Recent Reading: Fairy Dust Edition

I’m tired of writing ranty blog posts, though sometimes it seems like I have to stick my fingers in my ears and go la-la-la in order to avoid the impulse. So I will take a page from the Jennifer Weiner playbook and sprinkle fairy dust over books I’ve enjoyed reading/listening to lately.

I enjoyed Jackie Barbosa’s novella Hot Under the Collar. I posted a longer than usual review on Goodreads because Jackie kindly sent me a copy. To that, I’d add: this story appealed to me very personally because of the vicar hero. My dad went to (Episcopal) seminary when I was a teen. He had some mighty cute 20-something classmates. Ever since (and maybe also from reading Barbara Pym in my formative years) I’ve had a vicar thing. I hope my dad’s not reading this! Walter, the hero of Hot Under the Collar, reminded me of one of those guys; he’s a charming playboy who grows up to be a good pastor. I said in my review that it’s almost like inspirational romance for liberal Christians. Walter isn’t dogmatic or pious, but he is concerned with questions of forgiveness, redemption and judgment (or not). The church is important in many of the characters’ lives, and that’s something mainstream romance seldom shows.

The novella’s heroine, Artemisia Finch, is built on the same basic DNA as Cecilia Grant’s in A Gentleman Undoneboth fell in love as very young women with men who wouldn’t or couldn’t marry them; both had resulting pregnancies that left them unable to conceive (and childless); both became courtesans/prostitutes. And yet these characters and their books are utterly different. When I’m feeling cranky about romance rules and formulas, it’s good to be confronted with two writers doing such divergent things with the same basic material. I enjoyed each on its own terms.

I thought the romance in Hot Under the Collar kind of took a back seat to Walter’s  relationship with the inhabitants of Grange-Over-Sands (I didn’t mind that, because I’m feeling a bit burned out on romance right now). The romance is resolved through Walter’s engagement with the community of his parishioners and his pastoral care for their problems. Often romance couples seem isolated from other people. Here, that isolation from the community–particularly Artemisia’s–was a problem to be solved. That made it a bit like Farahad Zama’s Marriage Bureau for Rich People, a book I discovered in the Dear Author thread on South Asian romance. A lot of Goodreads reviews describe this as “Alexander McCall Smith in India with a hint of Jane Austen” and that’s pretty spot on, though there’s no mystery plot. There is a slightly Pride and Prejudice-esque romance thread that becomes more prominent near the end of the book, but it’s also quite episodic, as Mr. Ali and his assistant Aruna help people find the right matches. Their clients are both Hindu and Muslim, and a picture of the complex, diverse community emerges through Aruna and the Alis’ interactions with these people, and with their neighbors and servant, and the Alis’ son’s involvement in protests against an economic development project that would displace farmers. The product description at Amazon includes the phrase “shamefully delightful.” WTF? I felt no shame in my delight. Oops, rant creeping in! La-la-la. It is gentle, sweet and a lot of fun, light but still addressing some serious themes (community, family, the conflict between tradition and modernity).

I can tell I’m stressed out and tired  because I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks (my daughter finally finished school yesterday, and my husband has been out of town all week; I need a vacation, or at least to sleep in for a couple of days). When I can’t concentrate on reading I play mah-jong on my iPod while listening to a story. Lately, I’ve been re-listening to old comfort favorites. Almost all of my exposure to Jayne Anne Krentz and her various pseudonyms has been via audio. I don’t think I’ve ever loved one of her books, but I always, always enjoy them, even the ones I think are not very good. I just like her voice (this is true for me with Jackie Barbosa as well, actually). This week it’s been Ravished and Deception, probably the Amanda Quick historicals I like the best. I have the same problem with these books that I do with Shakespeare comedies: I can never remember which title goes with which story. I think of them as “the fossil one” and “the not-really-a-pirate one.” Entertaining background to whatever dull housework I’m doing, and comforting companions to doze off to when I’m having trouble falling asleep alone.

I’m also two books in to Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain on audio. I read these books over and over as a child, but unlike some other childhood favorites, haven’t re-read them since. They’re classic high fantasy based in Welsh myth, and they hold up well. Yes, they’re sometimes blatantly didactic, but that works for me in stories of ordinary, flawed people learning to be heroes. I love the way the rag-tag band is referred to as “companions.” Together, they accomplish things they never could alone. This part of the author’s note to The Book of Three (read by Alexander himself) made me cry:

The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy. Such things never happen in real life. Or do they? Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we believe we can do. Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.

That meant more to me at 44 than it ever could have at 10. I want an “Assistant Pig-Keeper” sign for my office door.

I read and listened to some things I didn’t like as much too. But hey, fairy dust, la-la-la! 

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16 Responses to Recent Reading: Fairy Dust Edition

  1. Phyl says:

    I like fairy dust! Although it causes me to spend money. I bought the Barbosa novella just now. Sounds really interesting.

  2. Ros says:

    I’m always nervous about books dealing with the church (I still need to write that post about inspirational romances) but I think I’m going to give this one a go.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I am too, and I avoid inspirationals. This worked for me because it is not preachy and sticks to broad-brush things most any Christian (or not) can get behind, like forgiving, not judging. I liked the way people came to Walter for help and he cared about them. I should warn you there’s sex in the sacristy, though.

      • Ros says:

        Gosh. I will avert my eyes. 😉

      • Ros says:

        I’ve just finished it and I’m really glad I read it, so thank you for the rec. I liked the set up a lot and I thought Walter was a great character. I think you’re spot on about the way that the church and community work so well together in this book, which is one of the reasons why I would have liked it to be longer. There are some fun subplots which could have been fleshed out more, as well as giving more time to Walter and Artemisia. I felt like the ending was all too quick, as well. I’d have really liked to see the community’s acceptance take time. This may have been exacerbated by the fact that the ebook ended at 84%, so I was fully anticipating another couple of chapters after the ending.

        I could have done without the sex in the sacristy, though I get why it was there. I also didn’t much care for the title or the cover, but the book was lovely. Much more enjoyable, much more realistic, and in many ways much more Christian than most inspirationals.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          The book description said samples, so I was expecting it to end more or less where it did, but I hate when that happens! It happened to me with a Loveswept recently that did not say there were samples at the end, and it changed my perception of the book to find it was suddenly over–before I was ready, and before I thought the characters were. If I’d known the end was coming so soon, I might not have perceived it as rushed.

          I thought this could easily have become a full-length novel, though I understand why someone self-publishing and with a day job wants to put out more, shorter works instead. I’m glad you liked the church parts too, though–what you say is pretty much how I feel about them.

      • Much more enjoyable, much more realistic, and in many ways much more Christian than most inspirationals.

        Am I allowed a small sob of happiness at this observation? This is the book I hoped I was writing, and it’s just so rewarding to know I’ve succeeded to some extent, even if it isn’t perfect. (Because, really, nothing’s perfect.)

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I rarely read fiction in any genre that reflects anything like my own slipshod attempts at liberal Christian faith, and I really appreciated it. In romance, the choices seem to be inspirational (which means a very particular brand of Christianity that isn’t mine) or nothing at all. Real people, especially historically but even today, have a much wider range of faith experiences than that, of course. I wish I could find more non-Christian characters of faith, too–though Zama’s book did have that.

  3. Oh, thank you, Ros, for the warning about the 84% ending! It made a huge difference to my enjoyment of Ruthie Knox’s Ride with Me that I knew, going in, that the book would end at about that mark. Now I’ll adjust my arc expectations for HUTC accordingly.

    I’m overextended these days and a slow reader to begin with, so haven’t gotten that far in HUTC, but I’m really enjoying it. Her portrayal of religion in early 19th-century English life feels authentic to me. It was a more-regular part of people’s lives than we generally see in historical romance, but at the same time, the vicars, curates, etc. weren’t necessarily all that devout. (Mr. Wickham, remember, was being groomed for a church career!) I’m liking Walter a lot, especially (as you pointed out) when he engages with the rest of the community. The book is much sweeter, so far, than I expected it to be. Maybe I’ll revise that judgment when I get to the sacristy scene 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That was the book that got me! I thought the ending of Knox’s book was the weakest part, but I wonder if that was partly because it came so much sooner than I thought it was going to. One reason I like Jackie’s writing is that there is a real sense of sweetness and affection in the relationships, and that was very true here (not just in the romance but in the heroine’s relationship with her father, for instance). But this is also less “hot” than most of her other books I’ve read, so more “sweet” in the romanceland sense too.

      • I have to say that Artemisia’s relationship with her father is very much patterned on mine with MY father, who has been gone for almost 13 years now. I still miss him, but I also feel like he’s such a part of me, I’m never without him. Funny, that. Anyway, I wanted to portray a solid, loving father-daughter relationship in this book, in part because I had one myself.

    • FYI, Cecilia, since I think you have the ARC version, you may not have the excerpts, which means it will finish at the end :). I try to disclose in my cover copy for all my books how much is actual book and how much is “excerpts” but I never know exactly what percentage that winds up being until someone tells me! (I should check that, though, and add it to my blurbs once I figure it out!)

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