Lightning Reviews: Jane Austen, #RomanceClass, & Magic

Welcome back to Lightning Reviews! If you’re new here, welcome! This is where we post three, mini reviews of books. The books grouped together may have a theme or, in this case, may be completely different. Today, we have a magical gay romance, a lesbian romance set in Manila, and nonfiction for Jane Austen fans.

 

    The Jane Austen Handbook

    author: Margaret Sullivan

    The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills From Regency England  is a guide to Regency life and manners, pitched to the reader who wants something non-academic and focused on the socio-economic class that Austen wrote about most frequently. This is history-lite but it’s fun and interesting.

    If you’ve read Jane Austen’s novels and want something to fill out the world for you, this is a good starter book. It’s light, with lovely illustrations. I was especially pleased to see that it includes the rules for Whist and some other games, and instructions on some of the crafts a lady would be expected to be adept at. There’s a guide to money, and clothing, and it’s all in context with the novels, so you get a good sense of how rich Darcy actually is and so forth.

    The book is hard to grade because how much you like it will depend entirely on what you are looking for. There’s very little macro-history so you won’t be learning about the Napoleonic Wars or what’s happening in any countries other than England. It talks about each of Austen’s books without a ton of analysis and gives a brief biography of the author. It’s not academic, but it’s a nice light, casual supplement to the Austen world.

    Carrie S

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    Witchmark

    author: C.L. Polk

    I picked up Witchmark for my SFF book club and read it without any prior knowledge (I didn’t even read the blurb!). I expected a run-of-the-mill fantasy with magical shenanigans, toppling of the elitist status quo, and interesting worldbuilding. I was right and wrong: Witchmark does have all those things, but it also has a delightful and unexpected romantic relationship at the heart of the story.

    Okay, you know that feeling when you pick up a romance novel but it turns out that it’s really not a romance novel and the publicity/blurb tricked you? It’s apocalyptic rage. Reading Witchmark, an Edwardian-reminiscent fantasy, produced the exact opposite feeling: unadulterated joy. Surprise romantic elements are always welcome to me, and the adorableness between Tristan and Miles allowed me to forgive any pacing issues.

    Every time Miles swooned internally over Tristan (who’s a little too perfect but I liked it!), I swooned as well. Nothing really happens in the first 30%, but this didn’t bore me as I was engaged by Miles’s first person narration and the world-building.

    As I mentioned, the slow pacing in the beginning didn’t bother me, but the rushed ending did. Everything happens in the last 10%, and the final battle isn’t given enough time to breathe. I barely understood what was happening in the battle climax, and I wish the ending had an additional 10K to flesh out the story.

    If you’ve read romantic fantasy before, then you pretty much know what to expect. Protagonist has magical secrets that can save the world! Mysterious love interest (who may or may not be a villain as his motivations are unclear) also has magical secrets! The ruling government is corrupt and also has magical secrets! Witchmark isn’t exactly breaking any new ground but it is thoughtful in portraying topics like post-war trauma in society, the elite’s disregard for veterans and poverty, the government’s ruthless desire for wealth and resources, and more. If you’re looking for a thoughtful and romantic fantasy with nuanced worldbuilding, then I recommend Witchmark.

    Aarya Marsden

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    You, Me, U.S.

    author: Brigitte Bautista

    Every reader has tropes/subplots that they just don’t like and swear to never read. Mine include the following:

    • When a protagonist is in a relationship and cheats on that person with the other protagonist. I dislike emotional cheating, but I hate physical cheating even more.
    • When the protagonists don’t enter into a romantic relationship until the very end, so we don’t see them interacting in a relationship.

    This review just goes to show that I should never make declarations, because I’ll be proven wrong instantly. You, Me, U.S. has both of the above, but it worked. I couldn’t imagine the romance in any other way, and I loved it. Set in Manila, You, Me, U.S. is an emotionally-wrenching friends-to-lovers romance between sex worker Jo and salesclerk Liza. They’re best friends and roommates, and watching Jo realize her feelings for Liza (while Liza is beginning a relationship with a man) is the definition of heartbreaking. I don’t normally cry, but I had to continuously stop and wipe my tablet screen because my tears were ruining the touch swipe mechanism.

    “Because, the moment he sees you, you won’t be some photo to him anymore. Not some far-off place anymore. Not a girl in a tiny square on his phone. He will live your world, Liza. See what you see. Walk where you walk. And if he’s half the decent man you say he is, sociopath or no, he will not be able to help himself. He will be bound to do right by you. He will give you the softer side of the bed. Even if it means he has to sleep with rusty springs digging at his back or the sun burning a hole on his face every morning. He’ll make you breakfast and get your coffee right—two tablespoons each of sugar and creamer—every single time. He will sing you to sleep when you wake up from a nightmare. If he’s got pipes like mine, that is. I mean, not to brag, but you know how good I am at the singing shit.”

    Are you crying right now? I cried again as I was typing the quote up. Bautista’s writing is deliciously raw and emotional; nothing is held back on the page. If you’re looking to wallow in your feelings, then this is the book for you.

    There is so much to love: Liza’s determination to marry an American and improve her family’s situation by moving to the United States (the title is a play on Liza’s dream to move to the U.S.); the unflinching portrayal of immigration, money, and class issues; and the positive representation of sex work. Liza doesn’t ever judge Jo for her career. If other characters do show judgment or disgust, the narrative very clearly paints them in the wrong. Look at Jo’s reaction after a potential date is disgusted by her career:

    Jo had been on the losing end of this double standard countless times. Nobody bats an eyelash when an upper-class lady saunters into a bar and flirts with a stranger. Leave her alone; she’s modern and progressive and liberated. Jo does the exact same thing, except that she gets paid. Funny thing about tonight, she wasn’t even intent on getting paid. She wanted to have a good time, plain and simple as that. Jo should feel a tinge of regret about losing a conquest. But hypocrites didn’t make for very enjoyable pursuits.

    I adore this book. If I have one complaint, it’s that the POV narration between Jo and Liza is uneven. Jo’s narration is approximately 75% and Liza’s is 25% — I would’ve preferred 100:0 or 50:50. We get to know Liza’s mind just enough for me to want more. Still, romance novels are all about the feelings they inspire, and I was sobbing with misery or joy the entire time. I can’t think of a better endorsement than that.

    Aarya Marsden

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