Review: A Taste of Honey, Rose Lerner

Note: I received a review copy of A Taste of Honey from the author. This did not influence the contents of my review.

If you’ve ever asked me for feminist romance novel recommendations, I’ve probably enthusiastically pushed Rose Lerner on you. Consider this me doing so again. A Taste of Honey is the latest installment in her Lively St. Lemeston series, which focuses on middle and lower-class folks in a small British town in Regency England. As with most romance series, you don’t need to have read the others to enjoy this one. Be prepared now for me to overuse the words delightful and charming, and if you notice a sentence in which I use neither one, just assume they were implied.

A Taste of Honey

Our protagonists are Robert Moon, the proprietor of a Lively St. Lemeston confectionery perpetually on the edge of financial ruin, and his shop-girl, Betsy Piper. She has pined after him for years, but he won’t make a move; he is waiting to achieve financial security before asking her to marry him, because he doesn’t want to drag a wife into bankruptcy with him. When the confectionery receives a massive order — twenty-five pounds — it could be the chance they’ve both been waiting for. A week-long frenzy of baking and banging ensues.

I mean: WHAT A DELIGHT. Protagonists managing a shared project is one of my favorite things, and Rose Lerner brings her customary acuity to Robert and Betsy, both of whom manage well enough when they’re negotiating sex with each other, but who also both need to learn a few things about recognizing and asking for what they want emotionally. Their shared project is the exactly-correct level of stressful, as Mrs. Lovejoy is rude to Betsy, flirtatious with Robert, and constantly swinging by unexpectedly to make expensive last-minute changes to her order.

Also featured: Extravagant, mouth-watering descriptions of yummy Regency-era desserts, which given Rose Lerner’s attention to detail I feel confident are period-accurate.

Also also featured: Butt stuff. Which is CRAZY because the day before I read A Taste of Honey, I was talking to my friend Ira about how M/F romance novels almost never have butt stuff.

And I cannot emphasize enough how sweet and dear this book is. Viz:

“It’s only that you’ll have to show me what to do.” His ears were hot. “You, erm–you might not be a virgin, but I be.” He’d been busy. And shy.

“Oh.”

Was it a disappointed ‘oh’? “But I learn quick,” he added hastily. “It can’t be much trickier than a good pie crust.”

I MEAN COME ON.

A Taste of Honey is a delectable treat that will please the palates of the romance expert and the romance newbie alike. You should rush right out and gobble it up as soon as possible. (Full disclosure, I was going to say the romance gourmet but I couldn’t think of a parallel word that meant newbie but with food. I regret nothing.)

Review: Thorn, Intisar Khanani

“I don’t know what justice is,” I tell him. “But I am trying to get what I can right.”

The above paragraph is a perfect summation of why I loved Thorn, and of why I love Intisar Khanani so much as an author. In Thorn, as in all her books, she writes about characters who may be in bad situations but who are trying their best. Characters who are trying their best are balm to my frazzled soul in these difficult times, so I am pushing Intisar Khanani’s books on people like they are ebags dot com packing cubes. Consider them pushed upon you. Go get you some.1

Thorn is a retelling of the fairy tale “The Goose Girl.” It’s a good fairy tale, full of details with that specifically fairy tale brand of weirdness. In this one, a princess is sent to marry a prince in a faraway land; on the way to her wedding, her chambermaid changes clothes with her and ultimately marries the prince in her stead. The true princess has to serve as the goose girl and comfort herself by talking to the head of her horse Falada, whom the chambermaid has had killed in fear that Falada would tell the truth about her. (Go with it; it’s a fairy tale.) Matters proceed from there.

Thorn does a typically (for Intisar Khanani) sincere and sweet retelling of this story, providing a backstory for the fairy tale weirdness that absolutely works. The maidservant, Valka, has made a deal with a wicked witch to switch bodies with the princess Alyrra, so that the witch can gain access to prince Kestrin. If Alyrra tries to tell what happened to her, the witch’s spell will choke her to death. She takes on the nickname Thorn and bides her time to see if she can save the prince from the witch’s curse.

In the hands of an author whose faith in people is less genuine, Thorn could have been a mess. Huge swathes of the plot depend on people appreciating Thorn for not being a jerk in a world where jerkiness runs rampant. If her goodness had felt forced, or their gratitude untruthful, the book would have fallen apart. But I am particularly in need of books where people are kind because they are trying to be good, even when the circumstances around them may not be conducive to goodness. In Thorn, the characters try to be good because they want to see goodness in the world, but they can only control themselves and their own actions. Which is, you know, pretty hashtag-relatable right now.

Who here still hasn’t read Intisar Khanani? How can I convince you to give her a go?

  1. I am still not being paid by ebags dot com although I think that I should be because I have convinced three people this year alone to buy their product.

My friend Cicero

I read a biography of Cicero and it has caused me to be a huge nerd. You can leave now if you don’t want to see me at my absolute nerdiest.

My first-ever teacher of Latin, in middle school, would stand at the front of the class and make incomprehensible remarks like “If you just remember amo amas amat amamus amatis amant, you will be all right” and “Here I have a postcard from my friend Cicero,” which it turned out was not an alive human but a very long-dead Roman of whom my Latin teacher was a great admirer. As a serious-minded eleven-year-old, I found this teacher maddeningly obstructive to my goal of learning Latin, and if memory serves, we didn’t even have textbooks.

That can’t be right, I must be remembering that wrong. Who would teach Latin without textbooks? Except if we had textbooks, I’d have taught my own damn self Latin, proof of which I now offer you in the form of my second middle-school Latin teacher. She had a weird and tragic backstory that she told in alarming detail to my older sister’s Latin class but never (as far as I can recall) revealed any shred of to my Latin class. I found out later (because she gossiped to students in her class at the other middle school) that she hated my class. I suspect this was my fault. I thought I was minimum 12x smarter than her, taught myself Latin out of the book while studiously ignoring her, and then let the four other people in the class copy my translations and cheat off my paper during tests any time they wanted.

And y’all, look, I know that was not great. I know I was a smart-ass twelve-year-old who made her teacher’s life hard and needed to be taken down a peg, but you have to understand that this is a story of love at first sight. From the first moment I understood how conjugations worked, I have been in love with Latin. Latin is the easiest and most joyful subject I have ever studied.1 No wonder everyone wanted it for their lingua franca, it is the motherfucking best language in the whole world. It’s so sensible and elegant and great. Shit.

In part this is because Latin makes heavy use of what we call inflection, which is a grammar thing that means the form of the word changes based on its grammatical function. It means that word order kind of doesn’t matter! Or rather, it means that you can use word order in fun, inventive ways. Especially if you are Cicero.

Anyway, then I went to high school and it turned out that my high school Latin teacher was put on this earth for the express purpose of teaching Latin, insofar as she was (is! to this day!) a Latin-teaching genius who if there were a medal for Worldwide Best Ever Latin Teacher would probs win that medal every year and all the other Latin teachers would get sulky and vote to stop awarding the Best Ever Latin Teacher award because it’s not promoting a collegial atmosphere (but actually it would just be sour grapes because they never got to win).

In Latin 3, when I was a sophomore, we got to read my guy Cicero, the subject of Anthony Everitt’s biography that I just finished reading. The biography was pretty good in terms of the events of Cicero’s life, but it’s weird to read a book about Cicero that doesn’t spend hardly any time at all talking about his prose. Like shouldn’t Cicero’s prose be getting more compliments? The man was a goddamn genius of word-writing. And you do really have to describe it, because his brilliance in large part depends on Latin’s flexibility and therefore doesn’t translate. Like here is a sentence (translated by me; I apologize to everyone for mistakes, I haven’t taken Latin in years) from his oration against the criminal Catiline, who was doing treason.

The Latin:

quam diu quisquam erit qui te defendere audeat, vives, et vives ita ut nunc vivis, multis meis et firmis praesidiis obsessus ne commovere te contra rem publicam possis. multorum te etiam oculi et aures non sentientem, sicut adhuc fecerunt, speculabuntur atque custodient.

In English:

As long as there is anyone whatsoever who dares to defend you, you live, and you live just as you are living now, blockaded by my many and trusty guards, so that you will not be able to agitate against the republic. The eyes and ears of many people will watch and guard against your unknowing self, exactly as they have done up to now.

Granted that I am not a professional translator. But like, there’s so much stuff in the Latin that doesn’t come through in this description because it can’t, because English doesn’t do those things. The translation doesn’t get at the punch of that vives . . . vives . . . vivis repetition, you live, you live, you live, the way it emphasizes that the traitor Catiline lives lives lives, at the mercy of the Senate. Or take this phrase:

multorum te etiam oculi et aures non sentientem

I translated “multorum . . . oculi et aures” as “the eyes and ears of many people,” which is exactly correct, but which loses this thing Cicero does where “multorum” and “oculi et aures” actually surround the word “te” (you). It is so good! The order of the words mimics the way Catiline is living his life — surrounded by watchful enemies!

Or take “non sentientem” (unknowing). That is an adjective phrase that goes with “te” (you) but it’s tricky to translate cleanly, because it also carries the implication of what Catiline doesn’t know (that the eyes and ears of many people are watching him). One choice is to make it into a separate clause along the lines of “although you do not know it,” which is less literal but gets in the slight sneeriness. I kept it as an adjective. Regardless of what you do, it never sounds as good as the original. Sob.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done talking about Latin. Cicero was a motherfucking genius. I will now submit to being stuffed in a locker. I acknowledge that I deserve it.

  1. I am putting this in a footnote because people who didn’t study Latin won’t get it, and people who did study Latin will want to straight-up murder me: I enjoy doing case and reason exercises. I’d have done double the assigned amount.

Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon Post

This is my master post for readathon, so strap in! I’ve never done one of these things before!

Hour 11

I was going to say that it’s hour 11 and I haven’t lost steam, but I seem to have read much less in the past three and a half hours than in the foregoing hours. Am I slowing up? Is my old age catching up with me? I did take a break to do some end-of-month budgeting and fold my laundry.

Read: 2 chapters of my genocide book (only 7 chapters now remain!), Paper Girls, vol. 1

Currently reading: Vision, vol. 1

Currently snacking upon: Nothing at the moment! I ate up all my raspberries and now regret not buying two things of raspberries. But it’s five o’clock, which means it’s time for a delicious, refreshing gin and tonic.

Hour 7

Fantastic news, y’all. The protag in Rulebreaker did indeed resolve her dilemma sexily. I chose Rulebreaker based on the results of my Twitter poll, then moved on to the runner-up, Angie Thomas’s NYT-bestselling The Hate U Give.

The Hate U GiveTWAS EXTREMELY SAD. And now I am back on the internets, checking in with my fellow readathoners.

Snacks eaten: Cheese fries. I meant to save them for later but I got super hungry.

Books read: One Crazy Summer, The Ship Beyond Time, Rulebreaker, The Hate U Give

Hour 4

Well this is going great so far. I read One Crazy Summer and The Ship Beyond Time (both awesome) and have now started on Cathy Pegau’s Rulebreaker, a romance novel in which (ahaha I am so excited) a con lady FALLS FOR HER MARK oh noes how will she resolve the resultant moral dilemma? (My prediction: Sexily.)

I also participated in a mini-challenge over at Pirates and Pixie Dust, ate a chocolate marshmallow bunny, and took a quick break to visit with my baby nephew and deposit a check at the bank. Readathon is amazing. I always knew it would be and I was right.

Hour 0 Survey

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

Louisiana! The weather is “who cares, I’m staying inside all day.”

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

This stack here?

(Yes, okay, I went a little nuts at the library.) Hard to say! The Ship Beyond Time is definitely one that I’m excited about, and I also have a romance novel on my ipad about a con lady who falls in love with her target, which sounds pretty great. But One Crazy Summer might be the book I’m most looking forward to: It’s been on my TBR for years and years, multiple bloggers have recommended it to me, and I’m only just now getting around to it.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

ALL OF THEM. I never buy candy, but I bought candy this one time, because Easter-colored M&Ms were on sale for a dollar. So I have that, I have popcorn, I have raspberries and some spinach to keep things healthy, I have a jar o’ cookie dough, I have homemade Oreos and also regular Oreos, and I have cheese fries for dinner. Judge not lest ye be judged.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

Gosh, what can I say? I’ve been blogging for nearly ten years (I KNOW), but I’ve never managed to do a readathon before. I’m very excited. I like cheese fries a lot. My reading eyes are bigger than my reading stomach. I am going to read at least 50% of one book while exercising this morning because I’m really, really trying to stay faithful about exercising.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

This is my first readathon, and I’m having feelings about it! The blogging community is objectively the greatest. I don’t know why it took me this long to participate in one of these things.

Review: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice

There is nothing quite as cleansing as finally reading a book that’s been on your TBR list for untold ages. Ana of Things Mean a Lot reviewed it in 2012, which is on the outer edge of how long I’ll let a book linger on my TBR spreadsheet. If I’ve let it go for five years without reading it, I have to accept that I didn’t truly want to read it in the first place.1 Alice from Of Books reminded me more recently why I wanted to read it, so thanks to both of you, lovely blogging friends!

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

As Ana and Alice both mention in their posts, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets recalls almost irresistibly I Capture the Castle, a comparison of which I had absolutely no recollection when I started reading. And perhaps it’s best that I didn’t; comparing a new book to one of the twentieth century’s great works of fiction is hardly a recipe for success. Please forget I said that. Except don’t, because I want you to read this book. Except do, because I don’t want to get your expectations too high.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is about a girl called Penelope who lives in a ramshackle old manor house called Milton Magna in postwar England. She rattles around her old manor house with her younger brother Inigo, who dreams of being a pop star, and her beautiful, widowed mother, married at seventeen and widowed in the Second World War. As Penelope is waiting tidily at the train station, a total stranger swoops in and carries her off to have tea with her family, and Penelope’s life changes entirely. In a manner that is not entirely unlike, yet not so much like that it should raise your expectations in a significant way, the events of I Capture the Castle.

I can at least say that without specifically remembering the I Capture the Castle comparison,2 I was immediately charmed by The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Penelope spends a great deal of time thinking about romantic love; but the fundamental relationships in the book are between Penelope and Charlotte and, to a lesser extent, Penelope and her maddening, dramatic, married-too-young mother. The book was a frothy delight from the first page, and if it’s not exactly up to the standard set by I Capture the Castle, it’s at least along the lines of a lesser Dodie Smith book or an ungrim Maggie O’Farrell novel. If that’s something you need (in this grim dystopian hellscape), go forth and read it with my blessing.

(Note that I had to bust out the old “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts” category for this book. That is an exact description of how I felt about it.)

  1. The oldest book currently on there dates to December 2013.
  2. So you should forget it too! Forget it at once!

The Girl from Everywhere, Heidi Heilig

TIME TRAVELING PIRATES. This book The Girl from Everywhere is all about time traveling pirates.

The Girl from Everywhere

The Girl from Everywhere is about TIME TRAVELING PIRATES. Just so you know. At sixteen, Nix has sailed everywhere from the lands of the Arabian Nights to present-day New York to eighteenth-century Calcutta — if her crew can find a map of a place, she and her father can sail them there. But all her father truly wants is to find a map of Hawaii in the year that Nix was born, so that he can prevent her mother from dying in childbirth.

The Girl from Everywhere
possible outcome of this plan

As long ago as Nix can remember, her father has been searching for a map of Hawaii that will let him save her mother. She herself has mixed feelings about it, since it will maybe result in her never having been born — a possibility that her father seems never to have considered. Nor does Nix want to bring it up to him. They don’t have that kind of relationship.

The Girl from Everywhere is Heidi Heilig’s first novel, and I’m excited for whatever she’s going to do next. She evokes the last days of independent Hawai’i in a way that’s utterly lovely and, as I said to GREAT MOCKERY on the podcast, made me want to go to Hawai’i for the first time. Nix’s difficult relationship with her father is the emotional heart of this book, and I love that Slate, whom Heilig has said is bipolar, is neither vilified for his illness nor excused for the ways in which he fails as a parent.

For those of you who always ask when I review YA: Yes, there’s a romance, a small one, very respectful and sweet. Some opium, and lots of maps.

Thanks to Amanda of Gun in Act One for the recommendation!

The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater

The first part of this post will not contain spoilers for The Raven King, or indeed for any book in this series. I will clearly mark the end of the non-spoiler-y part of the post, so that you can bail before I start shrieking about specific, spoilery things. I mainly want to tell you what I love so much about this book and this series.

The Raven King

The Raven Cycle is about figuring out how to be a person. Or more specifically, how to be a person when your world as it stands is not — is nowhere near — enough. One of our protagonists, Richard Campbell Gansey III,1 is looking for a Welsh king. Everyone else — Adam Parrish, who’s trying to be someone different; and Ronan Lynch, who’s looking for true things in a world full of liars; and Blue Sargent, the only non-psychic in a house full of psychics, who desperately wants something more — finds “looking for a Welsh king” to be a viable means of also searching for what they do want, so they are along for the ride. Mostly what they are all looking for is How To Be.

(how to be free, how to be happy, how to be a friend, how to make your life matter)

That they are sometimes phenomenally bad at these things makes it all the more satisfying as, over the course of the series, they get better and better at being who they want to become. Compare, for instance, the chats about relationships Adam and Blue have in The Dream Thieves versus in The Raven King. Compare the way Gansey is with Blue the first time they meet to the way he is with her — well, any time else, really, I just wanted to remind you of that whole President Cell Phone snafu because it remains one of my favorite scenes in the series. The lovely thing is that Adam and Blue and Gansey are fully themselves in all the versions of all these conversations; they are just getting better at it as they go along, in a lovely organic way.

It’s funny that I started with a spoiler warning, because in fact one of my favorite things about these books is how unspoilable they are. Or conversely how eminently disappointing it would be to go into them spoiled. Maggie Stiefvater’s maybe-best trick as a writer is that she always tells you the spoilers herself, probably more than once, but when the big reveal arrives, you’re still surprised, because she told you what was going on, but you were too distracted by something else she was doing at the same time.

(It makes rereading fun! You reread and you’re like “Oh she told me this exact information in Chapter 4.” “Oh, Ronan has been saying this all along and nobody was paying any attention.”)

Also, there’s magic and creepy trees. If magic and creepy trees are things that interest you. Or Latin. Or Tarot cards.

ONWARD TO THE SPOILERS.

Are you ready now? For spoilers?

Okay. Here they come. In no particular order.

NUMBER ONE. I cannot, and it is unfair for you to expect me to, handle a situation in an already emotional book in which a character I love walks into a creepy forest to meet his own death. You know perfectly well that gives me Harry Potter flashbacks. I had to put the book down for a minute because I couldn’t face the possibility of Gansey being alone when he died, even though I knew from previous visions that at least Blue was going to be there with him.

NUMBER TWO. I love it that Glendower was dead, and there was no favor, and the search brought them to a dead (ha ha ha) end. Mostly because I’m nihilistic that way, but also because it wasn’t ever really about Glendower in the first place (see above). It was about these people and their friendship and what they were growing into. Even Ronan knows that Gansey could have found Glendower any time he wanted, if he’d wanted to. It actually was the journey, and not the destination, that mattered.

NUMBER THREE. Everything about everything relating to Blue and Gansey, and Adam and Ronan, was perfect in every way. But my favorite thing, probably, was this:

He said, “I thought this was a night for truth.”

“Ronan kissed me,” Adam said immediately. The words had clearly been queued up. He gazed studiously into the front yard. When Gansey didn’t immediately say anything, Adam added, “I also kissed him.”

I don’t know why that amuses me so much. It’s just such an Adam thing to add, while he is talking to Gansey about, basically, how best to be careful of Ronan and what to do about it all.

Relatedly, I love Adam the best. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INTJ, which if you take a gander at a few of those “Which Harry Potter/Star Wars/Marvel Universe character are you?” Myers-Briggs charts, you will find is the personality type of mainly fictional psychopaths and life-ruiners. So it was nice to have such an exceptionally INTJ-y INTJ character like Adam to who was neither a psychopath nor a life-ruiner.2

NUMBER FOUR if I may make one tiny criticism. I am not sure we and the other characters had enough time to deal with their losses. Gansey is dead for like two seconds before they bring him back to life, and even though I find the manner in which he is brought back to life quite satisfying, I would have liked that emotional beat to matter a little more and a little longer. Like maybe if Henry Cheng hadn’t been there for it? And if they’d had to take Gansey home and once they got home he said the thing about them being magicians?

Also, and mainly, nobody got a chance to grieve Noah. I guess it’s fine that they never knew he’s the one who saved Gansey — I actually like it when there’s important pieces of the story that important characters never find out — but I’m sad we didn’t see them recognizing that he was gone gone, and having the chance to grieve. And after he was so sweet to Ronan.

NUMBER FIVE, Adam borrows Ronan’s car to go see his family at the end. (I assume his Hondayota finally bit the dust?) That Adam let Ronan lend him a car, and that Ronan let Adam go do this scary feelings thing on his own, says everything about how much these two characters have changed over the course of the books. What a great series.

You may now feel free to squeal at me in the comments about any and all of the books in this series.

  1. I like to call him RG3, even though the overlap between Raven Cycle readers and minor quarterback carers-about is probably not that huge so there are probably very few people who would find this amusing.
  2. My mum doesn’t like Adam. I identify strongly with Adam. Does this mean she doesn’t like me? Who knows.

Game of Queens, India Edghill

Note: I received a review copy of Game of Queens from the publisher for review consideration. This has no bearing upon my super-intense vengeful emotions about Haman and their contribution to my enjoyment of the book; about which, see further remarks below.

In my 2014 book preview, my expressed wish for Game of Queens, a retelling of the story of Esther, was that it not use the word sex as a euphemism for genitalia. And it did not. It also turned out to feature Daniel, of lions-not-eating-him fame, being gay without his close friends fretting too much about it, and it managed the neat trick of vilifying not Esther nor Vashti nor Ahasuerus. Which, if you remember the Book of Esther in any detail, you will notice is really quite some trick.

Haman is vilified, as is right and just. When I was a wee tot, I had this amazing book called Behold Your Queen which was also a retelling of the Esther story (it did vilify poor old Vashti), and so the moment where Haman gets hanged upon his own gallows was one of the formative Revenge moments of my childhood.

Fun fact: Thinking about revenge activates the reward centers in your brain!

Although Game of Queens is subtitled A Novel of Vashti and Esther, it’s really Vashti’s book. In part this is because Esther’s story is already so familiar, and by the nature of her story, she’s a less dynamic character. Vashti’s the one who gets to change and grow, to realize that she can’t be Marie Antoinette all the time, and to learn to become a player in the politics of her country, instead of a pawn. She’s a fun character, and it’s surprisingly rare to have a book in which a ditzy girl gets to get to make shit happen.

Greatest book ever, Pulitzer Prize material? Okay, probably not. But I cherish the story of Esther, and what Edghill has produced here is a monumentally satisfying version of that story. Not only do we get a Vashti who finds a way to control her own destiny even after she’s set aside as Queen of All Persia, but there’s this whole subsidiary plot about getting REVENGE on Haman even before Haman comes up with the idea of killing all the Jews.

Final note: Apparently Martin Luther was ruhlly ruhlly not into the Book of Esther. It was probably too fun for him. He probably wanted to put the Book of Job in there twice, just to make everyone miserable. Cranky old jerk. (I’m glad the Reformation happened. Super important, historically. Major step forward for Europe. I’m just not such a fan of Martin Luther as a person.)