Review: Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

Lately I am capable of 3 things:

  1. Staring into nothing with no energy to do anything
  2. Ordering delivery because I can’t seem to make myself cook
  3. Reading romance novels. 

The last few weeks have been hard. I’ve fallen into a bit of a Pandepression. All of the Covid news, the state of America, and the friends and family that have now decided that masks, social distancing and behaving safely are optional have put me in a funk. 

Escapism is harder to come by 4 months in. Fantasy sometimes does the trick. I’m still working slowly through Ferrente’s wonderful Neopalitan novels, but worry what will happen to my state of mind when I finish. 

In their place I have picked up every romance novel that sounds remotely interesting. 

I’m just lucky that Kevin Kwan, of Crazy Rich Asians fame came out with a new book this month. It was right on time for me. 

Sex and Vanity is a modern and decedent retelling of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View. Instead of an Edwardian vacation in Florence, Kwan finds his versions Lucie, Charlotte, and George in Carpi for the wedding of the decade. Propriety, desire, and insecurity drives the story as we weave through 8 years of Lucie’s life. 

Kwan does an excellent job updating source material that can feel out of touch to modern readers. With that said, A Room with a View is a harder sell in modern times. Sex and Vanity follows the same line, all the major plot points are still there, but where as Lucy originally feels like a more modern woman in the Forster text Kwan’s Lucie feels repressed, aimless, and generally unlikeable. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m here for unlikeable characters, except Sex and Vanity is full of them. Charlotte, while intolerable in View, is a new level of awful in Capri. Cecil is comically awful. It is hard to see how George, the one character to make a positive impression in most, if not all of his scenes wants to be associated with any of these people. 

Kwan succeeds in giving readers decadent societies and socialites with elaborate backstories. Sex and Vanity is its best when it strays from Forster’s influence. The wedding on Capri, Puppy Yoga, and an over the top proposal give the story life. Even Lucie’s experienced as a mixed Chinese American gives new breath to this overly stuffy story. 

After all Kwan is at his best when showcasing microaggressions in society amongst the glitz and glamor. Lucie could have done with some more introspection, and a story that wasn’t surrounded by family expectation and romance. 

Or…readers really just deserved a story about Freddie and George having the summer of their lives in the Hamptons. 

Regardless, Sex and Vanity is a fun story with deliciously detestable and fun characters. It scratches that travel itch I think most of us are starting to experience as travel still feels a bit unsafe, and lets you live like one of the 1% for a few hundred pages. 

Review: Well Met by Jen DeLuca

I have never been a huge fan of renaissance fairies. In theory they sound wonderful for my historical fiction loving self. Old timey costumes, some vague medieval setting, josts and turkey legs and historic looking jewelry all sound great. I spent so much of my life doing theatre and reading Shakespeare that I want to love a good Ren Fest. I really do. 

But I don’t love crowds, or dust clouds and dirt. I don’t like dressing up in costumes and paying an arm and a leg to walk around what is essentially a faire ground playing at time travel.  

So I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I started Well Met. Jen DeLuca’s lovely romance is set in a small town in Maryland famous for their local Renaissance Faire. Emily is in town to help her sister incapacitated sister and teenage niece. It helps that she needed to leave Boston anyway after a bad break up. When her niece decides she wants to be a part of this year’s Ren Faire Emily steps up to chaperone and finds that maybe small town life isn’t so bad, and that the neurotic faire runner, Simon, may be more fun than he looks. 

I adored everything about this book. I couldn’t put it down. Like had it on multiple devices and was reading it as my boyfriend drove me to and from eye appointments. The plot isn’t exactly unique. Girl meets boy. Girl thinks boy is a bit of an uptight asshole. Girl falls for boy…while he is wearing a pirate costume…but DeLuca creates a beautiful town in Willow Creek, Maryland and inhabits it with vibrant people of all walks of life. That is the beauty of Willow Creek’s Faire – everybody participates in some way. 

It also helps that Emily is a relatable twenty something out of a bad relationship. She is working at finding her confidence and trying to find her niche. Simon is a bit up tight but has *Tragic Backstory Syndrome* and is also a very well versed English teacher. Plus the “I hate you but maybe I just want to bang you” mood is REAL. Really, all of my favorite tropes are here in a very real feeling world ready for tears and superman speed reading. 

On top of everything Well Met is a very cute, very satisfying read. There is real character growth for both our main duo and supporting characters. There is enough research into Faire life to make it feel real. There is handfasting and taverns and stage combat. Really, just take my word for it and go read Well Met.

Series Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas

Last week a good friend popped into our Pandemic check in thread to demand we all read this series. She devoured the books over a few days, which is saying something as I know her daughter is wonderful and headstrong and all of 2 years old with a ton of energy.  I was between books at the time and hadn’t yet found something to fully hold my attention. 

Plus the ebook was like $6 and that is well within my budget. So I started to read A Court of Thorns and Roses. 

The rest of the week is a bit of a blur. Another friend joined our reading frenzy and we were more or less moved to a lesser group thread so our constant texting didn’t bother our less invested friends. 

So now I sit here, full book hangover in place wondering what I just read and how can it possibly be over. 

As always, let me back up and give you some ACoTaR background. 

Cue a world split in 2 by an invisible wall. Below the wall. Humans, above Faerie – complete with magic and immortality and their own problems. When Feyre ends up breaking an unknown section of the treaty separating the two people she is now called to the Faerie lands, to Prythian, where magic cannot solve everything and there are people who need saving. 

Of course there is a love story (or two…or more.) There are swoon worthy scenes and some very steamy moments that made me want to cheer for sex positivity in YA publishing. It is also a story full of hope, of fighting for a better future. It is full of characters learning their own worth, dealing with past trauma, and learning to love themselves. 

Sarah J. Maas builds an atmospheric world in Prythian. It was a bit of a shock to finish the last book in the series proper (A Court of Wings and Ruin) to know that my time among the various courts was coming to a close. 

It feels like I have just now come up for air. My friends and I had a social distanced meeting to discuss our favorite characters, favorite plotlines, twists and turns of the story. It was the most time any of us has spent talking in person without mentioning the current pandemic. It was refreshing. 

So I know I’m behind in singing my praise for one of Maas’ signature series, but I’m here now and looking for all of the merch and fanart.

On Reading On a Schedule

I was never very good at the books-for-homework thing. Assigned reading stressed me out. I am such a mood reader that the idea that I have to sit down and read X number of pages a day was a struggle. In high school my grades reflected my lack of interest in keeping to an external reading schedule, despite being a vorochuse reader. 

Fast forward to 2020. I’m (probably) done with school forever. I have an advanced degree. I did the work. I finished the reading on time. I no longer feel pressured to finish books in a timely fashion. Even my regular book club schedule usually allows for a full month to read something I am already interested in. 

These are the perks of running book clubs. I very rarely struggle through the reading. 

Anyway, That was all true until this week. You see, one of my book clubs fell of schedule. We’ve been meeting biweekly through the course of this pandemic and have so far had no problem doing the reading. But summer is here and even though we are a bunch of women who rarely leave the house other obligations are starting to pop up. Work is getting buiser. We’ve had to adjust. So instead of waiting a month to read a book we were all excited about we decided to meet this week.

This week being only 7 days since our last meeting. 

This week meaning I had 7 days to read a 430 page book. While I was already in the middle of another book. And had just started reading A Court of Thrones and Roses Before Bed. 

Needless to say I had to put myself back on that school schedule. Instead of accepting interruptions from my boyfriend or regular virtual game nights with friends I have spent my nights reading. I feel the pressure and I can honestly say I have no interest in going back to an externally paced reading schedule. It is truly not for me. 

Also, I am loving The City We Became but it is VERY heavy and I just want to go back to my YA romances and pretend the world isn’t happening. Is that really so much to ask?

Now I am off to go sit in my new favorite reading spot and continue my homework…er group reading.

Review: Catherine House By Elisabeth Thomas

Anyone have a soft spot for Dark Academia? I know it isn’t just me. 

I love reading about educational settings. The more elite and weird the better. I love uniforms and uppity students studying things that will make them somehow less employable then when they started their courses. I love moody old estates housing young adults who are both too stressed and drunk to have logical thought. I love the cult like feeling of these books. They make me want to pull out my tweed skirt, my cardigan with the elbow patches and walk through an old campus. 

If you’re like me and love all aspects of dark academia then please go pick up Catherine House. 

Catherine House is about a school. A school called Catherine. Catherine is highly selective, with a strange application process. It has a reputation of being both more difficult to gain admission to and more elite than any of the Ivy’s. Once accepted to Catherine your tuition and boarding is covered for your 3 years of study. The only catch – you leave your old life behind. Trinkets, cell phones, music…nothing from the outside world is permitted. It is next to impossible to communicate with loved ones. Catherine requires its students to eat, breath and sleep Catherine.

As readers we are introduced to Catherine through Ines, an incoming student who is looking to run away from her old, troubled life. At first I was skeptical of Ines as narrator. She seemed too aloof to fall for the school’s scheme, with too many hard edges. I’m happy to say I was wrong. What follows is a descent into Catherine’s seedy underbelly, and Ines’ descent into something that could be called madness. 

Thomas excels at creating an entirely real setting and populating it with real characters. Ines’ community ebbs and flows as her story progresses. Her community also shows the varying degrees of commitment to Catherine’s mission. There are certainly different levels of kool aid drinking going on. 

The classes sound both interesting and too obtuse for my media fried brain. Everything about the New Materials concentration is equal parts bizarre and engrossing. Catherine House is the type of book that makes me want to study something entirely obscure just to say I have. 

Go read Catherine House. As a bonus you’ll add diversity to your bookshelf with a debut book by a Black woman. It is a perfect escape from this time and also oddly timely. 

Honestly I can’t sing praises for Catherine House loudly enough.

On Why I Don’t Give Stars

If you’ve been following me for five minutes or five months you may have noticed something. 

I don’t rate my books. At least not here. 

You won’t find stars, tea cups, hearts, or whatever other brand specific icons other bloggers use to rate their reads. 

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why other people rate books. They’ve just never really rang true to me. I can have a ton of brilliant things to say about a story, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it. When pressed (by goodreads) I could give a book 2 stars but only have praises for it here. I see the same things on other blogs. Four star reviews filled with nothing but complaints or low star reviewed books that sound like a fun time but maybe aren’t very popular. 

It starts to feel like the star ratings can’t be trusted. I would rather read through a review and get a full feeling for a book than just go off of stars. 

This hasn’t always been my opinionI will say that years ago, in the first iteration of this blog, I gave star reviews. I found that when I looked back on my old reviews my “ratings” would change. They felt arbitrary compared to actually describing the workings of story, character, and writing. 

I’m older now, with a full time job, a house, and adult responsibilities. I’m going to write reviews the way I want. Stars be damned.

Review: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

This weekend I did something I rarely do. I talked to my mom about a book. She isn’t a reader. She likes that I read, she likes my job, she thinks all of these qualities are good things but she would much rather doddle in the kitchen or work in her garden than pick up a book. 

It’s okay. We’re different people. 

Anyway, I was talking to her about The Book of Longing. She wasn’t the first person I approached. She wasn’t the last. But she was the biggest departure from my traditional bookish circle. 

I spent the whole weekend with Kidd’s latest story in my heart and on my mind. It weighed on me. 

Looking back I don’t know what else I expected to happen. 

The Book of Longings is the story of Ana, the wife of Jesus. Yes, that Jesus. The one on the cross, with all of those churches. Jesus. Except Jesus is only here to play second fiddle to Ana and her wonderful story as a scribe, a believer, and a woman of her own mind. 

I went into Longings skeptical. In the wrong hangs this story could either be fanatical fanfiction or straight sacrilege.  I’m happy to say I was proven wrong. While the novel has a slow (and slightly horrific) start it really finds its stride in the marriage of Ana and Jesus. They are a good match, with character and living situations informed by diligent research and understanding of the time.  I spent my first reading session picking through the Authors Note at the end of the text. I needed some comfort about the level of research and intention. In a similar way that I cannot seem to bring myself to read Setterfield’s new novel about an alternate reality for Hilary Clinton I could see the purpose and power in Kidd’s work. I highly recommend reading the authors note for The Book of Longings if you are skeptical, also if you want to know more about the research process and about histories both real and liberally adapted. 

Now for the actual story. 

I found myself engrossed in the political drama, the religious inspirations, and the day to day tasks of a house wife in equal measure. Ana’s longing to be a voice and to share the stories of silenced women is honorable in any age, but especially in the first century. She is iconic in her own right – clever, educated, and compassionate. Kidd managed to create a character bigger than her historically significant (hello understatement) husband. Go Sue Monk Kidd. 

I also appreciated the treatment of sensitive material. I was not looking forward to reading about the crucifixion. I was raised Lutheran with very religious parents. I’ve taken to praying more during this crazy time and finding some solace in thinking about faith in a more holistic way. I was still worried about how a modern author would treat the bases of Christianity. 

I wasn’t disappointed. I was upset. I was horrified. I don’t do well with body horror in any context. But the scenes were tasteful. They were powerful. They were important for Ana. In the same way I appreciate how the rest of Ana’s long and successful life was portrayed. I started The Book of Longings thinking that I was hitching my horse to a character I couldn’t get behind for the sake of a sensational story and found myself routing for an incredible and fully developed character in a precarious place in time and history that could stand on her own two feet. 

Honestly I can’t recommend this book enough. I have major reading hangover right now and not even my recent package from my local indie bookstore can seem to snap me out of it. Maybe tomorrow I can fall in love with a new book but today I will honor Ana and continue to talk about her strength and voice with anyone who will listen.

Review: Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Five years ago I was in grad school. My social circle had kind of imploded as everyone went from carefree young twenty something to real adults needing to make real life choices. While I kept my very boring day job and started my program in library science I rekindled a love of reading. I found myself drawn more and more to Young Adult novels for comfort. I found myself in love with Rainbow Rowell’s writing. 

Over the years I kept up with her work. I even reviewed her new graphic novel the week it was released last year. 

But I put off reading Wayward Son. I didn’t remember much of  Carry On, just that I found it engrossing and fun. I didn’t feel like revisiting a fantasy land that required studying up on characters I could barely remember. Last fall my life was so busy I couldn’t imagine doing the extra work to refresh my memory of the first Simon Snow book to even think about starting the sequel. Holiday’s happened. Life went on. 

And then the world paused. 

I spent time looking at my unread books. I had friends doing the same. And suddenly Carry On and Wayward Son were back on my radar. Needless to say I found the time to refresh my memory about Simon, Baz, Penelope, and Agatha. 

For those of you not familiar with Rainbow Rowell’s work. Wayward Son is the sequel to Carry On. Fanfiction about Carry On’s fictional series is included in her novel Fangirl It is all super meta and very good. Wayward Son Picks up after a great battle (think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows level steaks) with the main character picking up the pieces of their lives. That involves a Road Trip, some hard conversations, and a lot of vampire and wizard(ish) brooding stares. 

I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to fall into the Simon Snow’s universe the same way I did years ago. I was so far removed from the person I was when I first enjoyed Rowell’s work. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Simon and Company (Baz. Mostly Baz) are great at any time. 

Wayward Son reads very much as a middle book in a trilogy. Nothing about it eels like a stand alone book. Characters are coping with the events of Carry On. There is some real PTSD happening with everyone. Relationships are established and complicated. Nothing about this road trip makes sense on its own. And that is okay. Just please don’t jump in thinking this is a good entry to the universe of  Simon Snow. 

There is, of course, a sudden emergency that needs attention, a few new fun characters for exposition, and a cliffhanger to ensure readers come back for more. 

Overall I was pleased with Wayward Son. It had action, brooding, vampires, and witches. It made me miss roadtrips and has me waiting for the final book in the Carry On trilogy.

Review: To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters

I live for a good regency era romance. 

Okay, I really live for Jane Austen retellings, Jane Austen novels, and novels based on side characters in Jane Austen novels that also have super romantic plot lines. 

It’s my comfort zone. I have no shame. 

So when I heard about To Have and To Hoax I was immediately drawn in. Debut author. Regency romance. Husband and Wife in a love/hate relationship hellbent on tricking the other into respecting them again?

Sign me up. And then sign me up for the reread, the book club discussion, the blog post, and the general fangirling. 

Needless to say I bought To Have and To Hoax for my kindle immediately. And then I spent a week immersed in the absolutely crazy schemes of Violet and James Audley.

And that is basically all To Have and to Hoax is about. Violet and James have fought. They haven’t spoken meaningfully in 4 years. Now both have plans to get the other to crack. 

Waters does a fantastic job of creating and writing comedy. Nothing about her first novel feels serious. The occasional trope is discovered and canceled out by more cunning (or ridiculous plans.) The dialogue between Violet and James is perfect. Witty banter is the star of the show. 

I will say some of the scheming is a bit over the top, but it fits in perfectly with the tone of the story. 

If you’re looking for a quick, fun read from a new author please check out To Have to Hoax. It will fill the Jane Austen void in your life and give you some great laughs.

Review: The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

Remember when we could all go out to bars, into our offices, and when nursing homes didn’t seem like the frontlines of a warzone?

Just had to check in, because so much of The Flatshare reads as something that can only happen in the years before Pandemic.

Mostly because, well, would you be willing to share a bed with a stranger right now?

Exactly. 

The Flatshare is the story of Tiffy and Leon. Both are in rough patches. Leon needs money to help out his imprisoned brother. Tiffy has just broken up with her boyfriend *again* and needs a new place to stay. So when Tiffy sees an ad to share Leon’s one bedroom flat she is skeptical, but the price is right. There will be rules. Leon works nights, Tiffy works days. They split time in the flat down the middle. They should never meet. But what happens when they do?

The Flatshare surprised me. I expected a cotton candy style romance with little substance, but really the character growth of Tiffy and Leon is leaps and bounds more present than anticipated. Leon has his own goals, his own demons, and is razor focused. Tiffy is a bit of a mess, post break up, but she reads as true, as if she is trying to get over the situation and put herself back together. Add in the realization that her ex was emotionally manipulative, and that Leon is just coasting through life and you have two characters that have worthy stories in their own right. 

And then Tiffy and Leon start leaving each other notes. I’m a sucker for written communication in books. Give me all the text exchanges, emails, and letters. Notes left on kitchen counters? Yes, please! Tiffy and Leon’s voices come across so strongly during these exchanges, and they are less a plot device as more insight into their characters. 

Of course, this is a contemporary romance, and it doesn’t fall flat. There is a slow burn, and the actual scene where Tiffy and Leon inevitably meet is a bit of a letdown, but their chemistry is real. Their relationship has all of the classic twists, turns, and cute scenes and is exactly as sweet as it is billed. 

Overall the Flatshare hit the spot. More complete than just a romance novel but with enough meet cute energy to make the coldest heart see stars. Check it out if you’re looking for a good read that is just heavy enough, with a side of swooning.