Holiday Reading, Part 1

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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December 31, 2012

While I was out of town spending time with family for Christmas (and am, at this moment, spending time with chosen family for New Year’s), I got a lot of reading done–not much to do except read while driving the 627 miles from our home in Delaware to Metro Detroit and back again–especially when the trip back involved a lot of snow, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and some seriously clueless drivers. It is at this point I must hold my husband up as a saint for not only doing all the driving but for also (more or less) dealing calmly with an increasingly anxious and panic-stricken passenger. I also feel like I should apologize to everyone who follows me on Twitter as well because there was a lot of all-caps tweeting going on. I’m better now, I swear.

I’d saved a few books and novellas for travel because, well, that’s how I roll. Some of them were even holiday-themed, imagine that!

The Bridegroom Wore Plaid, Grace Burrowes

The Bridegroom Wore Plaid, Grace Burrowes

First up is the latest Grace Burrowes, The Bridegroom Wore Plaid. Burrowes is one of those authors I discovered this year and I’m still too enamored of her writing to really be critical about her–I’m sure that will come, but that time is not yet come. The set-up of this one is fairly conventional: hard up Scottish noble must marry rich English heiress in order to provide for his family.

Said English heiress, Genie Daniels, comes with a younger sister, a spinster cousin, a companion, and a revolting father. Opposed to an arranged marriage, Genie does her best to avoid Ian MacGregor while being increasingly pressured by her abusive father to accept his suit. In the meantime, Ian finds himself increasingly attracted to Augusta Merrick, Genie’s spinster cousin (and poor relation).

The plot of this book is a bit convoluted–Ian and his two brothers all have romances in this story and when intertwined with the mystery at the heart of Augusta’s poverty it can sometimes be a bit hard to follow what’s going on.

Burrowes, however, has a way of cutting right to the heart of matters in her prose–her lyrical voice is one of the reasons I keep coming back to her books. For instance, this bit near the beginning, when Ian has just started to become friends with Augusta:

And now he knew he was not alone in his sense of isolation. Even proper little spinsters from the backwaters of Oxfordshire could suffer the same gnawing fear that if nobody ever called them by name, a part of them would eventually cease to be.

There’s an easy intimacy in Burrowes’s writing that I find very compelling as a reader and which makes me forgive the bits that aren’t exactly period–like how all her heroines menstruate. I don’t know why I love that about her heroines, but I do–I think it makes them more real, especially since the only time menstruation appears in romances is to signal disappointment at there not being a pregnancy, as opposed to a biological function that most women (and some men!) need to deal with.

Burrowes also tackles a pretty serious subject in this book and that’s the way in which women have very few rights and can very easily be railroaded without their knowledge. Augusta’s uncle is physically and emotionally abusive to his wife, children, and niece, and during the course of this book it’s determined that he’s a thief as well. If this book could be said to have a flaw, it would be in the way that his villainy was so clearly telegraphed to the reader that the only mystery really involved how he was going to be found out and put in his place.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the heck out of this book and am looking forward to the other books in the trilogy.

Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift, Jennifer Ashley

Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift, Jennifer Ashley

The next book I read whilst away was Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift, which is a novella about–what else–the Mackenzie family Christmas. Focusing mainly on Ian and Beth, this novella was a nice way to revisit the Mackenzie clan and see how they were doing.

There’s not much of a plot to this one–there’s a broken Ming dynasty bowl that throws everyone into a tizzy and Hart is worried about his wife Eleanor, heavily pregnant and confined to bed.  Honestly, it had been so long since I’d read this series that some of the characters were hard for me to distinguish, but I tend to blame myself and my sieve of a memory for that over any deficiency in Ashley as a writer.

I’m really not sure what else to say about this–the novella cost a dollar and I feel that it was well worth that price and it was reasonably entertaining but didn’t move me that much. The plot I found most interesting was that between Louisa (Isabella’s younger sister) and Lloyd Fellows, the illegitimate Mackenzie brother–I’m hoping that their developing attraction was more than just a tease, that there’s a planned story for them.

One thing that drives me a bit batty about this series is how unrelentingly Scottish the brothers are–it seems, at times, cartoonish, which really doesn’t do the story any favors. I almost expected to see Mike Myers jump out of a shrubbery and yell that if it wasn’t Scottish it was crrrrrap, that’s how stereotypical the Scottishness felt to me at times.

A Kiss for Midwinter, Courtney Milan

A Kiss for Midwinter, Courtney Milan

The last book I’m going to talk about in this post is another novella, also with a winter theme: Courtney Milan’s A Kiss for Midwinter.

This is just a gem of a story and I’m so glad that I took my time reading it. Focusing on two secondary characters from The Duchess War, Milan manages to tell an utterly devastating story in an extremely small space. This book is an angst-o-rama and once you know Lydia’s backstory, there’s hardly a reason for it to be anything else.

Lydia Charingford is relentlessly optimistic to the point where some people think she doesn’t have a brain in her head. Jonas Grantham, the town’s doctor has decided that Lydia is the eleventh prettiest girl in town and every time he talks to her, he ends up putting his foot in his mouth.

Lydia, see, doesn’t trust Jonas. And she has good reason for that–a few years before this book starts, she was raped and left pregnant by a lying bounder and the doctor at the time basically told her father that she was a worthless slut who deserved to die–and then proceeded to give a prescription for poison that did almost kill her. And Jonas was there, shadowing the doctor, and unable–unwilling–to say anything that may have jeopardized his future practice of medicine.

So there’s this dark history between them and Lydia is determined to put it all behind her and always look on the bright side of life (insert Monty Python song here). But Jonas is there, constantly reminding her of it and saying things to her that sound like he’s making fun of her and she finally agrees to a wager: she’ll accompany him on several house calls and try to see the bright side of his patients’s lives and if she wins, he’ll never speak to her again and if he wins, he gets to kiss her. It’s a totally hackneyed plot device, but it works. It gets both Lydia and Jonas out of their comfort zones and it makes each of them really see each other plainly.

Jonas sees the truth as a gift and he is so angry with himself that he withheld the truth from Lydia and caused her harm–and he gives that to her and gives her her anger and basically lets her know that it’s okay to feel anger. That’s a tremendous gift, especially in this setting where women’s roles are so circumscribed and limited. And Jonas tells Lydia, “I’m the only person you can scream at in all the world.” He’s the only one who was there with her in that room as she was told to take poison, as she was told that she was worthless who can stand up to her fierce anger at both herself and at the world:

So if you’d like to know, Miss Charingford, why I speak of penises and cervixes, I lay the blame at your door. There is no way I can apologize for what I could have prevented with a little plain speaking. All I can hope is that I will never make the same mistake again. I would rather open my mouth and say what is true than shut it for the sake of propriety. You claim you’re not angry with me, Miss Charingford, but you should be. You should be.

This is an incredibly powerful story with characters who aren’t particularly likeable but who completely wormed their way into my heart. This book also made me incredibly glad that I live now and not 150 years ago because modern medicine is a miraculous thing and it’s amazing that even more people didn’t die back in those days.

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2 Comments

  1. Mary Ann Vadnais

    I was such a weeping mess over Jonas in Milan’s AKFM, and over that quote in particular, I can’t be remotely detached enough reasonably talk about the novella. I spend a great deal of my day, and all of the time I volunteer at a free clinic, dealing with the consequences of basic health illiteracy as a healthcare provider. Every time I call a penis and penis and a vulva a vulva it’s because someone who was hurt never learned to and could not advocate or protect themselves. This novella is such a terrific example of why historicals, at their best, are a contextual/tension-proving setting for contemporary ideas. When they’re not, my argument is that at the very least they offend, and at the worst, they harm. It’s a strong argument, but it’s completely married to my enjoyment or frustration with any historical I read. Milan, I feel, really digs deep into the opportunities for meaningful conversations writing historical romance provides to the contemporary reader–this novella was a stunning example of that (in a tight space).

    • Natalie

      Yes to all of this. Historical romances are written for modern readers and it drives me nuts when the text accepts the way things used to be without challenging or engaging in a dialogue–Milan is, I think, absolutely brilliant at this and it’s one of the reasons I love her books so much. She lays out so clearly the strictures and limitations of her setting and then sets her characters to work within them and by doing so, shows us something of our world.

      And thank you for the work you do. I can only imagine how difficult it must be sometimes.

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