Review | Murder in an English Glade (Beryl and Edwina Mystery 5), by Jessica Ellicott

MurderInAnEnglishGladeMurder in an English Glade is a charming historical mystery featuring an Odd Couple-type pair of private investigators: British socialite/aspiring novelist Edwina Davenport and American adventuress Beryl Helliwell. In this instalment, the investigators are hired to run a fake undercover investigation at an artists’ retreat — their client’s cousin is accusing their client’s sister-in-law of having an affair with one of the artists, and the client believes the appearance of an investigation will quell her cousin’s doubts before the accusations erupt into a full-blown scandal. Except that shortly after Beryl and Edwina arrive, the artist turns up murdered, and the fake investigation turns real.

It’s a charming premise. I’m a huge fan of genteel British small town mysteries, and I loved the chance to delve into a world where there’s an estate large enough to host a group of artists and a group of Girl Guides, and art has such cultural cache that such goings-on are simply par for the course for the ultra elite. The beginning also totally won me over, with Beryl blundering into an argument with Edwina’s housekeeper — being unused to servants, Beryl thinks she’s being helpful, but Edwina’s gardener is quick to point out her faux pas. I love that contrast between both the lead characters, and how they responded to the situation.

The mystery, as well, hooked me at first. I loved the subplot about a potential romance for Edwina, and the comedy around Edwina learning what going undercover as an artist’s model may actually require her to do. I also hadn’t realized cigarette cases were designed by painters working with models, so that was an interesting bit of history. The big reveal came as a surprise to me, and I like how all the various disparate elements came together at the end.

That being said, the novel fizzled out for me partway through. Possibly, it’s just that I had to be in a certain mood to really get into it, but the latter half felt slow to me. The mystery surrounding Beryl’s history with one of the guests didn’t really interest me much, and I wanted to see a lot more of Edwina’s potential romance. The way the reveal was structured also felt a bit confusing — there’s a major clue near the end that points to a particular suspect, but then much ado is made over figuring out the involvement of a character who turned out to be irrelevant to the reveal. And the villain’s motivation was only hinted at on-page — there were some clues leading up to it, but the key part of information behind their motivation was only brought up in the big exposition scene, which I felt took away some of the “Aha!” feeling of all the pieces clicking into place.

Overall, it’s a pretty good mystery. I found the characters of Beryl and Edwina to be interesting, and I love the set-up of the faux investigation. The second half was a bit of a letdown, but overall, the mystery was solid, and had some good red herrings and clues.

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Thank you to Kensington Books for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Dating Playbook, by Farrah Rochon

DatingPlaybookCoverFarrah Rochon’s The Boyfriend Project was one of my favourite books the year it came out, so in fairness to The Dating Playbook, my hopes and expectations coming in were sky-high. And The Dating Playbook is a good novel — Rochon has a gift for sizzling chemistry, complex characters, and emotions that’ll rip your heart apart before putting it back together again. But mostly… it was okay, and after The Boyfriend Project, that was a bit of a letdown.

Admittedly, part of it is that nerds just grab me more than athletes do, and sports romances aren’t usually my thing. So the story of Taylor, a personal trainer who’s hired to get Jamar back into NFL-ready shape after an injury, isn’t usually a romance I’d pick up unless I loved the author. I did like how Taylor and Jamar pushed each other physically — Rochon does a great job in the training scenes of ramping up the sparks as each main character notices new things they like about each other — but all the stuff about proper nutrition and buying healthy groceries weren’t all that interesting to me.

Beyond that, though, the romantic conflict fell a bit flat for me. I’m usually a huge fan of the fake dating trope, but in this case, the premise felt thin, and I found myself having to continuously suspend my disbelief about why they had to continue the illusion that it wasn’t real. Part of it was that I found the initial premise more believable — Taylor raises a valid concern that dating Jamar would hurt her professionally, because it would make any future endorsement from him suspect. That made a lot of sense to me; women are so often accused of using our sexuality to advance in our careers that I can see why Taylor would want to keep things strictly professional.

So when Taylor does a complete 180 and decides that pretending to date Jamar would actually help her career instead of harming it, I found it a hard sell. I recognize the value of social media publicity, but I found it hard to believe that the benefits of publicity would outweigh the compromising of Jamar’s objectivity in endorsing her. It was especially frustrating because the novel included an easy out for the fake dating plot — the journalist who ‘broke the story’ is presented as super ethical, and would have been amenable to a correction.

The fake dating plot felt artificial to me from the start, and as the story progressed, the insistence on keeping the relationship fake felt even more forced. One of the reasons I’d loved The Boyfriend Project so much is that the conflict felt inescapable — both main characters’ professional interests were directly at odds with each other, and the big secret between them was necessary for reasons beyond the characters themselves. In contrast, the way the conflict played out here barely had teeth, and was a disappointment.

That being said, Rochon delivered on showing us how much Taylor and Jamar care for each other. A scene involving oral sex is emotionally-charged and beautifully written, and I love how it ties in the love between the leads and the various emotions playing out in their lives beyond the romance.

I also loved the non-romantic conflicts that Rochon set up for both leads. Taylor’s coming to terms with her learning disability is wonderfully done — I love how she starts off masking her fear of school with the pretense of finding it useless, and I also love how she gradually comes to terms with the realization of how much a college degree will help her career. I’ve read other novels that treat this subject with less depth, often just accepting as given that a college degree is important. So I very much appreciate how Taylor begins with a genuine belief that a college degree isn’t necessary, and how she actually does manage to garner some success without one, until circumstances show her how much more a college degree will help her achieve. I also appreciate how Rochon treats Taylor’s goal as not centered on the college degree itself, but rather on her broader vision for Taylor’d Conditioning. And I love how the novel delves into Taylor’s decision-making processes, and shows concrete examples of how going to college will help her achieve that vision.

Jamar’s personal growth is even more emotionally-charged — I love how his despair over a potentially career-ending injury and desire to get back into NFL-ready shape are tied both to his personal dreams, and to his deathbed promise to his best friend Silas. I love the history of friendly rivalry, mutual admiration, and yes, professional jealousy between the two men, and how that colours Jamar’s determination in training. And I especially love how his growth arc plays out, how his decisions are based on a whole range of factors, including his pride, mercurial public perceptions, his love for Silas, and his continuing relationships with Silas’ family and with Taylor. It’s such a complex hodgepodge of elements that add nuance to his training, and Rochon handles it beautifully.

Overall, it’s a good book, just not a great one, and after The Boyfriend Project, that was disappointing. Independent of the comparison, I found the first half slow, and may have DNF’d if it were another author, but I’m glad I kept reading, as the emotional payoff in the second half made up for it. The third book, London’s story, which seems to be about her class reunion and the guy hired to organize it, will be out in Summer 2022.

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Thank you to Forever Romance for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

Review | The Bennet Women, by Eden Appiah-Kubi

Cover of Bennet Women, featuring three women (one Asian, one Black, and one white with red hair) against a blue backgroundThe Bennet Women is a true contemporary adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, in which Eden Appiah-Kubi maintains key story highlights from the original, while updating her characters’ concerns and conflicts for contemporary times. This adaptation manages to straddle the line between inserting as many of the original’s story beats as possible (Darcy’s infamous “Elizabeth Bennet can’t tempt me” at a party; Darcy’s younger sister’s history with Wickham, Darcy’s letter explaining all, Elizabeth’s confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, etc), while still updating the context of these story beats so that it fits more naturally within contemporary times.

In doing so, Appiah-Kubi crafts a narrative that actually feels contemporary — we can imagine her versions of Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, and so on existing in a present-day university, and dealing with relationship problems in that way. Unfortunately, by removing much of the social constraints that so hemmed Austen’s characters in when it came to relationships, Appiah-Kubi also ends up significantly lowering the stakes, perhaps proving just how much so many of the original’s story beats were products of their time.

Elizabeth Bennet is reimagined as EJ, a Black engineering student at Longbourn University. The original’s sister Jane is reimagined as EJ’s best friend Jamie, a white, red-headed trans drama student. Darcy is reimagined as Will, an actor who takes a break from acting and enrols at Longbourn U after his pop singer girlfriend dumps him over text. Bingley becomes Lee, a wealthy transfer student studying psychology.

The lived identities of various characters updates the social conventions that hems them in. For example, as a Black woman in STEM, EJ constantly has to work twice as hard to prove she is neither a ‘diversity hire’ nor an ‘angry Black woman’. Jamie’s shyness is partly influenced by having had little experience in dating as an openly trans woman, and much of her relationship with Lee is about navigating socially-imposed insecurities. Will’s rudeness is rightly called out by his loved ones as a personality flaw; he makes up for it by being incredibly talented at noticing things, and eventually softens in his approach. I love these updates, because they make Austen’s story feel fresh while still paying homage to what had made the original characters so beloved in the first place.

The updates also make sense, because while marriage was front-of-mind for women in Austen’s time, contemporary women have other concerns. This is particularly evident in Appiah-Kubi’s update to Wickham — rather than a rake who preys on innocent women for sex, Jordan is an actor who preys on vulnerable young women to help him sell drugs in exchange for a range of potential motivations, which does include sex, but also includes a potential boost to their acting careers.

However, one key difference that I understand but feel it lowered the stakes somewhat is that Appiah-Kubi made her men more emotionally aware and her women more open about communicating their feelings. While much of Elizabeth and Darcy’s conflict was because social conventions restricted their ability to actually talk things out in the open, EJ and Will communicate very well. EJ is also much savvier than Elizabeth was in sussing out untrustworthy people, and was able to see through Wickham/Jordan’s lies quicker than Austen’s heroine was. Which all make for a good and healthy relationship from a contemporary standpoint, but the relatively rapid resolution also means much of the main conflict in the romance loses steam midway through. The novel tries to address this by changing the romantic conflict into the possibility of EJ moving away after college, and neither EJ nor Will wanting a long-distance relationship, but because both characters are so willing to engage in honest conversation, there seems little doubt that they’ll work out a viable solution.

I do like that Appiah-Kubi gives Jamie and Lee a conflict of their own. There’s even a nice shoutout during a pivotal conversation about how well-versed both of them are in therapy-speak, which again means that they actually listen to each other, and recognize when emotions are clouding their own judgments. Again, this is a good example of a healthy relationship, but it also means that their conflict barely festers before being resolved within a chapter or two, and then never addressed again.

Even the iconic confrontation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine barely fizzles in this update, where Lady Catherine is reimagined as Will’s ex-girlfriend. Whereas the original scene was majorly cathartic, because after so many chapters of Elizabeth biting her tongue, she finally lets loose and stands up for herself, EJ has been standing up for herself in her personal life throughout most of the novel. So when Will’s ex appears, we already know she barely poses a thread, and when EJ stands up to her, it’s just more of the same. A more impactful confrontation involves a panel of academics in EJ’s professional life, where EJ has been far more careful about speaking up, and so standing up for herself shows more of her character’s growth. Unfortunately, that scene takes place off-page, and therefore also barely sizzles.

The denouement also dragged on too long. There were at least three or four moments when I thought the story had wrapped up nicely, only to find there was still another chapter. Part of it is that the novel juggles two main plot threads — EJ and Jamie’s senior year at Longbourne U, and EJ and Will’s romance. So much of the novel was structured around senior year and a prestigious post-grad fellowship EJ is applying to, that when those threads are resolved, the remaining chapters feel almost like afterthoughts. The final chapters deal with closing off the final loose threads in EJ and Will’s romance, but there’s little of the will-they/won’t-they tension in the second half of the novel, and the final chapters feel especially anti-climactic.

Finally, and this is probably more on the marketing than the novel itself, the blurb promises to be about three women, with the third being EJ and Jamie’s friend Tessa, a Filipina astronomy student with guy problems. Tessa does appear in quite a few scenes, but her story is barely a subplot. Partly, I think it feels this way because the novel adheres so closely to the characters and story beats of the original that it was especially noticeable how Tessa doesn’t have a clear, one-to-one inspiration from Austen. Given her guy problems, I thought she was being set up as the Lydia who’ll fall prey to Wickham/Jordan, but given that she was barely around for the latter half, perhaps she was more like Mrs Bennet, and simply a catalyst for EJ and Jamie to get their love stories?

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.