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REVIEW:  Meet Me At the Castle by Denise A. Agnew

REVIEW: Meet Me At the Castle by Denise A. Agnew

Meet Me At the Castle by Denise A. Agnew

Dear Ms. Agnew,

 

I’ll admit it – I was skeptical at first.  When I requested the title, I was under the mistaken impression it was a full length historical romance novel rather than something much shorter.  How could the full story described fit into just 44 pages, I wondered.  I was very pleasantly surprised, I must say.

Elizabeth Albright is considered a spinster by the standards of her time – and she’s considered more than a little strange by her well-to-do family.  It’s 1848 in rural England, and she’s an artist, at heart, with her chosen subject the ruins of nearby Cromar Castle.  Her passion, in fact, borders on obsession.  The nearby ruins have fascinated her since childhood, compelling her to paint and sketch them from every available vantage point.  They provide her with a sense of peace and security, even though she often feels someone is there with her.  Enter the mysterious Damian.  She only sees him at the ruins, and only occasionally.  Even though Elizabeth is quite content with her life, and the occasional clandestine meeting with her handsome stranger, her wicked stepmother pressures Elizabeth’s father to send the girl to London for a husband.  Will she find one before the mystery of her castle stranger is solved?

Ok, the stepmother?  She’s SO the wicked, evil, nasty stepmother from just about every fairy tale ever written.  Even though we didn’t spend much time with the woman, she made my skin crawl.  Elizabeth’s father, too.  There’s a textbook worth of psychology and history lessons just from those two.  Though, speaking of history, the handsome Damian needs a mention or two.  I absolutely loved the little bit of paranormal woven through the story.  It was just a taste – enough to tantalize and tease, but not so much that it overran the story.  If this had been a novel-length piece, I would have liked to see the explanation behind Damian explained a little more.  Given the published length, however, I think the explanation given was absolutely perfect.

Elizabeth is a very…interesting character in quite a few respects.  We meet a woman who really doesn’t have the time or inclination for the traditional female fripperies of the mid-1800s gentility.  She’s been “trained” in proper behavior (and yes, that word is in quotes for a reason – despite my love of historical romance, the gender norms of the 1800s drive me slightly insane), and observes it – to a point.  I truly enjoy the fact that you don’t shove the typical 1800s ideas and ideals down our throats.  They’re mentioned, but more in passing, to give us context.  Elizabeth could have been more 2-dimensional, but you took the time to let the story unfold as it would rather than forcing either character into any singular mold.

Ok, so the story IS a bit predictable.  When someone picks up historical romance (or any romance, for that matter), they always know there’s going to be a happy ending.  Perhaps some of the characters get knocked around along the way and perhaps they have to face some nasty trials to get that point, but we ALWAYS know that, like the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the happily ever after -will- show up..

If there was one thing that absolutely sold me on this story was the ending.  I’m not going to spoil it for other readers, but it absolutely delighted me that you went in completely the opposite direction from most other historical novels.  I can genuinely say that I did NOT see that coming.  In fact, when I got to the ending, all I could think of was that I wanted more and I wanted it right now.  There’s definitely a full length novel simmering under this story – or, at the very least, a sequel or two.  Elizabeth DOES have a beloved brother, you know… (hint, hint).  B

Waiting Here with Bribes for the Author,

Mary Kate

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REVIEW:  Dark Paradise by Angie Sandro

REVIEW: Dark Paradise by Angie Sandro

Sandro-Dark-Paradise

Dear Ms. Sandro,

When I first heard about your debut, my interest was piqued. A non-contemporary romance NA? Featuring non-white characters? Give it to me! Interests in diversity aside, I’m curious to see if NA can expand beyond contemporary romance successfully. Dark Paradise seemed promising.

Set in the Louisiana bayou, Dark Paradise tells the story of Malaise “Mala” LaCroix, the last in a long line of supposed witches. As for Mala herself, she thinks that reputation is just a bunch of nonsense. People look down on their family because her mother is the town prostitute and everyone knows it. Well, that and the fact that the LaCroix line is a result of a relationship between a plantation owner and his slave.

But it turns out that it’s not just gossip. When Mala finds the body of a dead girl floating in the bayou, the girl’s ghost begins haunting her. And of course, the dead girl’s brother soon comes around, accusing Mala of being responsible. (It does look suspicious. The body was found floating in LaCroix land, after all.) To further complicate matters, Mala and the brother, Landry, have an undeniable attraction and connection — one that she’s denied and that he’s fostered for many years.

The thing that struck me about Dark Paradise is the setting. It’s alive. I can’t speak about authenticity as I’ve never been to the Louisiana bayou but I could easily picture this small town in the deep South. Where class lines run deep, and those class lines may run along racial lines. Where the religious thump their bibles and judge. Where everyone knows your business and one misstep can lead to your ostracization.

As an aside, I really liked how the novel acknowledged that it was possible for a visibly black person to have pale-skinned relatives who passed for, and likely identified, as white. I feel like this point is often overlooked in books featuring black characters that live in the U.S. In Dark Paradise, Mala even talks about how you can see the red in her own hair.

Despite these things that I did like, I was left feeling lukewarm towards the book. I thought the characterization left much to be desired. At times I didn’t understand why they chose to do certain things and sometimes those choices contradicted convictions that had been voiced five pages before! That said, a large portion of this can be attributed to the relationship between Mala and Landry. They’re attracted to each other! He thinks she killed his sister in some sort of over the top Satanic ritual! (Why is it always Satanic ritual?) Her friends think he’s a player that just wants in her pants! His parents think she’s a witch who’s ensorcelled him! She thinks he’s a liar! There’s also the part where he stalks her and scares her half to death but it’s okay, he didn’t mean it. He was just torn up about his sister! I don’t know about you but I find that kind of back and forth exhausting. Make up your damn minds, people.

The other complaint I have is less concrete. As a suspense plot, I think the pieces are all there. There are multiple leads and multiple suspects for the murder. But it all seems to unfold in a jumbled mess. Partially because of the shaky characterization. Partially because it’s overshadowed by the burgeoning of Mala’s powers. You see, the LaCroix witches come into their full power when their mother dies. Mala’s mother has foreseen her death and warns Mala to prepare as the ghost haunting signals that the time is fast approaching. There’s also Mala’s great-aunt who is a powerful witch (enter some handwaving about twins to explain how she could have that power if the power is meant to be a mother-to-daughter thing). And partially because of the hot and cold aspects of Mala and Landry’s relationship — along with the other sort-of-but-not-really love interest, Georgie. The book tries to do a lot with all of these aspects and as a result, I think fails to do them justice.

Dark Paradise is a very different kind of read. The setting prevents it from being outright urban fantasy, and the suspense and fantasy aspects separate it from other NA novels. While I liked how family plays an important role, I also wish we’d seen more of Mala pursuing her dreams in a criminal justice career. Sure, it came up in the beginning but as the book continues, those goals fall along the wayside. I get that she has some immediate concerns that need attention but I hope those don’t get tossed away because she’s set to become some powerful hoodoo queen. But for readers who pick up NA novels for the relationship, I’m going to have to say that the romance between Mala and Landry left me cold. C

My regards,
Jia

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