BOOK REVIEW: A LADY’S GUIDE TO FORTUNE-HUNTING by SOPHIE IRWIN


I won’t mince words here: this was a very, very bland book, not a single shred of personality to be found anywhere. The characters’ personalities and motivations are painfully simple: Kitty is the Scheming One Who Needs to Find a Husband, Lord Radcliffe is the Uptight One Who Wants to Foil Her Plans, Arthur is the Lovable Idiot Who Feels Abandoned by His Brother. And I would’ve forgiven it its simplistic characters if it maybe had some interesting character interactions or dynamics, but no, that’s nowhere to be found either. The plot is just kind of…there, moving us from one scene to the next, with little tension or excitement or literally anything that would make you invested in what’s going on.

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting tries to be a historical fiction and a romance, and succeeds at neither. It’s nowhere near immersive or detailed or atmospheric enough to really evoke its historical setting (Regency London), and its romance is so lackluster and poorly developed that it can barely even be called a romance. (The extent of the romantic development we get here is like two scenes where the characters talk about Deep Stuff and then next thing you know, they’re in love!) Altogether, my fundamental problem here is that this book lacks any kind of depth; it’s a very paint-by-the-numbers Regency “historical fiction” with a romance thrown in, and you can really feel that reading it. It feels very perfunctory, like it’s just going through the motions of its already very conventional plot. And I don’t mind “predictable” stories, but this one just gave me nothing to work with; no life, no layers.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley.


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BOOK REVIEW: BRIEFLY, A DELICIOUS LIFE by NELL STEVENS


What a deeply underwhelming book.

First, the positives, and I really only have one: the writing. The writing in Briefly, A Delicious Life is pretty good. It evokes the novel’s setting–Mallorca–well, with some nice occasional descriptive flourishes during the more key scenes (particularly the ones involving Chopin’s music). The writing was never something I had an issue with. No, what I had an issue with was pretty much everything else.

Ever since I finished this novel, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why it felt so utterly underwhelming to me.Briefly, A Delicious Life is a novel that should, by all accounts, be good; it has so much potential. A centuries-year-old ghost of a girl, a musician, a writer, two children, Mallorca, and a sapphic love story–everything about that appealed to me. And yet none of it comes together to form a story that is in any way rewarding or gratifying to read.

The basic problem of this novel as far as I’ve been able to narrow it down is that its narrative never feels like it’s moving towards anything in particular; it just flits from scene to scene, from character to character. And it’s not that those scenes or characters are egregiously bad, but that they never fit into any kind of larger picture or purpose. Where a more interesting and dynamic novel will have highs and lows–some sort of climatic moment, even if it doesn’t follow a traditional three-act structure–here we have a series of plot progressions that are less “progressions” and more “things that happen.” We follow George as she goes to the market; Blanca as she recounts her past; the children as they explore Mallorca; Chopin as he tries to compose music. And throughout all of this you’re thinking “ok, what’s the point? where are we headed here?” So you keep reading, hoping that we’re going somewhere, except the catch is we’re not really going anywhere. To put it more plainly, then: this book feels like it has no narrative arc, nothing you can point to and say “that was a real turning point in the novel” or “that was an important moment in the plot’s trajectory.” That’s not to say that the things that happen in the book don’t matter, but rather that the book is lacking a fundamental sense of narrative direction, and because of that it never feels like there are any real stakes for these characters, or indeed any tension that would lend the story a sense of propulsion.

Okay, so the plot is meandering, to put it nicely. I’ve been known to enjoy the occasional slice-of-life story–what about the characters? Maybe they make up for what the narrative falls short of? Alas, here, too, Briefly, A Delicious Life disappoints. I’ve given this proper thought, and I genuinely think there is no character development in this novel. Bold claim, I know, but I really do believe it. The circumstances the characters find themselves in change over the course of the novel, but the characters themselves are pretty much the same from start to finish. And really, this issue is part and parcel with the lack-of-narrative-arc issue. Just as there is no sense of a distinct narrative arc, there is no sense of a distinct character arc, either. And again, these characters are not bad per se; they are each (at least theoretically) interesting in their own ways, but they never undergo the kind of development that would make you invested in their stories.

Having laid out all my issues with A Briefly, A Delicious Life, I think its fundamental lack of dynamic narrative and character arcs stems from the fact that it’s a novel based on real historical events. Aside from Blanca the ghost, there is a clear historical foundation for many, if not most, of the scenes in this book: Chopin’s music pieces, Sand’s writing and affairs, the family’s stay in Mallorca, the antipathy they encountered there. I’m not at all familiar with these events, but I think what happened here is that the history took precedence over the actual narrative of the book. And so what we got was an embellished and stylized version of these real life figures’ histories rather than an actual engaging story about them. (And there are so many novels that have done an incredible job retelling historical figures’ stories, Little by Edward Carey being a chief example.)

(I will also say that the whole “sapphic love story” aspect of this is barely in the novel, so I wouldn’t get your hopes up about that.) (Oh, and the ending was so clumsy and anticlimactic; it felt like it undermined what was already a very shaky story to begin with.)

Can I absolutely discount this novel as Bad? No, but that’s precisely the problem. It’s not that there’s nothing redeemable about Briefly, A Delicious Life, but rather that it never does anything with its redeemable parts. It has so much potential, and yet it simply does not deliver on that potential–a fact which, for me, made it all the more disappointing in the end.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an e-ARC of this via Edelweiss.




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BOOK REVIEW: LITTLE FOXES TOOK UP MATCHES by KATYA KAZBEK


DNF at 44%/155 pages

I DNFd Little Foxes Took Up Matches not because it was a bad book, per se, but because I found it to be a really mediocre one. By far the biggest obstacle for me when it comes to this novel is the writing. Again, it’s not bad, but it’s extremely plain, the kind of writing that feels almost purely utilitarian, designed to get the story from point A to point B, but no more. (There are also these random and incongruous switches of POV that I found very jarring and not at all seamless with the main narrative focus on Mitya.) And because of the nature of the writing, both character and narrative suffer. In terms of character, I wanted more of a sense of Mitya’s interiority, more of his psychology, feelings, beliefs, etc. All of this was sort of present, but it all felt very surface level, and for the most part it was something we were told rather than shown. It’s disappointing because Mitya is, in theory, a really interesting character, but the writing just didn’t do him justice in practice. In terms of narrative, I also wanted more from the writing: because the writing is so plain, the story feels dry, and its pacing suffers. I felt like we were just going from one plot point to the other without anything else to pad out the story and give it a bit more heft or significance. To put it more plainly, I was bored. Mitya goes to school, then Mitya meets his cousin, then Mitya makes a friend, then Mitya investigates a mystery–it didn’t make for very compelling reading because it was so sequential, lacking the emotional resonance that a more psychologically astute novel would’ve had.

Overall, not bad, but just not good enough for me to keep reading.

Thanks so much to Tin House for sending me an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review!


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