Lavinia’s Book of the Month: February

Our new feature. Every month, our friend Lavinia Collins is going to share with you a book she’s read and recommends.

seacrest 2.jpgThe Seduction of Sophie Seacrest – Mary Campisi

I got this book free through a BookBub promotion and I was looking forward to a bit of frivolous romance fiction. I was not disappointed. If you haven’t signed up for BookBub yet go and do it immediately! Free books and offers every day tailored to your interests – what more could you want?

But back to the matter at hand: The Seduction of Sophie Seacrest. This booked ticked all of the boxes for historical romance fiction. And I mean all of them. Bodices were ripped. Swoons were swooned. Our hero is a tall, dark handsome stranger, returned from a mysterious life at sea with a dark secret. He assumes a false name and returns to his family estate. His family are old enemies of the Seacrest family who live nearby. The daughter, Sophie, is beautiful (of course) with auburn hair and flashing eyes. She’s wilful, too, defying the conventions of society by being universally considered gorgeous and desirable and being wholeheartedly well-liked by everyone she meets. Sophie’s just your typical virgin capable of multiply orgasmic sex at the drop of a hat (or the rip of a bodice). Your typical girl next door. The scene is set, and romance and intrigue can begin! Throw in a mysterious avenger, a sick little sister that needs Sophie’s care and an unpleasant suitor who she almost has to marry.

There were no surprises in this book, but we don’t read romance fiction of this kind for surprises. It’s true-to-type, steamy and entertaining. There’s lots of steamy assignations and society intrigue, so if that’s your bag, read away!

You’ll love this book if:
– You’re looking for a true-to-type historical romance
– You like tall dark handsome strangers
– You don’t mind female genitals being referred to as ‘her woman’s heat’

You might want to avoid this book if:
– You don’t want to take romance conventions with a pinch of salt
– You’re looking for a “serious” read.

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The Guinevere Trilogy – Lavinia Collins

GuinevereFirst, an admission. Lavinia Collins is a good friend of this blog. You may have read some of her guest posts here and on the Chapterhouse website, and the more eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted her hiding in our header picture. That said, we felt that her books deserved our attention. Lavinia is the author of three fantasy/romance trilogies, each set in the world of King Arthur, each taking on a different perspective. This first trilogy is written from the point of view of Queen Guinevere, and tells the story of her marriage to Arthur and [SPOILER ALERT] her subsequent affair with Arthur’s greatest knight Sir Lancelot.

What separates Collins’ work from other interpretations of the King Arthur legend is her focus on female experience. As she argues here, in most modern versions the female characters are less well-developed, serving mostly to move the story along, and have little agency of their own. The characters of Morgan and Morgawse, Arthur’s half-sisters, are often elided together, while Guinevere herself often seems to have little personality to speak of. Collins’ books turn this narrative on its head, giving each of these characters their own take on the story. The Guinevere Trilogy itself contains lashings of drama and romance, and references pre-Christian religion and the occult. There is a sense of a country in turmoil, uncertain of how to join up its wild and varying factions, stuck between one world and another. This sense is reflected in the mercurial Guinevere, torn between her different lives, kind at one moment and cruel the next. Having been pulled from her native land to marry her father’s conqueror at the opening of the story, and having had to adapt to a new religion and new customs overnight, we see Guinevere as conflicted in all things from the outset.

Set in a world where women have little power or autonomy, it’s wonderful to read an Arthurian story with a woman at the centre. The major pull of the book is the idea of a woman’s struggle to define herself and live her own life in a world defined by male interests. If that sounds up your street, you should definitely check it out.

profile2Reviewed by Nick

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The Constant Princess – Philippa Gregory

Rating: 2 stars

constant princess.jpgWe don’t usually publish reviews of less than three stars, but I think Philippa Gregory is big enough to take this one.

I was very excited to read The Constant Princess – Katherine of Aragon is a fascinating figure, very often shoved into the long-suffering-wife-of-philandering-husband pigeonhole – and I was excited to read about her.

The long and short of it is, this does not reflect Gregory’s best work. Where The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen combined historical research with fluid storytelling, bold characters and lots of sexy fun, The Constant Princess is very heavy on exposition, and the only character that really emerges from the page is Katherine herself.

There are moments that sparkle: Katherine’s negotiations with her father-in-law twice over, Henry VII, and the opening, set in Al Andalus in Muslim Spain, where we see brief flashes of the fascinating Queen Isabella. But these wonderful moments are swamped under so much plot exhibition, so much information and historical knowledge dump, that it really flattens the story out.

I loved the details about late-medieval Spain. I loved the setting at the beginning, but as the book wore on, it got weighed down. Henry VIII, when he appeared, had none of the charisma Gregory wrote so well in The Other Boleyn Girl. This seemed to be largely because of the vision Gregory made regarding the famous case of whether or not Katherine and Henry’s marriage was legal. I found that her decision about it (which I won’t spoil) was not implausible, but the way it led was a bit of a stretch.

So, would I recommend this book? I think I would as a repository of fascinating information on Muslim Spain. As a historical novel, not so much. It’s a shame, because so much of Gregory’s writing is so great. I’m going to keep reading.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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The Story of Jax and Dylan – Jamie Dean

Rating: 5 stars

The Story of Jax and Dylan is a m/m romance that tells the story of two estranged friends. Dylan was in love with his friend Jax while they were at school, but after one awkward kiss just before the end of high school, they didn’t speak again until a chance re-connection via Facebook.

So, I did ummm and ahhh about giving this book five stars, because it wasn’t perfect. I thought there were places where it could have been pacier, and the in-depth description of how Facebook works that it opened with already seems dated, but in the end none of those things mattered.

jamie deanLike any truly great romance novel, The Story of Jax and Dylan wasn’t just about two people finding one another and falling in love. It was a nuanced portrayal of the struggle of living with a non-heterosexual identity in a modern society which is, in so many ways, beginning to be so accepting. About the potential emotional cost of silence and secrecy that surrounds teenage explorations of sexuality.

One of my favourite parts of the novel was how it was structured around another book, written by Jax, which was slowly revealed to be autobiographical. It made me wonder how far this story-in-a-story extended, and whether it was as far as the book I myself was reading. And I was glad I was left wondering.

I raced through this book in one go on a three-hour train journey (I think I scandalised the woman sitting next to me, but that’s her problem), and I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and to think about what kind of review I wanted to write. Ultimately, the book really made me feel something. I thought it was very honest without having any kind of “this is the take home message” blah in it. It was sensitive and heartwarming without being schmalzy, and as well as telling a wonderful romance story, it really had something to say about the society we live in and the way we relate to one another. I would strongly recommend.

*Contains graphic sex

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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Hollywood Hearts Ablaze – Kris Ashton

hollywood hearts ablazeGina Hall is a Hollywood executive producer and one tough lady. She uses the casting couch at the ripple of a pec, and if a wannabe actor doesn’t perform he’s history. Poor Tony Cantori, desperate for a part, is easy meat, “like a good meal, filling, satisfying” but disposable. Even Winkles, her cat who shares her penthouse, is “sleek, black and lithe”.

Then along comes Jack Triton with “his jutting, hard jawline and thespian smile”. At first he is affronted by the casting couch and with “his head high above his broad shoulders” he “leaves with angry strides”.

But all is resolved over real movie talk, the gym and “naughty” hamburgers:

Jack bit into his hamburger, a beatific expression passing across his face.
‘Mmm, grease,’ Jack said. ‘It’s been a long time.’

They get together and are forced apart. Will they be together at the end?

The movie industry and some thin sub-plots lurk in the background. Gina oversteps the mark and is demoted. Will she recover? Will she learn? Grow up?

It’s a quick read and has entertainment value, and I guess that’s all that’s intended. If you are put off by the following, it’s probably not for you; but if this appeals, tongue in cheek or not…

She tugged… and his tent-pole popped free

A lustful sound that approached disbelief

His words hung there like rotting carcasses

Denim-clad shaft

Enjoy!

Rating: 3 stars

CAV Profile RichardReviewed by Richard

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