Archive for the ‘Lauren Willig’ Category

The Ashford AffairThe Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig was the best sort of surprise.  I have been a fan of Willig’s Pink Carnation books for years.  They are fun romance novels, bouncing between Eloise, a modern-day graduate student researching aristocratic espionage during the Napoleonic wars, and a historical heroine, who changes with each book but is always somehow tied to the Pink Carnation.  The series started out with a breezy chick-lit style but as it has progressed (the 10th book will be published later this summer) as Willig, a lawyer by training, has incorporated more and more historical detail.  I have loved watching her style evolve over the years and so was very excited when I heard she was publishing her first historical novel, The Ashford Affair.

Like the Pink Carnation books – and like so many historical novels these days – The Ashford Affair focuses on two women in two different eras.  Switching between New York in 1999 and Kenya in the 1920s, Willig follows young lawyer Clemmie Evans as she tries to sort out her family’s past and learn more about her beloved grandmother, Addie.  But Addie’s life was not what Clemmie had been told and she finds herself learning secrets that the entire family knows but never speaks about.

If anything, I enjoyed the “modern” storyline more than the historical one – the complete opposite of how I feel about the Pink Carnation books.  The historical storyline certainly has a lot going on, between Addie’s childhood in England, her encounters with the hedonistic lifestyles of the young and wealthy in post-war London, and then her time in Kenya as part of a tense love triangle, but everything moves so quickly that it is difficult to become attached to her.  She is fascinating but always at a distance.  Clemmie, on the other hand, is wonderfully accessible.  She is someone who thought she had her life together but, over the course of the novel, begins to question her choices about her career and her relationships as she unravels the truth about Addie.  I particularly loved Clemmie’s relationship with Jon, her ex-step-cousin (and isn’t that just the perfect muddled degree of acquaintance for a late-20th Century love interest?) who is the one to push Clemmie to find out more about her grandmother’s past.  They’ve known each other for years but their long-time attraction has been complicated by family interference as well as their own youth and stubbornness; it makes for an interesting dynamic.

I really enjoyed this book and was so impressed by how much Willig has grown as a writer since those early Pink Carnation books.  Here, she builds on the techniques and styles she had experimented with in those earlier books to create something entirely absorbing, with just the right blend of humour and history.  I am looking forward to the next Pink Carnation book but, even more, I am looking forward to Willig’s next historical novel.

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This review contains a giveaway.

Sometimes, I just want to be entertained by my reading material.  I don’t want to have to analyse characters or puzzle about ostentatiously clever plots, I just want to be swept away by a story, preferably one filled with adventure, romance, and, in an ideal circumstance, witty dialogue.  When these moods hit, Lauren Willig is my go-to author with her delightful Napoleonic-era Pink Carnation series, happily melding the best of historical adventure novels and modern Chick Lit.  Not necessarily a combination that sounds like it would work but work it does; Willig’s tales of espionage and her ever-expanding network of botanical spies never fail to entertain.  My only regret is how quickly I speed through each new installment – I’m never able to restrain myself enough to savour them, devouring a volume in a single sitting.  This was certainly the case with her most recent offering, The Orchid Affair.

Though much of the first book (The Secret History of the Pink Carnation) took place in Paris, it took until this eighth installment in the series to return to the French capital.  Laura Grey, competent governess and newest member of the Pink Carnation’s eager circle of spies, finds herself in the household of André Jaouen, assistant to the Prefect of Police and, conveniently, widowed father to two young children in need of a governess.  But neither Laura nor André are quite what they seem and it’s not long before events in Paris see them fleeing the city, forced to depend on one another if they are to have any hope of eluding those who wish them ill.    

How exciting it is to have a book set so firmly in Napoleonic France with French rather than English protagonists!  I do love Willig’s English characters from her earlier novels but it is interesting to see the perspective of French characters sympathetic to the aims of the Pink Carnation and her cohorts.  There is a new, exciting dynamic introduced through characters like André Jaouen, a revolutionary whose youthful republican ideals led not to the dreamed-of equality but to the mass slaughters of the Terror. 

I enjoyed Laura and André because they are unexceptional people, dependable thirty-somethings rather than brash, idealistic youths.  Intelligent and competent, they are not extraordinary in any capacity except perhaps in their acceptance of their normalcy.  No swash-buckling or foolish enthusiasms for them, they are more mature than Willig’s previous romantic duos and make for a refreshing change in their ability to analyse and shrewdly respond to the situations they find themselves in. 

The more historical detail Willig puts into her books, the more enjoyment I get out of them and this volume is rich with historical tidbits and allusions.  All the books revolve around the political situation in France and how satisfying it was to finally delve into that situation in more depth and complexity!  What fun it must be to do the research for each book!  We get some glimpse of that research process through Willig’s modern-day, archive-adoring heroine Eloise, a student researching aristocratic espionage during the Napoleonic wars (Best. Thesis. Topic. Ever).  The sixth novel in the series, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, became my favourite largely because of how richly Willig described the tensions in India between the French and the British during that time.  I may say that I only go looking for adventure, romance, and great characters but it is really Willig’s powers as a researcher and her abilities as a writer to intelligently incorporate so much of that research into her tales than earn her books a place on my shelf.    

I find that I am growing increasingly fond of Eloise, our Twenty-First Century American heroine.  When the series began, I viewed all of her appearances as interruptions to the main storyline and resented her accordingly.  Now, I’ve been sucked in by her passion for research and by her boyfriend Colin’s muddled family life.  I’ve reached the point where I’m excited to find a chapter devoted to Eloise slotted in after a cliffhanger in the historical plot, something I would have sworn would never happen three or four books ago.

Willig’s novels are always a treat but she improves so much with each book, her characters becoming increasingly layered, her plots sharper, and, as I enthused before, her escalating level of historical detail so enriching the reader’s comprehension and general reading experience, that I can only regret how long I have to wait for the next installment!

Giveaway: Thanks to the vagaries of the postal system and the generosity of the publisher, I now have a copy of The Orchid Affair to give away to one lucky reader, anywhere in the world!  If you’re interested, just drop me a note in the comments below indicating that you’re interested in the giveaway before midnight Pacific on Sunday, April 3rd.  I’ll announce the winner on Monday.

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So many books read, so little of interest to report.  You have all been incredibly patient, even going so far as to humour me by commenting on what were clearly filler posts (the idea of going a day without posting fills me with dread – I am working on this).  Bless.  The truth is that after reading The Rehearsal, which blew me away, I had a lot of trouble settling on any one book and, when I did, nothing that I picked seemed particularly worthy of its own individual review.  So, I have decided just to bombard you with all of the books I read last week in one post.  Fair?

The highlight of the week, and this is sad, was Hungry by Crystal Renn (with Marjorie Ingall).  A barely literate memoir by someone born in 1986 (people my age should really not be allowed to write memoirs), Hungry begins with tales of Renn’s happy if unconventional childhood, leading up to the moment she was ‘discovered’ by a scout and told that if she could get her weight down to 110lbs (at 5’9), the modeling agency would be interested in her.  Renn did even more than was asked: she got her weight down below 100lbs through a combination of anorexia and compulsive exercising and, at fourteen, earned her ticket to New York.  There, she was miserable and unsuccessful (yes, it is a morality tale as well).  Eventually, she came to her senses, made her health a priority, and switched to plus-sized modeling, where she has been hugely successfully as a US size 12 (at approximately 165).  Renn is now one of the few modeling faces (and, it must be said, bodies) that are instantly recognizable even to people like me, who know nothing about the modeling world.  A very typical celebrity memoir, the book comes across as very frothy for the first half and preachy towards the end, when Renn advocates for the HAES (Healthy at Every Size) philosophy and devotes many pages to her arguments about acceptance and empowerment.  Far, far too many.  The message is good, but the reader is bombarded and then bored with it.  Still, it’s a fascinating story of a woman who has made a very real difference in a generally sizest industry, conquering the accepted wisdom that plus-size models only have limited appeal.  I may have been unfairly won over by the photos as well – I do love nice, glossy, colour photos. 

Renn's most famous work (for Breast Cancer Awareness)

I also read two (count ‘em, two!) graphic novels: Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle and Blankets by Craig Thompson.  I was incredibly unwhelmed by Blankets, which was disappointing after reading so many enthusiastic reviews.  The illustrations were fabulous but the story seemed rather dull and predictable to me.  There was no tension in it, nothing that made me care about the narrator or his life events.  Burma Chronicles, on the other hand, was just as delightful as Delisle’s Pyongyang.  There’s something terrifically charming about Delisle; both his illustrations and his sense of humour endear him to me.  Certainly, this is the best way to experience any military dictatorship. 

Moving on from Burma to India, I read The Immigrant by Manju Kapur.  The story of an arranged marriage and the ensuing culture-clash when the wife, Nina, comes to join her husband in Canada, this should have been right up my alley.  It was not.  The first section, handling the events leading up to the marriage, was fascinating but after that everything fell apart and focus shifted entirely to the sex life of the couple.  Sounds salacious but it was in fact terribly, terribly boring.  I persisted until the end, hoping it would improve.  It did not.  I enjoyed the author’s style of writing so will (after I recover from my disappointment) attempt to track down more of her work (Difficult Daughters seems to get high praise).

The weekend was then spent reading ridiculously fluffy Regency romance novels.  I knew, years ago, when I started reading Georgette Heyer that she was viewed as a gateway drug.  Lauren Willig’s novels signaled another slip (confirmed when I reread The Masque of the Black Tulip on Saturday).  Finally, my former manager (of all people) recommended that I try the newest book by Kate Moore (with the awful title To Tempt a Saint) and down I went.  It was quickly followed by the equally ridiculously-named (but far superior in style and substance) Then Comes Seduction by Mary Balogh.  I am a ridiculous snob and even as I enjoy these books I feel rather ashamed of even having ‘lowered’ myself to crack the covers (and rather afraid that I will be shunned by other bloggers).  But such books are fun, not even remotely as explicit as some of the other literature I read (see The Immigrant above) and, while I’d never spend money on them (thrift overlapping with snobbishness), my library seems to be stunningly well-stocked.  Not the sort of thing to read all the time but, as a diversion every once in a while, very pleasant.  The Balogh book was also surprising descriptive about garden layouts, which, combined with the recent improvement in the weather here, has reawakened my passion for landscape design, a passion I suppress all winter long and obsess over most summers.  The appropriate volumes have been ordered from the library and it won’t be long before I’m daydreaming about sunken gardens, blossoming orchards, and fragrant rows of roses.

Sunken Garden at Upton Grey

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I read The Temptation of the Night Jasmine by Lauren Willig shortly after it was released in January 2009 – I am nothing if not prompt in obtaining copies of Willig’s newest novels.  At that time, I enjoyed it but was less than overwhelmed.  My reading notes advise that there was not enough interaction between the romantic leads and, honestly, I was nursing some resentment towards Willig over an early development with one of my favourite characters (all has now been forgiven since Penelope’s situation was righted in The Betrayal of the Blood Lily).  Somehow, taking 15 hours to process the story as an audio book rather than the normal four or five it takes to read the novel gave me a much greater appreciation of the story and of Charlotte, the heroine, in particular.

Other readers may turn their noses up at Willig’s novels but when I am in want of something fun and comforting and a bit edgier than my beloved Heyers, these are my go-to books.  They are very clever, clearly well-researched,  and thankfully don’t take themselves too seriously.  If the mysteries can sometimes be a tad flimsy, the characters are delightfully engaging and the relationships just the kind to ruin young women for reality (see Facebook Group “The Pink Carnation Books Have Given Me Unrealistic Expectations of Love”).  Take for example the synopsis of The Temptation of the Night Jasmine:

Throughout her secluded youth, Robert was Lady Charlotte’s favorite knight in shining armor, the focus of all her adolescent daydreams.  The intervening years have only served to render him more dashing.  But, unbeknownst to Charlotte, Robert has an ulterior motive of his own for returning to England, a motive that has nothing to do with taking up the ducal mantle.  As Charlotte returns to London to take up her post as Maid of Honor to Queen Charlotte, echoes from Robert’s past endanger not only their relationship but the very throne itself.

Dangerous, dangerous stuff my friends.  But so delightful!  Unlike the other books in the series, where the hero and heroine are thrown together and their romance plays out in dialogue, Charlotte is alone much of time.  Always the cerebral type, more at home in a library than a ballroom, Charlotte intellectualizes her emotions.  When I read the book, I skimmed these passages but hearing them aloud, and read with so much feeling, made it much easier to sympathize with Charlotte and to feel caught up in her plight.  This time around, I felt far more emotionally invested in her story.

However, the down-side of an audio book is that it is no longer so easy to skip the Eloise sections of the novel (which I admit to doing when rereading the novels).  Eloise is our modern, American protagonist, an aspiring academic researching aristocratic espionage during the Napoleonic era.  As a plot device, she is incredibly useful.  As a character, I find she grates.  Listening to, rather that reading about, her activities prompted no new outpouring of sympathy and only further frustration (how do you not know what your boyfriend does after several months of dating?  Why do you not just ask?).  Colin, her English boyfriend, remains rather flat and doesn’t seem to get the same attention or respect as his historical counterparts.  Hopefully this will improve as the series continues.

Overall, Justine Eyre does an excellent job of reading.  There were a few strange pronunciations and a mid-Atlantic twang creeps in occasionally, which can be distracting.  That said, it must be difficult to find readers who can balance the accents for the American Eloise with the rest of the British characters (with the occasional Frenchman thrown in for fun).  I did particularly love Eyre’s voice for my favourite character, Lady Henrietta.  The Masque of the Black Tulip, which centers on Henrietta (and the fabulous Miles), remains my favourite of Willig’s novels and I would love to hear it read – so much banter!  Unfortunately, my library doesn’t have a copy.  I have suggested that they purchase a copy (they have audio books for 3 of the 6 books in the series) but none of my other suggestions have yield any results yet, so…I’ll keep my fingers crossed anyways.

Slowly, it seems I am being coverted into a fan of the audiobook.  Yes, they require a very large investment of time but the experience is different and unique and, as was the case here, absolutely fascinating in the way it made me reconsider the story.

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I just finished reading The Betrayal of the Blood Lily by Lauren Willig a frivolous choice for a long, lazy Sunday morning.  I suppose that is the great reward of waking so ridiculously early in the morning, that I have all those dark hours before the sun rises, before any shops open, in which to read and read and think of nothing else.  You always hear of people reading late into the night, but never waking to read early in the morning.  Surely, I am not the only one who does so?

This is the sixth book in the Pink Carnation series by Willig, historical novels of romance and espionage.  Think The Scarlet Pimpernel crossed with a harlequin romance.  Yes, high literature here.  They are fluffy but incredibly entertaining books, though some entries to the series, like this one, are stronger than others.

The story is split between the modern era and early 19th Century India (all the books are split between these periods, though the rest take place in Western Europe).  The modern narrator is Eloise, an American in England working on her thesis on aristocratic espionage during the Napoleonic wars.  Happily, as the series progress we see less and less of Eloise (though her chapters appear when least wanted, interrupting the most exciting passages).  Truth be told, when rereading these books I also skim over the Eloise chapters, caring little for her romance with the idealized Colin. 

Our other heroine (or would that be anti-heroine here?  Surely heroines would frown on adultery?) is Lady Freddy Staines, nee Penelope Deveraux, newly arrived in India after a hasty marriage.  Penelope had been introduced previously in the series and any appearance by her always offered high amusement.  Here, a book centered entirely on her, proves her to be even more entertaining than suspected.  Trapped in a difficult marriage, to a man more interested in gaming tables and other women, Penelope is nonetheless intrigued by her new life in India and, predictably, by the very handsome Captain Alex Reid.  Or, as the official summary would put it, somewhat more salaciously:

Everyone warned Miss Penelope Deveraux that her unruly behavior would land her in disgrace someday.  She never imagined she’d be whisked off to India to give the scandal of her hasty marriage time to die down. As Lady Frederick Staines, Penelope plunges into the treacherous waters of the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, where no one is quite what they seem—even her own husband.  In a strange country where elaborate court dress masks even more elaborate intrigues and a spy called the Marigold leaves cobras as his calling card, there is only one person Penelope can trust…. 

Captain Alex Reid has better things to do than play nursemaid to a pair of aristocrats.  He knows what their kind is like.  Or so he thinks– until Lady Frederick Staines out-shoots, out-rides, and out-swims every man in the camp.  She also has an uncanny ability to draw out the deadly plans of the Marigold and put herself in harm’s way.  With danger looming from local warlords, treacherous court officials, and French spies, Alex realizes that an alliance with Lady Frederick just might be the only thing standing in the way of a plot designed to rock the very foundations of the British Empire.

As always, the mystery isn’t terribly well-crafted and the focus and interest lies with the relationship between the romantic leads.  The dialogue is incredibly anachronistic (suspend all hopes for historical accuracy, please) but amusing.  More than anything, I loved that it was set in India.  I have a particular passion for books set in India, preferring above all things books about the British in India, prior to, during, and after the Raj. 

No great ideas here, nor brilliant writing, just good fun and a little literary escapism.  Not what I would choose (or want) to read every week, but very enjoyable every once in a while 

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