggling. He wants to help out Nina’s farm and create a lasting partnership for his community. He wants to take care of his sister Sarah, badly injured from her racing accident. He wants to help his sister Des, who is all the way overseas, traveling and falling deeply in love for the first time. His list goes on and on. All he does is care about the people around him, to the detriment of his own self sometimes. His house is an absolute disaster zone, one that reflects how his mind is always jumping to his next task.

Kelly: Laugh is definitely Sam’s book. Sam, through a lifetime of being told what he is, being told that he’s too much this or that and (very much) not enough this or that, is not able to see himself clearly. He believes what he’s been told, and that’s heartbreaking. But let’s think for a second about ourselves: Sam’s not the only one who believes these things that are not true. He’s not the only one who can’t fathom that failure is not (or does not have to be) the motif of his story. We all suffer, to one degree or another, from the terrible messages that surround us, those sent to us by our (if we’re lucky, well-meaning) parents, friends, siblings and those sent by our society and culture. We all see a funhouse-mirror version of ourselves and need to learn how to see the shapes that are really there, learn to love ourselves — our real selves — before we can truly love anyone else. Laugh shows us what that process looks like, and it does it in such a beautiful way. I wish that Nina’s journey towards seeing herself more clearly were given a little more page time, but… I find so much value in Sam’s journey (and Nina’s involvement in it) that I don’t actually care as much about it as my brain tells me I should.

Kim: I agree. As much as I would have liked to see more of Nina’s journey of self-discovery, Sam’s was just perfection. I cared about Nina a lot, especially as she started telling the people around Sam to lighten up on him. Realize that his love for them was endless. Self-less. Pure.

Kelly: Nina’s journey felt very private to me, even though she has more friends and — on the outside, at least — appears that she’s got her shit together. I mean, Sam’s chaos is super obvious. His apartment is a wreck; he’s going through a crisis dealing with the responsibilities associated with opening the clinic; he’s taking extra shifts at the hospital to avoid thinking about it all; he’s not talking to two of his siblings (well, more accurately, they’re not talking to him) and is sending desperate emails to Des; he’s choosing to spend time learning about urban farming to avoid thinking about all the balls in the air that could (and will) come crashing down at any moment. He’s a hot mess. But Nina, who has built a business from the ground up, who has cultivated the earth and the people around her, is just as messed up. She’s an uprooted plant struggling to grow. She’s the other side of Sam’s coin. Where Sam is root bound by his past, Nina is surgically cut off from hers. Where Sam is certain of his ability to love, Nina is certain that she sacrificed her ability to love.

Nina resonated with me… and I know I said before that the story feels like Sam’s story and I almost wish that Nina’s journey had been a little more front and center, but I wonder if Mary Ann Rivers was just giving Nina the space and freedom (and privacy) to live out her grief and learn how to make room for love. Maybe that’s the most generous thing Mary Ann could have done for Nina (and for all of us reading the story) is give us the privacy and respect to let grief fill us up and then let it all flow out. Does that make any damn sense?

Kim:I think you’re absolutely right. Maybe it’s just me, but when I am overwhelmed with grief it all comes out as a huge scream (i.e. pounding on pillows and my bed.) I need to let it all out physically in a cathartic way. I can’t even imagine what Nina would need to do to get all the grief out that she’s felt all those years due to her husband, her dreams, her family, etc. The glimpses of her grief that we’re given are heartbreaking. And as Kelly said above, her inability to see how she can love. How she already does love, but just doesn’t see its value or weight.

I know that those of you reading this review must think this book is such a downer. But it’s really not. It’s beautiful in its honesty. In its realness. It doesn’t even matter if you see yourself as Sam or Nina – there is someone in your life that is like them. Reading this book will have you seeing them in a new light. Maybe realizing you need to be overly compassionate for someone who still grieves, and trying to understand someone like Sam (or me!) that wants the best for you and sometimes may not go about expressing that in the best way. We all have quirks within our personalities that make us puzzles to the people around us. It’s the people like Nina and Sam (and Kelly & I) that work to figure out those puzzles, knowing that once you do the love you’ll receive is boundless.

Kelly: Yes! There are a handful of books that felt very important to me for one reason or another. (I have felt that way about every single piece of writing — novels, novellas, short stories, blog posts, and tweets — I’ve read by Mary Ann, by the way.) I felt that way about Snowfall and The Story Guy and — in a huge way — about Ruthie Knox’s Making it Last. (And Laura Florand’s Snow Kissed, if we’re making a more comprehensive list.) And Laugh is another. It’s an important book. It’s important to me because it says something true that resonates with me, that lifts me up, that reassures me, and that teaches me. It’s important to all of us (if I can make such a pronouncement) because its message is universal. We need more love. We need more acceptance. We need to love and accept ourselves, and we need to love and accept each other. We need to give each other the space to grieve, and we need to step in occasionally to help cultivate the best parts of our loved ones.

Kim: So in closing, as always we’d like to write Mary Ann a letter.

Dear Mary Ann,

THANK YOU for Sam. And for Laugh. And for writing a story that gives voice to people like Sam and Nina. For showing that a disability doesn’t have to be debilitating. Its effects can be disastrous, but they can also have amazing outcomes. The ability to love unconditionally. To care more about others than yourself.

Thank you for showing the world that being “too ____” isn’t always a bad thing. For giving a voice to those of us who are sometimes so burdened with the amount of stress we put on ourselves that we have no voice. For showing that giving “too much” love is never a bad thing. But most importantly for giving me a character that I related to more than any other character I’ve ever read in my entire life. That act alone has shown me I’m not alone in my feelings. For just that, I’ll thank you for a lifetime.

Love,

Kim

Kelly: Dear Mary Ann,

Thank you for Nina, for her background, her grief, her hangups, and her strengths. Thank you for her friends (and for writing a book that passes the Bechdel Test. Seriously… thank you so much for that.). Thank you for showing her full life (alongside Sam’s full life) and for writing her so generously that I was free to accept her generously (and to accept myself generously as well). Thank you for loving Nina and for allowing Nina to love Sam, to see him clearly, and to fight for him. And also to fight for herself.

Love,

Kelly

Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers
Random House – Loveswept (2014)
eBook: 288 pages
ISBN: 9780804178228

Special thanks to Loveswept for our review copies via Netgalley!

Kim’s Guest Review of Pirates and Prejudice by Kara Louise

papklIf you’ve ever wondered what Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice would be like as a pirate wonder no longer. Kara Louise has written a tale that puts Darcy aboard a ship on the high seas, while he pretends to be a well-known pirate captain. How he got there, why he agrees to the ruse, and how Elizabeth reenters his life are just three of the elements of this unique story you need to read about.

Creative, fun, and (at times) laugh-out-loud hilarious, Pirates and Prejudice is a story you’re going to want to get sucked into.

For a direct link to my review, click here.

Kim’s Guest Review of Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner by Jack Caldwell

mdctdjcMy latest review for Austenprose is Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner by Jack Caldwell. The name Jack Caldwell may ring a bell for some of you. He is the author of Pemberley Ranch, a book that Todd and I both reviewed (see Todd’s/Mine.) Caldwell is one of the few male authors that exist in the Jane Austen fan fiction sphere. As such, he captures my attention with each novel he writes as he is able to offer male insight into Darcy’s mind (and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want to know what that man was thinking?!)

Mr. Darcy Came to Dinner is a comedic retelling of Pride and Prejudice that lands Darcy in the living room of the Bennet household as he recovers from a broken leg. How did he got that broken leg? You’d have to ask Elizabeth’s adorable cat Cassandra! What ensues in the Bennet household as Darcy recovers is truly hilarious. I highly recommend this read!

For a direct link to my review click here.

Kim’s Guest Review of Maria Grace’s Given Good Principles Series

By now, you guys are well aware of the fact that I binge book series (you’ve read my Series Spotlight posts.) I read one, get hooked, and just have to keep binging.

ggpmg

One of my most recent binge-reads was Maria Grace’s Given Good Principles series. Of the four parts I read, the first two are prequels to Pride and Prejudice, book three re-imagines P&P, while book four is a sequel to P&P. Grace had some pretty ingenious ways of getting the characters to realize what their personality/character flaws were PRIOR to meeting each other.

For a direct link to my review, click here.

Kim and Kelly’s Review of Romancing the Duke (Castles Ever After #1) by Tessa Dare

rtdtdReading bestie Kelly from Reading With Analysis and I loves us some Tessa Dare novels. In fact, our entire friendship started over a shared love of Susanna, the heroine with a lopsided breast from A Night to Surrender. We duel reviewed her Stud Club trilogy and have each read all of the books in her Wanton Dairymaid trilogy and Spindle Cove series. Her books are filled with awesomely flawed heroines, imperfect heroes, and a great blend of humor and sexiness not often found in other romance novels. When Kel and I found out about the hero and heroine of her latest novel, Romancing the Duke, we instantly knew we had to read and review it together.

From Goodreads:

As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too. The storybooks offered endless possibilities.

And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off. One by one by one.

Ugly duckling turned swan?

Abducted by handsome highwayman?

Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?

No, no, and… Heh.

Now Izzy’s given up yearning for romance. She’ll settle for a roof over her head. What fairy tales are left over for an impoverished twenty-six year-old woman who’s never even been kissed?

This one.

Kim: Tessa Dare’s novels are always a treat. As I mentioned above her heroes and heroines are flawed and don’t follow the typical romance model (this gives her A+ marks in my book already.)

You see, she gives voice to the wallflowers, the physically impaired, the women considered to be unattractive, etc. Her heroes don’t all look like Adonis either. Some were raised in extremely impoverished conditions, others are fops, or “damaged goods” from partaking in active war duty.

In Romancing the Duke our hero, Ransom, is blind, distrustful, and scarred from the ugliness that exists in life. And our heroine Izzy? She’s impoverished, starved for affection and love, and is way ahead of her time intellectually. Yet she’s also a woman who dreams with an imagination that could rival a child’s. Their pairing makes for what I think is Dare’s best novel to date.

Kelly: Tessa Dare is known for her humorous writing, but her books are definitely not light.  It is remarkable how she is able to balance hilarity with depth, to produce a story that is wildly entertaining and intellectually compelling.  It seemed to me while I was reading it that this book clearly shows how much Dare has grown as a writer over the years, but then I got to thinking about her earlier books, and I realized that the sophistication was always there — I just paid more attention to the humor than the underlying material.

Kim: I fully agree! Her humor and sophistication was always present, but something about this novel showcased it in a new way. It’s without a doubt the best thing she’s written to date, and her other novels were all stellar in their own right. And that humor Kelly talks about? Dare found fantastic places to infuse it into the story.

Part of the plot of the story is that Izzy is given Ransom’s castle as part of a bequeathment from her father’s patron. Since the accident that rendered Ransom blind, he hasn’t seen his solicitors in London. He finds it implausible that his castle has been sold without his permission and refuses to believe the documents giving Izzy ownership are genuine.

Kelly: So hijinks ensue while Izzy and Ransom dig through piles of paperwork to find out what happened and answer the age-old question: does Izzy own the castle?  Along the way, Izzy and Ransom are joined by a roving band of LARPers whom Ransom disdains and Izzy finds charming, if slightly stifling.  Eventually, Ransom is challenged to embrace the camaraderie of fandom to find unexpected kinship and the beginnings of true friendship with the brothers in the Order of the Poppy (the Knights of Moranglia), and Izzy is challenged to break free from her past and enter into true companionship without sacrificing her identity.  Oh, and there’s a lot of romance.

Kim: Some of the funniest moments of the book come when this group of LARPers pose as Ransom’s servants. Izzy and Ransom find out that he will be visited by his solicitors, as well as a doctor to judge his mental well-being and ability to run his estate. Izzy sets up several plans to make sure that Ransom appears at his best. When a practice doesn’t go as well as she wants one of the Knights yells out

“It’s on to Plan E!…Plan E everyone! Who has the ermine?”

Kelly: Yes, and then later, during the actual examination with the doctors, the scheming solicitors, and the representative from the Lord Chancellor’s office,

“A shout lifted over all: ‘Release the ermine!’”

Kim: Romancing the Duke is my new favorite Dare novel. In ways it’s an anti-romance: blind hero, plain heroine, crumbling castle, bad first kiss……Yet for all the things that make it an anti-romance, it is filled with some of the most beautiful scenes and sentiments. The entire “Doubt Nots” sequence stuck out in my mind for its beauty. Also, the scene in which Izzy returns to her room and finds it filled with candlelight because Ransom knows she is afraid of the dark? Pure magic. It’s a romantic fan’s dream come alive.

Kelly: Dare took all these classic tropes of romance — the wounded hero — a Duke, for fuck’s sake — the plain but plucky heroine, the atmospheric castle, the chemistry and tension between the characters, the notion of characters saving each other and finding fulfillment in one another — and shook them together in a story that manages to be fun, heartwarming, and feel-good, while challenging one’s preconceived notions of how those tropes ought to play out. It is not so much this epic, magical love that saves the day, not so much the characters surrendering to their feelings for one another that brings about the positive ending.  I mean, all of that helps, sure, but friendship is actually the lynchpin here, and it isn’t even a friendship between Izzy and Ransom.  Izzy’s friendship with Abigail Pelham is one of my favorite things about the book, especially considering that everyone — Izzy included — would have expected them to be rivals rather than friends. And the emotional climax of the story, the “Doubt Not” sequence Kim mentioned above, is just as much a demonstration of Ransom’s solidarity with his newfound friends as it is a declaration of love for Izzy.

Kim: Friendship is SUCH a huge theme in this book. It’s friendship and not love that is the cause of everyone’s improved natures. Sure, love plays a part for Ransom and Izzy, but they’re more open to love because of their newfound friendships. Izzy & Abigail, Ransom & the Knights, Izzy & Ransom – all of these relationships afford them the opportunity to see the worth of love.

Kelly: I’d actually argue that it goes the other way around. (Here’s the moment where we hold up a chicken and an egg and then argue about it for hours and hours while y’all go read some other blog. Sorry!)  I think love is actually the starting point.  At first, there’s no friendship, really.  Izzy and Abigail are nice to one another, but they aren’t really friends. And Ransom is contemptuous to everyone. Then Izzy and Ransom realize that they love each other, but that love by itself is not enough to overcome some of Ransom’s issues and his dukeliness (that’s totally a word), and he acts like a giant douche-pony in this totally dramatic way, pushing everyone away, straining all of these fledgling friendships, but not doing as much damage to the love between Izzy and himself. Then Ransom’s longtime (and long-suffering) valet tells him to stuff it, because Ransom’s behavior is antithetical to love, so Ransom does some thinking. And, after he thinks, he acts, and his first acts are acts of friendship. Likewise, Izzy begins to realize that she has a true friend in Abigail, largely because her love of Ransom (and his love of her) opens her up to the possibility of being herself and of still being accepted and loved.

Kim: If you’re wondering – this is the first time in a long time our dueling review has had a “duel” in it. I’m still of the mind that friendship is what opens them to love. There is certainly affection between Ransom and Izzy, but Ransom is completely blind to it. When his valet tells him to stuff it and then sits down and actually has a conversation with him, he discovers the depth of regard that his valet has always had for him. The same thing happens when he speaks to the Knights. He realizes he has all of these people around him that support him and want him to succeed and it’s this that finally allows him to tell Izzy his feelings (the “Doubt Nots” sequence.)

I agree with Kelly when she says that at first there isn’t a friendship between Abigail and Izzy. However, I believe that to be more true from Izzy’s perspective. I think Izzy considers Abigail to be a frenemy at first. Yet seeing her willingness to help Izzy and Ransom with their fixing up the castle and in the scheme with the solicitors – she discovers a woman very different from her first impressions. I think this also may be due to Izzy’s upbringing. Largely responsible for taking care of herself and her father, she doesn’t allow people to get close to her. She doesn’t understand the bonds of friendship and love.

Kelly: So, it’s possible that we’re actually fighting on the same side of this duel.  Anyway, since Ransom’s and Izzy’s feelings of love (and even their awareness of those feelings) definitely preceded their confession of those feelings, I’m inclined to believe that their sudden interest and ability in developing friendships with the other characters (Abigail, the Knights, the valet, etc.) is born out of that love.  Were I writing an academic paper about this book, that would be my thesis statement.  (As an aside, I think one could — and should — write an academic paper about this book, perhaps comparing it to the romance tradition on which so many of its story tropes are based.  OK, Internet: get on it.)

Kim: Regardless of which side of the duel you’re on, should you read this book you’ll definitely jump on our YAY FRIENDSHIP bandwagon. I think the reason I love friendship being such a huge part of this book is because it’s friendship in a Tessa Dare novel, and as I said earlier it’s a Tessa Dare novel that started my friendship with Kelly. Seeing Dare’s building of these relationships is extra special because it makes me think of how mine was built with Kelly!

Kelly: Yes! Me too, friend!  This book is a celebration of all the things I hold dear: friendship, love, fandom, humor.  It insists that romance, love, and friendship are valid and important in this world, that stories about these things add to our happiness, and that those of us who love these stories are not delusional or stupid.  As the Lord Chancellor’s representative says,

“For God’s sake, man. They’re just stories. The rest of us here understand that.”

Kim’s Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

Kelly’s Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare
Harper Collins (2014)
eBook: 384 pages
ISBN: 9780062240163

Kim’s Guest Review of Consequences by C.P. Odom

ccpoMy latest review for Austenprose is on one of the most unique Jane Austen fan fiction novels I’ve ever read, Consequences by C.P. Odom. The beginning of the second half of the book completely blew my mind! Not only was the book surprising in the direction its plot took, but it was written in a way that incited deep emotions while reading.

The book is fabulous and I heartily recommend you check it out!

For a direct link to my review, click here.

Kim’s Guest Post of Another Place In Time by Mary Lydon Simonsen

apitmlsMr. Darcy? Time travel? New Austenprose review? Check, check, and check!

Mary Lydon Simonsen (one of my favorite authors in the entire Jane Austen Fan Fiction sphere) recently published her newest novel, Another Place in Time. The premise of the novel has Darcy traveling to the future to find an Austen/Regency scholar that will help him in his bid to win the hand of Ms. Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy in modern times and Chris (the Austen/Regency scholar) in Regency times provides the perfect fodder for laughs as well as much soul-searching.

I truly think Another Place in Time is one of Simonsen’s best works to date. For a direct link to my review, click here.