Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – Volume II. Cosette

I don’t fuck with ouija boards but reading the first Book of Volume II, Waterloo, made me want to summon Hugo just so I could make him defend his decision to spend an entire book rehashing Napoleon’s defeat purely to introduce us in the last moments to Cosette’s future love interest’s father. I’m sure there are other important French history reasons for this, but I remain bitter.

The second, surprisingly short book covers how Jean Valjean was taken back into imprisonment but escaped after saving someone’s life and faking his own death.

The third is where we finally bring Cosette into the main narrative. Cosette and Jean Valjean find each other in the dark woods. She feels safe with him and he feels drawn to protect her even before he figures out who she is, and it reinforced that this is a story about many things, most of all family. I love a good found family trope and while I suspect I won’t be too invested in her and Marius’s relationship later on, I have many feelings about Jean Valjean and Cosette. In the words of Victor Hugo:

“One, in fact, completed the other. Cosette’s instinct sought a father, as Jean Valjean’s instinct sought a child. To meet was to find each other.”

A modern equivalent in many ways is probably Hopper and Eleven in Stranger Things, down to the whole ‘reuniting in the woods’ and ‘running from the law’ stuff. Oh man, there’s a whole essay waiting right there.

Through the rest of Cosette’s volume it covers their narrow escape from Javert into a horrifying convent (with a detailed history of the convent of course) which includes some graverobbing. For a volume named after Cosette I was surprised by how little she appeared. Granted, all of the action going on is propelled by Jean Valjean’s fervent effort to protect her and give them both a better life. In many ways she’s been present from the beginning and will be throughout.

The next volume is Marius which I’m currently about halfway through and I have a lot of feelings about him and his whole family history and his flirtation practices. I also have many feelings about the Friends of the A B C, especially my Beloved Enjolras. Look forward to that next week and take care.

Review: Twice Tempted by Jeaniene Frost

Twice Tempted is the second of four books in Jeaniene Frost’s Night Prince series. I read and reviewed its predecessor, Once Burned, last year. I genuinely enjoyed it and I enjoyed this one too for the most part! Quick summary time!

“Leila’s psychic abilities have been failing her, and now she isn’t sure what the future holds. If that weren’t enough, her lover, Vlad, has been acting distant. Though Leila is a mere mortal, she’s also a modern woman who refuses to accept the cold shoulder treatment forever–especially from the darkly handsome vampire who still won’t admit that he loves her.

Soon circumstances send Leila back to the carnival circuit, where tragedy strikes. And when she finds herself in the crosshairs of a killer who may be closer than she realizes, Leila must decide who to trust– the fiery vampire who arouses her passions like no other or the tortured knight who longs to be more than a friend? With danger stalking her every step of the way, all it takes is one wrong move to damn her for eternity.”

Vlad continues to be an alpha who doesn’t slide into alpha-hole territory. Leila remains independently powerful. The sex remains just ok – save for a moment where he literally pierces her clit with his fang which was a step too far for me. The primary conflict between the couple surprised me a little bit.

If they’d been together for years and he still didn’t acknowledge or verbalize that he loved her I would have understood her disappointment more, but as Vlad fairly states, they’ve been together for what’s essentially a blink of the eye for him and still a short time for her. There’s a scene where he makes a public proposal – of vampirism. I understand her being upset about that, especially since she believed he was maybe proposing marriage, but I empathized with Vlad who shows her repeatedly how much she means to him.

A lot of big relationship things happened in this book and I wonder if it would have been worth pacing that out a bit more because one of the things I enjoy about romance is seeing how the relationship grows and changes, especially when following one couple through a series. There’s definitely still room to grow, but I wish we’d had a bit more time before some of those big changes happened.

I still enjoyed it, though, and will likely find a way for the third book to fit into the 2022 reading embrace.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – Volume I. Fantine

I decided to do my reviewing of The Brick by volume to keep me on track and to make it easier to remember what I felt about it. I feel like most people know Les Miserables to some extent, if only by the musical. I’ve wanted to read it since I got into the musical years ago, especially with the 2012 adaptation by Tom Hooper.

Volume I is titled Fantine but most of it is spent with the Bishop of D_ and Jean ValJean. The Bishop is a fascinating character. I don’t fault the adaptors for cutting his part way down, there are many parts where I feel like I would only understand what’s happening if I had a better knowledge of French history. He was in a family that narrowly escaped the Revolution (his only souvenir of that time of his life are his silverware and silver candlesticks) and he becomes this humble, benevolent Bishop who is considered pious to a fault but still beloved. He has an interesting experience with a man who had supported the execution of King Louis XVI. He is uncharacteristically severe and angry with him but is forced to acknowledge that it isn’t as black and white as “killing people is bad” when the people in question are the direct source of death and suffering for many others. The Bishop allows himself to be changed by this experience, something we don’t often see religious figures in novels do.

Jean ValJean’s story is much the same as in the book. Hugo does an excellent job illustrating how horribly broken the “justice” system was (and in many ways still is) and how damned people are through poverty and merciless systems. There are many sentences or phrases I’ve highlighted in my copy because through the dense prose there are some really beautifully descriptive pieces. Hugo is a genuinely good writer. He is a good writer who was clearly being paid by the word, but I can’t fault him for making his money.

When we meet Fantine it actually offers a small backstory for how she gets pregnant with Cosette. Novels I read from this time period in lit classes were always pretty severe with women who “fell from grace” or “ruined” themselves so it was interesting reading a contemporary of Dickens, Hardy, and Trollope write about a woman who has premarital sex and doesn’t describe her resulting circumstances as a reflection of her poor morals but rather the way society has failed her. He is critical of her lover who intentionally abandons her and the many people who continue this abandonment and debasement. He definitely has a bit of an infantilizing eye on women, and we do see some Madonna/Whore stuff going on as he writes pretty stark characterizations of women, but I still found this noteworthy.

Javert was another very interesting character and for once I wished Hugo would write more than he did. He describes the character being born and raised among the same miserables that the rest of the story is dedicated to. Unlike ValJean who views mercy as a kindness and a duty of humanity, Javert views mercy as an unfair farce and his only redeeming(?) quality is that he is as severe with himself as he is with others. There is no hypocrisy in this character, but there is also no charity. I pity him but also I would have dismissed him ASAP if I were Jean ValJean.

I am currently in Volume II. Cosette which began with a thorough description of the battle of Waterloo but we have finally reached the titular character and things are already picking up speed. If I keep reading 50 pages a day as planned, I should be done by the end of the month. I’m going to plan to keep a weekly review of whatever volumes I get through and then give an overall impression at the end.

This volume was pretty appropriately miserable but it sets the foundation for where all of these next characters are coming from/escaping and I’m looking forward to getting into more about the rebels. Other than Les Mis, I am currently reading Twice Tempted, the sequel to the Dracula romance I read last year, so be on the lookout for that review next week!

Review: Never Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks

Never Seduce a Scot is about as cliched HIghlander romance as you can get. It has a frail, petite, virginal heroine and a stoic, warrior hero. It also has a refreshingly consent positive throughline and a well handled enemies to lovers approach.

The plot is a familiar one. Two rival clans are forced into peace via marriage and the two who are chosen – Eveline Armstrong and Graeme Montgomery – are resistant but eventually fall in love. I hesitate to call it enemies to lovers because the tension that’s usually aligned with that is resolved pretty quickly and easily, at least on Eveline’s part.

I like the concept of the enemies to lovers trope but struggle to find reads that feature it which I enjoy because I really need a solid reason for the enemies part and I also don’t like how usually “enemy” is just an excuse for either character to be a flagrant asshole. You can be angry and bitter and vengeful – but don’t be a dick about it. The reasoning in this story is that the hero’s father was killed by the heroine’s father in a battle over a grudge that has lasted for a long time, somewhat like Romeo and Juliet where no one can really remember THE reason and it’s just how things are. Both characters are loathe to wed each other right up till the moment Eveline first “hears” Graeme and then she’s totally on board. Graeme, though recognizing her as a beautiful angel of gorgeousness, is still reluctant because he believes they cannot be together sexually because she is “touched” and he simply refuses to either initiate something with her that she might not fully understand or be able to consent to OR go sleep around with someone else. You love to see it.

Eveline is not mentally altered in any way however – she’s deaf. She can hear some things sometimes, specifically she can somewhat hear Graeme’s voice, but otherwise goes through life by reading people’s lips. This is the result of a horse riding accident and ensuing sickness and she allows people to think she is “simple” to avoid a marriage with a truly disgusting person. I spent half of this book thinking Graeme was just an idiot because he kept asking her questions and getting upset when she wouldn’t answer but in truth it was I who was the idiot as I fell prey to the most common reading mistake ever, forgetting that I knew things other characters did not. When she explains her deafness to Graeme they are able to establish a steadier form of communication. I kept waiting for her to be “cured” by true love or some doctor to have a miracle suddenly but it never happened. Banks actually allowed her heroine to have a disability and showed her find ways to adapt and have her loved ones adapt with her and she gets her happily ever after without having to change.

There are some things that gave me pause. The sex scenes were ok but the hero kept referring to her “woman’s release” and her “woman’s parts” and I feel like the author was going for “this is historical and they use historical phrases” but it took me out of the scenes. So did some of the “historically accurate” sexism like them chiding their little sister for wanting to learn to read (though they do finally allow it).

Overall I appreciated how the families clearly care about each other and the event that leads to the families agreeing to move beyond their feuding past was reasonable. I like that these characters could have been one-note but had conflicting feelings and loyalties and I know I’ll be going back to read the other two in the series when I need a break from my reading challenges. If you’re looking for a classic Highlander romance without the unfortunately common rape heavy plots or stoic to the point of not feeling heroes, this is a good one to try out.

Trigger warning: Eveline does describe being molested and abused by her betrothed (before Graeme) but this is not done graphically and it is brief. Their first time together is also painful for Eveline but she offers repeated, clear consent and the hero is careful to be attentive and gentle.

Review: Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski (trans. Danusia Stok)

I read Blood of Elves  by Andrzej Sapkowski (trans. Danusia Stok) because for the last month and a half instead of doing anything remotely productive like reading or writing reviews here, I’ve been writing fanfiction for Netflix’s The Witcher. For COVID-19 reasons.

Quick Note: I hope that all of you reading this are doing well and able to take the necessary measures to be safe. I know some of you will be essential workers. I hope that your employees are ensuring your safety by providing you with the proper PPE and that you’re doing a lot of self-care. For those of us who are quarantined and either working from home or (in my case) just kind of trying to hang in there, my thoughts are with you as well.

I’ve heard a lot of mixed things about Sapkowski’s series but frankly I really enjoyed this. I appreciated that the male figures aren’t just a bunch of stoic heroes but have feelings and concerns. There was a sense of humor that I also wasn’t expecting because in my admittedly limited experience in reading Fantasy, that isn’t usually a thing. I’m invested in the characters and looking forward to reading on in the series.

Review: Romancing the Inventor by Gail Carriger

I read Romancing the Inventor by Gail Carriger for the “Competency Boner” category of the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace. I read Romancing the Werewolf last year and thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m happy to report this author is the gift that keeps on giving.

This is a wlw novella featuring a parlourmaid eager to be ruined and a mature inventor anxious to avoid the mistakes of the past. Both work and live in a local vampire hive (it’s Carrigers world so vampires and werewolves are just facts and I’m all the way on board). Imogene, the parlourmaid, is smitten with the inventor on sight and despite herself Genevieve, the inventor, is as well. The barriers to them being together are understandable and I was cheering for the couple throughout. I also loved the friendship between Imogene and Major Channing, the hero from Romancing the Werewolf.

I will definitely be checking out the rest of Carriger’s catalogue and if you enjoy Victorian Fantasy Romance with likable, realistic characters I suggest you do as well.

Review: His Naughty Waitress by Bella Love-Wins

I read His Naughty Waitress by Bella Love-Wins for the “I’m a Waitress!” category of the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace.

This is a very, very short read, only 69 (*snicker*) pages. The premise is simple; a billionaire and his friends stop by a diner on their way to their annual hedonist retreat. There they meet the heroine, a waitress stuck in a small town in a dead-end job. The hero and the heroine hook up in the bathroom and then he invites her over where they hook up again and she agrees to go back to New York with him and they are in love. It’s most contemporary romance novels just ramped up on speed to hit the required page limit and not go too far over while still giving the reader an HEA and a minimum of two sex scenes. Both were written well. I don’t read many billionaire novels (this may have been my first actually) but he was the right balance of cocky without being an arrogant dick head which is the way I feel most billionaires skew. If you want a breezy read, pick this up. It’s one in a series I probably won’t be reading but it’s still good fun.

Review: The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

I read The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson for the “Read a picture book with a human main character from a marginalized community” category of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This was a quick read but it contained a great deal.

The book, written for children ages 5 – 8, speaks to the experience of realizing that you stand out in some way from your peers. For some of the children represented this is due to race, for others it is culture or a disability. Woodson does not sugar coat or pretend away the pain this can cause. She doesn’t make it a metaphor or write that this feeling will never happen again. Instead she acknowledges this feeling, draws parallels between how people can feel this way for many reasons and how valid this is, and then emphasizes that this moment doesn’t diminish their value. Woodson also discusses the way our differences don’t need to be barriers and that while people may ask questions or make you feel like the odd one out, they can also be inclusive and you can be felt seen and accepted in your uniqueness.

Too often the answer to working with people who are different is to just say you “can’t see” those differences, most often coming up when people talk about race. This is an issue for many reasons, chiefly that it attempts to ignore or diminish someone’s identity for personal comfort. Woodson shows children from a very pivotal age where these differences are becoming clearer and socialization, which is filled with biases and prejudices, that you do not have to be the same and you do not have to pretend others are the same as you to benefit from knowing them and accepting them.

Though short it is a powerful piece and I would encourage people who have small children in their lives to get it for them. Even if your child doesn’t stray from the cultural norm of their environment, this is a lesson that needs to be learned by all.

Review: Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick

I jumped back to the HB Reading Embrace to read Garden of Lies by Amanda Quick to fulfill the Competency Boner category of the embrace. Amanda Quick was actually the first romance novelist I read. I snagged my mom’s copy of I Thee Wed as a young teen. I don’t remember how I felt about it. I know I didn’t read romance again for years but that certainly wasn’t a reaction to the book. In any case, I was excited to give this author another read as an adult who has a bit more romance experience under her belt.

Slater Roxton has a reputation that precedes him, most of it lies, some of it truth. He’s been rumored to be mad since he spent a year on an island after a cave-in during his expedition and now leads a quiet but much storeyed life retrieving artifacts and cataloguing them. Helping him with this is Ursula Kern, widow and owner of the Kern Secretarial Agency. When an employee and friend turns up dead and is shrugged off as a suicide, Ursula takes it upon herself to pursue what she knows has been murder. Slater helps her and along the way they find the truth and fall in love in Victorian England.

I enjoyed reading this book, but there were definitely some things that got in the way of my enjoyment. Slater apparently loved Ursula at first sight and is very protective and a little bit possessive of her in ways that are totally inappropriate, especially because he doesn’t actually relay his feelings until well into the book. Ursula’s past is hinted at as very shocking and maybe I’ve just grown snobbish about my Secret Past backstories but the reveal was kind of anticlimactic in my opinion. Also the sex is written in a very hyperbolical, every-touch-sets-someone-on-fire way that felt almost satirical with how elaborately it was described. But I recognize that is in part just a hallmark of the time and there definitely weren’t any descriptions that thoroughly turned me off (see “hot honey” from Once Burned). However, there were some delightful side characters. The pacing and the writing were both good and I was happy for the characters. It also definitely qualified for the Competency Boner category because both characters are smart and talented and good at their jobs.

Review: Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

Trigger Warning: Death of an animal, racism, hate crimes, death of children

For the “book about a natural disaster” category of the Book Riot Reading Challenge I read Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee.

The book is set in San Francisco in the year 1906. It follows 15-year-old Mercy Wong, a second generation Chinese American who lives with her parents and younger brother Jack. Mercy’s parents own a laundry business and she is determined to find a way to help them be more financially stable and to leave the business that is ruining her family’s health. She gets her break in the form of a businessman who agrees to sponsor her stay at a prestigious girl’s school in exchange for her securing business dealings for him in Chinatown. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Mercy is able to broker the deal and begins pursuing what she hopes will be a life changing education for her family. But being the only Chinese American in a school full of privileged, white girls and the unexpected catastrophe of an earthquake will push Mercy farther than she thought possible and force her to uncover hidden strength.

Lee does not shy away from depicting the racism faced by Chinese Americans in the early 20th century. It is a thread that follows Mercy through her experiences in the book. She also shows the sexism within and without her cultural community, allowing the reader to witness the many barriers Mercy faces in her quest to secure a stable future for her family. Mercy is given some allies in the school, but even they have their biases that they have to put aside or confront before they can be her friend. It’s important that readers, specifically YA readers as this book is marketed to, understand these barriers and are able to identify the many ways institutional racism still exists in our society.

I was surprised that I had to get almost halfway through the book before the natural disaster occurred. I’m happy, though, that the author gave us time to get a sense of Mercy’s life and relationships. The reader cares about her family and her friendships and her plans. And then everything is taken from her and the reader and Mercy have to pick through what’s left to determine what life will become when everything you’ve worked for feels irrelevant. The writing was poignant and well paced. Lee shows how horrible, traumatic events can bring people together who would never have associated before, but also how this will never be the case for some people. It’s important to recognize both of these things are true and that it isn’t as simple as The Human Race all being in it for each other when the chips are down. Allies and friends are important, but Mercy has to be cautious in who she trusts and that’s treated with the respect and understanding it deserves.

I almost cried a couple of times in the book. The writing is really good and even though multiple horrific and tragic things occur, Lee still manages to end the book on an upward note. Mercy has hope for her future and even with all of the challenges she will continue to face, both the reader and the protagonist know that she will find a way through. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in early 20th century American history, especially as it pertains to the treatment of Chinese immigrants and the barriers of sexism for women of all races with specific attention paid to the unique positions of non-white women facing sexism.