Book Review: The Emma Project by Sonali Dev

Title: The Emma Project
Series: The Rajes
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Emma gets a fresh Indian-American twist from award-winning author Sonali Dev in her heartwarmingly irresistible Jane Austen inspired rom com series.

No one can call Vansh Raje’s life anything but charmed. Handsome—Vogue has declared him California’s hottest single—and rich enough to spend all his time on missions to make the world a better place. Add to that a doting family and a contagiously sunny disposition and Vansh has made it halfway through his twenties without ever facing anything to throw him off his admittedly spectacular game.

A couple years from turning forty, Knightlina (Naina) Kohli has just gotten out of a ten-year-long fake relationship with Vansh’s brother and wants only one thing from her life…fine, two things. One, to have nothing to do with the unfairly blessed Raje family ever again. Two, to bring economic independence to millions of women in South Asia through her microfinance foundation and prove her father wrong about, well, everything.

Just when Naina’s dream is about to come to fruition, Vansh Raje shows up with his misguided Emma Project… And suddenly she’s fighting him for funding and wondering if a friends-with-benefits arrangement that’s as toe-curlingly hot as it is fun is worth risking her life’s work for.

The Emma Project is the 4th book in author Sonali Dev’s Jane Austen-inspired series about the powerful, wealthy Raje family. The Rajes, descended from Indian royalty, are fabulously rich and highly influential, especially now that their son Yash has been elected California’s newest governor. (See Incense and Sensibility for Yash’s story).

In The Emma Project, the youngest of the Raje clan takes center stage. 26-year-old Vansh is the “prince” of the family, extremely good-looking and pampered by all of his older sisters and cousins. Vansh has spent the last several years flitting around the world, from project to project lending a hand to all sorts of socially responsible causes, but never settling on just one thing.

After working to support Yash’s campaign, Vansh decides to stick around for a bit, and soon catches the attention of a powerful tech billionaire who wants to fund a project for Vansh — by pulling funding from Naina’s important work. Naina’s work is her whole life, especially since her association with the Rajes ended with public scandal after her fake romance with Yash came to light. (It’s complicated; again, see Yash’s story in the previous book).

Naina is furious over the loss of funding, and she accuses Vansh of engaging in an “Emma project” — basically, like Austen’s Emma, taking on a project for the sake of making himself feel good and alleviating some boredom, but lacking a true commitment or perspective on what others may need.

Over time, Vansh and Naina begin to work together, and become aware of a crazy hot chemistry between them too… but with Naina essentially ostracized by Vansh’s family and being burdened by all sorts of relationship issues due to growing up with an abusive father, any sort of romantic future between the two seems highly unlikely.

Except… there’s that chemisty to deal with, and they just can’t avoid it for long.

Perspective shift between Vansh (the Emma character) and Naina (Knightley), so we get to understand each character’s feelings and why they behave the way they do. All the various Rajes make appearances, often to meddle and complicate situations even further, and there’s a sub-plot about Vansh’s cousin Esha that’s a weird distraction from the main story (and makes very little sense), which seems to be a stand-in for the Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill storyline from Emma.

I’ve enjoyed most of the books in the Rajes series, but this one was was only so-so. The characters’ inner lives, especially Naina’s, come across as overwrought after a while. The endless ruminations on feelings about relationships and love truly started to get on my nerves. I also couldn’t understand why the Raje family treated Naina the way they did — from a plot perspective, it just didn’t make a lot of sense.

Vansh and Naina have a lot of heat between them, which fine, I’m happy two adults are enjoying themselves so much! However, there’s a restaurant scene that absolutely made me roll my eyes over its ridiculousness, and I had a hard time suspending my utter disbelief enough to get through the rest of the book.

From the author’s notes at the end, it sounds like The Emma Project is the final Raje book. Too bad — I guess we won’t be getting Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey retellings! As a whole, I’ve enjoyed this series, even though I ended up not as engaged with this last book.

Book Review: Reputation by Lex Croucher

Title: Reputation
Author: Lex Croucher
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The hilarious debut novel from Lex Croucher. A classic romcom with a Regency-era twist, for fans of Mean Girls and/or Jane Austen.

Abandoned by her parents, middle-class Georgiana Ellers has moved to a new town to live with her dreary aunt and uncle. At a particularly dull party, she meets the enigmatic Frances Campbell, a wealthy member of the in-crowd who lives a life Georgiana couldn’t have imagined in her wildest dreams.

Lonely and vulnerable, Georgiana falls in with Frances and her unfathomably rich, deeply improper friends. Georgiana is introduced to a new world: drunken debauchery, mysterious young men with strangely arresting hands, and the upper echelons of Regency society.

But the price of entry to high society might just be higher than Georgiana is willing to pay …

Sex, drugs, and… Regency?

It all began at a party, as almost everything of interest does.

In this historical romance, 20-year-old Georgiana longs for some excitement in her life, but gets more than she bargained for. Sent off to stay with her nice but boring aunt and uncle after her parents decide to basically ditch her for some seaside living, she’s just bursting for fun and interesting conversation. At a weird and disappointing party, she encounters rich girl Frances Campbell, who plies her with drinks and entices her to invade the hostess’s closet… and that’s mild for Frances.

She was certainly no swashbuckling adventurer or windswept nobleman, but Georgiana knew at once that she was in the presence of a Main Character.

Frances takes a shine to the new girl, and begins inviting Georgiana to her own crowd’s parties — filled with the young adults of the upper class, who seem to take every opportunity to drink to excess and engage in every sort of debauched behavior they can imagine. What’s in that pipe they’re passing around? Georgiana doesn’t know, but it does make her feel silly and floaty, and leads to a bizarre interaction with the man she’s crushing on.

As the novel progresses, the pressure to keep up with Frances’s behavior and to fit in with her friends leads Georgiana to lie to her aunt and uncle, repeatedly sneak out of the house for unchaperoned and inappropriate outings and parties, and to be rude to someone who actually might make a true and positive friend.

She seemed to have forgiven Georgiana for whatever wrongdoings she had previously attributed to her at the picnic; Georgiana wondered if she was very kind or if she simply had an extraordinarily short memory, like an octogenarian or a goldfish.

While mostly silly, there are some heavier plot points, including a man of Frances’s circle who in reality is a sexual predator, although no one seems willing to call him on it. Meanwhile, Frances seems to become more desperate and out of control as her love interest turns out to be much less than honorable, and Georgiana’s tenuous position with the in-crowd becomes harder and harder to hold on to.

Reputation is billed as a mix of Austen and Mean Girls, and I see the Mean Girls comparison much more so than the Austen! As in Mean Girls, an outsider is drawn to the popular crowd and does what she needs to do in order to fit in and be accepted, despite the fact that these people really are pretty awful.

While Reputation is set in the Regency era, the behavior of the characters bears very little relation to anything we might read in a Jane Austen novel. Yes, there are balls and parties, but the behavior! I don’t pretend to be an expert by any means, but I’ve never read another novel that depicts the behavior of the upper crust as so debauched — non-stop alcohol, outrageous pranks and games, the mysterious pipe contents mentioned above, drugs in people’s drinks (which I suppose must have been laudanum, although it’s not specified).

Georgiana was beginning to suspect that this game was designed solely to give everybody involved a socially acceptable excuse to feel one another up.

Sticking with this book was challenging for the first 25% or so. The Mean Girls behavior cannot be overemphasized, Georgiana makes some very poor choices, and the writing, while mostly on the clever and witty side, also includes some clunkier and/or modern phrasing that’s jarring in this setting.

In fact, ignore the shifts and waistcoats and reticules, and many of the party scenes could be plunked down into a frat house party with little to no difference. It was difficult to reconcile the supposed theme of reputations being all with the blatantly disreputable behavior that the characters seem to all indulge in. In fact, the reputation aspect aspect only seems to be addressed head-on on rare occasions, including a scene in which an upper class girl explains some basics to Georgiana:

“I don’t say this to do you harm. I am simply laying out the facts. You would not be unhappy, I think, with an ordinary life befitting your station. Here — now — you have truly stumbled into the lion’s den. The potential for unhappiness here is vast. Nobody here will be shamed or cast out for the many sins I’m sure they’ll commit before Monday. There is almost nothing we can do that will not be excused because of our wealth, our standing. Our parentage. Can you say the same?”

This being a romance, of course there’s a happy ending, but not without drama, fights, and scandal before getting there. As the end approached, I found myself cheering for Georgiana, especially as she starts making better choices, including showing appreciation for the people in her life who truly care for her and taking a stand when it’s most needed.

Reputation, all in all, is a fun book. As I said, I’m no expert and have no idea if the wealthy of the period really did indulge in such extremely decadent behavior behind closed doors, rather than sticking with the polite balls and card parties of Jane Austen novels. For me, since almost everything I know about the era comes from Austen and the Bridgerton books (not a well-rounded historical education!), the behavior of the characters in Reputation was downright shocking.

Still, I did find myself caught up in the story by the conclusion and quite entertained. So, take the historical representation with grains of salt as needed, don’t accept drinks that have passed through Frances’s hands, and enjoy Reputation for the sheer silly romp of it all.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books on my TBR list for spring 2022

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is about our spring 2022 reading plans. So many exciting new books to choose from!

Here are 10 books I’m especially looking forward to this spring:

  1. Leviathan Falls (Expanse #9) by James S. A. Corey
  2. The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
  3. Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
  4. The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian
  5. The Emma Project by Sonali Dev
  6. Reputation by Lex Croucher
  7. To Marry and To Meddle by Martha Waters
  8. The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth
  9. Spear by Nicola Griffith
  10. Something Wilder by Christina Lauren

What books will you be reading this spring? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

Book Review: Incense and Sensibility by Sonali Dev

Title: Incense and Sensibility
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: July 6, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Yash Raje, California’s first serious Indian gubernatorial candidate, has always known exactly what he wants—and how to use his privileged background to get it. He attributes his success to a simple mantra: control your feelings and you can control the world.

But when a hate-fueled incident at a rally critically injures his friend, Yash’s easy life suddenly feels like a lie, his control an illusion. When he tries to get back on the campaign trail, he blacks out with panic.

Desperate to keep Yash’s condition from leaking to the media, his family turns to the one person they trust—his sister’s best friend, India Dashwood, California’s foremost stress management coach. Raised by a family of yoga teachers, India has helped San Francisco’s high strung overachievers for a decade without so much as altering her breath. But this man—with his boundless ambition, simmering intensity, and absolute faith in his political beliefs—is like no other. Yash has spent a lifetime repressing everything to succeed.

Including their one magical night ten years ago—a too brief, too bright passion that if rekindled threatens the life he’s crafted for himself. Exposing the secrets might be the only way to save him but it’s also guaranteed to destroy the dream he’s willingly shouldered for his family and community . . . until now.

As you might guess from the title — but not from the synopsis — Incense and Sensibility is a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It’s also a moving, well-written, and engaging contemporary novel about love, pain, and healing.

I&S continues the loosely connected story of the Rajes, a wealthy Indian-American family living in the Bay Area. Previous books have focused on Yash’s sister Trisha (Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors) and his cousin Ashna (Recipe For Persuasion). In both of those books, Yash is a background character — the successful, driven brother who can achieve anything he wants. He’s the golden child, the one everyone believes will do great things.

He’s also haunted by trauma, although he doesn’t even realize this until events kick off in I&S. As the book opens, Yash is running a competitive race for governor of California, and his chances look good. He’s a man devoted to public service, who truly believes that he’s called to make life better for those who are suffering. While popular with many voters, Yash also encounters the racism you’d unfortunately not be surprised by due to his skin color and ethnicity. An attempted shooting at a rally leaves Yash lightly wounded, but puts his trusted friend and bodyguard Abdul into a coma that he isn’t expected to wake from.

Suddenly, Yash’s world is turned upside down. He feels tremendous guilt about Abdul’s sacrifice, and is overwhelmed by an anxiety attack when he attempts to go onstage at his next rally. With only months to go until the election, and with a growing lead in the polls, his family is desperate to “fix” him. And so they turn to a friend of Ashna and Trisha’s, India Dashwood, a yoga instructor and Reiki healer.

India lives with her mother Tara and her highly emotional sister China in the apartment above their yoga studio. They’re not well off, but they’re getting by, until Tara falls ill and India realizes they may not be able to cover her necessary medical treatments. On top of that, China is head-over-heels in love with a Korean pop star, but the woman she loves is deeply closeted and insists on secrecy. China sees a rosy future, but India is afraid that China will be hurt badly.

When Yash reenters India’s life, it’s ten years after they spent a magical, romantic night together in which they fell in love, but then parted and never reunited. India has never quite recovered from the pain of Yash’s disappearance from her life, but she also can’t turn him away when he’s obviously in such pain and in need of help. As she works with him on healing from trauma, old wounds reemerge and are finally confronted, and Yash and India’s feeling for one another resurface as well. But with the election his to lose, Yash has to make some big decisions about telling the truth and taking a stand, and India must decide whether she’s willing to risk the peace she’s found for the man she’s never gotten over.

Incense and Sensibility may look light and possibly even funny from the cover, but it’s really not. While there are some lighter moments, the book deals with very real trauma and pain, and the author isn’t afraid to show how the characters are affected by their pasts in damaging ways. At the same time, the characters really are lovely and sympathetic, and I loved getting to know the new characters introduced in this addition to the Rajes series, especially India, who is just wonderful.

As an Austen retelling, I found I&S to be very successful. Contemporary retellings of Austen novels are hard to pull off. With the classics’ focus on marriage, their themes can be hard to translate to a modern setting, and many of the retellings I’ve read feel like they’re trying too hard to shoehorn Austen’s storylines into a setting where they just don’t work.

Not so in I&S. Sonali Dev doesn’t hit us over the head with the Jane Austen references and plot points. While they’re there, they work organically, so the story would make sense and be appealing even without knowledge of the original. And while some characters’ storylines are a bit more obvious — for example, China as the Marianne stand-in is destined to have her heart broken — I was still taken by surprise by some of the twists and turns of the story, and that’s a good thing. Also, for what it’s worth, it took me a really long time to figure out who the Colonel Brandon character would be, even though it should have been obvious (I won’t say why, because spoilers!).

Incense and Sensibility is a terrific read, both as a standalone contemporary love story and as an Austen retelling. I can’t wait to find out which Austen novel the author will tackle next! I’m so enjoying the characters and their lives, and look forward to the next book so I can stay in their world.

And as a side note — India’s yoga practice and her approach to life have finally convinced me that I need to find a good yoga class!

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Audiobook Review: Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal — and so we reach the end of the amazing Glamourist Histories series!

Title: Of Noble Family (Glamourist Histories, #5)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrators:  Mary Robinette Kowal, Prentice Onayemi, Robin Miles
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 28, 2015
Print length: 572 pages
Audio length: 15 hours
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The final book of the acclaimed Glamourist Histories is the magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen walked on the darker side of the Regency…

Jane and Vincent have finally gotten some much-needed rest after their adventures in Italy when Vincent receives word that his estranged father has passed away on one of his properties in the West Indies. His brother, who manages the estate, is overwhelmed, and no one else in his family can go. Grudgingly, out of filial duty the couple decide to go.

The sea voyage is long and Jane spends enough time unable to perform glamour that towards the end of the trip she discovers that she is with child. They are overjoyed, but when they finally arrive at the estate to complete what they expect to be routine legal tasks, they realize that nearly everything they came expecting to find had been a lie. Also, the entire estate is in disarray, with horrifying conditions and tensions with the local slave population so high that they are close to revolt.

Jane and Vincent’s sense of peril is screaming out for them to flee, but Vincent cannot stand to leave an estate connected with his family in such a condition. They have survived many grand and terrifying adventures in their time, but this one will test their skills and wits more than any they have ever encountered before, this time with a new life hanging in the balance.

Allow me to wipe away my tears before I start writing my review…

Not that this book itself is heart-breaking (although it does have its moments) — but simply because I’ve now reached the end of the Glamourist Histories series, and I’m so sad to be done! Over the course of these five books, Jane and Vincent have become so dear to me, and I just hate to leave them and their world behind.

In Of Noble Birth, Jane and Vincent must undertake a sea voyage to the Caribbean, to the Hamilton estate on the island of Antigua, after Vincent receives word that his father has died. His elder brother, the heir to the estate, has been injured in an accident and is unable to travel, so calls upon Vincent to go retrieve their father’s will and settle the family’s affairs in Antigua.

After an arduous journey, during which Jane discovers her pregnancy, they arrive at the Hamilton estate to discover unwelcome surprise after unwelcome surprise. The couple, thanks to Lord Verbury’s manipulations, is unable to leave, and are forced into staying at the plantation, at least until Jane can safely deliver her baby.

Once there, they find deplorable conditions amongst the slave population, a lack of appropriate medical care, an untrustworthy overseer, and a household staff who bear a remarkable resemblance to Vincent and his brothers. Jane and Vincent have a lot on their plates, including Jane’s worrying health, the deceit of the overseer, and the ongoing aftereffects of Vincent’s horribly cruel and abusive upbringing.

While Jane and Vincent are honorable and well-intentioned, they still make mistakes, although they try their best to rectify their errors and to support and protect the people enslaved by Vincent’s father. The severity of the conditions is portrayed sensitively yet without shying away, and I appreciate that Jane is once again not perfect but is given room to learn from her errors.

Glamour itself takes a backseat to the conditions on the plantation and Jane and Vincent’s efforts to protect the people there and improve their lives. There are plenty of new characters, many of whom are quite delightful, and we get an introduction (alongside Jane) to non-European approaches to glamour thanks to the elder women of the plantation.

As with previous books, I felt absolutely drenched with anxiety whenever my beloved Jane and Vincent were in danger, and in particular, Jane’s experiences with a devastatingly high risk pregnancy had me in tears.

Without offering egregious spoilers, I’m happy to say that the series has a perfectly happy conclusion… despite leaving me wanting more, more, more.

Mary Robinette Kowal again narrates her novel, although this time around she’s joined by two additional narrators, Robin Miles (who’s so amazing as the narrator of the Binti books) voicing the women of Antigua, and Prentice Onayemi doing all the male voices. It was a little jarring to me to have someone besides MRK herself narrating, especially having listened to the series pretty much straight through — and this is most noticeable for the voice of Vincent, since I’d gotten quite used to the author’s version. Still, after I got past the initial shock, I finally adjusted and ended up enjoying the listening experience very much.*

*Although the male narrator’s voice for one elderly character sounded an awful lot like Voldemort, which was more than a little distracting! Then again, it’s a truly despicable character, so I suppose it fits.

I also need to mention that Mary Robinette Kowal tends to sneak in little geeky moments throughout the books, not usually too obvious — usually just a wink to pop culture fans. This one made me laugh out loud:

She sighed to cover her agitation. “You are insufferable.”

“I prefer ‘inscrutable.’” He smiled, softening a little at her teasing tone, and because she had allowed the change of topic.

“Inexplicable would be more accurate.”

“Inconceivable!”

She rested her hand on her ever-increasing stomach. “Not any longer.”

He laughed and kissed her on the forehead. “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

“Humph!” But Jane was delighted that she had managed to make him laugh. 

I can’t say enough good things about The Glamourist Histories as a whole. I’m so glad that I finally read/listened to them, and loved experiencing them all in a row, as one cohesive story. The world of glamour is amazingly rich, and Jane and Vincent are simply unforgettable. I know the author is supposedly done with this world… but if she ever goes back to it, I’ll be first in line to get my hands on future books!

Audiobook Review: Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Valour and Vanity (Glamourist Histories, #4)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 29, 2014
Print length: 405 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Acclaimed fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal has enchanted many fans with her beloved novels featuring a Regency setting in which magic–known here as glamour–is real. In Valour and Vanity, master glamourists Jane and Vincent find themselves in the sort of a magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.

After Melody’s wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs while en route. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute.

Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back, and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventure is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.

More fun with Jane and Vincent! Yes, I’m hooked on this series. Listening to the audiobook for #4, Valour and Vanity, was just as much fun as the first three. I’m only sad that there’s just one more left!

In Valour and Vanity, we’re treated to a high calibre caper. The synopsis is right to describe it as something out of Ocean’s Eleven!

Following a disastrous sea voyage in which they lose all their money and possessions, Jane and Vincent arrive in Venice penniless. To make matters more difficult, their intended host, Lord Byron, has left town on romantic pursuits, leaving Jane and Vincent with no place to go and no funds to pay for lodging or even a fresh set of clothes. Fortunately, a fellow traveler from their ship offers them his generous assistance…

And clearly, there’s more to the story, but I’m not going to give any spoilers! Let’s just say that there are twists and turns, all sorts of sneaky double-dealing, plus helpful nuns, a brave puppeteer*, gondola chases (yes, you can in fact have a chase scene with gondolas!), glass-blowing, and so much more.

*Fun fact: Author Mary Robinette Kowal is a professional puppeteer, so her inclusion of a heroic puppet-master here is just delightful.

Once again, Jane and Vincent are a terrific twosome. They’re unconventional, incredibly talented, and very much in love. They also feel real in the way that they face difficulties and disagreements, react emotionally, talk things through, and find ways to move forward. They don’t have to be perfect around each other — they love each other passionately and accept each other exactly as they are.

The Venice setting is new and different for this series, and provided a great setting for a plot where Jane and Vincent have to navigate without any of their usual allies or safety nets. The action is fast-paced, and the schemes are just oh-so-clever.

One sure sign that you’ve become overly involved as a reader is when you can’t stand for bad things to happen to beloved characters, even if the bad things lead to exciting storylines. This was my only problem with Valour and Vanity — I’m so in love with Jane and Vincent that it upsets me too much when their well-being is threatened, so even though the caper aspects of the story are really fun, I was also incredibly tense throughout! I just needed to know that the characters I care about would come out okay in the end. (Yes, of course they do. After all, we still need to get to book #5!)

This series continues to be a delight, and I can’t wait to start the final book, Of Noble Family. Well… I’m actually dreading it, because I don’t want the series to be over… but still, I have to know what happens next!

For an interesting look at the author’s puppetry career and her transition to writing, check out this article.

Audiobook Review: Without A Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Without a Summer (Glamourist Histories, #3)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Print length: 361 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 35 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Up-and-coming fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal enchanted fans with award-winning short stories and beloved novels featuring Regency pair Jane Ellsworth and Vincent. In Without a Summer the master glamourists return home, but in a world where magic is real, nothing—even the domestic sphere—is quite what it seems.

Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects—and mood—will be brighter in London.

Once there, talk is of nothing but the crop failures caused by the cold and increased unemployment of the coldmongers, which have provoked riots in several cities to the north. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, none of which really helps Melody’s chances for romance. It’s not long before Jane and Vincent realize that in addition to getting Melody to the church on time, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of international proportions.

My love affair continues! Book #3 in Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Glamourist Histories is just a captivating as the first two. I simply love the story and the characters and the storytelling!

In Without A Summer, the weather is unseasonably cold, with snow lingering into May and June. Unhappy, desperate people need someone to blame, and so they blame the coldmongers — the glamourists who are skilled in providing cooling for people with fevers, for overly warm indoors during the summer, and to help grocers keep their produce longer. But as any knowledgeable glamourist can attest, it is simply impossible for glamour to affect the weather. Even the relatively smaller amounts of glamour worked by the coldmongers often leads to severe injury or death.

In the midst of the weather crisis, Jane and Vincent travel to London to work on a commission. They bring along Jane’s younger sister Melody, who lacks society or any prospects of a match on her parents’ country estate.

Jane and Vincent soon find themselves involved in intrigue, with a suspected plot involving both the coldmongers and Melody’s Irish Catholic suitor. What’s more, the couple encounter Vincent’s estranged father while in London — a hateful man with lots of power, who clearly wants to make Vincent pay for separating himself from the family and his father’s toxic influence.

The plot quickly becomes complicated and suspenseful, and by the final section of the book, I found myself incredibly worked up and tense with worry over Jane and Vincent’s fate. Rationally, I knew that — with two more books in the series — they’d surely be okay in the end. Still, until reaching the resolution of the high stakes drama, I was fairly terrified over seeing them in mortal peril.

As with the other books in the series, I found this one delightful. Beyond the action of the main plotlines, I just love seeing Jane and Vincent together. Too often, stories of romance end with the wedding ceremony. In The Glamourist Histories, we get to see what a devoted, happy, passionate marriage looks like. Jane and Vincent are deeply in love, enjoy a robust physical relationship, and have a true partnership as equals, pursuing their chosen professions together with grace and trust.

A nice surprise in Without A Summer is getting to see Melody as something other than the pretty, shallow girl she’s been portrayed as so far. Here, she shows surprising intellectual depth and curiosity, as well as commitment and bravery that are quite admirable. It’s a nifty trick of the author’s to make us share Jane’s surprise at Melody’s underlying strength and seriousness — having seen her through Jane’s eyes, we’ve only seen her as the sum of her face, her flirtations, and her standing as the pampered little sister.

Another aspect that bothered me at first, but ultimately made me appreciate the writing all the more, is seeing Jane as flawed. She’s always so strong and good, but in Without A Summer, she allows her unknowing prejudices to influence her interpretation of the events she witnesses. It’s not malicious on her part, but it’s still there, and puts certain characters in grave danger that might otherwise have been discovered or averted sooner.

The audiobook narration, courtesy of the author herself, is wonderful as always. I love her presentation of Jane, Vincent, Melody, and especially some of the young coldmongers they encounter.

I do love this series, and book #3 is a fabulous story. I can’t wait to continue!

Audiobook Review: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories, #2)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 10, 2012
Print length: 334 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 8 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

 Mary Robinette Kowal stunned readers with her charming first novel Shades of Milk and Honey, a loving tribute to the works of Jane Austen in a world where magic is an everyday occurrence.

This magic comes in the form of glamour, which allows talented users to form practically any illusion they can imagine. Shades debuted to great acclaim and left readers eagerly awaiting its sequel.

Glamour in Glass follows the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a much deeper vein of drama and intrigue.

In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium for their honeymoon. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, Jane and Vincent’s concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it.

Left with no outward salvation, Jane must persevere over her trying personal circumstances and use her glamour to rescue her husband from prison…and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war. 

It’s official: I’m in love.

The Glamourist Histories is a series that’s been on my to-read shelf for far too long, and now that I’m two books in, I’m just mad I waited this long!

The first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, is a gentle comedy of manners a la Jane Austen, if only Austen’s heroines had magic at their fingertips. In book #2, Glamour in Glass, lead character Jane is newly wed to her beloved Vincent, and the two are blissfully happy living and working together, blending their lives and their glamour into a harmonious whole.

When Vincent’s old friend has a breakthrough in developing a new glamour technique, he and Jane set off for a honeymoon on the Continent, heading to Belgium to rest, relax, and further perfect their artistic talents. But Napoleon’s army is on the move, and as the situation becomes more tense, Jane and Vincent become caught up in an increasingly dangerous situation.

The mood in Glamour in Glass is quite different than in the first book, which was all about romance and courtship. Here, the focus is on what happens after the wooing. Austen’s books stop at the wedding — here, we get to see the happy couple as they begin their married life together.

Jane and Vincent are quite lovely as a couple (I swoon a little every time Vincent refers to Jane as “Muse”), and I love that their talents complement one another so well. Vincent at no time is inclined to relegate Jane to the usual wifely pursuits — they are full partners in their art, even when Jane’s presence raises eyebrows.

For brief sections in the middle, I was a little bored by the politics, but once Napoleon is on the march, the action picks up and the story regains its excitement. And if I thought Jane was awesome before, seeing her in full-on hero mode is just glorious.

Once again, I listened to the audiobook — narrated by the author — and thought it was wonderful. In the first book, her accent was a little uneven, but here, she sticks to her more natural speech patterns for the narrative and only puts on accents for the characters’ dialogue, and it works a lot better.

What more can I say? I’m hooked! I’d thought to take a break and listen to a few other books before continuing with the series, but now I don’t want to.

Two books down, three to go! I can’t wait to start the next one!

Audiobook Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: July 26, 2010
Print length: 306 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 32 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men. 

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellShades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer.  

What a delight! Just like the synopsis promises, Shades of Milk and Honey is Austen-inspired fiction, set in a world just like Austen’s — except magic is real, and is a highly coveted art form.

Men in search of a worthy wife look for someone who can create a warm and lovely home, and someone skilled in the art of glamour can turn a bare room into something beautiful, or can create music and light that enhance any gathering.

At age 28, Jane expects to remain an old maid. Her best chance for a fulfilled life is likely dependent on her younger sister marrying well, then bringing Jane into her household as companion.

Melody, ten years younger, is beautiful and flighty, without any real patience for the careful study and effort needed to reach heights of glamour similar to Jane’s talents. Melody comes across as a mix of Lydia Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, delighting in emotion, eager to flirt and captivate, and not above resorting to a little conniving to make sure every eligible man’s attention is fixed on her.

When the famous glamourist Mr. Vincent is commissioned by a wealthy neighbor to create a glamural for her home, Jane finds herself in the gruff artist’s company more than feels comfortable. At the same time, she pines for the upright Mr. Dunkirk, whose younger sister she befriends, but she fears that his attention is far more focused on Melody than on her.

The story is charming and enchanting, mixing Austen-esque society and manners with clever magical artistry and talent. Jane is a wonderful main character, gifted yet lacking the passion to lift her illusions from technical skill to true art. While she’s brutal in her self-reflection, considering herself plain at best, she’s warm-hearted and generous with the people she cares about, and ends up caught in the snares of polite society etiquette and keeping confidences.

I listened to the audiobook of Shades of Milk and Honey, which is a very entertaining way to enjoy this story. The pacing and style work really well in audio format, and the clever dialogue and social niceties come across as both polite and very funny.

Author Mary Robinette Kowal is a talented audiobook narrator, and it’s fun to listen to her narrate her own story. (She narrates Seanan McGuire’s October Daye audiobooks, which are amazing.). My only complaint about the narration is that the accent used comes across as fake from time to time, but on the whole, I was swept up enough in the story not to mind it too much.

I’m happy that this book is the first in a series. While it seems like a full and complete story, I’m looking forward to exploring more of this world in the four books that follow.

Book Review: Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev

Title: Recipe for Persuasion
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: May 26, 2020
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors comes another, clever, deeply layered, and heartwarming romantic comedy that follows in the Jane Austen tradition—this time, with a twist on Persuasion.

Chef Ashna Raje desperately needs a new strategy. How else can she save her beloved restaurant and prove to her estranged, overachieving mother that she isn’t a complete screw up? When she’s asked to join the cast of Cooking with the Stars, the latest hit reality show teaming chefs with celebrities, it seems like just the leap of faith she needs to put her restaurant back on the map. She’s a chef, what’s the worst that could happen? 

Rico Silva, that’s what.  

Being paired with a celebrity who was her first love, the man who ghosted her at the worst possible time in her life, only proves what Ashna has always believed: leaps of faith are a recipe for disaster. 

FIFA winning soccer star Rico Silva isn’t too happy to be paired up with Ashna either. Losing Ashna years ago almost destroyed him. The only silver lining to this bizarre situation is that he can finally prove to Ashna that he’s definitely over her. 

But when their catastrophic first meeting goes viral, social media becomes obsessed with their chemistry. The competition on the show is fierce…and so is the simmering desire between Ashna and Rico.  Every minute they spend together rekindles feelings that pull them toward their disastrous past. Will letting go again be another recipe for heartbreak—or a recipe for persuasion…? 

In Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev once again takes readers on an unforgettable adventure in this fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy.

Persuasion is one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, so of course I was going to read this modern romance that riffs on Persuasion‘s themes!

Recipe for Persuasion is a loose follow-up to last year’s Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. The Raje family is still the center of the story, but here, the focus shifts to Ashna Raje, who was a supporting character in the previous novel.

Before getting too far into discussing Recipe for Persuasion, I want to get one thing straight, which is that the blurb above is very misleading. I think if you go into this book expecting a heartwarming romantic comedy or a fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy, you’ll be both disappointed and quite possibly very confused.

Because at no time in my reading of Recipe for Persuasion did I feel it was a comedy. Not at all.

Which does not mean it was not a good read. I actually enjoyed it very much. But readers should know that this is a much sadder and darker story than the synopsis would make it out to be.

Okay, let’s get down to business. Ashna and Rico were high school sweethearts, very much in love, but each with a ton of baggage related to family expectations and demands. They dreamed and planned for a life together, but ended up apart after a really terrible set of circumstances, and the faulty communications at the time which led each to believe that the other had betrayed him/her.

(Yet another example of bad communications leading to heartbreak, which is a standard trope of the genre, and which drives me bonkers as a plot point… but I digress.)

Now, twelve years later, Ashna is a French-trained chef who’s struggling to keep her late father’s classic Indian restaurant viable, and Rico is a superstar soccer player forced into early retirement by a devastating knee injury.

When Rico is reminded of Ashna while attending a friend’s bachelor party, he decides to Google her. And when he learns that she’ll be appearing on Cooking with the Stars, he makes sure to get a slot on the reality show as her cooking partner. Rico is looking for closure, a way to get past the hurt from all those years ago when Ashna turned him away, giving into family pressure that he just wasn’t good enough for the high-class Raje family.

Meanwhile, Ashna is consumed by the guilt and trauma that accompanied her father’s death, experiences horrible panic attacks when she tries to cook anything not on her father’s original menu, is estranged from her super-feminist mother… and has never, ever gotten over Rico.

Their first meeting on set for the cooking show involves a near-miss with a very sharp knife, and suddenly, they’re a viral internet sensation. The pressure is on. Each wants to win… and also to prove to the other that they’re totally fine, which is so not the case.

Over the course of the book, we learn much more about Ashna’s past. Especially powerful are the chapters told through her mother’s point of view, which show her experiences as a young woman and the horrific situation she was forced into. Here’s where content warnings might be important: Someone expecting a romantic comedy probably won’t be prepared for scenes of abuse and rape, and I can only imagine how traumatic it would be to encounter these scenes while expecting a light romance.

This piece of the story is handled very sensitively, but of course, it’s awful and heartbreaking to read about. It also explains so much about Ashna’s experiences as a child, her parents’ marriage, her lingering resentment toward her mother, and her inability to move forward in a meaningful way in any sort of adult relationship. There’s really a lot to unpack here.

On a brighter note, Ashna and Rico have great chemistry, and I really enjoyed the scenes that show their teen years and the early stages of their romance. Because she is so traumatized, Ashna isn’t exactly a fun character (sympathetic, yes, but not fun), but luckily, Rico is — with his swagger, charm, and man-bun, he’s clearly supposed to be walking sex appeal, and this definitely comes through in the writing.

The San Francisco setting is a big plus for me, and I enjoyed revisiting the Raje family members from Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. As for Austen elements — the general themes of Persuasion are present, but not in such an obvious way that it feels like a retelling. As with Persuasion, the young lovers are separated in response to family pressure, but not really in the same way as in the Austen novel. Still, it’s an interesting way to weave the classic into a modern romance, and bonus points to the author for having Rico quote Frederick Wentworth’s “half agony, half hope” line!

Overall, Recipe for Persuasion is a very good read, although the balance between truly painful memories and emotions and the bustle of a reality show doesn’t always work in terms of tone. Still, I really enjoyed Ashna and Rico’s journey back to one another (there’s never any doubt, after all, that they’ll find love again)… and who can resist a book that lovingly describes so much amazing food?

Maybe that’s my main complaint, when all is said and done: This book should come with samples! I want to try every dish and cup of tea that’s described in Recipe for Persuasion.