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Apr. 12th, 2017

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What did you just finish?
Color of Love by Anita Stansfield. A Victorian romance starring Amala, an Indian woman adopted by a white family and raised in England, and Henry, a white Englishman recently returned from India. I can't figure out how to talk about this book without spoilers, so if you really want to be surprised, skip the rest of the review. Otherwise I'm going to talk about everything right up until the very end.

Despite their instant attraction and obvious suitability for one another, Amala refuses to marry Henry because she's unwilling to deal with the difficulties of an interracial marriage in their stuffy country town. She vows instead to be a stylish independent single woman like her aunt the world traveler, and insists that Henry move on and forget their relationship. Which he does – by marrying her (white, adopted) sister. Amala is at first dismayed, but the years pass and she settles happily into traveling around Europe and doing good. And then her sister develops cancer and calls her home. The sister has one last wish before she dies: for Amala and Henry to promise that they'll marry one another. It turns out that despite their efforts to keep their former relationship a secret, the sister has known all along and doesn't hold it against them. She dies, and Amala and Henry go through a lengthy grieving period, their healing impeded by their resentment against the sister for forcing the promise out of them. They only are able to move out of the mourning period when they finally acknowledge how angry they are at her. Amala realizes that her exposure to the greater world, as well as the inclusion of more Indian people in her life (via the presence of Henry's servants), has changed her attitude toward interracial marriages and she's now willing to marry Henry. Henry, though, now has to get over the fact that Amala broke his heart years ago when they first courted. But, of course, he eventually comes to see that he's still in to her, and they marry and live happily ever after.

Whew.

I have such mixed feelings about this book! On the one hand, Stansfield does a better job of handling the racism of the period than I honestly expected. She's fantastic at depicting how Amala's isolation from any other people of color has had lasting, detrimental effects on her self-image, confidence, and personality, even when no one is actively being mean to her. Stansfield also is sensitive to how privilege has blinded Amala's white family and Henry, leaving them unaware of much of what she deals with and prone to making mistakes despite having the very best of intentions.

On the other hand, HENRY MARRIES AMALA'S SISTER WTF. And yet again Stansfield is so careful and gentle that it never comes off as the sister being fridged for the sake of advancing their relationship! In fact, the section of the sister's illness is probably longer and written with more detail than any other part of the book. There's even a gruesomely long death-scene, with last words and tears and medicine side-effects and doctor intervention and sleeplessness and a fucking death rattle for god's sake, that was almost certainly more realism than I have ever needed for a romance novel's angst. Not to mention the year of grief that comes afterward. I can't deny that this plot point was handled as well as possible, but I also can't get over the fact that this plot point exists in the first place.

Now, all of this attention to detail and thoughtfulness might lead you to assume that at least the craft of writing is well done – pretty sentences, gorgeous descriptions, and so. Sadly this is not the case. In fact Stansfield has an odd habit of skipping entirely over things that really need to be on the page; everyone knows 'show don't tell', but this is the worst case of it I've ever seen. For example, this is the first conversation Henry and Amala ever share, immediately after meeting one another:
She was glad when he began to talk about the things he’d loved about living in India, as opposed to asking her questions about her own memories. He also talked of the things he’d hated—most specifically the heat and the bugs. She enjoyed listening to every word that came out of his mouth, until the sense of how much time had passed shocked her to her feet.
No actual lines of dialogue from the conversation that will prove pivotal to drawing them together! We don't actually get to see these characters fall in love, how they talk to one another, what attracts them! This is basic Romance Novel 101, people: show how the love happens!

For another example:
Finally, Amala found the courage to break the wax seal and unfold the letter. She had to move closer to the light in order to more clearly see what was written. At a quick glance she was able to see that the letter began with My Dearest Amala, and that it ended some pages later with, All the love my heart possesses, Henry. The problem was that in between was such a beautifully detailed expression of his devotion that Amala kept having to dab at her eyes to keep her vision from blurring so that she could continue reading. When they had spoken in the garden, she had told him plainly and clearly where she had to stand on the matter of their attraction to one another, but she was now reading a genuine and sincere rebuttal to her every argument. It became evident through his words that he knew a great deal more about the issues of prejudice behind her motives than she’d given him credit for. He declared his firm belief that no matter what governments or society might try to dictate in this world, God surely saw all of His children equally, and that in God’s eyes, surely they could find a way to be right with this.
Amala was completely taken off guard by how much her resolve had melted by the time she finished reading the letter, and after she’d read it through a second time, she was filled with doubt and confusion over matters that had previously seemed completely clear.

One might assume that with such a plot-important and emotional letter, we'd get to read it ourselves, right? No. Those two phrases up there are literally all the reader gets to see of the letter. Similar problems happen throughout the book, though they're more common in the early pages.

I suppose with a novel that covers as many years and has as many plot twists as this one, it's got to be forgiven for skimming over some of the details. But then again, it's the details that I most wanted to read!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual – And the Modern World Began by Joan DeJean. The premise of this book is that during a single century (1670-1765) in France, many of the things we consider basic to life were invented or came into use: cotton clothing, clothing designs with the emphasis placed on comfort as opposed to imposing court dress, sofas, armchairs, bedrooms and bathrooms as separate rooms instead of one corner of a grand hall, flush toilets and running water, large paned windows to let in light, nightstands and writing desks, hardwood floors, and more. Part of this was a reaction to the grand magnificence of Versailles – after a day in a boned bodice that wouldn't let you sit down, surrounded by strict rules of etiquette, who wouldn't want to relax in cozy privacy? Another part was simply a consequence of the historic moment: increased trade with India, a newly rich merchant class eager to commission their own architect-designed houses, increased technology in various crafts, Enlightenment philosophers coming up with new ideas for improving "the art of living". It's a fascinating argument, to show how all these disparate things are linked, and DeJean makes her case very well, though I don't know enough about it to say if she missed anything obvious.

DeJean has a entertaining, breezy style that makes the book more fun to read than you might suspect. For example:
From the start (and the stories about [the Marquise de Pompadour] started right away), her biographers agreed that she set her cap for the king, having been encouraged to believe since childhood that she was somehow destined to become his mistress. (Her will contains a curious, and curiously touching, bequest of six hundred livres to "Madame Lebon for having foretold when she was nine years old that she would one day become the king's mistress").
Describing newly curved seating:
And for "those who write" and therefore "spend long periods" leaning forward, [Roubo, a furniture designer] shows how the seat's curves could be adapted to this particular distribution of body weight and thereby help writers "resist fatigue". (I only wish someone would think like this today.)
Describing an early toilet:
Since it was not hooked up to waste piping, it's hard to imagine how well it performed its function. (In the fixtures he created for Pompadour, Migeon did at least use a wood then new to France, mahogany, because of its odor-resistant properties.)

It's a surprisingly quick, easy read, with lots of illustrations and a really intriguing central premise. I recommend it if you have the least interest in the origins of mundane things.


The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch. YES I GOT TO READ THE NEW RIVERS OF LONDON NOVELLA EARLY! :D :D :D

In this fairly short and light story, ghosts are harassing morning commuters on the Tube, and Peter has been deputized to put a stop to it. Abigail is a major character, with Jaget and Toby playing important supporting roles along with Nightingale and Molly. Pretty much no one else appears, unfortunately, though that's what happens when you only have 144 pages to fill. I was so glad to see more of Abigail, who is totally my favorite part of this novella, and I love how her role is developing: her Latin (now better than Peter's), her odd relationship with foxes, her pseudo-job as the Folly's intern, and of course the question looming ever closer: how to (or if to) teach her magic. A subplot about a new river is adorable, and I can't wait to see where it goes in the future.

The writing is, as always, funny and clever and full of odd little facts about architecture and history, with a few moments of surprising emotion. I absolutely love the way the mystery developed – which is why I'm trying not to spoil it here – but my one complaint with the book is that I wish there'd been just a little bit more resolution at the end. I wanted that last thread tied up, even if it is probably more realistic to leave a few dangling.

And again: only 144 pages.

Overall it's a charming and memorable story, even if it doesn't advance the series's overall plot arc any. Highly recommended, though I'm sure all the Rivers of London fans plan to read it already. :D I'm not sure how well it would work as an introduction to the series – on the one hand, there is that fairly small cast, but on the other there's plenty of unexplained backstory and worldbuilding. It could go either way, I suppose. But if you're not familiar with Rivers of London, get on that!
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: With The Age of Comfort, 12!

What are you currently reading?
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I've read this before, though probably not in the last decade, which is why I wanted to reread it before the TV adaptation starts at the end of the month. (Although I don't have Starz, so I'll have to figure out some other way to watch it.) Also this is the "director's cut" ten-year-anniversary edition, slightly longer than the original. I'll be interested to see what's different, though honestly I'm not sure I remember it well enough to notice a new scene or two.

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