[455]: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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GOODREADS SUMMARY | McClelland & Stewart | Hardcover, 576 pages
Publication Date: September 16th, 2014 | Adult Fiction | Historical | Mystery
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars


The literary world is a vast universe I’ve only began to explore. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon Sarah Waters’ latest via a recommendation from one of the ladies at my bookstore. I wasn’t familiar with the author and her work, and much to my delight, I found out that Sarah Waters has the corner on a specific arch: lesbian protagonists in an historical setting. I’m ashamed to admit that this is my very first read featuring a lesbian relationship, considering that I’ve read my fair share of gay lit featuring two males.

More and more, I’m learning that if I read up on an author’s background, it helps understand why they chose a specific niche. Sarah Waters’ background on lesbians and gay in historical fictions inspired  the characters in her books. However, I’ve yet to read other books for which she’s known for (Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet), but I was able to have to taste of it in this novel.

This one follows the story of Frances; a woman who had to be at the helm of what’s left of the family fortune.  Her brothers were both killed in the war; closely followed by the death of her father, leaving her to care for her mother and a house in a state of disrepair. As they learned that her father lost just about everything to failed ventures, Frances and her mother decided to take on borders (or paying guests) to alleviate the financial stress. This was how they met Lillian and Leonard Barber, the childless married couple who would be the subject of Frances’ great curiousity, and would spearhead a tumult of chaos in what used to be a peaceful life.

Frances didn’t expect to experience such great attraction to Lillian, but the lonely homemaker found what her husband lacked in Frances. I suppose if I’d to dive deeper into her psyche, I’d say that Frances offered refinement, and gentle love as oppose to Leonard’s exuberance. What started out as friendship and easy companionship evolved into a clandestine affair between the two women. To read such a relationship in that era and how women dealt with the condemnation of the time was interesting to me. What’s even more surprising (or maybe not so), is that in the present time, if you find yourself in a conservative circle, you’ll probably be met with the same narrow-minded judgement. In some cases, status quo is about the same.

Another point of interest for me was the implications of the women’s role during and after the war. When men left to fight, women assumed the jobs that they vacated. Waters deftly captures the gender role reversals after the war: while the men could barely find employment, the women have become established in positions that were previously unavailable to them. Some men felt castrated, and didn’t shy away from expressing their opinions.

Because this book was my baptism of fire to Waters’ works, I would consider it as an adjustment period of sorts. A taste test, to get a feel of what to expect from her. I’ve never been one to go for award-winning body of works, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try them. Sarah Waters writes with sophistication, but hardly reticent to tackle anything that could be considered crass or uncivilized, if need be.

I enjoyed this one, but I think hers are the kind of novels where your mood dictates exactly when you should pick them up. I’m looking forward to Fingersmith, though; and wouldn’t mind picking up her other novels as well.

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[454]: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

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The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes | Penguin Canada | Hardcover, 384 pages
Publication date: August 13th, 2014 | Adult Fiction | Historical | Romance
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars


“Will it buy my husband his freedom? Will…will I buy my husband his freedom?”

The story began in World War 1, most specifically during the invasion of France by Germany. In a small town ruled by German forces, Sophie and her sister ran a cafe/bar called, Le Coq Rouge. Situation was dire as both their husbands were fighting the war; and the only man in the house was their teenage brother full of spite and bad temper. One night, when the Germans came knocking at their door with an accusation of theft, Herr Kommandant came face to face with strong willed, Sophie Lefèvre.  She stood her ground, talked back to an officer, risked punishment by telling them exactly what they can do with their accusations. Herr Kommandant was stunned, and a little taken with the beauty who showed him no fear. That wasn’t the only thing that rendered him speechless, however. It was a painting of a girl full of life, desire and passion. Not at all the same girl who stood before him. It was Sophie, of course, painted by Edward Lefèvre, her husband before they got married.

Herr Kommandant was inexplicably drawn to the painting as much as he was drawn to Sophie. Every night since then, he commissioned Le Coq Rouge to provide dinner for him and for his troop. Sophie risked being hated by her neighbours, and their allegations of being a German sympathizer. But Sophie was not a selfish person, nor did she care of what they thought of her. As long as her family was eating, and she was able to provide leftover food to those in need, she continued to cook for Herr Kommandant. Besides, she’d become accustomed to his company; and their discussions about Art sated the ache of missing her husband.

But when the cruelty of the Nazi regime became even more obvious, and her husband was taken to a camp, Sophie had nowhere to turn to but Herr Kommandant.

Sophie’s story began when she was taken by the Germans on accusations of insurgence. When she thought that the Herr Kommandant came through with his promise for her to be reunited with her husband. What happens to the painting after that, becomes the crux of Liv Halston’s story, almost a century later.

I’m sorry to have written such a long summary for Sophie’s story. I feel that hers is the major draw for this book. I must admit that I felt guilty for being giddy with the forbidden romance between Kommandant Henchken and Sophie, mainly because romanticizing such a dark period in the world history is wrong. The lives lost at the time, the torture that the victims endured, and the preamble to what was to be an even more unimaginable horrors yet to come are just hard to think of but nightmarish.

Jojo Moyes captured the sombre and frightful air of a town besieged by enemies. It was a bleak world; one where supplies were controlled by the German forces, and people were hungry and afraid. Cut off from the world, post was hard to come by. Especially if they were expecting to hear from loved ones battling in the front. Here, we saw people doing what they can to salvage what was left of their riches (by burying them in their garden), and hiding missives received from loved ones. The author took great pains in making sure she captured the aura of the times, and have given justice to the sufferings of the French people.

The second part of this story is set in the modern times. It was the story of a struggling widow, Liv Halston. Her husband was a brilliant architect who died in his sleep, leaving her with an enormous house a single woman can’t afford. She’s already struggling to make ends meet, so when her purse was stolen on a night when she wanted to forget her troubles by getting smashed, she just about gave up. Enter Paul McCafferty, an expat who finds lost art for a living. Fate is such a cruel bitch. Instant connection between the two stymied by The Girl You Left Behind, a painting that was believed to have been stolen by the Germans during the war.

It was interesting to see the process of how some of the looted art during the war are being recovered. The amount of research required and the how such a delicate thing is being handled. A lot of people wouldn’t be so quick to contest a stolen art, so it was also interesting to see what kind of hostility a person would face in such a case where  they refuse to hand it over.

I could go on for miles about this book. All I can say is, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. This coming at the heels of reading Night Film by Marisha Pessl, another book that I’d gladly shout praises until practically everyone I know have added it to their shelves. All you need to know is that Jojo Moyes will not fail you. The woman can turn something uncouth into something understandable, and can incite empathy to someone whose political belief was rooted in hate.

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Morsels [10]: Book Nos. 5 and 6 of the Bragg Saga by Brenda Joyce

Publication Date: April 1st, 1992
Avon Books
Format: Kindle Edition
RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
SUMMARY
The Scorching Saga of the Braggs Continues . . .

Heiress to the magnificent Bragg empire, lovely, headstrong socialite Lucy Bragg lives a life that flies in the face of convention. Dark and rugged half-breed Shozkay Savage lives an outlaw’s life on the edge. These two people inhabit different worlds–hers, opulent and privileged; his, dangerous and wild. But on the vast and sweeping plains of Texas, their worlds collide . . .

Abducted and held for ransom, Lucy despises Shoz for his arrogance . . . yet is drawn to the strapping fugitive by a bold, unquenchable desire. Sworn to escape him but betrayed by her own reckless passion, she will follow Shoz from the unforgiving wastland of Death Valley to the tropical heat of revolution-swept Cuba–braving scandal and heartbreak, risking life itself for an untamed and blistering love as perilous as it is forbidden.

This story has all the makings of a frustrating romance. Lucy Bragg was a character that one can be considered as progressive thinker. She didn’t have any qualms being involved with a half-breed outside of the marital bed. She was strong but not as opinionated as her activist mother, Grace Bragg but she’s no wilting violet either.

Shozkay Cooper is considered as a half-breed (like most of the men in this series) who found himself in lust enamoured with the socialite. Their lives couldn’t be any more different: he, a gun runner for the revolution in Cuba, and she, contented to live the life her upbringing afforded. She’s engaged to be married to the son of a Senator – a perfect candidate to extend the Bragg’s clout in the society.

Their relationship was, yet again, exhausting to read. I think I’ve reached my limit of bickering, snapping couples.

What I love about this book is the social and political relevance of Cuba’s revolution and how it directly impacted the country’s relationship with the US. Although this novel is predominantly romance, I think Joyce did an amazing job writing a book with historical importance.

~oOo~

Publication date: November 1st, 1992
Avon Books
Format: Kindle Edition
Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
Amazon


SUMMARY

Rebelliously independent Lady Nicole Bragg Shelton refuses to be constrained by the stifling rules of Victorian England. And now desire has impelled the beautiful heiress toward a shocking liason with Hadrian Braxton-Lowell, Duke of Clayborough.


Bound by the dictates of honor and duty to another woman, Hadrian is hocked by Nicole’s daring conduct, yet entranced by her fiery free spirit and breathtaking sensuality. Though resolved to making the raven-haired beauty his mistress, he will never agree to wed her. But Nicole is no man’s plaything. And she is prepared to risk heartache in order to satisfy her wild, uncompromising passion . . . and win the dashing Duke’s unwavering loyalty and undying love.

Oh dear. Book number six of this series was an explosive, tiresome bundle of fireworks. These two butted heads like a couple of rams in the wilderness. At one point, I came to the conclusion that being apart would’ve been the best for everyone’s sake.
Nobody likes two strong opposing characters finding kindred love with one another more than I but it was not the case with these characters. Frankly, their constant bickering annoyed me endlessly. The relentless push and pull of their attraction tired me out. This seems to be the general theme with the relationships in this series. 
Lady Nichol Bragg Shelton was supposed to be a head-strong, well educated, well opinionated woman of the time and yet, I couldn’t, for the life of me understand some of her spontaneous, impulsive decisions. She kept in pursuit of a man who had no intention of being caught at first. It got to a point where I was truly embarrassed on her behalf. She had no scruples at all. Her much too forward thinking was far from admirable, to be honest. It was too bad, because I was looking forward to reading about Nicole. I thought she was an independent woman who would pare down a man down to his size but because she gave too much chase, I didn’t like her at all.
The thing is I wouldn’t mind a woman chasing after a man if the man is worth the effort. But Hadrian is definitely not worth that. He’s conceited, boorish and chauvinistic, who sees himself as the master of all he surveys. And while I sometimes like that in a character, this man didn’t have a speck of any redeeming qualities in him. I didn’t get her fascination and ardor for chasing him.
Since I’ve been reading these books in the last few days, I’m just noticing the changes in the first characters from the previous books: their parents – which are the characters from the initial books – seemed to have changed for the worst. While most of them opposed to forced marriages, this time, they’re actually forcing their kids because they know what’s best for them. Give me a break. I don’t know about you, but I found them hypocritical.
Overall, this book ranks probably dead last in this series. It was not an enjoyable read and the characters were far from likable. 

This concludes my interest in this series. Really, I should’ve stopped at book #5 as book #7 is sitting in queue in le Kindle. Oh well. 

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Dark Fires [Bragg Saga #4] by Brenda Joyce

Publication Date: January 22nd, 2002
Dell
Format: Kindle Edition
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
SUMMARY
“He murdered his wife,” they whispered. Nicholas Bragg, Earl of Dragmore, was notorious–even after a British court found him innocent. Now they called him Lord of Darkness, as much for his rakish good looks as for his black reputation.

She was an innocent at passion’s gate. Arriving uninvited at the massive stone manor, she shivered with terror–and excitement. Jane Barclay was his ward. Her sunny, innocent nature was in violent contrast to his hot temper. He was wild, explosive, an uncouth Texas rakehell–exactly the wrong kind of man for an English beauty to tame. Together they would be swept into the dark storm of their passionate destiny…and wild all-consuming love.

So this story rings like Bronte’s Jane Eyre; except there was sex (lots of it) and there was no wife who’s mentally ill hidden in the attic – just a scheming beyotch who couldn’t handle a little bit of the savage blood in Nick Bragg. You’d have to read this book to see for yourself.
Nicholas Bragg, being the first born son of Miranda Shelton, inherited the title of the Earl of Shelton from the Duke, his grandfather. Displaced from the wild, Wild West to the sprawling greens of England, he didn’t have a choice but to commit to the title he assumed. Rumored to have killed his wife, he haunted Dragmore and kept to his moniker, The Dark Lord. He didn’t mind the tile at all until he was saddled with an angelic, seventeen year-old ward. As soon as he saw Jane Barclay, he’s reminded of his dark nature, how he came to be and his real identity. He resisted Jane’s innocent charms but couldn’t really deny the palpable sexual tension between them. It wouldn’t take long until he had no choice but to face his demons and accept the inevitable. 
Jane Barclay understood the earl’s stigma – but only to a certain degree. His dark temper was clear as soon as they met. The thrill of being around him however, didn’t dissipate with every fit of rage he displayed. What she saw was a lonely man intent on putting walls around him. One night of drunken trance and Nick gave in to his baser instincts. The morning after came with the ugly realization that he must perform his duty, proposing to Jane in grievance. Jane refused then ran away. Years later and Nick couldn’t stay away. Thus began the story of a man in pursuit of a woman determined to disappear. 
I liked the gothic Victorian themes to this book. Nick suits the dark, mysterious hero characteristic of the genre. I’ve been reading this series for the last few days and the difference in setting is quite startling. This book didn’t have any historical reference running in the background unlike the last three books prior. What it has was an account of the importance of propriety and Society in England. Who couldn’t be more inappropriate than a half-breed Indian Nick Bragg? He was a rebel who wouldn’t put up with it dictates. 

The romance was tumultuous and a little intense. I think the pairing suited well because the two was literally night and day. While Jane has a bit of a wild streak in her, she was still more formal and more proper than Nick ever was. 
This book wasn’t as violent as the three others in this series. There was no imminent war, no rapes or KKK hiding in its pages – a truly romantic book regardless of the dark tones that epitomizes the gothic genre.
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Violet Fire [Bragg Saga #3] by Brenda Joyce

Publication Date: May 1st, 1989
Avon
Format: Kindle Edition
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
SUMMARY
Impassioned suffragette Grace O’Rourke made a startling first impression on golden-boy Rathe Bragg when she crashed a society party wielding a six-shooter and spouting feminist slogans from atop the grand piano. And from that moment the sparks between them never stopped flying.

Soon, the irrepressible Grace had outraged the entire town of Natchez with her radical ideas — infuriating Rathe most of all. Yet he was obsessed with taming the vibrant, stubborn, passionate lass … and making her his mistress. But despite her shocking attraction to the virile rogue, Grace firmly rejected his scandalous proposition. And for Rathe, of course, “no” was the ultimate challenge!

Book three of Bragg Saga is about the youngest of the Braggs. Rathe has been a mischief and a bundle of restless energy ever since he was a child. When he meets Grace O’Rourke, a tempestuous, opinionated, independent free-thinker, he was blown away by her courageous stance on a lot of things. Set at a time after the Emancipation Declaration was proclaimed, Grace has been fighting for the rights of the recently freed slaves; for their right to live and their education. She’s also fighting for the rights of women. She finds trouble everywhere and Rathe has been fortunate enough to be there to save her each time.
Their attraction for each other is severe but a romance between a philandering scoundrel and a head strong feminist was just not in the cards – especially if Grace does not believe in the sanctity of marriage. Good thing Rathe doesn’t either. Offering Grace to be his mistress seems to be the next logical choice, considering Grace has an ill mother back in New York and therefore could use some financial help. Rathe soon finds out that Grace would starve first before she accepts any help from a man.
This book tired me out. The never ending bickering and head butting between these two was exhausting. There’s much to be said for having an opinion – and trust me, they’re all good – but Grace’s aspiration to change the world had gotten her into a milieu of trouble. She tackled a lot of social issues head on that she most often didn’t think about consequences and how it would affect the people she took with her.
I love her independency at the time when women were objectified and left at home to mind the house and the kids. I love that she persistently fought for the slaves’ education but what she didn’t get was that, even if they were free it wouldn’t take changes in the law to get the people doing the right thing. There would always be KKKs and corrupt, racist officials who’d uphold their own laws. I think that’s what frustrated me more about her. She didn’t get that it would take more than one person to fully change America. She caused troubles and upheavals that at a first glance seemed futile. She constantly thought bad about Rathe; misjudged him, called him names and was so blind about what’s in front of her.
Her independence was contradictory as well. When push comes to shove, she’d rather worked at a place serving drinks dressed indecently rather than accept Rathe’s offer. I get that with she’d rather sacrifice her beliefs over her heart but when you’ve been spewing all those things about how wrong it was for men to frequent the same establishment she found herself employed at, it just didn’t make any sense. She was confusing and frankly, she lost a bit of her admirable character because of her stubbornness. 
The history of women’s civil rights in America was tackled in good conscience. It’s just too bad Grace’s methods overshadowed what could’ve been a very enlightening story arch. 
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Firestorm [Bragg Saga #2] by Brenda Joyce

Publication Date: January 13th, 2009
HarperCollins
Format: Kindle Edition
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
SUMMARY
Storm Bragg could outshoot and outride any man, but her family decided it was time she traded in her buckskins for a ballgown and made her debut in San Francisco society.Quickly pursued by every eligible gentleman in town, the young hellcat from Texas had eyes for only one, and he was no gentleman.Brett D’Archand was a self-made success — arrogant, impossibly attractive, blatantly sensual — and looking for a wife who would give him respectability.

Storm was completely bewitched by him, but she made him lose his head as well as his heart. And, threatened by scandal and ruin, they are forced to wed — a tempestuous union of free spirits, shackled only by the irrepressible bonds of love.

The second book to the Bragg Saga tells the story of the middle child, Storm. When her parents worried that she’ll never be the lady she’s meant to be, they shipped her off to San Francisco where she’s to spend the summer coming out to the society. It wasn’t easy; the girl-woman was wild with a penchant for speaking her mind and would rather be riding her horse Demon than hobnob with the society. With her unusual beauty and stature, it didn’t take long till men noticed. And when entrepreneur Brett D’Archand saw her, he was instantly bewitched. Too bad she was too rough for his taste. The two rubbed each other the wrong way but couldn’t deny their attraction. One compromising rendezvous led to a shotgun wedding. But what started off as a misfortune quickly turned into disaster as neither wanted to give in to the chemistry that’s palpable between them.  One way or another, their sham of a marriage would end…that’s if they don’t kill each other first.

The Bragg kids are all grown up and having lives of their own. I was excited to read this one because from what I briefly read about Storm in the first book. I just knew she wouldn’t be the wilting violet like her mother was. She’s named quite so aptly. 

I’m glad that there wasn’t too much violence in this one but again, the author has a thing with rape. I don’t know. Perhaps it was a thing back in the days but men can’t seem to help themselves. This book also had incest – which is kinda weird. I didn’t think people from back then would actually be involve in such impropriety. But I haven’t read too much Historicals so, what do I really know?
Scheming women is the name of the game of here instead of men killing each other. I think one of the things I can only complain about is the soap opera-level of predictability with these books. I’ve only read a couple, this being the second one. There was this brother/sister tandem that drugged the hero so and set it up so the heroine would find her beloved in bed with another woman. I think I saw that episode from Days of Our Lives before. Heh.
Storm was very quick to forgive Brett, in my opinion. I think in some ways, her heritage didn’t really shine through. She’s  half-Apache. I think, I’ll neuter the man if I’d find out he bedded his mistress on our wedding night. But I wouldn’t be so quick to judge, two sides to the coin and such. I was just hoping for more fireworks but as soon as Brett turned on the charms, Storm is quickly swept away.
Predictable though as they were, these books are so addictive! I have read the first two books in two days and am looking forward to the rest. 
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Innocent Fire [Bragg Saga #1] by Brenda Joyce

Publication Date: June 1st, 1988
Avon
Format: Kindle Edition
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

SUMMARY

Leaving behind the sheltered life of a French convent, Miranda journeyed to the New World and an arranged marriage to a prosperous Texas rancher. Arriving in America, the innocent European met her fiancé’s friend, Derek Bragg, a rough-hewn Texas Ranger, whose harsh manner and candid comments about her beauty enraged the shy miss.

Although Bragg fought to deny his feelings for his charge, he knew that he was falling in love with her. Miranda, too, was struggling with her desire for her escort as they trekked across the treacherous wilderness. Drawn to the lawman—enflamed by his raw masculine virility—will Miranda sacrifice her innocence to the fire blazing out of control in her heart?


Surprisingly enough, my foray into Historical Romance started off quite well – though not without instances of frustration with the heroine. Set at a time when women were raised to be pure and virginal until they find the worthy males to have their children, it was hard not to snigger at how ridiculous the dictates of what was proper and what wasn’t. 

Anyway, this saga starts off with the story of Miranda, an English belle who was to marry a Texan rancher. Escorted by Derek Bragg a half-breed Ranger who’s every bit the definition of a man Miranda was taught to avoid. The journey they had to take across the plains to Texas was fraught with peril: Indians, outlaws, and all different sorts of trouble one delicate beauty had to endure. The most troubling of all was Captain Bragg himself: lurid, lawless, godless, careless, sensual, dark and handsome. Derek Bragg promised to take the virginal bride to his blood brother. Whether in one piece or even intact would be the challenge he’s determined not to fail.
This is the type of novel where the land plays a major role in the overall credibility of story. Brenda Joyce knew her history and as well the economic thematic of the times. I’ve always had this stigma that Historical Fictions are a tedious read but this series is definitely proving me wrong so far. 
I’ve had to curb the snark every time the heroine blushed or said something as ridiculous as having monkey sex with her husband made her a slut. But that’s just the way it goes back then. It also didn’t help that she grew up in a convent so her opinions about men and sex was a little skewed.  She was sometimes sporadic about how she felt. She would have moments when she wanted to please her husband and the next, a complete 180 and would tell Derek to jump from the nearest cliff.
The story also had painted the Comanche Indians as savages; you know, pillaging the village, raping the women, torturing and killing of men. I haven’t a clue how close to the truth the author was but it wasn’t fun times reading those scenes. And dear God, just how many times would this woman be raped anyway? That wasn’t fun times as well.
Bragg Saga is turning out to be my fantastic baptism into Historical Romance. It wasn’t as boring as I thought it would be. Just a warning though, you need to leave all your feminist views at the door because, damn. This girl tried my patience. 
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