Book Review: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

This book was alternate historical fiction with a major emphasis on societal beauty standards. It had great ideas. But Elizabeth Ross didn’t pull it off.

2/5 stars 

cover belle epoque


Amazon description:

When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive.
Monsieur Durandeau has made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect adornment of plainness.
Isabelle has no idea her new “friend” is the hired help, and Maude’s very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose.

I loved the concepts behind this book: beauty standards exploited, a girl living a double life, historical fiction in France. But it didn’t deliver.

The characterization was lame. Maude, the protagonist, was just boring. She was static–thing kept happening around her, and for 99% of the book, she just goes “I’ll deal with it later.” She is living a double, then triple life–it should be fascinating! There should be lies and complicated excuses and complex plans…and there wasn’t. Talk abut disappointing.

Maude’s character didn’t make sense to me–none of her characteristics were fleshed out enough for her to feel real. And then there was the way she got to Paris. She runs away from an arranged marriage to a creepy older guy–which isn’t an original idea at all–but the weird thing is that you find out that she wasn’t even engaged to the guy. She just heard some women gossiping about the possibility, freaked, and ran off to Paris. Really? Ross tried to emphasize her fear of being tied town in a sleepy country town and her romantic notions of Paris, but it came off fake.

Then there is Isabelle. She starts out as a b-with-an-itch, but you know she has to befriend Maude–that’s the book. But the transformation from jerk to confidant happened waaaaaaaaay to quickly for me, like flipping a switch with a few off-hand comments. It didn’t make sense. And as you learned more about her character, she just grew more and more predictable–the classic “more than she seems” debutante.

The side characters were just as predictable–practically archetypes representing the components of storytelling. You have your supportive friend figure with a brash tongue to foil the protagonist’s meekness, your bratty girls to emphasize her doubts, your struggling musician with a pure heart to tell her she’s smart, and a duke with a big smile and a fake personality for her to fall for. The romance was weak, but not in a subtly-enhancing-the-story way. It felt badly done, badly stitched into the rest of the plot.

Ross was heavy-handed with her themes in this book. Discoveries about characters’ “inner depths,” Maude’s revelations about her self image, the book’s messages about beauty and society–they were overdone, dumped into the story instead of infused into the plot. Maude knew too much about a character by looking at their face, or their hands, or something–it was clear the author was trying to talk about the world with the character traits, but it didn’t work. My sister always points out this problem in my writing, so seeing it someone else’s novel was both heartening and annoying.

One other thing bugged me about this book. I read the author’s note at the back, and Ross got the idea of the agency from a short story  by Emile Zola. Since basically the only thing I liked about the book was the concept, this was a let down at the end of my reading experience. I don’t have a problem with authors getting inspiration from other authors (last week I published my own retelling of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems), but this time it annoyed me, for some reason. Also, the cover? It sucks.

Still, the book is interesting. I especially liked the friendship Maude forms with an older girl at the agency; you don’t often see middle-aged women in YA stories that don’t play a mother role, but a friend role. If you like books with semi-historical settings, or books that deal with beauty standards and stereotypes, this book would be good for you. If you want an impeccable display of story-crafting, this is not it.

Book Review: Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood surprised me. It was a recomendation, and I try to read most books people tell me about, but I’ll admit I was dubious of this one. I was wrong to doubt it.

4/5 stars

Genre: witchy paranormal YA with some romance and an alternate historical setting

cover born wicked


Amazon description:

Everybody thinks Cate Cahill and her sisters are eccentric. Too pretty, too reclusive, and far too educated for their own good. But the truth is even worse: they’re witches. And if their secret is discovered by the priests of the Brotherhood, it would mean an asylum, a prison ship–or an early grave. Then Cate finds her mother’s diary, and uncovers a secret that could spell her family’s destruction. Desperate to find alternatives to their fate, Cate starts scouring banned books and questioning rebellious new friends, all while juggling tea parties, shocking marriage proposals, and a forbidden romance with the completely unsuitable Finn Belastra. But if what her mother wrote is true, the Cahill girls aren’t safe–not even from each other.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s a quick read–it took me a day. The plot is enticing and fast-paced.

I love the world building Spotswood employed. The story is set in New England at the turn of the 20th century, but it is an alternate world. Witches ruled for hundreds of years, until the Brotherhood massacred them and took over. Today, the Brotherhood rules with an iron fist, preaching that “womanly frailty” is the cause of sin and that witchcraft is the ultimate transgression. Girls are carted off to prison camps for invisible infractions.

It took me a little while to figure out the setting of the book, but even without knowing exactly the time/place of the story, the Brotherhood’s rule and its effects on the Cahill sisters’ lives is powerful. The bigotry and subjugation of women had me clenching my fists. I liked that Spotswood didn’t do what many authors do and create a world where only the tyrant exists; she allows that the Brothers only rule over part of America and England. The citizens of the Brotherhood’s lands know that there are other empires out there that treat women and witches fairly. That provided an interesting juxtaposition that drove parts of the story along.

The dynamic between the three Cahill sisters was fascinating. The main character, Cate, is the oldest sister, charged with protecting her two younger siblings by their mother on her death bed. However, she is not the most skilled sister at working magic; in fact, she shuns it for fear of the Brotherhood. Her need to keep her sisters safe and make good on her promise to their late mother sparks resentment from the other two sisters. When the governess is introduced, the dynamic shifts again, as a different authority figure appears. As you learn the details of the prophecy, the rifts between the three become even more dire. Spotswood handled the balancing of three powerful, individual characters well, and her protagonist’s reactions to her siblings’ rebellions.

The romance was sweet. Though there is a love triangle, it was obvious to me which one she would go for. Even with that, the way it unfolded was fun to read.

The ending of the book was heart-wrenching and I can’t wait to read the next book, Star Cursed. Unfortunately, I have to wait until the end of this week, because I’m on vacation and I can’t get the book until I’m home.