Book Review: Maggie Finds Her Muse by Dee Ernst

Title: Maggie Finds Her Muse
Author: Dee Ernst
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A sparkling romantic comedy starring a bestselling author who goes to Paris to overcome writer’s block and rediscovers family, independence, and love along the way.

All Maggie Bliss needs to do is write. Forty-eight years old and newly single (again!), she ventures to Paris in a last-ditch effort to finish her manuscript. With a marvelous apartment at her fingertips and an elegant housekeeper to meet her every need, a finished book—and her dream of finally taking her career over the top—is surely within her grasp. After all, how could she find anything except inspiration in Paris, with its sophistication, food, and romance in the air?

But the clock is running out, and between her charming ex-husband arriving in France for vacation and a handsome Frenchman appearing one morning in her bathtub, Maggie’s previously undisturbed peace goes by the wayside. Charming and heartfelt, Dee Ernst’s Maggie Finds Her Muse is a delightful and feel-good novel about finding love, confidence, and inspiration in all the best places.

What a refreshing change to read a romance with a mature woman in the lead role!

Maggie is a successful romance writer, but she’s stuck. The second book in her current trilogy is about to be released, and she’s fast approaching the deadline for book #3. There’s a lot at stake, including a potential TV option that will take her to the next level of financial success and finally enable her to buy the beach house of her dreams. The problem is, Maggie is completely blocked. She’s got nothing on the page, and she just can’t ask for another extension.

Her trusted agent Lee offers a change of scenery as a desperate last-ditch effort to get her writing again: Come to Paris with him and his husband, live in their fabulous apartment free of charge, and let the Parisian vibe restore her to full inspiration once again.

After dumping her live-in boyfriend (who gives off a traditional romance alpha-male vibe, but is actually a self-centered leech), Maggie sets off to Paris. And soon, her creative juices start flowing again. But Maggie is a writer who relies on superstition (like wearing the same old sweater every single day until she finishes a book), and she starts to believe that Max, a charming Parisian who happens to be staying in the apartment as well, might just be her new muse. But what happens if Max leaves? How will she keep writing if her flesh-and-blood inspiration isn’t present any longer?

Along the way, Maggie spends time with her adult daughter and her ex-husband — her first love, who’s newly retired and interested in rekindling their romance after all these years. And yes, it might be nice to spend more time with Alan, who’s lovely and intelligent and comfortable — but what about that spark she feels whenever Max is around?

There’s a lot to love about Maggie Finds Her Muse. As I said at the start of this review, three cheers for a romantic heroine who’s not in her 20s! I love reading about a smart, successful, motivated woman who’s able to take charge of her professional and personal life. Maggie isn’t perfect — she has insecurities and doubts, but she’s also lived life and has learned a lot about herself, her needs, and what she expects from a potential partner.

“Do you think a person becomes too old for love?”

… “No, I don’t think you’re ever too old,” I said. “But I do think that how you love changes. The things you look for when you’re young are not the same ones you want when you’re older. Not in your life, or in the person you want to share it with.”

It was really fun reading about her writing process, and I liked hearing about the story elements she explores over the course of the book. While her actual book doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d ever read (war-torn romantic drama), I was amused by scenes of her figuring out blocking by having her friends act out action sequences. I did feel not quite so charmed by the setting of her books, an invented country with vaguely foreign elements, which sounds like a Westerner’s standard generic anywhere-but-here kind of setting — warlords, non-English names that are hard to pinpoint, desperate escapes through deserts and mountains… It all feels a little too America-centric, like anyplace that’s not the US must be uncivilized and “other”. But I’m probably over-analyzing. After all, this is romance!

The Paris setting is delicious, of course. Maggie enjoys the food, the sights, the people, the customs, and so we as readers get to do so as well. It made me want to pick up and fly to Paris RIGHT NOW, but only if my trip would include a marvelous flat and totally chic and supportive housekeeper/cook/emotional guide like Maggie has.

“Maman, you cut me to the quick,” Max said, eyes twinkling. “surely, there’s room in one of those books for a dashing older gentleman who can ignite a bit of passion, non?”

Oui. That’s definitely a oui.

As for the romantic elements, Maggie and Max are well-matched and are clearly the pairing to root for in the romantic triangle. Max is suave, kind, confident, and totally supportive of Maggie. They’re not without their difficulties, but I like that Maggie, as a romance writer, is very much aware of the genre tropes, and is horrified when her friends point out that she has fallen into a romance novel complication in her real life.

“Maggie,” Alison soothed, “what I think Cheri is trying to say is that maybe you were the victim of A Great Misunderstanding.”

I sat very still.

A Great Misunderstanding is a commonly used device in romance writing wherein the hero or heroine says something that is completely misconstrued by the other party, and chapters of angst and possible revenge sex happen before the truth is finally known. I hate A Great Misunderstanding and have never used it in any of my books, if for no other reason than if I did, neither Cheri nor Alison would ever read anything I wrote ever again.

“No,” I whispered.

Overall, Maggie Finds Her Muse is a sweet, delightful read. The characters are smart and relatable, and I couldn’t help but want every single one of the people we meet to get a perfect HEA.

From reading the author bio on Goodreads, I learned that Dee Ernst specializes in writing older (okay, I hate calling them that — let’s say age 40+) leading characters, and I think that’s awesome. This is an author whose work I’ll be following!

Book Review: The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

Title: The Ladies of the Secret Circus
Author: Constance Sayers
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: March 23, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost. Bound to her family’s strange and magical circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows-until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate love affair that could cost her everything.

Virginia, 2005: Lara Barnes is on top of the world-until her fiancé disappears on their wedding day. Desperate, her search for answers unexpectedly leads to her great-grandmother’s journals and sweeps her into the story of a dark circus and a generational curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations.

The Ladies of the Secret Circus is a tale of family secrets and a dark heritage — but it doesn’t quite live up to the mysterious air promised by the cover and synopsis.

Lara is eagerly awaiting her wedding to Todd, the man she’s loved since her teens. But her joy turns to heartache when she’s left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. Did he jilt her? Did something happen to him? His abandoned car seems to provide a link to a similar disappearance that occurred 30 years earlier. Dark forces seem to be at play. Could this be related to Lara and her mother Audrey’s talent for magic? Or the fact that their small town in Virginia hasn’t had a single murder case in decades? Or Lara’s strange memories of being visited as a child by an unusual man who made incredible things happen?

In the months that follow, Todd’s fate remains a mystery and Lara starts to rebuild her life, but a gift from her mother sends her on a strange journey. The gift is a small painting that’s been hanging in Audrey’s house for as long as Lara can remember — a portrait of her great-grandmother Cecile as a young circus performer.

When Lara takes the painting to be reframed, the art expert who handles it is astonished to realize that this may be one of the rumored missing paintings by the great Jazz Age artist Emile Giroux. He supposedly painted his masterpiece, a series of three paintings called The Ladies of the Secret Circus, before his death, but no one has ever seen the paintings. If Lara’s painting is authentic, then its value is in the millions, and its discovery will rock the art world.

But as Lara investigates, the connection to ancient magics is revealed, especially once she begins to read Cecile’s long-lost diaries. The diaries tell a story of a mysterious, otherworldly circus that only appears to those who truly seek it, and the strange, damned performers who populate the circus and seemingly can never leave. There’s a connection to Lara’s family, but it’s beyond anything Lara could have expected, and carries huge dangers for her and everyone around her.

While the set-up is promising, the book itself didn’t meet my expectations. Some of this may be me — I seem to have issues with magical circus settings, since apparently I’m the only person in the world who didn’t love The Night Circus. The big revelations in this book about the Secret Circus struck me as too out-there to accept. I have problems with books where the use of magic makes anything and everything possible — at some point, it stops feeling like any rules apply at all.

The connections to Lara’s family are confusing, and the origin of the connection is just kind of dumped on the reader earlier on. The how’s and why’s of it all just didn’t work for me. So many of the more fantastical elements are stated as fact, but without a sense of build-up or setting to make these aspects feel at all plausible. The identities of some of the circus performers are supposed to ground the circus in our own world, but without giving anything away, I’ll just say that these pieces struck me as absurd and funny, rather than dramatic.

I enjoyed the diary entries, with their 1920s Paris setting, but again, the constant name-dropping of artists and authors like Hemingway, Chagall, and Man Ray made me feel distracted and as if the author were trying too hard to make the story real. It just didn’t work for me — somehow the use of real artists in this fictional tale felt out of place and at odds with the story the author was trying to tell.

Sad to say, overall this was a disappointing read for me. I loved the author’s previous book, A Witch in Time, and such high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, The Ladies of the Secret Circus started slowly and never fully pulled me in.

Book Review: The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone


From the New York Times bestselling author of The Expats. Kate Moore is back in a pulse-pounding thriller to discover that a massive terror attack across Paris is not what it seems – and that it involves her family

American expat Kate Moore drops her kids at the international school, makes her rounds of chores, and meets her husband Dexter at their regular café a leisurely start to a normal day, St-Germain-des-Pres.

Across the Seine, tech CEO Hunter Forsyth stands on his balcony, wondering why his police escort just departed, and frustrated that his cell service has cut out; Hunter has important calls to make, not all of them technically legal.

And on the nearby rue de Rivoli, Mahmoud Khalid climbs out of an electrician’s van and elbows his way into the crowded courtyard of the world’s largest museum. He sets down his metal briefcase, and removes his windbreaker.

That’s when people start to scream.

Everyone has big plans for the day. Dexter is going to make a small fortune, finally digging himself out of a deep financial hole, via an extremely risky investment. Hunter is going to make a huge fortune, with a major corporate acquisition that will send his company’s stock soaring. Kate has less ambitious plans: preparations for tonight’s dinner party–one of those homemaker obligations she still hasn’t embraced, even after a half-decade of this life–and an uneventful workday at the Paris Substation, the clandestine cadre of operatives that she’s been running, not entirely successfully, increasingly convinced that every day could be the last of her career. But every day is also a fresh chance to prove her own relevance, never more so than during today’s momentous events.

And Mahmoud? He is planning to die today. And he won’t be the only one.

The Paris Diversion is author Chris Pavone’s follow-up to his 2012 debut, The Expats. In The Expats, we meet Kate Moore, a former secret agent now living a life of domestic boredom as a wife and mother while her husband engages in some shady high finance dealings. The book is terrific and tense and surprising, so definitely check that one out!

Now years later, we re-meet Kate living in Paris, her boys a few years older, her husband mildly to incredibly annoying, and her career back in full-swing, running her own espionage bureau with only the loosest of ties to the US government.

The Paris Diversion takes place over one very dramatic day, as Kate and husband Dexter prepare for a dinner party — and a complicated plot revolving around terror threats and corporate sabotage unfolds in the city around them. As Kate plunges into action, unable to convince herself to stay on the sidelines, it becomes clear that Dexter’s hands may not be entirely clean. Meanwhile, we meet the various players in this international web of intrigue, some bit players, some criminal masterminds, and some merely pawns who find themselves useful or expendable in different ways.

The plot of The Paris Diversion is complicated, but not impenetrable, and hooked me right from the start. It’s interesting to get inside the mind of Kate Moore, a woman with pretty typical worries about aging and career and family, plus others hopefully less familiar to most women — do I have the right weapons? am I being followed? is my disguise in place? how many people will I have to kill today? The book starts off as a thriller about terrorism, but it quickly becomes clear that there’s much more going on than meets the eye, and the final puzzle pieces don’t click into place until the very last pages of the novel.

Do you need to read The Expats first? Not necessarily? I think The Paris Diversion would work perfectly well on its own — there’s enough backstory provided about the characters and their lives, so it shouldn’t be hard to for someone to fully enjoy The Paris Diversion on its own merits. Still, if you’re so inclined, I’d definitely recommend reading The Expats as a starting place. Kate is a fascinating character, so why not start with her first appearance?

I’ve read all three of Chris Pavone’s previous novels, and thought they were all excellent. I don’t tend to read a lot of spy thrillers, but these books absolutely work for me!

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The details:

Title: The Paris Diversion
Author: Chris Pavone
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 374 pages
Genre: Spy thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Shelf Control #163: The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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A little note for 2019: For the next short while, I think I’ll focus specifically on books I’ve picked up at our library’s fabulous annual sales. With all books $3 or less, it’s so hard to resist! And yet, they pile up, year after year, so it’s a good idea to remind myself that these books are living on my shelves.

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Title: The Light of Paris
Author: Eleanor Brown
Published: 2016
Length: 336 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The miraculous novel from the New York Times-bestselling author of The Weird Sisters–a sensation beloved by critics and readers alike.

Madeleine is trapped–by her family’s expectations, by her controlling husband, and by her own fears–in an unhappy marriage and a life she never wanted. From the outside, it looks like she has everything, but on the inside, she fears she has nothing that matters.

In Madeleine’s memories, her grandmother Margie is the kind of woman she should have been–elegant, reserved, perfect. But when Madeleine finds a diary detailing Margie’s bold, romantic trip to Jazz Age Paris, she meets the grandmother she never knew: a dreamer who defied her strict, staid family and spent an exhilarating summer writing in cafes, living on her own, and falling for a charismatic artist.

Despite her unhappiness, when Madeleine’s marriage is threatened, she panics, escaping to her hometown and staying with her critical, disapproving mother. In that unlikely place, shaken by the revelation of a long-hidden family secret and inspired by her grandmother’s bravery, Madeleine creates her own Parisian summer–reconnecting to her love of painting, cultivating a vibrant circle of creative friends, and finding a kindred spirit in a down-to-earth chef who reminds her to feed both her body and her heart.

Margie and Madeleine’s stories intertwine to explore the joys and risks of living life on our own terms, of defying the rules that hold us back from our dreams, and of becoming the people we are meant to be.

How and when I got it:

LIBRARY SALE!

Why I want to read it:

Eleanor Brown’s first novel, The Weird Sisters, was an absolute favorite of mine (and now that I think of it, I really should reread it). I’ve always wanted to read more by this author. I love the description of The Light of Paris — especially the discoveries about the grandmother’s life and Madeleine’s attempt to create a Paris of her own. I’m actually really excited to discover this on my shelf this week. I can’t wait to read it!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Chocolate Thief

Chocolate ThiefLet’s be perfectly clear: This is not my usual kind of read.

My lovely online book group picked The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand for our February group read. Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against chocolate! And if you don’t believe me, just send me some and see if I eat it.

I do have a problem, though, with romance novels, and The Chocolate Thief belongs firmly on the romance shelf.

All that being said, I will admit that I didn’t hate The Chocolate Thief, and actually, once I accepted that I was reading this book and sticking with it, I kind of got sucked in — at least, enough to read for a couple of hours straight this morning so I could see how it all turned out.

Enough preamble.

In The Chocolate Thief, 20-something American businesswoman Cade Corey has come to Paris to see if she can make a dream come true. Cade is the youngest generation of the Corey chocolate dynasty of Corey, Maryland. Think Hershey — Corey is a multi-billion dollar corporation that thrives off of its 33-cent chocolate bars sold at Walmarts and in supermarket checkout lines across America.

Cade’s dream is to launch a line of gourmet, high-end chocolate as a flagship enterprise for Corey, but to make it happen, she needs a Parisian chocolatier to sign on to the scheme, agree to let Cade buy him for millions, and then mass-produce his type of chocolate, stamped with his name, as part of the Corey brand.

Cade gets a nasty awakening when she pursues the #1 chocolatier in Paris, Sylvain Marquis, and is given an angry and emphatic NO. (Or “non”, I suppose). Not one to give up, Cade eventually ends up breaking into Sylvain’s laboratoire, fingering all of his chocolate-making supplies, leaving chocolatey fingerprints everywhere, and winding up covered by gourmet blogs as the mysterious “Chocolate Thief”.

Needless to say, it doesn’t hurt a bit that Sylvain is gorgeous and manly and has beautiful hands. Cade falls hard. He falls right back. The chemistry grows and the heat rises. And it goes pretty much where you’d expect it to go.

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Okay, my thoughts:

Well, as I said, I did read all the way to the end, so clearly, it’s a compelling story. Of course, there are things that bugged me. Such as Cade stubbornly running around the city in heels while thinking about how much her feet hurt. Or having to describe every outfit she wears and how much makeup she puts on. Or the fact that Sylvain’s early refusal and dismissal of Cade seems to be the key to what keeps her coming back. Or looking at every attractive woman as competition.

There are positives: I liked that the main character is a successful professional who’s devoted to her family and to the family business. I liked that she and Sylvain are both outwardly cool and confident, but have lurking insecurities underneath — she, that men only want her for her money, and he, that women only want him for his chocolate.

They spend a lot of the book mistrusting each other’s motives and getting either hurt or angry, when if they’d only talked a bit more, they’d have reached an understanding (and happiness) a lot sooner.

The writing is a bit bumpy. Lots and lots (and lots) of decadent, sensuous descriptions of the flavors of chocolate, the way it melts on the tongue, the scents and textures of every food, every piece of clothing, every touch of skin. These bits are all quite delicious (sorry…), if occasionally overdone. By the time I was further in the book, it was like — enough already! We get how good the chocolate smells. Can we get on with the plot?

Where was I? Yes, the writing. Some bits just made me groan, and not from ecstasy:

Long, phallic eclairs in shades of coffee, chocolate, and pistachio stretched in rows like some nymphomaniac’s dream.

Okay…

Chocolate melted on her tongue, melted into her body. Its warm, rich sweetness combined with the pounding adrenaline until she felt … the closest she could think of was aroused. Desperately, intensely aroused, as if someone could come out of the shadows with his sorcerer eyes glinting and lay her down on the dark counters and …

Is it getting hot in here?

This clunker just did not work for me:

She had hunted him. She had tethered herself out there like some kid goat to his Tyrannosaurus rex.

Wait, what? Goats hunt T-Rexes? Not sure this makes the least bit of sense.

The plot is a fairly standard romance arc — two beautiful people, intense instant attraction, lots of tingly bits leading up to hot sex, misunderstandings and obstacles, and finally, the HEA you know is coming at the end. Sorry, that’s not a spoiler — that’s just how these things go.

Speaking of hot sex — there’s quite a bit, including two especially… um, let’s say VIVID… scenes, one on the marble countertops of Sylvain’s workplace, and one quite memorable escapade taking place during the ascent of several flights of stairs.

Do I recommend this book?

Well, that depends. I actually had fun reading it, despite not being a fan of the genre, and despite the muscle strain I developed from all the eye-rolling. The Chocolate Thief isn’t a book I would seek out on my own, and I probably would have stopped after a chapter or two if not for not wanting to bail on a book club book. But, it wasn’t unpleasant to read, I did end up getting caught up enough in the story to want to see it through, and overall found it pretty fun. Especially all the chocolate. Yummmmmm.

For readers who enjoy romances with aloof, strong but secretly fragile men and the powerful but secretly looking for love women who break through their defenses, well, this might be just about perfect.

Overall, it’s sweet and romantic and full of the sights of Paris and an absolute walllowing in flavors. Not a bad choice for a quick and light read. And if you just want to get to the… um… vivid bits:

There in his arms. Yielding to him. Pulling at him. Yielding. Her mouth, her tongue, her body that flexed to him and grew softer and softer, as if all strength failed her, even as he grew stronger and stronger, too hard, hard to bursting with himself and his power over her.

… turn to chapters 13 and 18. You’re welcome.

Word to the wise: Stock up on chocolate before reading The Chocolate Thief, and splurge on the good stuff.

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The details:

Title: The Chocolate Thief
Author: Laura Florand
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: July 31, 2012
Length: 303 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Library

Book Review: A Little in Love

A Little in Love

When a book starts with the main character dying slowly and painfully in the street, you know that you’re going to be in for an emotional ride.

Then again, what do you expect from a book whose essence can be boiled down to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as told by Eponine?

I mean, anyone who saw the musical version of Les Miz and didn’t get at least a little misty during this number has a heart of stone:

 

In A Little in Love, a dying Eponine recounts her sad life story, narrating all that she’s experienced in her young life that led up to this final moment. And so we go back to Eponine’s girlhood, as she lives in a small village at the inn run by her parents, the wicked, thieving Thenardiers. Eponine’s parents raise her and her younger sister to be wonderful thieves, able to pull rings off fingers, lift coins from pockets, take the buckles off a pair of shoes, without ever being seen. To steal is to earn love.

Into their lives comes a small girl named Cosette, deposited into the Thenardier’s keeping by her desperate mother, but the kindness and shelter she’d hope to secure for Cosette is never delivered. Cosette is treated like a dog and a slave, while the money left for her upkeep is spent on food and clothes for the Thenardiers. Eponine sees Cosette as a potential friend, until she is punished for showing any kindess. Eponine’s mother makes clear that only hardness is allowed. She must be cruel. She must be hard. Eponine can only keep what passes for love from her own mother by kicking Cosette and spitting at her, calling her ugly, and making her life miserable.

And so the years pass, until a kind-eyed man comes one Christmas to take little Cosette away into a better life. Eponine realizes just how trapped she is in the misery of her own family… but she herself has no way out, no kind-eyed rescuer to save her from her sad existence. After her father commits a horrible crime, they spend years on the run, eventually landing in Paris, where Eponine’s fate is sealed. She sees a young man, Marius, and falls instantly in love. Eponine is sickened by her family’s evil ways, and determines to be good, to be kind, to make her own way in the world and try to make amends. When Eponine realizes that Marius loves none other than Cosette, Eponine finds a way to unite the lovers, and ultimately… well, if you’ve watched the clip above, you know it doesn’t end well for poor Eponine.

A Little in Love is a lovely little book, not very long and with a nice, quick pace. Eponine’s world view may be limited, but it’s enough to show us the abject poverty of the lower classes in France and the depths to which people must sink in order to survive. Despite her horrible upbringing, Eponine holds onto her own humanity, and it’s through her sense of right and grace that we see that not all people are cruel, and that even poor, downtrodden people are capable of moments of kindess which can change lives.

This was a hard world, I knew that. It was dangerous; it had its knives and lies and cruelties, and Paris felt on the edge of such trouble. but there were small wonders too — everywhere.

Eponine’s voice is simple and genuine. She loves, she aches, she regrets. She despises her parents’ and sister’s actions, but not the people themselves. She would be forgiven for resenting Cosette and standing in her way, but of course she doesn’t: By helping Cosette, she’s doing what little she can to apologize for the years of cruelty, lightening her own burden of guilt even while adding to the pain she suffers knowing Marius will never love her as she loves him.

I would imagine that most readers of A Little in Love will be at least a little familiar with the story from the movie version of Les Miserables. This book is a reimagining of Victor Hugo’s story, so some plot changes may be confusing for those expecting the story they viewed on-screen. It doesn’t matter much, really: Because neither version of the story looks through Eponine’s eyes, the narration of A Little in Love covers new ground even when going over plotlines that may be familiar. It’s a hard balancing act for a retelling to stay faithful to the original while adding enough new elements to make the story fresh and surprising, and author Susan Fletcher achieves this remarkably well in A Little in Love.

Eponine is a tragic character, a small player in the grander story of Les Miserables, and it’s lovely to see her getting the center stage billing she deserves in this new novel.

Two final thoughts:

A Little in Love is being marketed as a young adult novel. I’d just add that younger teen readers (and older middle school aged readers) could easily enjoy this book, especially if they’ve seen the movie version. While the book portrays horrible living conditions, cruelty, starvation, crime, etc, it never gets graphic and there’s no sexual content.

♦ I really wish this book had a better title! It’s not bad, but it’s not memorable or particularly connected to the story itself. I found myself having to double-check the title several times in order to make sure I got it right! It just seems awfully generic, like something you’d paste on a light-hearted high school romance, and I’m afraid it doesn’t do the weightiness of the story true justice.

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The details:

Title: A Little in Love
Author: Susan Fletcher
Publisher: Chicken House Ltd
Publication date: August 25, 2015
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

Blog Tour & Book Review: The Witch of Painted Sorrows by M. J. Rose

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I’m delighted to be participating in the blog tour ( courtesy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours) for the newest historical fiction release from M. J. Rose, author of The Collector of Dying Breaths, Seduction, and The Book of Lost Fragrances.

Publication Date: March 17, 2015
Atria Books
Formats: Hardcover, Ebook
Pages: 384

Genre: Historical Mystery

Possession. Power. Passion. International bestselling novelist M.J. Rose creates her most provocative and magical spellbinder yet in this erotic, gothic novel set against the lavish spectacle of 1890s Belle Époque Paris.

Sandrine Salome runs away to her grandmother’s Parisian mansion to escape her dangerous husband, but what she finds is even more menacing. The house, famous for its lavish art collection and elegant salons, is mysteriously closed up. Although her grandmother insists it’s dangerous for Sandrine to visit, she defies her and meets Julien Duplessi, a mesmerizing young architect. Together they explore the hidden night world of Paris, the forbidden occult underground and Sandrine’s deepest desires.

Among the bohemians and the demi-monde, Sandrine discovers her erotic nature as a lover and painter. Then darker influences threaten – her cold and cruel husband is tracking her down and something sinister is taking hold, changing Sandrine, altering her. She’s become possessed by La Lune: A witch, a legend and a sixteenth-century courtesan, who opens up her life to a darkness that may become a gift or a curse.

This is Sandrine’s “wild night of the soul,” her odyssey in the magnificent city of Paris, of art, love and witchery.

 

My thoughts:

The Witch of Painted Sorrows surprised me in all the right ways! Elegant, steamy, and haunting, The Witch of Painted Sorrows follows a young woman, Sandrine, as she seeks a new beginning away from her cruel husband and painful memories. She takes refuge with her grandmother, a renowned and sought-after courtesan, who seems fearful when Sandrine arrives unexpectedly in Paris. Sandrine’s grandmother’s cardinal rule has always been to never fall in love — but why? To remain free and unattached, admired but never trapped? Or is there something more to the warning, something perhaps much more sinister?

There’s so much to enjoy in The Witch of Painted Sorrows. We view the thriving, competitive world of art academies and ateliers, as Sandrine pursues her new-found calling. We see a young woman’s awakening to lust and sexual satisfaction. We also see the hidden world of occult enthusiasts, séances, alchemists, and more, as the odd occurrences that surround Sandrine become harder and harder for her to ignore.

I loved the many layers of the story, as the writing takes us through hints of dark secrets, supernatural phenomena, and human emotions. The answers aren’t as easy as they might seem, and it becomes increasingly difficult to know whether we’re seeing through Sandrine’s eyes or through the eyes of the obsessed spirit of La Lune. As an added bonus, the depiction of Paris at the end of the 19th century is stimulating and visceral, capturing the sense of grandeur on the cusp of a new, exciting era. The familiar Parisian landmarks add a touch of realism to the story, rooting it deeply in a particular time and place, and at the same time conveying the wonder of it all.

There are some wonderful characters in this story. Sandrine herself goes through the most startling and dramatic transformation, but I also really enjoyed her grandmother, a woman of sixty-six who’s vital, sexy, and smart, and absolutely knows how to use her brains and beauty to get her way. It’s refreshing to see a woman of her age who so clearly is still at the center of a non-stop crowd of adoring men. Sandrine’s lover, Julien, is also quite wonderful, and it’s easy to understand Sandrine’s connection to him. The sparks practically fly off the page!

All in all, I’d say that The Witch of Painted Sorrows is a skillfully drawn portrait of a moment in history, infused with a chilling supernatural element that adds a real shiver of fright to the story. And just wait until you get to that ending! With an enveloping atmosphere, characters who break free of their gender-defined, society-approved roles, and a family past shrouded in secrets, The Witch of Painted Sorrows is a compelling read that’s hard to put down. Don’t miss it!

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About the Author

03_M.J. Rose AuthorM.J. Rose grew up in New York City, mostly in the labyrinthine galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, the dark tunnels and lush gardens of Central Park and reading her mother’s favorite books before she was allowed.

She is the author of more than a dozen novels, the co-president and founding board member of International Thriller Writers and the founder of the first marketing company for authors: AuthorBuzz.com. She lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. Visit her online at MJRose.com.

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Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

From Amazon:

1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.

Why do I want to read this?

Paris. Ballet. Sisters. What more do I need to convince me?

The combination of historical figures with fictional characters, the setting in 19th century Paris in the art world, and the drama of two girls struggling to survive sounds fascinating to me. This is one new novel that I’m definitely eager to read.

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!

Book Review: Just One Day

Just One DayAnother YA novel about “insta-love”? Haven’t we read enough of these already? Those were my thoughts when I picked up a copy of Gayle Forman’s new book, Just One Day. And I’m pleased to be able to report that my expectations about this book were quite wrong.

Main character Allyson is 18, fresh out of high school, and on a whirlwind, parent-sanctioned tour of Europe (“Teen Tours! Cultural Extravaganza” is the too-exuberant-for-words name of the program), along with her bestie Melanie. It’s all a big blur, during which the teens are shuttled from one significant destination to another, chaperoned and dosed with lessons about history and culture. Melanie hits the pubs and suffers hang-overs daily, while Allyson goes along dutifully, always the good girl, doing what’s expected of her.

On the final day of the program, as the group waits for a production of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon, a free-spirited group of actors (whose troupe is called Guerilla Will)  invites the gang to ditch Hamlet and come see their production of Twelfth Night instead. In a rare burst of spontaneity, no doubt helped by the fact that the lead guy is so cute, Allyson decides to take a chance, and she and Melanie head off to the canal basin to see a free-ranging, outdoor, wildly inventive and exhilarating production. A perfect end to a so-so trip, and the girls are ready to catch the train to London and fly back home to their normal lives. Except… on the train, the cute guy appears, starts chatting with good girl Allyson, and in a moment that changes everything, invites (or challenges) her to hop a train to Paris — for just one day.

Cute guy’s name is Willem (he’s Dutch and dreamy), and he christens Allyson Lulu, in honor of Louise Brooks and Allyson’s new hair style. Lulu and Willem spend one fabulous day wandering the streets and alleys of Paris, living free and large, and falling — hard — for one another. Or so Allyson thinks… until she wakes up alone the next morning. Willem has left her without a trace, and Allyson’s heart is broken. Not only that, but our young lovers never got around to exchanging email addresses, cell phone numbers, or proper names (Willem only knows our sweetie as “Lulu”), so when the guy is gone, he’s gone for good.

And here’s where things get really interesting. Up until this point, I was a bit half-hearted about yet another story of a somewhat shy girl meeting the gorgeous guy of her dreams and falling instantly and irrevocably in love. In Just One Day, it’s not so simple. Allyson does fall hard for Willem, and he does seem to fall for her too — but it’s also clear that this is a guy with a girl in every city across Europe. Dude is a player, to put it mildly. So when he abandons Allyson after their one night, is it really so surprising?

Allyson heads home full of shame and self-loathing. She knew he was a chick-magnet. She saw his little black book. What else did she expect? Unfortunately, her one day of love in Paris ruins the start of her freshman year of college, and Allyson spends months in a deep depression, barely getting by academically, distancing herself from her roommates, and realizing that her friendship with Melanie has run its course as well.

The layer of all of this that’s really finely written and well-thought out is that Allyson is an only child, daughter of two parents who have raised her to be dutiful and good and to always aim to please. Allyson’s mother in particular seems to be reliving her own missed opportunities through Allyson. She picks her daughter’s classes, down to the exact time of day, shops for her clothes, and plans every moment of her life. Allyson is pre-med because that’s what her parents have convinced her she wants. She collects antique alarm clocks (weird, right?) because her mother decided it would be fun for her to have a collection. On and on, we see Allyson’s mother controlling her every move. But after Paris, Allyson finally starts to realize that maybe what she’s been told she wants isn’t really what makes her happy.

Over the course of her freshman year, Allyson slowly starts to find her own way, and it’s eye-opening. As she breaks out of her shell, she comes to realize that what she wants for herself may not match what her parents want — and more importantly, that she has the power to make her own decisions and find her own way. What I ended up loving about this book is the gradual, painstaking development of Allyson’s independence and self-esteem. She finally begins to emerge from her mother’s shadow and the sense of what is expected into a strong young woman who is willing and eager to take chances. By doing so, she’s ultimately able to embrace the choice she made to spend “just one day” in Paris, and many months later, to begin to consider the possibility that events may not have been exactly as she’d perceived them to be.

The book asks some interesting questions: Are fate and accidents really the same thing? Is there really only one great love in a person’s life? Is being good enough? How does a person figure out how to be? Through Allyson, we see a young woman’s journey toward individual growth and empowerment, and it’s actually quite lovely to watch her finally take the reins of her own life and start setting her own course.

The writing in Just One Day is fast-paced, a nice mix of introspection and adventure, and the plot zips along from month to month in engaging snippets and snapshots.

I have only two minor quibbles with Just One Day:

First — and perhaps it’s just that I’m not the target demographic and therefore can’t appreciate the underlying urge toward free-spiritedness — I have little to no tolerance for plot points that revolve around leaving important things to the whims of chance. Remember the movie Serendipity (didn’t like it) or even Before Sunrise (loved it), where the characters fall in love at first sight, but leave it up to fate to bring them back together, rather than — oh, I don’t know — exchanging vital information? Willem and Lulu/Allyson do the same thing in Just One Day, and it strains belief. Seriously, at some point it would have made sense to at least get each others’ last names… or phone numbers… or something. It’s the information age, people! Share your information!

Second, as part of my reading resolutions for 2013, I vowed that I would not start any new series. It was not until I was already half-way through the book that I saw the little blurb on the back announcing that “Just One Day is the first in a sweepingly romantic duet of novels.” The follow up novel, Just One Year will be released in the fall of 2013. Gah. Of course, I’ll read the next book, but I’m a little miffed about it all.

That said, Just One Day would work just fine as a stand-alone novel. It does have a very open-ended conclusion, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The book’s end leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and it’s certainly not clear what awaits Allyson. But that’s life, isn’t it? By the end, our main character has made choices, taken risks, and gained a willingness to take a chance and see how it turns out. Anything can happen when you’re open to life, and I think that’s more or less the point.

I enjoyed Just One Day very much (had a few bleary-eyed days following a few nights of staying up past midnight because I couldn’t put the book down), and I’m looking forward to reading more by Gayle Forman. The author captures the voice of her young adult characters in a way that is convincing and true, and I found myself enchanted by Allyson’s adventures and discoveries. Also — Paris!

Book Review: Anna and the French Kiss

Book Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

How refreshing, to read a bright, honest, engaging young adult novel that doesn’t have anything to do with the end of the world, a crazy dystopian future, supernatural powers, or creatures from another realm! Anna and the French Kiss is a thoroughly adorable story of a likeable girl trying to find her way in the world, and it’s so cute that I wanted to hug the book when I was done.

Anna is a 17-year-old high school senior from Atlanta, Georgia, whose bestselling author father has decided that what she needs is to spend senior year not with her friends at home, but at an elite boarding school for American students in Paris. Anna is furious and aghast, horrified to be leaving her best friend and her kinda, sorta boyfriend, and absolutely mortified by the thought of showing up in Paris knowing not one single word of French. Anna is so self-conscious about her American-ness that she confines herself to campus and is too afraid to even order food in the rather extravagantly lush school cafeteria.

Luckily for Anna, however, she is adopted by her dorm neighbor Meredith almost instantly, and then meets Meredith’s circle of friends, among whom is the funny, gorgeous, British-accent-sporting Etienne St. Clair. Anna and St. Clair, as he’s called, hit it off immediately and become inseparable friends… although Anna can’t ignore the fact that he makes her heart beat faster whenever he smiles at her. St. Clair brings Anna out of her shell, Anna helps St. Clair through a major family disaster, and hey — it’s Paris! Love is definitely in the air, but obstacles abound, and much of the plot’s suspense and drama come down to a will-they-or-won’t-they back and forth in which neither Anna nor St. Clair manages to communicate their feelings to one another.

There’s a lot to love about Anna and the French Kiss. For one thing, although Anna describes St. Clair as the most beautiful boy she’s ever known, it’s clear that we’re seeing through her besotted eyes. While St. Clair is so charming and charismatic that everyone wants to befriend him, he’s no Edward Cullen or Adonis. St. Clair, in turn, tells Anna that she’s beautiful, but again, the point is not that she’s a stunning model, but rather that she’s an ordinary girl who is beautiful in the eyes of the boy who has fallen for her.

Anna and the French Kiss is a light, enjoyable read, although it does convey some deeper passions and conflicts. Friendships are tested; lessons are learned. Some relationships last, some end bitterly, some simply run out of steam. Parents can be loving and supportive, but some make decisions about their children as a means of carrying out their own desires or furthering their own images. Even the most talented or together of Anna’s circle of friends have insecurities and personal foibles and weaknesses. No one is perfect, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. Anna and the French Kiss works because it feels so real. Sure, it’s unlikely that most American teenagers would have the opportunity to find love while running around Paris — but any reader will be able to relate to the ups and downs of friendships, the joys and sorrows of first love, and the challenges of impending adulthood which the characters experience.

I’ve been hearing about Anna and the French Kiss quite a bit from other fans of YA fiction, and I’m happy to report that this is one book that did not disappoint.