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Book of the Week: An Extraordinary Union

So. Here’s the thing. I try not to repeat myself too much with these BotW reviews. In another week, The Confessions of Frannie Langton would have been my pick. But I already wrote about that. And yes, I finished An Extraordinary Union on the commute on Monday. And yes it’s only a couple of weeks since I recommended Alyssa Cole, but I loved this and I’m still annoyed about the racism in RWA and so there, I’m chosing it, it’s my blog, try and stop me.

Cover of An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

Elle Burns is fighting the Confederacy by returning to the south to spy for the Union as a slave in the household of a Confederate senator. As everyone in the house thinks she is mute, she’s perfectly placed to hear conversations filled with valuable information that she can then pass on to pass to the Loyal League. Malcolm McCall is a Pinkerton’s detective, undercover and trying to infiltrate a Rebel enclave. The two of them find themselves working together and fighting an undeniable attraction. But as the net of intrigue tightens around them, it seems impossible for anything good to come out of a relationship – of any kind – between a black woman and a white man in Virginia. Or can it?

I would say this is more historical romantic suspense than a a straight-up historical romance – there is very real peril here at every turn for both Elle and Malcolm. But don’t panic, this is a romance, so don’t worry too much, there is Happily Ever After for these two, but it takes a lot of twists and turns and danger to get there. Elle is a fantastic character – smart and resourceful and determined to do her bit to try to defeat slavery. She knows exactly what is at stake and the risks that she faces on all fronts .  There’s the reality of being an enslaved woman, then there’s being a spy and finally as a woman contemplating any kind of relationship with a white man – not just inside the Confederacy but in the north if they both manage make it out alive. I was a little uncertain about how the relationship in this would work out given that Malcolm has so much more power than Elle, any way you look at their relative situations. But Alyssa Cole has written this so cleverly. Malcolm saw the Highland Clearances as a child and knows about power imbalances and persecution and this informs how he interacts with Elle and his determination to do his bit to overthrow slavery and oppression.

I’ve already said a lot about how many different types of romances there should be, and how everyone should see themselves reflected in romance. And yet a lot of people seem sceptical that black characters can have Happily Ever Afters in Historical Romance. Well take a seat and let Alyssa Cole show you how wrong that idea is. She’s not sugar coating it, and yes it’s harder for Elle than it is for a wilting wallflower in Almacks. But that hard won happy ending is deeply, deeply satisfying.

I’ve already borrowed the second Loyal League book to read the story of Malcolm’s brother Ewan and I’m on the waiting list for the third book. That’s how much I liked it. My copy came from the library, but you can get hold of it on ebook on Kindle (a bargainous £2.37 at time of writing!) and Kobo. It’s slightly harder to get the paperback in this country – Amazon is showing me the French version in paperback and a large print hardback on the same page as the kindle edition – so I think it’s a special order job again. Or you can look and see if your library has it.

Happy Reading!

Blog tours, historical, new releases

Blog Tour: The Confessions of Frannie Langton

A Friday bonus post for you today because I am on the blog tour for The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, which came out on Tuesday in the UK.  I actually mentioned this book last week in my post about diverse authors, although  that was focusing on romance and this is a mystery thriller Gothic page turner, definitely not a romance. It’s also a debut and I have many things to say about it.

Hardback of The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Let’s start with the plot. This is the story of a young Jamaican woman named (by her owners) Frances Langton.  When we meet her she is in a cell in Newgate prison, awaiting trial for the murder of her employer and his wife. Over the course of the novel we go back over her life, starting at the plantation in Jamaica where she was born a slave and then the journey that led her to the trial which may see her hanged.

Frannie is an incredible character.  She is smart she is determined and she wants to believe that she can better herself and better her situation in life, despite all the advice from her friends and all the evidence that the world is trying to stop her from doing anything, being anyone and achieving anything.  The story she tells is fractured and oblique at times – there’s a lot of reading between the lines to do and there are lots of twists and turns and information withheld from the reader until very late on – which is more powerful than unravelling it all at once.  I had some of the revelations figured out quite early on, which didn’t make it anyway shocking when it was finally revealed – if anything it made it worse, because I was hoping I was wrong!   I was unsure about how the central mystery, that is who killed Marguerite and Mr Benham, was going to be resolved, but I think that’s the point – the book is keeping you on a knife edge.

You will know by now I read a lot of historical fiction, and it’s easy to forget when you read them what the reality of life was like for most people, and even worse that most of the money, if not all of the money, that was supporting the lives of wealthy people was supported by the slave trade or by sugar plantations which themselves were run by slaves.  This is the book to read to remind yourself of that and to counteract. It’s dark and disturbing and unflinching at the violence that was inflicted upon slaves by their masters, but it’s also a big old page turner.

Along with my hardback, I got sent some bits and bobs about the book, among them some notes from Sara Collins, who says that this book is in part a response to reading Jane Eyre as a child in the Caribbean and wanting to write a story with a Jamaican former slave in a similarly ambiguous, complicated Gothic love story.  As she puts it “like Jane Eyre, if Jane had been given as a gift to ‘the finest mind in all of England’ and then accused of cuckolding and murdering him.” If you need further convincing, it’s also compared to Sarah Waters, Alias Grace and the Wide Sargasso Sea.

I enjoyed it a lot – and will be looking forward to seeing what Sara Collins does next.  My copy of The Confessions of Frannie Langton was sent to me by the publisher, but you can get hold of one of your very own now – in Kindle, Kobo and hardback which is rather well priced at Amazon at time of writing, but I’m expecting it to be in all the bookshops fairly prominently, and I’m sure Big Green Bookshop would be happy to order it for you too in their new online-only incarnation.

Happy reading!

American imports, Book of the Week

Book of the Week: Bring on the Blessings

I really enjoyed my reading last week – writing the Diverse Romance post sent me off down a rabbit hole of library loans and kindle bargains and mailing list freebies and they all really lifted my mood.  So it’s fitting that one of the authors I mentioned in that is my pick this week for BotW.

Cover of Bring on the Blessings

Bring on the Blessings is the first in Beverly Jenkins’ Blessings series.  It tells the story of Bernadine Brown who, when she  catches her husband cheating on her on her fifty-second birthday, takes him for half of his (vast) fortune and uses it to buy a struggling town on ebay with a view to turning it to give foster kids a second chance at life.  This story introduces you to Bernadine, the historic black township of Henry Adams, Kansas, and its residents.  Bernadine is trying to pay back her blessing from God (the cash from her divorce settlement) by doing some good and paying it forward and giving back is the main theme of a lot of the storylines.    As well as Bernadine, there are five foster children from across the country and the families that are going to look after them, as well as various other town residents.

First thing to say: This is not a romance.  It has romantic elements, but there is no Happily Ever After for anyone at the end of Bring on the Blessings. What it does have is the set up and first phase of an overarching plot for the series and some incremental progress into resolutions for each of the story threads. I’ve struggled a little bit to figure out exactly which genre it fits in to to be honest, but Goodreads lists its as Romance, Fiction and Christian Fiction and Amazon lists it as Small Town and Rural Fiction, African American Fiction and African American Romance, all of which gives you a bit of a flavour of what is going on.

I absolutely raced through this. The characters are engaging, the plot has enough peril to keep you reading but without being stressful. And I think possibly the cleverest thing about this is the way it weaves all its messages together in a way that doesn’t become overpoweringly About The Message.  It may be more overtly religious than most of my reading, but it’s not saccharine or too preachy.  It’s also got a wry sense of humour tucked in there as well. I mentioned in my post last week that Miss Bev is a giant of the romance genre and this totally shows why. Addictive reading that suits the romance reader in me, but which isn’t wholly romance.  It’s sort of like a whole load of the subplots from a romance novel bundled themselves together into a book.  And that’s a good thing. I went straight on from book one to book two (thank you library) which says a lot about how much I was enjoying life in Henry Adams – and how keen I was to find out what would happen next – and I would have gone on to book three, but then I got distracted…

I borrowed my copy of Bring on the Blessings from the library, but it is available on Kindle, Kobo and in paperback in the UK – although I suspect the latter may be a special order job.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, new releases, romance

Book of the Week: Can’t Escape Love

A big list of books last week in the end – thank you holiday, extra days off and weekend away from home for work.  But in the end it was an easy choice for Book of the Week – because the new Alyssa Cole novella came out and it is wonderful.  Really wonderful.

Cover of Can't Escape Love

Regina is a geek girl who has just left her “proper” job to take her website – Girls with Glasses – to the next level.   Trouble is the stress is giving her insomnia and the only thing that works for getting her to sleep when this happens is the voice of a live streamer called Gus.  But his archive has been deleted and so she’s going to have to track him down (virtually, shes not a stalker) and ask him if he can help her by recording talking to send her to sleep.  Gus is a puzzle fanatic tasked with creating an escape room based on a popular romance animé for a convention, but trouble is, he’s not quite the superfan that the job requires, but Regina is.  Can Gus and Reggie help each other solve their problems?

Doesn’t that just sound ridiculously cute?  If it doesn’t, I’m telling it wrong, because this is so much fun.  This is a fill-in novella between titles in Cole’s Reluctant Royals series (you may remember I went mad for A Princess in Theory this time last year) and timeline-wise runs parallel to the second book in the series, A Duke By Default, where Reggie’s twin sister Portia is the heroine.  My only disappointment was that this was a novella and not a full length book – but given that neither Reggie nor Gus is a royal, I guess it wouldn’t fit the theme of the series!

I mentioned in my post about Princess in Theory that there is great representation in Alyssa Cole’s books – and this is no exception.  Reggie is black, Gus is Vietnamese American, both are neurodiverse and Reggie uses a wheelchair.  But none of those things are the main plot points about their characters – which is obviously exactly as is should be, but is sadly not always the case.  It’s been quite a week in Romancelandia (of which more tomorrow), full of people saying that they “don’t see colour” or “don’t like to read about gangs and violence” as reasons why they don’t read books by black authors.  They all need to sit down, shut up and read Alyssa Cole or one of the other wonderful non-white writers who are creating brilliant romance stories at the moment that show a full range of happily ever afters – and not just the ones for white people.  I could rant, but this is not the place (come back tomorrow for that).

Anyway, Can’t Escape Love is the nerdy romance that I needed last week and I can’t wait for the third book in the series – A Prince on Paper – to come out at the end of April. I pre-ordered that in November (Kindle/amazon paperback/Kobo).  And if that isn’t enough of a recommendation for you, I don’t know what is.  Can’t Escape Love is 99p on Kindle and Kobo at the moment as is the previous novella in the series, Once Ghosted, Twice Shy (Kindle/Kobo)which is a second-chance queer love story about the super efficient assistant to the prince in A Princess in Theory and the dating app hook-up who broke her heart.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, memoirs, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Diary of a Drag Queen

First up a bit of housekeeping: don’t forget last week’s BotW, Death of an Angel is out on Thursday! If you saw the WiB yesterday, you’ll know that there was a bit of a theme to last week’s tired, last night train reading, but actually it’s a non-fiction pick this week.  For once I’m almost relatively timely – because it’sa new book.  Well by new, it only came out on the 7th, Crystal Rasmussen’s Diary of a Drag Queen. Doesn’t it have a great cover?

Cover of Diary of a Drag Queen

Crystal is the drag name of Tom Rasmussen, a writer, Drag Queen and Céline Dion super-fan and their first book is a raw, honest, no holds barred, letting it all hang out look at one year in the author’s life. You follow them back to London after a difficult spell trying to make it in New York, trying to break the fashion industry, find a place in the drag scene and work out where they fit in the LGTBQIA+ community and their own personal manifesto. If you are squeamish, if you can’t deal with reading about other people’s poo, be warned: there is a lot of that here. But Crystal -has a lot they want to tell you and it is worth sitting up and listening.

I think this might be the most honest memoir I have read since Viv Albertine’s Boys, Clothes, Music. Crystal is setting their life and their truth out there on the page, without a filter (or at least not one that I could spot) and seemingly without hiding anything. At various points Crystal talks about having had to tone their life down for their partner or to be accepted or even just to be exist and it feels like this Diary, this book is their life as they want it to be seen, in all its imperfections, messiness, mistakes and triumphs. Here is Crystal explaining their approach in the introduction:

I spent a lot of my life in the violent, painful clutches of shame, which manifested itself in various modes of self-harm, self-destruction, and other untenable, unsurvivable behaviours.

I learned, however, that the antidote to this shame is not pride, or honour, or even celebration. That comes later. The antidote to shame is honesty. Stark, crass, funny, powerful honesty. Honesty that smashes through notions of taboos and inappropriatenesses. I am not shameful, because I’ve done nothing wrong. It’s the same with being gay, queer, femme, non-binary, a drag queen.

Crystal tells these stories with caustic wit, biting insight and what might be considered a reckless disregard for the secrets of the bedroom, if it wasn’t for the fact that they have assured us at the start that some names and details have been changed to protect identities. Phew. A lot of Crystal’s life is a long way from my experience and my background. And, again as I thought with Viv Albertine, I’m not sure that Crystal would like me. There were times when their critiques of various things made me squirm in my seat with the knowledge that I might have skirted the edges of doing some of the things they were railing against. But as they say, we have all made mistakes it’s how you deal with the mistakes and learn from them that makes a difference. And I’m always trying to do better. We should all always be trying to do better.  Here’s Crystal again:

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/questioning, Intersex, Asexual and + (not you, straight guy who loves glitter a bit but thinks bum sex is gross). Yes, it’s a long acronym, yes, it’s seven whole letters, but I learned the national anthem even though borders are constructs, so you can learn seven letters.

My copy of Diary of a Drag Queen came from NetGalley, but it is out now in hardback and you should be able to lay your hands on a copy fairly easily – I’d expect it to be in any good-sized actual bookshop. Crystal is also out and about on a book tour, so they may soon be coming to a store near you. I know I’m looking to see if I can make one of the dates – and if you can’t, the audiobook is read by the author and the sample on Amazon is a fairly representative section of the book. And of course it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, cozy crime

Book of the Week: Death by Dumpling

As mentioned yesterday, picking BotWs is being made harder by the fact that I currently seem to be working my way through two series at a rate of knots and it’s creating a lot of repetition in the WiB list – and could make these posts very boring.  Luckily, I also read the first in a new to me (and actually fairly new) cozy mystery series last week and it was a lot of fun and showed some great potential. Job done.

Copy of Death by Dumpling

Death by Dumpling is the first in the Noodle Shop Mystery series – and was also Vivien Chien’s debut novel.  Our wannabe detective is Lana Lee, 27 years old and back working at her family’s noodle house after walking out on her job and a brutal break-up.  But when the property manager of the plaza where the restaurant is is found dead, she and her family’s business are in the firing line.  Because Mr Feng died of an allergic reaction – to shellfish in dumplings from the Ho-Lee Noodle House.  But Lana knows everyone there knew about his allergy – so how did this happen?  Soon she’s investigating what happened while fending off dinner invites from the new guy at the plaza and hoping to get to know the detective investigating the case better…

I enjoyed this a lot and raced through it in practically one sitting – I moved from the sofa to bed 100 pages from the end but that was the extent of the movement!  The characters are fun and it’s really nice to see a different type of setting for a cozy.  Lana is a nice lead character – she’s got a nice balance of quirks and insecurities to self-confidence and skills.  The setting is good and the side characters are engaging too.  As the book is mostly setting up Lana and the series, you don’t get a lot of the other characters, but I’m hoping that changes as the series continues.   There were a few elements felt a little clunky at times, but as this is a debut as well as the start of the series, I didn’t mind too much because I think this series has a lot of potential.  I’m fed up with cupcake bakers and crafters – I’m so ready for an Asian-American detective working in the family noodle house and this delivers most of the time.

I picked my copy of Death by Dumpling up on a Barnes and Noble trip during my American Odyssey and brought it home with me.  I have no regrets about bringing it back across the Atlantic – because it meant I read a load of library books before I came home – although I do wish that I’d brought the second book in the series as well because they were cheaper to buy in the US than they are here!  But you can get hold of Death by Dumpling on Kindle and Kobo (the Kindle price is much better than the Kobo one atow)  and in paperback from Amazon – but I suspect it’s actually a special order US-Import type deal there, so I’m not sure what your luck is going to be in proper bookshops in the UK.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, romance

Book of the Week: The Princess Trap

It’s so hot outside, that all I want to do at the moment is lie in the shade and drink a cold drink and read books.  So because the UK is in the midst of a heatwave – and there are lots of people who are on holiday at the moment and will be doing exactly the same thing but by a beach somewhere glamourous, this week’s BotW that is perfect for reading while doing exactly that: Talia Hibbert’s The Princess Trap.

Cover of The Princess Trap by Talia Hibbert

This is a contemporary romance with a prince in disguise and a fake relationship.  If you read Alyssa Cole’s A Princess in Theory earlier in the year and were looking for something else that scratches that itch, this may be the book for you.  It is a bit steamier than I remember that being – and there’s a couple of elements to the relationship here that are a bit different – but if you want another twist on the royalty trope – this time with a black British woman (who is not a stick insect) as the heroine, then go pick this up – what have you got to use.

Ruben is the younger brother of the king of a Scandinavian island, who is trying to recover his life from a sex-tape scandal.  Cherry works in HR at a school in London and is trying to help her family put her sister through college in the US.  He’s there incognito to have a look at whether the school’s ideas would fit into his educational programme when he spots her.  But when they’re spotted by the paparazzi, he tells them she’s his fiancée and asks her to keep up the pretence to get his family off his back.  What’s in it for her?  A big stack of cash that would really help with her sister’s tuition bills.  Cherry likes him and the money would be handy.  But she doesn’t really understand what being a royal fiancée entails and she doesn’t know about his scandal.  And then there’s his family and his past, which has got some serious issues in it.  I should add a trigger warning here – for abuse in the back story and in flashbacks – so avoid this if these are problematic for you, but I didn’t find it too upsetting.

This was my first Talia Hibbert and I really loved it.  I heard her interviewed on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast a few weeks back and made a note to read some of her books.  And I’m so glad that I picked this one up.  It’s got a great story, a fantastic heroine who knows exactly what she wants and isn’t going to let anyone (even a prince) push her about, a hero who has his issues, but also a load of privilege and luckily has a bunch of people around him who call hin out when he’s being an idiot.  And it has all the diversity and representation you could want in a book.  I’m not going to run through the list here – because that makes it feel like a box ticking exercise and that is the opposite of what this is.  This is society as I see it everyday in a book – not a boring homogenous version of life – and it’s wonderful.  I’ll definitely be reading some more of Hibbert’s books.

This is available on Kindle version – I picked it up for free last week – but it’s £2.99 at time of writing.  It is however included in the Kindle Unlimited programme – so if you’re in that it’s just a guilt free click away.  In fact quite a lot of Hibbert’s books are in Kindle Unlimited so if this trope doesn’t work for you – or you’re worried about that trigger warning, then there maybe another one for you in the mix somewhere.  From that interview that I mentioned earlier, Hibbert’s thing is definitely strong heroines and diverse casts of characters who challenge sterotypes in romantic fiction.

Happy Reading!