Fiction: “Just Like Heaven” by Julia Quinn

Just Like HeavenJust a heads-up: this is the first “silly little romance novel” out of four I’ve read so far this year. My average for the past couple of years has been two, max. I do not have an explanation as to why I’m suddenly picking up these things left and right; something to do with escapism, maybe? I mean, in the past six months, I have helped my family with my sister’s bridal shower, bachelorette party, and wedding, and after each event I have found myself withdrawing from social interactions. After the wedding, I didn’t really talk to any of my friends or make plans to do anything for about two weeks after? Maybe three? I spent time in my apartment watching Netflix and taking naps. And this isn’t the first time I’ve done this – after the Christmas Party last year, I started looking at Caribbean vacation deals that were cheap for one person (spoiler alert!: there were none. Goddamn double occupancy!), because all I wanted to do was escape.

And for the first time in a very long time, I found myself escaping in the books I was reading. Some of the “silly little romance novels” are quite silly – wait till you hear the one about the Lucius Malfoy-look-alike who enjoys light bondage! – but ever since March, I have been reading two books at a time: one of these historical romances at home, and then a Lunch Break Book I could bring to work to read on my lunch break without getting weird looks from the woman who always asks what I’m reading now.

(Not that I think she’d judge me; I just don’t feel comfortable reading romance novels in public. Don’t therapy me.)

So sometime in late March I felt the need to pick up a romance novel, and my choice came down to two things: 1) the way the back cover described the plot (which I’ll get to in a minute), and 2) the fact that Goodreads told me it was the first in a series.

And look, I know that while 99.9% of all “silly little romance novels” belong to a series of some sort – whether a trio or a quartet, or even, in the case of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series or Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster series (hey guys, remember that shit show?! I sure don’t!), more than 10 titles to its grouping – you usually never have to read them in order. I get that; I do. Does it make me feel weird to know that I’m reading a series out of order? Hell yes! Do I do everything I can to avoid that feeling and just start with the first book in a series as much as possible? Hell yes!

Here’s how the book cover is written:

Honoria Smythe-Smith is:
A) a really bad violinist
B) still miffed at being nicknamed “Bug” as a child
C) NOT in love with her older brother’s best friend
D) all of the above

Marcus Holroyd is:
A) the Earl of Chatteris
B) regrettably prone to sprained ankles
C) NOT in love with his best friend’s younger sister
D) all of the above

Together they:
A) eat quite a bit of chocolate cake
B) survive a deadly fever AND the world’s worst musical performance
C) fall desperately in love

It’s Julia Quinn at her best, so you KNOW the answer is …
D) all of the above

Being unfamiliar with Julia Quinn’s writings, I couldn’t really attest to that last D), but I was willing to give it a shot. I mean – the girl’s name is Smythe-Smith, and the dude’s last name is Holroyd, so clearly Ms. Quinn is aware of my Rule of Y (“never use an ‘I’ when you could use a ‘Y’ instead). Also, the world’s worst musical performance? I don’t think so, unless Honoria and Marcus also attended that Third Eye Blind show at Merrill Auditorium back in 2010 with the WORST opening band I have ever had to sit through – actually, I didn’t sit through it, I went out into the lobby and ordered a second tequila. Straight. They were that bad. They were so bad, I couldn’t tell you who it was; I tried so hard to block it from memory. They were even worse than Longwave, the middle band that opened for O.K. Go back in 2009 (p.s., shout out to Google for telling me when these shows were because my memory is terrible with dates).

But also, there’s cake?! Sign me UP!

Marcus was indeed best friends with Daniel Smythe-Smith when they were lads, and Honoria tended to trail after them like a mosquito – hence, the nickname “Bug.” When they were older, Daniel got into some trouble that I can’t quite recall and he had to shove off to France – but not before getting Marcus’s promise that he (Marcus) would look after Honoria in Daniel’s absence.

Flash-forward to the beginning of the story, and Honoria runs into Marcus unexpectedly. She is shopping with her friends and gets caught in a downpour, and Marcus offers her temporary shelter in his carriage. Also, he has cake. And it’s not like Marcus is a stranger offering cake; she knows him, so it’s safe to get into his vehicle!

Honoria is on the hunt for a husband – not because she feels the need to succumb to matrimony, but because she’s currently in the Smythe-Smith Quartet, and every year they put on a musicale. I don’t know why there’s an extra ‘e’ on the end of that word. But also, apparently this musicale is mentioned in Ms. Quinn’s other series, related to the Bridgertons. Anyway, once one of the female cousins gets married, she doesn’t have to perform in the musicale anymore. So, in an effort to get herself noticed by Gregory Bridgerton, Honoria steals a small shovel from the house where she’s staying and digs a mole hole in the hopes of making it look like she twisted her ankle in it and needs his assistance. This would have worked splendidly, if it wasn’t right next to Marcus’s property, and he comes upon her just as she practices her fainting. And then he steps into the mole hole, spraining his ankle.

Honoria walks him back to his manse, at which point he has to cut his boot off of his foot because his ankle has swollen so much. He accidentally slices his leg, which then gets infected – because remember, y’all, this is a historical romance; it takes place in 1824. When Honoria learns that Marcus has locked himself in his mansion by himself (he’s an orphaned Earl and doesn’t really have a lot of friends now that Daniel has absconded to France), Honoria grabs her mother and the two of them go and save Marcus, including cutting out the infected tissue of the wound.

Now, I’ve read a few historical romance novels, but I’ve never seen one where a woman is able to pretty much do surgery on the hero. So I really appreciated the novelty of this.

During his recuperation, Honoria steals him a treacle tart so the cake theme continues. Honoria’s mother tells Marcus that they wouldn’t have come if Honoria hadn’t insisted, because they’re not really related and it’s improper for an unmarried woman to be in the same house as an unmarried man. And Honoria learns that Marcus interpreted Daniel’s plea to keep an eye on his sister as “interfering with the dudes who tried to court Honoria.” Marcus’s reasons were always that he didn’t think those dudes deserved Honoria; never did it cross Marcus’s mind that he wanted Honoria for himself. Honoria also comes to realize that her feelings for Marcus are more than brotherly love. Their declaration of love comes after a veritable comedy of errors.

I can’t tell you how much I liked this book. In fact, it’s probably going to be the first “silly little romance novel” I’ve read here that I’m going to rate 4 stars. For one thing, I really appreciated that Marcus was not a rake. Not that I have anything against rakes, but it was very refreshing to have the male character not be in need of reform in any way. He’s a respectable member of society; in fact, great mention is made of his being quiet and solitary. He hasn’t had a lot of affairs, he’s not trying to marry for money, he’s not a spy, he’s not a secret twin. He’s just Marcus.

Same with Honoria – she has a loving family and while she’s looking for a husband at the beginning of the book, it’s not because she’s trying to escape from something or move up in society – she’s just trying to get out of her family’s musical quartet, and also, it’s a thing women had to do back then.

I also appreciated that the relationship between Marcus and Honoria was built out of a long history together. There were no obstacles of personality to overcome, no secrets that needed to be got over – and no, I’m not counting the whole “Marcus keeps an eye on Honoria by intimidating her potential suitors” as a “secret.” They just know each other so well, that it paves the way to a romance between them quite nicely:

“I like the rehearsals. Especially now that all of my siblings are gone, and my house is nothing but ticking clocks and means on trays. It’s lovely to gather together and have someone to talk to.” She looked over at him with a sheepish expression. “We talk at least as much as we rehearse.”

“This does not surprise me,” Marcus muttered.

She gave him a look that said she had not missed his little dig. But she did not take offense; he had known she would not.

And then he realized: he rather liked that he had known she would not take offense. There was something wonderful about knowing another person so well. [p. 242]

Their banter together was adorable; and if there’s one thing that gets me every time, it’s banter.

“You will have a terrible scar.”

He smiled wryly. “I shall wear it with pride and mendacity.”

“Mendacity?” she echoed, unable to contain her amusement.

He cocked his head to the side as he regarded the huge wound on his leg. “I was thinking I might set it about that I’d wrestled with a tiger.”

“A tiger. In Cambridgeshire.”

He shrugged. “It’s more likely than a shark.”

“Wild boar,” she decided.

“Now that’s just undignified.” [p. 206]

And finally, and probably the most important part – they all value dessert above all other foods.

But just before he turned to greet her, she turned in the opposite direction, and he could have sworn he heard her mutter, “Blast it all, I’m getting an éclair.”

She drifted off, weaving her way through the crowds. Marcus watched her with interest; she seemed to know exactly where she was going. Which meant that if he’d heard her correctly …

She knew where one could get an éclair. [p. 276]

I don’t know – I found this book so refreshing. It’s the first book I’ve read in this genre in at least a few years where the drama originated from internal forces rather than external, and there was no deception in any measure happening between the two main characters. It was just … cute? and happy? and escapist? But I enjoyed every word of it?

PS guess what I found in my bookcase: the second book in this series. boo. yah.

Grade for Just Like Heaven: 4 stars

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Fiction: “Veronika Decides to Die” by Paulo Coelho

veronika“Goodness, Alaina, this sounds like a cheery little thing. What on earth could have made you want to read something like this?”

“First of all, Little Miss Opinionated, let me remind you that I have read a lot of books in my day, and every once in a while I can appreciate when a book tells me in its title what the story is going to be about. Second of all, the copy I had was a total of 210 short, well-spaced-out pages, so I read it in like, a week. And thirdly, it’s a master work of literature. No other factors were used in my decision-making when it came to deciding to read the book.”

[Spoiler alert: Sarah Michelle Gellar also starred in the film adaptation, and, much like Gillian Anderson, I’ll watch Sarah Michelle Gellar in anything. And before y’all get on your high horse about Buffy and how she was awesome in that, yes, I agree with you, but I’ve been a fan of Sarah Michelle Gellar since she was the original Kendall Hart on All My Children. I remember when she got Erica all riled up enough to stab Dimitri with a letter opener! Basically, when it comes to Sarah Michelle Gellar, step off, I’ve loved her longer than you.]

I am constantly competitive with myself. I keep records of what books I read in what month (which comes in handy now, seeing as how I couldn’t remember if I had read this in March or February, because it takes me for-fucking-ever to review books now, for stupid reasons) per year, dating back to before this blog. So I’m constantly playing a game with myself when it comes to reading: have I read more books in [MONTH] than I did in [MONTH] last year? How many books had I read by this time last year, and have I passed that mark?

At the beginning of March, I had finished my ninth book in 2016 (Live and Let Die), coming in under the wire thanks to February 29th. Compare that to 2015, on March 1st, I had only completed 4 books. And because I wanted to get a head-start on 2016, hoping to finally achieve that elusive, 50-title goal, I picked a couple of short books in March in an attempt to pad out my head start.

Wandering through the shelves of the Yarmouth library, I found this title, and was very encouraged by the thinness of the book. Plus, I could almost do a That’s What She Read-Movies Alaina’s Never Seen tie-in, if I wanted to. (I decided I didn’t want to, because I actually did watch the film [it’s on Netflix right now!], and it matches the book’s plot very well. It wouldn’t provide the same delight as my Tie-In with Moonraker did.)

As an added bonus, I had downloaded a spreadsheet years ago about the 1,001 books to read before you die, and Veronika Decides to Die was one of them. Another checkmark earned!

The story takes place in Mr. Coelho’s native Slovakia. Veronika is 24 years old, and she decides to commit suicide, as there is no joy to be found in her life now, or in the future. I didn’t take a picture or copy the quote before returning the book to the library, but her reasoning was– actually, I’m going to quote the film, because it might be actually lifted from the book, but even if it wasn’t, it’s an excellent summary:

“Well, let’s see. After you decide that I’m depressed, or whatever, you’ll put me on meds, right? Well I know hundreds of people on them and they’re all doing just fine. Really. I’ll go back to work on my new anti-depressants, have dinner with my parents and persuade them I’m back to being the normal one who never gives them any trouble. And one day some guy will ask me to marry him. He’ll be nice enough. That’ll make my parents very happy. The first year we’ll make love all the time, and in the second and third less and less. But just as we’re getting sick of each other, I’ll get pregnant. Taking care of kids, holding onto jobs, paying mortgages; it’ll keep us on an even keel for a while. Then about ten years into it he’ll have an affair because I’m too busy and I’m too tired. And I’ll find out. I’ll threaten to kill him, his mistress… myself. We’ll get past it. A few years later he’ll have another one. This time I’m just going to pretend that I don’t know because somehow kicking up a fuss just doesn’t seem worth the trouble this time. And I’ll live out the rest of my days sometimes wishing my kids could have the life that I never had. Other times secretly pleased they’re turning into repeats of me. I’m fine. Really.” [Veronika Decides to Die, 2009 [via imdb.com]]

Well, neighbors call on Veronika when she’s in the midst of her pill-induced overdose, and when she wakes up, she’s in Villette, a state-sponsored insane asylum, put there by her parents in an attempt to get her help. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Igor (not making it up), tells her she was in a coma for two weeks, and also, the overdose created a heart condition, and now she only has one week to live. And no, he won’t release her from the asylum so she can overdose again; she needs to be monitored.

Basically, the whole thing is a sham: Dr. Igor only told her that she was dying so she could learn how wonderful life is: to treat every day she has on Earth as a miracle, and to inspire her to live life to its fullest. And it takes a while – Veronika finds a piano in a sitting room and remembers how much she wanted to be a pianist, but her parents and her lack of risk-taking turned her into a stable librarian instead. She first reconnects with her passion through music.

She also realizes that, while in an insane asylum, no one will give a second thought about her if she starts to act “crazy” – in other words, telling people what she thinks without filtering her thoughts, or acting out violently; those acts have no consequence, because she’s already been labeled “crazy” by her placement in the asylum.

And as she realizes that, she gets back in touch with her “true” self – the self unfettered by Society.

[Veronika] finished her studies, went to university, got a good degree, but ended up working as a librarian.

“I should have been crazier.” But, as it undoubtedly happens with some people, she had found this out too late.  [p. 94-95]

This quote resonates with me, because I too find myself wishing, occasionally, that I had been crazier growing up. But Society pressured me into playing Life extremely safe: my focus was entirely on being financially stable. I transferred to a state school because a) it was more affordable, and b) it offered a better education. In accounting. And now, ten years after graduation, I am finally using my degree and enjoying it – in a government job, the epitome of risk-averse. After all, the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes.

And now, where I’m facing a future where I no longer need to assure my financial stability and can start working on a personal life, I don’t even know where to begin to break myself out of my shell. Because that, to me, would mean I would need to be ‘crazy.’ And I don’t know how.

ANYWAY, enough about me. In the end, Veronika falls in love with Eduard, another patient who only begins to speak after he and Veronika share a connection, and together they escape the asylum. Dr. Igor ends the novel with an entry in his diary where he admits that someday Veronika will eventually see another doctor, and that doctor will tell her that her heart is perfectly healthy; but until she does, she will treat every day as a miracle. Which, every day is, really.

In short, it’s not as depressing as the title makes it out to be, and if you like novels with a philosophical bent, you would probably appreciate this.

The movie, however, tells the story just as nicely, plus stars Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oh, and Professor Lupin plays Dr. Igor, so that’s nice too.

Grade for Veronika Decides to Die: 3 stars