Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal

I’ve been eying this book since last year, particularly after this review at The Book Pushers when I basically realized that this was a regency romance with magic in it. When it was nominated for the Nebula Awards, I joined the Nebula Readathon at The Book Smugglers as an excuse to read this.
 
The Premise: (I’m going to go with the book blurb on this one) Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
 
Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.”
 
Read an excerpt of Shades of Milk and Honey here
 
My Thoughts: This book really feels like a big ol’ homage to regency romances of Jane Austen’s era. From the get-go I was struck by how regency-eque Shades of Milk and Honey was and how often it uses the same conventions as Jane Austen’s stories. We begin by being introduced to the Ellsworths, a respected family with two daughters, a hysterical mother, and a doting father who would like nothing more than to see his daughters happily settled. Jane is the sensible and somewhat plain older sister, and at twenty-eight she’s resigned herself to being on the shelf. Melody is the pretty one, and at eighteen she has a much higher chance of getting married, but as the younger sister, she’s also more impulsive and reckless than Jane. The Ellsworths spend most of their time visiting their friends nearby and going to parties, and proper manners are always assumed. Sounds familiar no? Yes, it’s like a mix of every Jane Austen novel out there. Jane Austen era spellings like ‘shew’, ‘chuse’, ‘teaze’ and ‘nuncheon’ to add to that feel.
 
What makes Shades of Milk and Honey not just a remix of Austen, is the idea of glamour, a type of small magic that is used for pretty illusions. With glamour, a lady may create a subtle scent in the air, embellish a painting, record and play music, and even enhance her own appearance. There is no end to its uses, although it is considered mainly an artistic skill, not a dangerous one. It is a skill of high merit in well-bred ladies of society, much like the ability to play music or paint.
 
Jane is particularly skilled at glamour. I was hoping that Jane’s skill in glamour would be more essential to the story than it was, but it seems to be merely there as an interesting skill that gains Jane admiration from those around her. In fact, it is the quality that she is most admired for, and her sister harbors some jealousy because of it, despite her own pretty face and easy grace, which Jane lacks. There’s a bit of sisterly competition when it comes to men because of the their differences. Both girls share an admiration for a neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, and he is a point of contention, despite never giving either sister a reason to hope. At times, the little jabs at each other got a little nasty, at others they are remorseful for their previous behavior. It was a bit of a see-saw, which I suppose shows the complications of sisterhood, but I wish their relationship was delved into a little further, beyond their little squabbles.
 
On the other hand, none of the relationships in this book were delved into. The story is very readable and I was easily drawn into Jane’s world, but beyond the social obligations and underlying drama of who may be courting who, I felt a lack of connection between Jane and the other characters. Jane feels more like an observer than a participant in this story. She watches as her sister flirts with gentlemen such as Mr. Dunkirk, and the newly returned Captain Livingston. She sees her mother go into yet another fit of hysteria and commiserate with similarly afflicted Mrs. Marchand. She wonders what secrets her friends Beth and Mr. Dunkirk are hiding. She wonders at the surly Mr. Vincent who creates beautiful works of glamour but doesn’t seem to like her very much. Internally she has a lot of thoughts about her glamour and what people around her are doing, but she doesn’t voice them. She doesn’t act until she is forced to by others, and about 75% into the book, I realized that I wasn’t really sure where the story was going. I felt like Shades of Milk and Honey was circling the airport. I wondered aloud “When are you bringing this baby in?”.
 
It’s not until she is drawn in by an unexpected suitor and by the threat of family ruin that the story really gets anywhere, and this happens far into the story. I did like where it went, but some of the excitement and interaction at the end of the book would have been nice to see in the rest of the story. I also felt like the romance Jane had was trying to replicate a Darcy and Elizabeth romance, with what looks like initial dislike becomes something more, but I must have missed the subtle growth of their relationship, because when the declarations of love happened, I really wasn’t sure why. Jane spends so little time with her eventual paramour, that the romance, while very sweet, didn’t feel backed up by emotional growth.
 
Overall: Shades of Milk and Honey reminds me of the stories of Jane Austen in that it has characters that spend their time visiting one another and going to parties, and proper manners are expected. It also has a lot of plot points that hark back to the Jane Austen books: sisterly bonds, strawberry picking, men after dowries, and secret engagements. I think that my love for this stuff kept me reading at a happy clip. For this alone, I’d call the book “good”, but beyond the Jane Austen trappings, I wanted more out of the characters and plot (and more out of the concept of glamour), so it didn’t move past being merely entertaining for me.
 
P.S. Does anyone know the significance of the title of this book? Is it a reference to the biblical phrase ” “a land flowing with milk and honey“? OK, that would make sense…
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
Jawas Read, Too! – 8 (out of 10)
The Book Smugglers – 6 (good)
SFF Chat – “didn’t turn out to be exactly what I had been hoping for, it was a pleasurable way to pass a couple of hours”
The Book Pushers – 5 stars (out of 5)
Fantasy Book Critic – A- (“a very light novel that epitomizes “beach reading” for me”)
Christina_reads – Didn’t live up to expectations
Stella Matutina – 3.5 stars (really liked it)
I love this book trailer

 

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever by Julia Quinn

This book is the prequel to What Happens to London and was being signed by Julia Quinn at BEA instead of her newest  (What Happens In London ). A card with a code to download an electronic ARC of What Happens in London was included in the book. I am reading that one soon too. Lots of romance reads from me this week.

The Premise: Miranda Cheever has always been in love with Turner (aka Nigel Bevelstoke, Viscount Turner), since she was 10 when they first met. Turner was nice to Miranda when she was feeling unsure of herself and she always remembered this. Now, 8 years later, Miranda is starting her first season with Olivia, her best friend and Turner’s sister. While Miranda has finally grown into herself,Turner has become bitter and jaded after his marriage to a woman who cheated on him.

My Thoughts: At first when I read this book, I thought it was going to be a bit cheesy. There was a prologue. I always read prologues, but this one had Miranda’s first meeting with Turner, and her 10-year old adoration was making me think “Oh dear, is she going to adore the hero in this mushy way the whole book?” and I put it down. Yeah.. if I’d picked this up in a bookstore and read the prologue I would not have bought it. Luckily positive reviews online had me trying again. A week and a half later and started from Chapter one, and I found that I really liked the writing and liked Miranda. Phew!

This book has two of my favorite romantic tropes in it:

1) The Long Time, Secret Crush: This could go badly if the person with the crush acts ridiculous because of it. Sometimes you wince when you read some particularly awkward conversations with the object of the crush. I hate that! I was a little afraid this book would have some painful moments where the heroine acts like an idiot, but thankfully Miranda doesn’t. She’s always practical and quick witted and doesn’t let Turner get away with things even though she loves him. And she thinks before speaking, which made me like her.

2) Beauty and the Beast – Not so much that Miranda is a beauty and Turner looks like a beast, but Miranda does affect his “beastly” attributes over the course of the book. The relationship between Miranda and Turner evolves slowly in the first half of the book, and their verbal banter was great. Turner kisses Miranda early in the book when he was drunk and he does other big jerk things which Miranda makes him feel ashamed about. He was an imperfect hero, but his redemption via Miranda made me like the book.

Now to the peeve I had reading this. The last quarter of the book had me thinking to myself that it could have ended earlier. This is because it involves the good ol’ romantic cliche “He has never said those three words to me”. The writing was still pretty great, but while I do believe Turner had his issues because of his first wife, his inability to say the words for so long coupled with Miranda’s insistence he say them started to annoy me, particularly since he acted like he did love her?! So..  Argh, *shakes fist*. In any case I can see the ending being satisfying to others who are less irritable over this type of thing.

Overall: Despite annoyance with the ending (which others may or may not share depending on their level of tolerance), I liked this one. I will be reading more from this author if she writes more characters with dialog like this.

Other reviews

A note about these other reviews. I found it very interesting they both had complaints that didn’t really bother me. They both liked it less than I did because of this. Anyway, worth reading these reviews for another POV, and they also describe the plot in more detail than I did. 🙂
The Book Binge (gave it a 2.5, did not like the second half of the book and inconsistent characters)
Dear Author (gave it a C+, had same complaint I did about the ending)

The Season by Sarah MacLean

The Season
Sarah MacLean
The Premise: This is a young adult version of adventure/romance in Regency England. Seventeen year old Lady Alexandra Stafford (aka Alex), daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Worthington and her two best friends Lady Vivian Markwell, daughter of the Marquess of Langford and Lady Eleanor Redburn, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Marlborough (aka Vivi and Ellie), are all coming out in one season. The three headstrong girls aren’t really loving the idea of being paraded around in a marriage market, but things are made interesting when the girls stumble upon something suspicious regarding the death of the Earl of Blackmoor, who was the father of Alex’s childhood friend Gavin.

Thoughts: There are a lot of young friendships in this book. Alex has her three brothers, William (Will), Nicolas (Nick) and Christopher (Kit), her lady’s maid Eliza, her two best friends Vivi and Ellie, plus Gavin. All of them seem to get along very well, and they are all talented and striking according to the descriptions in the book. It’s in their conversations that I thought the book’s strong points lay: everyone is very articulate and well spoken, which fits with the time period and their upbringing in London society. It was nice to read conversations between teenagers where there’s wit and proper manners.

The problem I had however was there were a lot of characters to take in and after a while some of them sort of blended in together. Alex’s brothers seemed indistinguishable to me besides one being the oldest and one being the most tactless (can’t remember who that was though). They had very small roles as just annoying older brothers who liked giving their sister a hard time and to give a male perspective on also hating having to deal with the marriage market. Vivi and Ellie also have very similar voices, and when the three girls spoke, I couldn’t really tell them apart besides their names, because their personalities are so similar. I only know Ellie really likes to write and draw, while Vivi lost her mother and claims she’s looking for “The One” but may have already found him and isn’t telling. I’m not sure that most of these characters brought much to the story and I had the niggling feeling that all these characters were being set up for their own romances in later books. Besides that, they were very wholesome and supportive of each other here, which lends to some amusing conversation when they got together, but I wish they were a bit more distinguishable and maybe a bit more flawed. There were so many times that Alex felt proud of her friends and family and they were so perfect, I was starting to feel very guilty. Guilty of feeling like a hardened cynic and wondering whether it was just me.

Their flaws were pretty much their headstrong characters, which in this day is more of a strength. In Regency London however, it made me remember I was reading fiction. Even with strong wills and an interest in politics, I didn’t find it believable when the girls started reciting facts about Napoleon to people at balls as proving they were well informed, or that Alex wouldn’t be at all concerned about her reputation when she tells all her friends she was kissed and she wanted it to happen again. There needs to be a suspension of disbelief in these areas to enjoy the book and I couldn’t quite muster it.

The best part of the book is Gavin. He’s the one whose father has just died in what looks like an accident, but turns out to be more than that. I had a guess within the first few chapters as to who the villain was, because there just isn’t anyone else to choose from, so the mystery in this book was very obvious, it’s more of an addition to the romance between Gavin and Alex. Gavin reminded me a little of Mr. Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma. He’s a childhood friend of the main character and sometimes he disapproves of Alex’s behavior and tries to caution her in ways that just tick her off, but she also begins to realize her feelings for him aren’t sisterly. Their scenes are the best ones in the book and luckily there are quite a few of them, though their relationship seemed to repeat itself – from normal to scorching and back again. Alex isn’t an Emma in that she doesn’t try to play Cupid, but she and her friends do get very curious, so in that regard, maybe there are similarities.

Overall: I was pimped this book by a couple of girls at BEA, and the author was so nice that I really wanted to like this book. Part of me cringes a little writing this review, but I have to be honest: this was not quite for me. I think it’s one of those books I thought was just “OK”, but others really loved it.  I see a lot of glowing reviews online. For me, the best parts involve the romance and the conversations between characters, and it’s still a quick, fun read but the plot is a little too predictable and the characters a little too wholesome for my tastes.

Other reviews (mostly positive):

Fantastic Book Review – 4 out of 5
Steph Su Reads – 3 out of 5 (and a review with similar thoughts as mine)
Pop Culture Junkie – 5 out of 5 (she was one of the people who recced it to me)
Tempting Persephone – cements my belief if you just view the book with a less jaded eye you’d like it more
Sharon Loves Books and Cats – she loved it too. Also pimped this book to me, especially Gavin.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

Frederica
Georgette Heyer

Frederica is my second Heyer read, the first one was Black Sheep which I reviewed here. I enjoyed Black Sheep so I was expecting a similar read, but surprisingly – I actually liked Frederica even more! Maybe it was because this novel was more funny in many aspects than Black Sheep was, so I was smiling more often.

Frederica Merriville is the oldest daughter in the Merriville family and used to raising her siblings and running the household. In this story, her sister Charis is about to have her first season. Frederica is determined that because Charis is so beautiful and unaffected, she should come out in London, so she appeals to the Marquis of Alverstoke, a distant relation. Alverstoke is used to people asking him for things and saying no, but on a whim decides to pretend he was charged my Frederica's dead father to be a guardian to her younger siblings. Alverstoke believes with little work on his part, he'll have some fun, irritate his sisters and go back to his life. What ends up happening is that he gets sucked into the crazy Merriville family antics, and surprisingly finds himself caring for them, especially Frederica, except for the very first time, he's dealing with a woman who is more concerned about her family than his attentions.

This book seemed to be an easier read for me than Black Sheep, but I think it's because reading the first book made me more experienced with Heyer's regency slang, so this time it didn't take me as long to understand what someone was saying! The only confusion I had was sometimes forgetting who was related to who how, but I discovered this useful family tree online (now that I finished the book of course it's useless to me, but may be useful to someone else).

So there were a few funny moments in this book, and I think I'm with many people when I say I enjoyed the scene(s) with the dog (Baluchistan Hound!), and most scenes where Alverstoke finds himself being manipulated by Frederica's younger two brothers. I can understand why this is many people's favorite Heyer novel. Glad I picked this one!

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Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Black Sheep
Georgette Heyer

It's been a while since I posted – I'm not reading very much lately. Not doing well in the goal of 100 books for the year. Only 26 books this year! Half of the amount I had read at the same time last year. Sigh.

In the past couple of weeks I've been slowly reading Georgette Heyer's novel Black Sheep. I won this in a contest at the Misadventures of Super Librarian blog, and I'm glad because I'd never read a Georgette Heyer book but I kept hearing about them. Mostly about how great and well-researched they are but out of print, and how fans hoard them like treasure and reread them over and over again. I also kept hearing a comparison to Jane Austen since Heyer writes in the regency period – in fact she is considered the person who began the regency romance genre.

I agree with the Jane Austen comparison because Black Sheep was really about characters and society. There is a lot of emphasis on manners and what is considered acceptable to say and do, and the story progresses from one social outing to another, peppered with histronic relatives, town gossips, and "loose fish". The language is very formal and structured, even when characters speak with the regency equivalent of slang, there is a great deal of formality in it. There is also a great deal of subtle humor.

In Black Sheep, the basic premise is that the main character, Abigail (Abby) Wendover, on the shelf at 28 is concerned for her niece Fanny. She's heard that Fanny, who is only seventeen has attracted the attentions of a young man, Stacy Calverleigh, who is likely after Fanny's inheritance, nothing more. Abby is put in a situation where she can't forbid Fanny to see Stacy because she fears Fanny will consider herself a martyr and run off, but she can't allow Fanny to think the family approves either. Abby meets Stacy's uncle Miles, the black sheep of the Calverleigh family, and tries to get him to help her, but while she finds someone she gets along with very well, in Miles she also meets someone completely unaffected by societal rules. If something doesn't make sense to him, he won't do it. Miles has never met Stacy and he can't be persuaded to care about what Stacy does.

I read this book for a few minutes every night and finished it off when I was on the train this weekend. For me, this was a book I had to read slowly because I wasn't used to the language – there were several points where I just didn't understand what a character just said because they used some regency phrase that isn't in use today. So I had to read carefully to absorb it and it took me a lot longer to read 20 pages in this book than in other books. In the end the read was worth it – I felt pretty satisfied with the ending. Even though there is an open ended aspect to it, there was enough for me to feel like there was one, both to what was going on with Abby and Miles but also with Fanny and Stacy and other secondary characters. And now here is someone else to read if you have already read all of Jane Austen.

The Georgette Heyer novels being reprinted by Sourcebooks are listed here (all lovely covers)

And here is a contest for one of 4 Georgette Heyer novels at georgetteheyer.com

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