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REVIEW:  Much Ado About Sweet Nothing by Alison May

REVIEW: Much Ado About Sweet Nothing by Alison May

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Ben Messina is a certified maths genius and romance sceptic. He and Trix met at university and have been quarreling and quibbling ever since, not least because of Ben’s decision to abandon their relationship in favour of … more maths! Can Trix forget past hurt and help Ben see a life beyond numbers, or is their long history in danger of ending in nothing?

Charming and sensitive, Claudio Messina, is as different from his brother as it is possible to be and Trix’s best friend, Henrietta, cannot believe her luck when the Italian model of her dreams chooses her. But will Claudio and Henrietta’s pursuit for perfection end in a disaster that will see both of them starting from zero once again?

Dear Ms. May,

As I get older, I find myself having problems with some of the Bard’s masterpieces. The idea that Kate is some shrew just because she’s strong willed irritates me while the way Claudio basically announces to the world that he thinks his sweet Hero is a skank before she takes him back now sends me into a rage. I’ve tried some modern interpretations of “Taming of the Shrew” and have basically written it off as a play that I can’t tolerate any more. When Choc Lit offered me a look at your telling of “Much Ado About Nothing,” I crossed my fingers and decided to see if I had to bid this one farewell and ado. Yippee, skippee for me that it can still stay on my “Go to” list.

I think this is a marvelous updated retelling of the play. Some recent “takes” on it seem forced but this one has the needed wit, humor, and pathos required to tell the tale as well as seeming fresh and modern. Nothing comes off as incongruous or out of place while it still keeps to the necessary details required of the story.

I love what you’ve done to bring the characters into the 21st century. Everyone’s an adult, out on their own and responsible for themselves. Ben is a mathematician whose brilliance can get in the way of his social interactions with others. Trix is a childrens’ librarian who works with their mutual friend Danny, though everyone loathes Danny’s lover John who loves to cause mischief for spite. Claudio is far too aware of how handsome Englishwomen find his Italian good looks while, due to a tragic past event, Henri is frantic to always be the good daughter or girlfriend. Most of the other characters can and have been pared down but the plot is so cleverly constructed that I didn’t notice their loss.

The plot is easy to follow and the way certain aspects of it are executed are very up-to-date and believable. Even if I had no knowledge of the original, this one makes sense and never feels contrived. As with the original, the relationship of Ben and Trix carries the story. They’re the witty ones who amuse their friends with their decade long bickering. The scene where their public argument got them both a ticket for disturbing the peace – really £80 tickets for this? – is a riot. Later, their discussions about how to break the news to their friends – I totally agree that they’re going to have the piss taken out of them – and practicing using the word “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” had me giggling. Ben’s solution for their living arrangements is inspired. But then he does have a Dphil from Cambridge.

But the rub for me was going to be Henri and Claudio. What were you going to do with them? Claudio does come all over as an Italian stallion who astonishes tiny Henri when he picks her. Her tendency to natter and eager puppy personality do the trick to make him seem out of her league but you still show what Trix says and Claudio knows – that Henri isn’t dumb, she just has security issues. As the plot unfolded, I groaned a few times. Is she really going to forgive and forget? I wondered. Can I respect this character as she’s acting now? I did wonder but by gosh, you made me a believer in her final decision. And Claudio does end up paying for not taking her wants into consideration – and in a very modern way, too!

The first person PsoV keep the various characters’ motivations, inner thoughts and feelings cloaked from each other, and I liked how you filled us in on background stuff by going “ten years earlier” or “five months earlier” rather than having each character unload an info dump of information.

The book finishes with a hopeful ending but one that’s not entirely settled. If Claudio finally wises up, he just might be worthy of her – should Henri decide to give him another chance. But in the meantime, things are looking up for Danny and positively blissful for Ben and Trix. Now if those two can just get used to holding hands in public… B

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

countessDear Ms. Milan,

I believe I’m not alone in being in a serious historical romance funk. Among the readers I talk to, it seems that many of us who have been primarily historical romance fans for years are finding it hard to get excited about the current crop of books. That this malaise is shared by others suggests that the problem is not with the readers, but with the reading material. But I don’t know that this is necessarily true, at least for me, because even when I read what objectively (well, as objectively as a subjective judgement can be) is a perfectly fine historical romance, like The Countess Conspiracy, I remain somewhat unmoved.

Sebastian Malheur and Violet Waterfield have been friends forever, and co-conspirators of a sort for the past several years. They grew up together, and Sebastian stood by Violet during her difficult marriage (which ended with her husband’s death in a fall). Now he’s doing even more for her: for several years now he’s been pretending that Violet’s scientific discoveries are his own. He publishes papers and gives lectures on them, neither of which Violet can do. For one thing, her early attempts to submit her findings on plant reproduction* to scholarly publications were utterly ignored because she’s female. Even if she were to find someone who would publish her work, she would be subject to social approbation, something her very proper mother has drilled into her as a fate worse than death.

* Though it’s not presented in a particularly complex manner, I’m not going to even try to explain too much the nature of Violet’s work, for fear of getting something wrong.

It’s the subject matter of Violet’s research that makes it especially scandalous – her breeding and cross-breeding of various plant species is a shocking topic for delicate Victorian ears and eyes, with its vague but undeniable connection to S-E-X. It’s shocking when Sebastian delivers the lectures, too, but he’s a man, and a charming, rakish one at that, so the shock is more of the salacious “ooh!” variety. Still, Sebastian does receive some social disapproval, and it’s starting to wear on him. Even more wearing is the knowledge that he’s living a lie; he feels like a fraud, and it’s turning his naturally sunny disposition darker.

Sebastian has been in love with Violet for as long as he can remember. She’s a few years older than him, and he trailed after her as a child and then later included her in the “club” he has with his two best friends from school, Robert and Oliver. This detail felt a little false; a woman being included in a social quartet with three men she’s neither married nor related to, in Victorian times, seemed unlikely. But I guess it’s meant to show that Sebastian insists that Violet be included in everything, up to and including Oliver’s bachelor party,  because he adores Violet.

Both Sebastian and Violet have family baggage to deal with, in addition to their own fraught relationship. In Sebastian’s case, his carefree, happy and easy existence is upended by conflict with his older brother (in addition to his angst over the charade with Violet). Benedict is dying of some sort of unspecified heart ailment, and Sebastian is troubled to realize that Benedict doesn’t want to give guardianship of his only  son to his younger brother, preferring a more distant but upright relative. This leads to several discussions between the brothers which cause Sebastian to realize that Benedict has no respect for him, in spite of Sebastian’s supposed scientific accomplishments. Sebastian’s attempts to prove Benedict wrong only make things worse. This conflict was well-done – it felt real and I could understand the difficulty from both POVs; the brothers are just very different in a way that’s pretty much guaranteed to cause resentment.

Violet’s issues are more serious. Her father killed himself, a scandal that had to be hushed up and denied, and which lead to Violet’s mother instituting some very rigid rules for her daughters regarding proper deportment. Violet’s sister Lily takes to the rules with enthusiasm, marrying (happily) and producing an endless stream of children, and generally cleaving to the conventional model of Victorian womanhood with gusto. Violet loves her sister but is jealous of her in some respects; she feels that her only value to Lily is as a helper and fixer when things go wrong.

Her relationship with her mother is even more difficult; Violet resents the rigidity with which she was raised, especially after her father’s death. Though she follows her mother’s rules, she’s keenly aware of how they circumscribed her life during her marriage and how they continue to do so in the present. Further, she is sure that if her mother knew her secret she would turn on her without a second thought. Violet does not feel unconditionally loved by either her mother or her sister; there are rules and regulations attached to their continued approval and support.

It takes Violet a while to realize that this is not the case with Sebastian, and if I had any issue with her, that was it. She really does take him for granted. There’s a closed-off part of her that refuses to acknowledge what’s between them and what could be between them (there are reasons for that, but they aren’t explained for a while and by the time they were I was a bit frustrated with Violet). Also, Violet is portrayed as something of an absent-minded genius, one who isn’t even aware of her surroundings when she really gets going with her work. The latter depiction is a common one for scientists in fiction, and it may even have the ring of truth, but it sort of bugs me. I think it’s often played too broadly, or, as here, used to excuse someone being a bit of an insensitive ass.

Before I learned the deep, dark secret of Violet’s unhappy marriage (which was a bit different than what I’d expected), I also got a little tired of Violet’s interior monologue, which was all about how unlovable she was and how she drove everyone away eventually. Actually, even after Violet’s secrets are revealed, I’m not quite entirely sure how the pieces fit together to make her so self-loathing. I had to chalk it up to Violet’s pain over never really feeling like she could be her true self with the world. (Though in that, I’m not sure she was so unusual for her time and place.)

There’s plenty to like in The Countess Conspiracy. The writing is good. I liked Violet. I liked Sebastian. I liked the (somewhat unusual) role reversal, where he’s the charming, flighty one hiding an unrequited love, and she’s the dark and angsty genius. Still, it added up to a bit less than the sum of its parts for me, and I’m not sure why. Since I can’t find much fault with the book (well, I have found fault, but it’s all minor stuff in the larger scheme of things), I have to conclude that it’s part and parcel with my general historical romance malaise. Sigh.

My grade for The Countess Conspiracy is a straight B.

Best regards,

Jennie

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