Mini-Sort-of-Review: Courtney Milan, Once Upon A Marquess

I had so much fun reading Courtney Milan’s Once Upon A Marquess that I now want to go back and finish Trade Me and The Suffragate Scandal, and also The Countess Conspiracy which I suspect I will love!

I’m just going to list all the things that made me like this one:

  • That it’s Christian who’s obviously in love with Judith at the start of the story
  • That Christian’s Marquess-ness plays absolutely no part in the story!
  • That Christian is odd in a way that’s definitely odd rather than being cute
  • That Christian and Judith communicate with each other, openly and honestly, throughout the book
  • That Judith’s relationship with her brother and sister gets the same air time as her relationship with Christian which fleshes out her character and gives coherence to her choices
  • That Theresa and Benedict, the sister and brother, are also decidedly odd in a rather non plot-moppet way!
  • That the story unfolds against the aftermath of the Opium Wars—which makes me want to re-read Sea of Poppies and finish-up the rest of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy!
  • That Christian and Judith banter as two gay geese! And that this bantering reveals, like nothing else could have, how finely attuned they are to each other
  • That you can get really, really angry with your loved ones and wish them to Hades and still love them
  • That Christian’s accusations of treason against Anthony, Judith’s elder brother, did not turn out to be a namby-pamby decoy-ishy plot device

I can’t wait to read the rest of this series!

What about you? Have you read Once Upon A Marquess?

Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair: Review

So let me begin by saying that I am an Indian woman (living in U.S.) who was quite annoyed by the way Mili clings to (to what seems to me) an obtrusively parochial way of thinking. Let me also say in the very next breath that I loved Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair.

It’s not quite a leap from one to the other because while I may have started out being annoyed by Mili, Miss Dev’s characterization makes it possible for me to understand why Mili clung to a marriage-in-name for as long as she did. She is also one of the cutest heroines I happened to have come across recently. Lest my description of the heroine as cute turn you off I would caution you against jumping to conclusions! Yes, dear reader, Miss Dev, manages to imbue her ingénue with an authenticity that went straight to my heart! I guess what I am saying is that Mili is for sure one of my favourite things about this book!

Here’s a synopsis:

Mili Rathod hasn’t seen her husband in twenty years—not since she was promised to him at the age of four. Yet marriage has allowed Mili a freedom rarely given to girls in her village. Her grandmother has even allowed her to leave India and study in America for eight months, all to make her the perfect modern wife. Which is exactly what Mili longs to be—if her husband would just come and claim her.

Bollywood’s favorite director, Samir Rathod, has come to Michigan to secure a divorce for his older brother. Persuading a naïve village girl to sign the papers should be easy for someone with Samir’s tabloid-famous charm. But Mili is neither a fool nor a gold-digger. Open-hearted yet complex, she’s trying to reconcile her independence with cherished traditions. And before he can stop himself, Samir is immersed in Mili’s life—cooking her dal and rotis, escorting her to her roommate’s elaborate Indian wedding, and wondering where his loyalties and happiness lie.

Samir, as well, appealed quite a lot to this reader. He’s smart, sexy, and successful, without being obnoxious. And he can cook! (what can I say? An alpha hero who can cook just turns me turn into a big puddly-pool!) Plus, the issues he has to grapple with from his past, rounds out his otherwise sigh-worthy perfection.

Miss Dev’s depiction of first-generation and second-generation immigrant milieu and experiences are also spot-on (and also, quite funny). Sample this:

But even though Ravi was Indian he came from South India, while Ridhi’s family hailed from the North Indian state of Punjab. Ridhi’s father took such pride in his Punjabi heritage that the idea of his daughter associating herself with a South Indian boy had quite literally given him a heart attack.

While times are changing, I know that the above still holds true for a vast majority. On the very same page, one of Miss Dev’s character also says:

“Daddy’s stuck in the seventies,” Ridhi had told Mili. “That’s when he first came to America.”

As someone who’s been baffled by some of the conversations that I’ve had with my older relatives, who moved to U.S. a decade or so earlier, I have had the exact same thought cross my mind. I guess it can be hard to imagine that the country you left behind might have moved on, and changed, as well.

Then there’s the scene where Mili is trying to tell a man that he shouldn’t put his bicycle near the dumpster. She has trouble communicating with him even though they’re speaking the same language. Mili’s formal words and the man’s colloquialism makes for two almost different languages.

This attention to detail is evident in scene after scene. And not just the ones that deal with a diaspora-like element. For instance, I was touched by the way Samir handles Mili’s embarrassment when he realizes that she doesn’t really have the money to pay for her doctor’s bill. Or the scene where Mili “hurries” Samir into finishing his tea:

He took a long sip of the tea. “Are you going to walk to college then?” he asked lazily.

She unfroze. “Nope. You’re driving me.” She smiled and pushed the teacup to his lips to hurry him up. The moment he was done, she snatched the cup away, put it in the sink, and dragged him out of her apartment.

There’s something achingly intimate about the way she just “hurries” the teacup to his lips, without giving it a second thought. And I guess that’s the other thing I loved about the book—this slow building-up of the romance between our hero and heroine.

I am a sucker for stories where the romance grows organically, of-course-sly, right in front of my eyes. And no I don’t feel that that’s how it happens in all the books belonging to the romance genre. Most of the times I end up feeling slightly cheated—as if the  romance is unfolding because the author decreed it so rather than because of anything that the characters say or do. So a story where romance seems like the natural next step just fills my heart with gladness.

I’ll end this with a scene that caused me to laugh out loud. Literally. In a plane. Next to a sleeping husband. Who couldn’t stop laughing either once I read it out to him:

She [Ridhi] was dressed in an ankle-length tie-dye skirt with a heavy embroidered border and a heavily embellished tube top.

“Wow, you look, umm stunning,” Mili said.

It wasn’t untrue, but it was kind of risqué for your wedding day, even for Ridhi. . . .

Before Mili could respond, there was a loud gasp behind her.

“Ridhika. Sagar. Kapoor! Has your brain taken a complete trip to Timbuktu?” . . .

“Mummy, have you gone completely mad? What are you freaking out about now? . . . What’s wrong with this? You told me to wear something casual for the henna ceremony. So I wore casual.”

“I said casual, not Chandini-Chowk-whore slutty! Brainless daughter of an oaf.” . . .

Ridhi yanked her ankle-length skirt all the way up to her thighs and looked down at it. “How is this slutty? It touches the floor. You can’t even see my toes.”

Her mother pinched the half of her breast that pushed up from her tube top. “What about these? You want your in-laws to see your mangoes? Save those for the man who’s going to eat them,” she hissed.

And that dear readers is just one of the many funny scenes from the book. In case it isn’t clear let me say it out loud: A Bollywood Affair has become one of my favorite reads of 2014. Go, grab it for yourself!

P.S. It is also, ahh, so ripe for movie adaptation methinks! Big Bollywood-Hollywood producers, are you listening?

Romance and the Appeal of the Alpha Male

Romance is a genre that I have read the maximum number of books in. For the longest time I was leery of bringing this fact into conversations with other readers. Over the last few years this has changed.

A part of the reason is because I have come to believe that more than the inherent complexity of the narrative itself (the lack of which is an accusation often leveled at the romance genre), it’s about the individual who’s reading the said narrative. Engaging meaningfully with a piece of text, while being a function of the text itself, is also very much about the person who is involved in the act of reading.

So when Michelle Sagara wrote this article on Alpha males over at Dear Author, I found myself contemplating my own enjoyment of this archetype. I am pretty sure that I could not abide by this kind of a person in real life. But I’m interested in the conversation that takes place after I accept that I know the difference between fantasy and reality. I love what Liz McCausland said about this:

There are two things people say when discussion of this kind of hero comes up:

  • I guess I’m just too feminist, but it bothers me.
  • Of course in real life I’d run screaming from this guy/get a restraining order, but swoooon, he’s so hot. (otherwise expressed as “women can tell the difference between fantasy and reality”).

These are both pretty much conversation-stoppers, in part because they are personal. They make this an issue simply of reader beliefs and fantasies (which of course it is, in part) rather than of broader cultural ideals, messages, or scripts, which maybe can be discussed more neutrally.

What she said.

I can see why a person might be reluctant to continue with the conversation—they might believe that there’s a need to defend their particular preference(s) which in turn could trigger all sorts of defense mechanisms, bringing any further interaction to a complete halt.

And that makes me wonder what the person who initiates such a discussion can do to create a space which disarms the need for any such defensive tactics, a space where one feels safe to explore why a thing that is comfortable is comfortable; what lies at the basis of that enjoyment; what biases and assumptions inform that enjoyment.

As far as the alpha hero is concerned Miss Sagara defines the alpha hero as one who is basically comfortable in his own skin. (Or that’s what I took away from it, anyway). Therein lies the appeal of the alpha hero for me—the fact that someone that sure in his sense of self falls for you is not only incredibly sexy but also makes one feel really really good about oneself.

I enjoy the alpha hero type probably because for the longest time I had the shittiest sense of self-worth. And having my then boyfriend and now husband believe in me was definitely a boost to my battered sense of confidence. What I have come to realize though is that while my husband is always there to support me, any lasting change has to be driven by me.

In other words, while the transformation of the heroine may begin with the someone “powerful” falling for her, at some point, she will need to take the reins in her own hands.

I also realize that such a change can be facilitated by really anyone in one’s life. Within the limits of genre romance, the hero (or the heroine) is the likeliest candidate to affect such a change but they definitely are not the only ones who can do so.

And this brings me to a major reservation that I have when I read stories with alpha heroes (despite my enjoyment of them). Instead of allowing the heroine to develop at her own pace and rhythm, a lot of times, alpha heroes have a tendency to bulldozer through and sort of take control of the narrative. This always makes me question the tenability of such a relationship.

But going back to what I said earlier, as I am writing this, I am very cognizant of the fact that some woman out there might like what I find questionable and question what I like. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe I have to find a way to be ok with a position so starkly different from mine before I can understand where they’re coming from.

If romance really is the literature of women, written by women then shouldn’t it be a space where every woman can explore what it means to be her?

Courtney Milan’s The Heiress Effect

So I finally got around to reading Courtney Milan’s The Heiress Effect and I did so love it.

Miss Jane Fairfield is an heiress with a 100,000 pounds to her name—an inconvenience in light of the fact that Jane has no wish to marry, especially till her younger sister reaches an age where she can be free of her guardian. And so Jane transforms herself into an heiress who can beat people to death with feathers. To know precisely what I mean, help yourself to the book—I assure you it’s enjoyable.

For the purposes of this discussion suffice it to know that Jane’s a social pariah, tolerated only because of all those pounds (and also because people love to have a common target to snigger at and feel superior to I think). And so cleverly and deliberately Jane saves herself from the clutches of fortune hunting husbands.

Enter Oliver Marshall, the bastard son of a duke with definite identity issues and someone who is definitely not completely at ease straddling the world he grew up in and the world he has to court in order to further his political ambitions. He crosses Miss Jane’s path in furtherance of those political ambitions—namely, when the “villain” of the story dangles his political clout in front of Oliver as a way to further Oliver’s cause if Oliver agrees to publicly humiliate Miss Jane.

Notice the quotes around “villain?” That’s because Miss Milan does a lot of interesting things with her story. Not the least of which is that the villain is well not really villainous in the sense that you can see his viewpoint and where he’s coming from and that of course makes one feel a little teeny weeny bit charitable towards him, you know?

Speaking of not-so-villanious-villains, if not direct subversions then definitely “interesting things” are being done in this story: the heroine has a 37-inched waist. Her fashion sensibilities are most definitely not in in accord with the rest of the world. Garish might be a word one might use to describe her. So does she change herself in the course of the story to a more admirable and likable fashionista? No sir! Granted she does have a few qualms about the whole issue (which I think are normal and make the story that much more believable) but our girl refuses to change herself even when it becomes a contentious issue between our hero and her.

Gutsy, Miss Jane is. And clearly self-aware as well. She knows that acceding to change her dressing sense while having its advantages is really a recipe for disaster—she would come to hate both herself and the sensible Oliver in a very short period of time.

Then there’s the matter of Free, Oliver’s sister and Freddy, Oliver’s aunt, two intriguing side characters. Free is all set to conquer the grounds of Cambridge and when Oliver talking about how hard it was for him and is afraid at how much harder things are going to be for her says—

Going to Cambridge will not be a thing you do, followed by another thing and another thing. Going to Cambridge will define who you are forever after. For the rest of your life, you’ll be The Girl Who Went to Cambridge.

—Free retorts:

Someone will have to be The Girl Who Went . . . Why shouldn’t it be me? And don’t worry; I have no intention that getting a college degree will be the last of the dreadful things I do. I’d rather be the Girl Who Did instead of the Girl Who Didn’t.

I am so looking forward to Free’s story.

As for Freddy—there’s a really poignant revelation about her at the end. I like to think that despite being confined to that one room (she had an extreme phobia of crowds and rarely ventured out of her single room house) she was perhaps happy in her own way. And though she dies, I would love to know her backstory as well. Are you listening Miss Milan?

As Oliver struggles between “the right choice that is easy” and “the unethical answer [that] is too tempting” there’s a subplot with Jane’s sister at its forefront. I liked how Miss Milan wrote Emily, the sister. Usually such secondary characters are featherbrains, beautiful but empty-headed; however, that’s not the case here. In this storyline as well the heroine rescues herself—quite literally actually.

I like that the hero was almost a second fiddle of sorts and that the heroine came off as having more brains and gumption. That is not to say that the pairing didn’t work for me or that I think it won’t be a marriage of equals. It’s just that so much of our world (from 1800s to now) normally portrays the guy as having the more of everything that this book was a refreshing change. It worked resoundingly well for me.

And the tiny glimpse of Sebastian and Violet that we get to see? Yes, I know that I am being set-up for a sequel and I can’t wait for it to be released!

In conclusion, if you’re any sort of romance reader at all, do yourself a favour and get Miss Milan’s The Heiress Effect.

Unveiled by Courtney Milan (Review)

Courtney Milan - Unveiled

Courtney Milan – Unveiled

Miss Lowell, you magnificent creature, I want you to paint your own canvas. I want you to unveil yourself.

And with that Ash Turner, the hero of Courtney Milan’s Unveiled makes you fall in love with him.

The plot centers around Ash Turner having the heroine Miss Lowell’s aka Margaret Darlymple’s father, the Duke of Parford, declared as bigamous, thus inheriting the Duchy for himself and his family while simultaneously having Margaret and her brothers relegated to bastardy.

Ash’s action frames the heart of the story – how do you strike a balance between doing what’s best for your family and doing what’s best for you? This theme really spoke to me and perhaps that’s one reason that I enjoyed Unveiled.

I fell in love with both the hero and the heroine early on.

Ash Turner is an alpha male (a stereotype I love in my romance) with none of the brooding looming-ness and asinine jerk behaviour that at times accompanies this stereotype. At the same time he’s also shot through with certain beta archetype facets that make him pretty much a perfect hero in my book. He is charming, goes by his instinct and most importantly sees each person he meets as someone worth knowing. Margaret Darlymple recognizes this unique gift of Ash’s. She becomes seduced by his ability to strip her off her societal trappings and reach to the core of who she is and see someone “who matters.”

That the heroine needs the hero to help her see her self-worth is slightly disturbing but perhaps necessary given that Unveiled is a romance; however, as someone who has had mighty struggles with her self-esteem, I know the value in having a friend, a loved one point out to you that “you are someone important” and that you do not need whatever parades as society’s approval for you to love yourself or believe in yourself. Miss Milan’s treatment of Margaret’s struggles with her self-worth and her eventual coming-into-her-own rang true to me.

So did the way she resolves the central conflict between Margaret and Ash, who essentially cannot be with each other while also being ‘loyal’ to their families. I kept expecting Miss Milan to spoil everything by introducing plot elements that would facilitate some sort of ‘big misunderstanding’ between Ash and Margaret and consequently make Unveiled bland and boring. Thankfully, Miss Milan though does no such thing. Her plot resolution is believable – the hero and the heroine’s actions, their turnarounds, their moments of realization and epiphanies is completely in keeping with their character and the transformation that they have undergone through the course of the story.

In fact I was extremely impressed with the tightness of the plot. More so because a couple of days ago I read Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk, another much vaunted historical romance, and while I loved the first half of the book I found the second half meandering, and set at a pace different than the first half, making the whole reading experience a little disconcerting. Unveiled on the other hand was paced consistently and held my interest throughout.

This difference between two such highly rated historical romances led me to look up Miss Milan and what I found about her background surprised me. Miss Milan is a graduate of UC Berkley in theoretical physical chemistry and then went on to graduate summa cum laude in law from University of Michigan. She’s also adept at programming. That she made such a turnabout from science to writing and romance writing at that is something that I found unusual and fascinating. And I cannot help wondering if Miss Milan’s training in approaching things analytically does not perhaps help her have a more thought-through and detail-oriented approach to writing as well. I would certainly love to know more about her writing process.

Anyway, moving back to Unveiled – the characters and romance, both are well-developed. The resolution is satisfying. I can completely see why Courtney Milan is a favourite with people whose opinion I respect. In fact, I am going to give The Duchess War (Miss Milan’s recent offering that I’d read a few pages of and given up on) another try and of course, I have the rest of the series queued up for my reading pleasure.

The Chocolate Kiss by Laura Florand

Take a healthy dose of a heroine who mixes wishes into her chocolat chaud: May you love your life and seize it with both hands; and works in a shop called La Maison des Sorcieres or The Witches’ House. Add equal parts of a macaron-maker extraordinaire whose macarons are as delicious as he is, and whose pastry-making philosophy dictates that “every pastry had to have its orgasm, its culmination of bliss that hit like a complete surprise. That made the eyes of those who bit into it shiver closed with delight.”

Mix in a lesbian aunt who holds that Magalie (the heroine) preferring men to women is “like seeing your own child grow up to be a unicorn or something”.  Stir with a Parisian setting, Ile Saint-Louis, a quaint and charming island in the middle of Paris that I immediately wanted to visit!

What you get is Laurie Florand’s “The Chocolate Kiss”, a romance that is as delightful as it is sinfully delicious.

As a newbie to the whole genre of ‘foodie romance’ I can see the appeal of mixing the two. There is something intensely personal and sensual about the act of cooking:“She lifted the spoon, unctuous chocolate clinging to it. Thick and pure, probably rich with cream and high-quality dark chocolate, the liquid slid slowly back off the spoon. The scent of it promised bliss.” It’s almost like putting a little piece of yourself into your loved one. The way it assaults our senses, its visceral nature and its very indispensability to who we are – all these aspects of food serve to heighten and accentuate the sense of romance.

The recipes and the world of food is not the only thing that Miss Florand handles deftly. The secondary characters, especially Aunt Geneviève will have you giggling within seconds. An amazon of a woman with the feistiness to match it, Aunt Geneviève “was to other people’s lives what a heavy, old-fashioned iron was to clothes.” Unlike Magalie who is terrified that Philippe’s (the hero) new patisserie down the street will draw away the small pool of La Maison’s own customers, Aunt Geneviève puts up a sign saying, “Morally opposed to Valentine’s day. Closed in protest,” shooing away the horde that descends on the shop on Valentine’s Day.

And then there’s Magalie and Philippe themselves; trying to answer the age-old question of whether a witch and a prince are meant to be together. Given the imagery of castle that persists throughout the book it may be more appropriate to view Magalie as a witch-princess than just a witch. This distinction is important – the ensuing emotional struggles that Magalie undergoes, as she tries to come to terms with Philippe, is perhaps more the domain of princesses than witches.

A child of a Parisian mother and an American father who still commute across the pond, Magalie is prickly about her aunt’s shop and the Ile Saint-Louis, the only stable environment she has known in all her life. “It was her place. The one she wouldn’t leave, so no one could grow over her spot and take it from her”. Until that is Philippe Lyonnais comes to Ile Saint-Louis and “brought time in”. 

The Chocolate Kiss is the story of Magalie learning to deal with this interloper. Unlike princesses of the yore who needed some princely rescuing to escape the castles they were imprisoned in Magalie makes space for Philippe to join her inside her castle. Giving a healthy kick to the long line of princesses before her, she rescues herself. Perhaps, that makes Magalie more of a witch than a princess. And perhaps all we girls need to be the right balance of witchy-princesses in the first place.

Through all of this what I loved the best and that has made me want to seek out Miss Florand’s other books was the writing.

Miss Florand’s descriptions tug at my heartstrings:

It would probably taste like she had been permitted to spend three bites of her life in heaven. Like the essence of apricot had come down and kissed a shy pistachio, and they had decided to hang out and cuddle.

(I mean really, the apricot and pistachio decide to hang out and cuddle?! How sweet is that!)

And make me realize that the banal can be funny too:

Geneviève narrowed her eyes at him as if she suspected impudence. Philippe just leaned back against the counter, his presence competing firmly with hers to dominate the overcrowded kitchen, until Magalie felt like the stuffed inside of a sandwich fighting valiantly to prove she was the best part. (emphasis is mine)

– the stuffed inside of a sandwich fighting valiantly to prove she was the best part? Oh dear! I never looked at a Subway in this way precisely but once Miss Florand puts it so it becomes startlingly clear! And funny!

The whimsical nature of her description makes the character’s experience more vicarious (for the reader) than just a thing to observe passively: If Magalie cedes to Philippe,

He would ride his big white stallion right over her hedges and into her garden and never even notice that he had killed her favourite black hen.

Best of all her writing puts a big smile on my face:

One must always know when to yield magic into the hands of children..

So, if you’re on the lookout for a light and fluffy read that’s also immensely enjoyable I’d strongly recommend The Chocolate Kiss. Just don’t forget to arm yourself with chocolate delicacies before you begin!

P.S. And here’s the post that tipped me onto this book in the first place: Foodie Feminism: Laura Florand’s THE CHOCOLATE KISS

(this is one of my favourite blogs to head over to for romance related recommendations and thoughts!)