Jennie’s Reading List for January through March 2022
I’ve been doing quarterly “what I’ve been reading” posts pretty faithfully for a while now. Usually I have close to ten books on the list, but for various reasons I haven’t been reading much, and so I only have three to review (I also reviewed two books with Janine – How High We Go in the Dark and Sea of Tranquility).
Good Girl Complex by Elle Kennedy
Kaetrin reviewed this back at the beginning of February and gave it a B-. I liked it a bit better; I mentioned in the comments on her review that it was a B verging on a B+ for me, but I recorded a B+ in my book log, so a B+ it is.
When I saw that Kennedy had a new series, I somehow got the impression that it was more women’s fiction-y than her previous work. I was happy enough to find out that it’s similar to the other books of hers that I’ve read – a New Adult romance set in a college town.
I didn’t have a huge problem with the set-up, in which townie Cooper tries to seduce rich girl Mackenzie to get revenge on her boyfriend, who got him fired from his bartending gig. I felt that it was handled with a light enough touch; Mackenzie wasn’t some vulnerable poor little rich girl, and Cooper wasn’t a moustache-twirling villain about it. Soon enough his feelings are real and then it’s just waiting for him to get his comeuppance when Mackenzie finds out the truth. Honestly, I felt like Kennedy left it for too late and by the time it happened I kind of wish she had chosen a different, more subversive route to resolve the conflict.
Other than that, my main complaint was one that I commonly have in NA romances – serious issues are introduced but because the characters are so young, and because of the limitations imposed by the HEA, it feels like the issues are never sufficiently addressed. In this case, both Cooper and Mackenzie have lousy parents. Both sets of parents are cliches – his are poor/druggie/criminal, while hers are rich/cold/appearances-above-all-else. I kind of wish we’d at least see the characters in therapy by the end of the story. Otherwise, the treatment feels shallow and vaguely “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”/nature over nurture, and that doesn’t sit well with me.
Niggles aside, the writing is good, the setting is appealing and the characters – especially Mackenzie – are likable. I am looking forward to future books in the series.
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Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner
Set in London, this thriller features three narrators: Helen, expecting her first child after years of trying; Serena, Helen’s sister-in-law, also pregnant, and Katie, Helen’s erratic brother Charlie’s girlfriend.
Helen has just gone on early maternity leave for her high-risk pregnancy, and she finds herself at loose ends. She meets the younger Rachel at a prenatal class; Helen’s husband cancels at the last minute and Rachel’s there alone. Rachel, younger, loud and inappropriate (she smokes and drinks in spite of her condition) attaches herself to Helen, and Helen, for reasons that I couldn’t quite figure, lets her.
I tried to accept that Helen was lonely and rather neurotic, and didn’t have the wherewithal to shut down Rachel’s persistent attempts to insinuate herself into Helen’s life. But Rachel is also repellent, and Helen did seem to be repelled by her at times. Between that and the fact that Rachel starts suspiciously turning up everywhere that Helen is, it’s hard to credit that Helen wasn’t more wary of Rachel.
From there, it’s a twisty ride through secrets of the past (something mysterious happened while Helen, her husband Daniel, her brother Rory, and Serena were all at Cambridge together) and the present (gee, why *is* Helen getting repeated calls from lenders regarding the mortgage she definitely never took out?). Meanwhile Rachel is lurking in the background like a malevolent spider, hovering over Helen and interfering with her relationship with Daniel.
The resolution was…pretty good? It tied the past and the present together neatly, and nobody’s behavior seemed hugely out of left field. I didn’t care for most of the characters that much though – Helen is too mousy to really root for, and everyone else besides Katie (who has a smaller role in spite of being one of the narrators) kind of sucked. Still, I’ll give Greenwich Park a low B+, for pure readability. It manages to build a tone of increasing claustrophobia and dread leading up to the climax, and that’s something I like out of a thriller.
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After Dark with the Duke by Julie Ann Long
If my book log is to be believed I have not read a Julie Ann Long book since I gave The Legend of Lyon Redmond a C- in 2015. So, it’s been a while. Janine mentioned enjoying this book, which is actually the fourth book in the Palace of Rogues series. I’m so glad she suggested I give it a try.
Mariana Wylde, a 25-year-old opera singer embroiled in a very public scandal over two dumb aristocrats fighting a duel over her, arrives at The Grand Palace on the Thames in the middle of the night, seeking refuge. The Palace has apparently become a sort of exclusive hotel for eccentrics and lost souls over the first three books in the series, and the two women who run the place (heroines of earlier books) agree to take Mariana in.
Arriving shortly after is the famous and universally admired Duke of Valkirk, a war hero who is retreating to the Palace for respite from social obligations so he can write his memoirs in peace. He’s a widower, and almost 20 years Mariana’s senior. The two clash at first, because the duke, given name James, is extremely disapproving of Mariana’s reputation as a heartless harlot responsible for almost getting a young man killed. (The fact that Mariana has very little, if any, responsibility for the duel, apparently doesn’t occur to him. I actually liked this detail, as I thought it was true to James’ character and the prevailing attitudes of the era.)
After an argument between the two goes too far, James is forced to make amends to Mariana by giving her Italian lessons (as an opera singer, it’s useful for her to know what she’s singing). This, of course, ends up being the catalyst for a relationship to develop.
I really liked After Dark with the Duke, mostly because I really liked Mariana. A cobbler’s daughter, she has managed to rise somewhat in the world on the strength of her voice. But she wants to rise farther, so she has enough money to support her mother (her father has died). She did get somewhat caught up in the unsavory aspects of being an opera singer, but she’s by no means the bad girl the world (or London and the duke) think she is. She takes ownership of her mistakes but is determined to overcome them – she’s just not sure how.
I liked James too – this was a book where the age difference worked for me, because if he had been 30 and as judgmental and stick-up-his-you-know, I might have found him too prissy. But somehow I felt that he had been hardened by life and the military to have a very black-and-white code. His first marriage was not a happy one; but he has a grown son whom he does love – his love for his son was one of the softening features of his personality. He fights against his attraction to Mariana but of course she’s actually what he *needs* in his life.
This might have been A range for me but for a couple of things: the barrier to the HEA is set up as insurmountable, and then it just…isn’t. I would’ve liked to have seen more of the internal conflict there for the resolution to be believable. Also, in general I felt like the ending was just sort of a fizzle, and maybe due to that the book just didn’t stay with me the way I expected it to. For those reasons, my grade is a B+. I’m looking forward to getting caught up on the earlier books in the series, and to reading book #5, which I believe comes out next month.
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I’m glad you liked After Dark with the Duke! I gave it a slightly higher grade (B+/A-). It had a few inaccuracies that bugged me (especially involving their future) and Mariana’s need for lessons in Italian was a bit contrived but when JAL is on I can forgive a lot because for my money she can conjure arresting romantic tension better than most authors writing today. I agree it that it needed a little more internal conflict, but still, it was really good in many aspects–besides the romantic tension the sex scenes were one, the character interiority and the writing others. As you say, Mariana was an excellent character in many regards. Maybe my grade would have been lower if I enjoyed a lot of other historical romances but it’s hard to find ones I love these days.
Thanks for sharing your list with us, Jennie. After Dark with the Duke is definitely on my list!
I’ve enjoyed the entire Palace of Rogues series. The first, Lady Derring Takes a Lover, in which the Palace comes to exist, is a wonderful combination of sorrow (widowed), anger (cheating spouse), determination, and unexpected friendships.
I looked at your list and thought, “Wait. Where’s the 19th century novel? Where’s the celebrity bio? Where’s the non-fiction book?” ☺
@Janine: Yeah, grading on a “historicals these days” curve it definitely deserves an A-. I’m not sure why the ending felt anticlimatic and a little off to me. It definitely made me interested in getting back into reading her books, so I’m grateful for the rec!
@Kareni: Let me know what you think if you read it!
@LML: Thanks – I will probably start that one soon!
@Jayne: I know! I am doing horribly in my reading this year.
I am bogged down in a non-fiction that I just haven’t been reading. I need to start a new classic – I was trying to make myself read “Gone with the Wind” but I think it’s just too disturbing and racist for me to get through it. (It’s too bad, because I kind of *want* to read it. I’m interested in the story, but not the propaganda, and there’s just too much of the latter.)
@Jennie: I read GWTW multiple times in my youth, but I absolutely know I couldn’t read it again today: the appalling racism just leaps off every page. However, if you want to understand the mindset of people who are indignant about the removal of statues & monuments honoring slaveholders/Confederate “heroes,” GWTW is not a bad place to start. Perhaps you could read it for sociological purposes. It’s not even a satisfying romance because (spoiler) Scarlett loves the wrong (for her) man for most of the book and by the time she realizes she loves another man, he’s no longer interested.
@Jennie and @DiscoDollyDeb: I am sure I couldn’t stand to read something that racist and propaganda-filled these days either. I tried to read it in the 1980s when I was fifteen and couldn’t get through it. Scarlett’s fixation on Ashley was too annoying for me. I finally gave up and flipped to the end and then I was so glad I hadn’t persisted. I would have thrown the book at the wall if I had–metaphorically at least, not in reality since it was a library book.
@Janine & @Jennie: it might be interesting to read GWTW now as the racist/confederate propaganda it undoubtedly is. It entered into the popular culture because of its “moonlight & magnolias” representation of the Old South, with beautiful hoop-skirt dresses, mint juleps, and a passionate, but amoral heroine; when, in fact, it is a representation of white nationalism where the worst thing that could befall a white woman would be to have to pick her own cotton!
@DiscoDollyDeb: Yeah, I’m interested in it as a historical artefact but it’s just too much to get through, especially since it’s a long book. I’m pretty familiar with the story from seeing parts of the movie 27 times (I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and seen it from start to end, but I’m quite sure I’ve seen every scene multiple times). I do think I might get another perspective on Scarlett as a heroine (from the book vs. the movie), but I just can’t make myself slog through it all for that.
@Janine: I can imagine that ending being frustrating if you aren’t already expecting it!
I wish I could divorce the book from both the…horrendous racism, and the movie as well. It’s hard for me not to see Scarlett as VIvian Leigh (who I do think did a great job portraying her) and Ashley as Leslie Howard (I didn’t get enough of a sense in the book of the character, but Leslie Howard is very convincing as a milquetoast).
As for Rhett/Clark Gable, I’m not inclined to like either. Rhett as a “hero” in the movie is too one-dimensional, too smug and sure of himself with Scarlett. Maybe in the book you get some sense of vulnerability, but I doubt it. I haven’t been able to see Clark Gable the same (he was never my favorite) since I heard the Loretta Young rape story.
@DiscoDollyDeb: I think that is what I was hoping for – to be able to analyze it from a remote stance. But current events make that harder rather than easier, you know?
And I get myself mad all over again thinking about how Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind built up the notion of the glorious antebellum south, and people (even in the north!) have taken the ball and ran with it in terms of that mythology.
Even something as admired and lauded as Ken Burns’ Civil War, which I was mesmerized by as a young adult, bent over backward to mythologize Robert E. Lee as a noble and tragic figure. It makes me sick to think about it now.
@Jennie: A friend of one of my daughters is currently working on her Ph.D. in History and her subject is Confederate monuments in the North/non-Confederate states…and it’s amazing how many there are and how they were erected mostly in the 1920s & 1930s as a pushback against greater economic and social gains made by African-Americans. A depressing story that continues to be played out today.
@Jennie: Well, I think that as you say, the obstacles were built up so much and then removed more easily then I expected. However, I also had a problem with the anachronisms in the book. Did you notice them at all?
@Janine: I can’t remember – can you refresh my memory?
So one thing was that Dot, who had been a former maid to Delilah (one of the inn’s owners and a former countess, I think) was also one of Delilah and Angelique’s friends and was treated as an equal, including spending time in the parlor when all the guests (the duke among them) gathered there for the evening, and everyone was fine with that.
Another thing was that after Mariana and James got married, Mariana continued singing opera, which would have been considered pretty scandalous at the time. Again, everyone was fine with that–there was no mention of it narrowing James and Mariana’s social circle. I would have been willing to buy that if she had retired from her career, maybe, but not as it was.
I went with all this anyway because I enjoyed the book otherwise, but I was wondering if it bothered you. When we had our anachronisms discussion post you said that you can accept one or two characters being ahead of their time in embracing a character of what would have been considered a lower, scandalous, or unsavory background in that era, but for everyone around that character to do it really bothers you, and that definitely happened here.
@Janine: Yeah, I was aware of all that – I also just wondered why someone as buttoned-up as the duke would choose to retreat to such a questionable place. I was kind of accepting of the Disney-historical aspects, though, for the reason you mentioned – I just enjoyed it otherwise.
@Jennie: Yes, re. the duke, I asked myself the same question.