fiction · romance · YA

Book Review: The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright

I’m a sucker for royal romances. For someone who has zero interest in real-life royalty or royal families, there’s something deeply charming to me about a prince falling for a commoner (it’s probably related to my adoration of stories where a celebrity falls for a regular person- and again, I have almost no interest in actual celebrities, so…). It’s how The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright (Merit Press, 2016) made it onto my list, and I grabbed it in a last-minute dash to the library before they went back to curbside pickup only, because our Covid case numbers are so high. It’s a bummer, I’ll miss my quick dashes in to grab my items, but at least curbside pickup is still available!

Evie, a 19 year-old American college student, is off to Oxford, the alma mater of both her parents. Her English mother died when Evie was just six, leaving behind a stack of letters, one for Evie to open on each birthday, and now a series of letters which send Evie on a quest around England to discover her family’s past and her mother’s secret. Complicating things is the fact that the cute boy Evie began falling for her first week at Oxford turns out to be none other than Prince Edmund, second in line for the crown. His parents have ideas about whom he should marry, and that doesn’t necessarily include a common. It may, however, include Jax, aka Lady Jacqueline, who loves nothing more than to set Evie’s teeth on edge by draping herself all over Edmund like ill-hung wallpaper.

As Evie falls harder and harder for Edmund, the truth about her mother’s true identity comes out, and Evie is shocked to learn she must prepare herself to inherit a title, an estate, and a way of life she never expected. She’ll have to figure out who and what she wants to be, and how to maintain any kind of relationship- friendship? more?- with the prince she’s not sure can ever fully commit to her.

So.

This is an adorable story. Evie is the Heir in the title, with Edmund being the Spare; I thought that was a clever switcharound. Edmund is charming as possible, and Evie’s mother’s letters are sweet and wistful.

The problem is that the writing is barely strong enough to carry the story. There’s so much telling and very little showing, and this began to irritate me early on. Had I not enjoyed the storyline so much, I likely would have DNF’d due to this.

Evie as a character is this side of Mary Sue. She’s super gorgeous and every eligible guy in the book is of course in love with her, including Edmund’s best friend (and of course Edmund is jealous) and Theron, a character that exists solely to evoke Edmund’s jealousy, rage, and protective streak when he assaults Evie on their sole date (the incident and Theron are never mentioned again outside of that chapter). She’s brash and free with middle school-level retorts and insults (which, of course, massively impress all her Oxford friends), which made me cringe quite a bit, especially in the beginning where she goes off on a few characters who are, admittedly, being quite rude. I’m not advocating for tolerating rudeness, but I feel as though one might take a bit more caution in acting crassly during their first days in a country where one is a guest and has been heretofore unfamiliar. Evie acted almost immediately like a stereotypical American, and that irked me.

So many of the characters in this book are flat and unnuanced. Jax and her crew are Mean Girls with no redeeming qualities and no other character traits. Evie is Mary Sue-ish; she’s gorgeous and smart without ever  needing to demonstrate her intelligence; people just remark on how intelligent she is (I wondered multiple times exactly why Oxford admitted her other than as a legacy. This seems to be an issue in a lot of books set at places like Oxford, Harvard, etc; the characters’ display of intellect or, more accurately, lack thereof doesn’t exactly merit their place at a top university, and I find that irritating. Don’t just tell me how smart they are; show what makes them smart. Have them reminisce about their discovery of something interesting during a high school research internship. Let a friend or professor stumble upon their publication of a literary criticism paper from a summer program. SOMETHING other than having characters go, “You’re so smart!” or discussing how swamped with schoolwork they are). Her Oxford friends are almost interchangeable in terms of personality, and every phone call she has with her supposed best friend from back home is entirely about Evie, nothing ever about Abby.  This would have been so much more enjoyable if all the characters had been better developed.

I didn’t hate this, but I didn’t love it, either. It had a lot of potential but fell short of the mark for me.

Visit Emily Albright’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book review: American Royals by Katharine McGee

This is the best part of reading challenges right here, finding new-to-me authors and new books that I love, especially ones that I might not have looked twice at if I hadn’t been prompted to pick them up. The only reason I even knew of American Royals by Katharine McGee (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2019) was because it appeared as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge‘s prompt of a fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader. While I’ve enjoyed a few books about characters learning they’re actually royalty, I don’t know that I would have picked this up based on the title or the cover, but upon reading the synopsis, I was definitely intrigued.

Imagine that instead of becoming President, George Washington instead chose to serve as America’s first king. And instead of the American populace electing a (potentially new) leader every four years, the throne passed from father to son, until the law changed in order for the throne to allow women to reign as queen.

The Washingtons, America’s royal family, are the fascination of the country, especially since daughter Beatrice is set to succeed her father, the first future queen after a long line of kings. She’s prepared her entire life for ascending the throne, but despite her privilege, her lack of options in life are beginning to feel restrictive. Her younger sister Sam, known for being the wild child to Beatrice’s more uptight personality, has spent her childhood doing all the things Beatrice can’t; far from feeling free, she chafes at being the spare (being, of course, four minutes older than her twin brother Jeff).

When Beatrice’s parents reveal that she needs to pick out a husband, a series of events are set in motion that will pit sister against sister, reveal tragic secrets, and lead both sisters to fall deeply in love. But for royalty, the crown must come first above all other things, and difficult choices will need to be made by all.

I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK.

Ms. McGee tells the story of young adult royals in a multiple third person narrative that will have you turning the pages so quickly you develop a nasty case of tendinitis in your right hand and wrist (okay, maybe I can’t fully blame her for this, ow, but it didn’t help! Still worth it, though). Her characters are all so very well-rounded that they practically leap off the page and seem like real people you could actually Google. Over and over again, I wondered if maybe having a monarchy would have been the right choice; if it had led the country to a family like the Washingtons, it just might have been.

Beatrice is cool and regal on the surface; on the inside, she’s torn between her duty and responsibility to her country and her growing love for her guard, Connor. Sam is jealous of her older sister, but never so much as now, when Beatrice seems to be getting everything Sam always wanted. Nina, Sam’s best friend, is in love with Jeff, but can she ever fit in to palace life? And Daphne, Jeff’s scheming socialite ex, is always skulking on the edges, desperate to claw her way back into Jeff’s life and into a position as his future princess.

Ms. McGee has created deep, complex emotions behind these royal characters, but she writes them in a way that feels natural and never forced. It’s an amazing, fictional deep dive into about the most entertaining ‘what if???’ scenario I’ve ever read. It ends on a serious note, and I am HERE for the sequel, Majesty, which is due out in September 2020. I’ve already added it to my TBR, and for someone that’s not much into series, that alone should tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Racing the through palace halls, sitting down for a chat in the study, digging through the vault of Crown Jewels, waltzing at a ball, the settings for every chapter are fabulous and Ms. McGee puts you right there in the DC palace that you’ll wish were real from the first page.

While American Royals is classified as YA, I feel that it reads the same as adult fiction. The characters who narrate it are all in their very late teens or early twenties, but the style reads as easily as any adult contemporary fiction. If you’re not usually interested in young adult novels, don’t let that stop you here; this is a compelling story that deals with heavy emotional themes and makes for an enjoyable read for any age.

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Was this a scenario you’d considered before? What led you to pick this book up? Are you interested in the sequel? If you’re American, do you think we’d be better off if Washington had made the decision to be king?

Visit Katharine McGee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Smart, Strong Women- Jerramy Fine

Years ago, just after I moved to Tennessee (where I no longer live), one of the first things I did after getting at least somewhat settled into our apartment was to get my new state driver’s license (an absolute necessity, since the out-of-state license I had was due to expire in something like two weeks!). Brand-new license in hand, you know my next stop was…the public library, to get a brand-new library card (the librarian asked, “Do you have a driver’s license?” “I just came from the DMV!” I announced, and he laughed. I’m THAT seriously about my library love!), and one of the books I checked out on my maiden trip to that particular library was Jerramy Fine’s Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, a memoir of growing up in love with all things royal. It was an enjoyable read for me, and that was how I recognized Ms. Fine’s name on the cover of In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Strong, Smart Women (Running Press Adult, 2016). My daughter is deeply enamored by all things princess (she’s something she’s referring to as the Rose Fairy Princess for Halloween this year, and she spent our entire vacation in Branson wearing a plastic tiara, soon replaced by a fancier one from Claire’s as a vacation souvenir). I’m more along the lines of sweatshirts and cozy pants, so I’m always on the lookout for things to help me better understand my daughter and thus be a better parent, so I grabbed this book a few months ago.

Ms. Fine bases this book on the premise that every woman grows up wanting to be a princess, at least for some part of their lives (and some for all of their lives!), and that this isn’t weak or excessively fanciful, but can instead be a jumping point for teaching girls leadership, empathy, kindness, justice, mercy, and all the other qualities that benevolent rulers must emphasize. On that, we’re in complete agreement, and I’ve definitely found myself using her suggestion of asking my daughter if a particular misbehavior is how Anna and Elsa (her current favorites) would act (which usually gets a grumpy face in response, but it’s the kind of grumpy face my daughter gives when she’s admitting I’m right. SO few things work in reaching my kiddo when she’s entrenched in a misbehavior that this is a pretty big win! Speaking of misbehavior, as I type this, my daughter is supposed to be asleep and is instead singing Let It Go in her bedroom next door…).

There’s also a really great section with write-ups on real life princesses, highlighting their education, accomplishments, and aspects of their personalities or backgrounds that made them stand out. I’ve never followed royalty, so this was full of new and interesting information for me.

I didn’t feel the book was well-organized, however, and I agree with the reviews that overall, it would’ve been stronger as an article. There were many times where I felt it wandered or went off track, and while she clarified herself later on in the book, Ms. Fine’s early arguments against what ‘the feminists’ say about princess culture caused me to raise an eyebrow. While Ms. Fine does eventually reveal that she is a feminist, feminism isn’t a monolith and there’s room for disagreement within the movement. In my readings of feminist literature, the issue I understand to be most common with princess culture is not that girls are wanting to be something so closely tied to traditionally feminine ideals (feminism is about the choice to be yourself, whether that’s someone who wears heels and frills, a construction helmet, or anything in between- or even a combination!), but more the relentless marketing towards girls, especially young girls, and the forcing of the message so early on that life won’t be complete without this product in that color. (And no, there’s nothing wrong with pink, but not everything needs to be pink or gender-based. Toy kitchens should just be toy kitchens and not a tool of gender stereotyping when they only come in pink…just like not every toy needs to talk or have eyes. Totally different issue here, but inanimate object toys with eyes freak me out. WHY DOES A TOASTER NEED EYES, YOU GUYS???)

There were times when her arguments weren’t as in-depth or as incisive as they could be, and I often wondered why she had included certain parts, as they seemed to have little to do with the rest of the section. The overall tone of the book trends more towards conversational-to-blog-post and not quite so much serious, scholarly research. And perhaps it’s not meant to be that, but I was expecting something a little harder-hitting than what lay in between the covers.

I did learn, however, that Ms. Fine once ran a Princess Prep summer camp in London, where she taught girls things like royal etiquette, philanthropy, fashion, and equestrian skills. While I can’t find a link to a website, Marie Claire had a short write-up about it, as did Jezebel. I’m sad that this doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, because with her love for all things royal, I’m sure Ms. Fine made this a spectacular experience for those little girls who were lucky enough to attend.

So while I didn’t love the book entirely, I did find parts of it helpful. My daughter is a bit of a tough nut to crack, behavior-wise, so I appreciate anything that gives me a nudge in a direction that can help me better connect with her. It’s funny; just before I discovered the existence of this book, I had, entirely out of the blue, remembered Ms. Fine’s memoir and wondered what she was up to these days. Mystery solved, and I’m glad to see she’s still writing and living out her dream in London. 🙂

Visit Jerramy Fine’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.