Book Review: To Have and To Hoax by Martha Waters

Title: To Have and To Hoax
Author: Martha Waters
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: April 7, 2020
Length: 367 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In this fresh and hilarious historical rom-com, an estranged husband and wife in Regency England feign accidents and illness in an attempt to gain attention—and maybe just win each other back in the process.

Five years ago, Lady Violet Grey and Lord James Audley met, fell in love, and got married. Four years ago, they had a fight to end all fights, and have barely spoken since.

Their once-passionate love match has been reduced to one of cold, detached politeness. But when Violet receives a letter that James has been thrown from his horse and rendered unconscious at their country estate, she races to be by his side—only to discover him alive and well at a tavern, and completely unaware of her concern. She’s outraged. He’s confused. And the distance between them has never been more apparent.

Wanting to teach her estranged husband a lesson, Violet decides to feign an illness of her own. James quickly sees through it, but he decides to play along in an ever-escalating game of manipulation, featuring actors masquerading as doctors, threats of Swiss sanitariums, faux mistresses—and a lot of flirtation between a husband and wife who might not hate each other as much as they thought. Will the two be able to overcome four years of hurt or will they continue to deny the spark between them?

With charm, wit, and heart in spades, To Have and to Hoax is a fresh and eminently entertaining romantic comedy—perfect for fans of Jasmine Guillory and Julia Quinn. 

Needing a light-hearted read this week, I turned to an ARC that’s been on my to-read list since earlier this year. To Have and To Hoax by Martha Waters perfectly fit my mood, giving me a nice little break from reality by means of a Regency romance and a battle of wits.

Violet and James were a true love match, falling in love at first sight during Violet’s first season out in society, and marrying within four weeks of meeting. They enjoyed a loving, passionate first year together, and when they quarreled, they fought hard and then made up even harder.

But one year into their marriage, there was an argument that struck to the very core of their relationship and their trust in one another. In the four years since, Violet and James have lived in stony silence, neither willing to forgive or ask forgiveness, avoiding each other as much as possible.

This cold war stand-off is disturbed when Violet receives word that James has been gravely injured — although James has no idea that his friend has sent for Violet. When they meet, and Violet sees that James is both recovered and surprised that she’d been notified, years of anger boil to the surface.

In a game of one-up-manship, Violet decides to feign illness and make James suffer. He, in turn, sees through her game and treats her as an invalid, confining her to a sick room and making her miserable. When she suspects that he he knows the truth, he escalates matters by publicly flirting with another woman, yet Violet manages to turn even that scandalous situation to her own advantage.

Through it all, it’s absolutely clear that Violet and James still love one another, and just need a breakthrough (or a good shaking) to finally talk about their grievances and put them behind for good. There are plenty of fights, heavy doses of flirtation and teasing, a few good dances, proddings from friends, and some rather naughty encounters too.

It’s all great fun. Chapters alternate between Violet and James’s points of view, so we’re treated to both sides of the great divide between them and can see just how badly they’ve misunderstood and reacted to one another — but we also become aware well before the characters do that the love and passion between Violet and James are still there beneath the surface, just waiting to come out.

As a historical romance, To Have and To Hoax is very entertaining, and I was mostly convinced by the Regency society norms, manners, and settings. There are a few moments where more modern terminology jarred me out of the story (for example, a moment when Violet has thoughts about men’s “emotional intelligence”), but overall, I enjoyed this read.

A follow-up book featuring two secondary characters from To Have and To Hoax is due out in 2021 (To Love and To Loathe), and I will certainly want to read that too. Meanwhile, for a light romantic reading escape, check out To Have and To Hoax.

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.