Writing is a strange profession. I don’t know many other careers where you’re expected to publicly critique and review your colleagues’ work. Usually I feel awkward doing that, especially when it’s somebody I know, but this time it’s a pleasure. Those of you who read the Unleashing February newsletter know that I intended to read a YA Historical Adventure Romance novel, A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin. So here’s the review, but first a little backstory.
I first met Kathleen almost 2 years ago when she participated in the Cactus & Kangaroos event with Kate Forsyth (who just unveiled an updated website this week, and is about to release a new novel in July… The Blue Rose… yes, there will be a review… but I digress). I knew who Kathleen was, I knew she was a published writer, and I knew she was highly thought of by many people that I respect. There were a couple other events that we both ended up at, so we knew each other well enough to say hi and exchange small talk, but we never had the opportunity to sit down and have a deeper conversation.
However, in January we were both invited to speak at a writers retreat with the Carrrollton League of Writers. The event coordinator, Nancy Golden, didn’t realize that we knew each other, and introduced us and gave us a few minutes to get to know each other, and that was a most wonderful conversation.
We realized how much we have in common, our love for all things Regency and Victorian era, affinity for similar authors, and a passion for helping other writers. Where I had an academic literary analysis background in Victorian literature, Kathleen had real-world application and experience having written 15 novels, many of them being best sellers. Before we finished lunch that day, I had told Kathleen about some research I had done in graduate school, and she asked if I had considered turning it into a historical fiction novel.
The Idea had never occurred to me. Now I can’t let go of it…
I had been flashed the night before on the way to the encampment by emergency lights, and was dealing with the migraine hangover, so wasn’t at my best that morning, and the event coordinator, Nancy Golden, had already agreed to postpone my presentation until the next day. However Kathleen had come for that day only, and was very interested in my presentation as the information I was sharing about writing sensory details applied specifically to a character she was working on.
We talked with Nancy and a few other organizers, and decided I would go ahead and do my presentation after Kathleen did hers even though I was afraid it wouldn’t be all I had hoped. I was so honored that Kathleen was interested in information that I had to share.
Her presentation was fabulous, I took many notes and pictures and I’m still processing some of the information she shared. My presentation was more workshop format so I got to take breaks while those in attendance actually wrote and critiqued each other’s paragraphs.
After the presentations, we had a little more time to visit and get to know each other better before she headed home. I returned home Tuesday, and in the meantime we had been emailing back and forth about the project idea she gave me that was quickly growing. I’m so grateful for her encouragement and coaching in this project.
So here’s where it gets tricky. I love reading and reviewing Texas authors. But there have been those situations where I’ve made friends through the writing community, and then when I read their work I realized not only did I not enjoy it, but perhaps they weren’t as good a writer as I thought they were. And after promising a review, that can be very awkward. So I have learned I never tell a friend that I’m going to read their work and review it–that way if I don’t like it I can pretend it never happened. I know that’s kind of chicken of me, but I always put friendships and relationships in front of the work. It’s so much easier when I fall in love with somebody’s books and then become friends with them. But I knew I liked Kathleen’s subject matter, and she was a bestselling author, so I felt pretty safe throwing my hat in the ring by saying in the newsletter that I was going to be reading A School For Unusual Girls.
Dear reader, I loved it!
Not only did I love that book, but I immediately got the second and third books in the series, and then emailed Kathleen begging that there was a fourth book in the works. She immediately replied yes, the fourth book is actually the one she wanted the information for my presentation for and I’m so excited and can’t wait to see how she uses it for that character. But that’s all I’m going to say because I can’t tell her story for her or share her news, but she did email me last night that she’s going to be updating her website soon with the information so go check it. Y’all, I had made it a rule not to start a series until it’s complete for this very reason–I am sitting here twiddling my thumbs waiting for Books 4 and 5, and I’m trying to talk Kathleen into writing two prequel books for the same series. That seems only right and fair since she just gave me such a huge project.
Now, let me tell you what I like about these stories without giving anything away…
- I love historical fiction, I love mystery-adventure-thriller stories, but I don’t usually enjoy romance, and I rarely read YA, so I was a little hesitant when I realized Kathleen had combined all these genres to come up with her series. Oh, but my friend did such a fabulous job, and I am completely sucked in to her Regency world and this school for unusual girls.
- The unusual part of the unusual girls, are skills that even today we don’t spend enough energy promoting and rewarding in our girls and young women, and in Regency Era these characteristics definitely caused them to be ostracized. Georgiana is naturally gifted in science and mathematics. Tess has skill in all things athletic, an understanding of the natural world, and premonitory dreams. Jane is the mastermind who sees people and situations as though they are on a chessboard, and loves managing property and experimenting with farming techniques. Maya possesses a gift of music and hears sounds and notes that most can’t. Seraphina observes and remembers everything, and is consequently a talented artist. These girls are taught by the enigmatic Miss Emma Stranje and her adopted sister, Madam Cho. Each novel not only expands on that girl’s specific strengths, but shows the frustrations and fear that come from having their talents misunderstood.
- Each novel in the series is told from a different girl’s perspective. We get to learn each of the girl’s back-stories, relationships, skills, loves, and personalities as their story unfolds.
- The what-if factor. Most novelists start their story with a what if this happens to this character in this setting … but this series actually takes a what-if question to history, and to the lives of the characters and readers as well. What if Napoleon wins? What if the heroes of those battles aren’t the obvious people we learn about in our history books? What if we choose to use what makes us unique and individual and unusual and treat that like the special gift it is? What if we start to look at people, not as they appear, but as they could be or truly are?
- First person point of view. I know there are readers who take issue with this, but I love being able to get inside the character’s head and experience the story as she experiences it. The author did a superb job with this point of view.
- The romances are sweet and appropriate and mature in that they are focused on getting to know the person rather than the bodies. I personally get tired of romances that are all body parts and sex education. This series has each of the young ladies falling in love with a most unlikely character for all the right reasons. And as true love should be, each of the characters puts their loved one’s needs and safety ahead of their own. The themes of “sacrificial love” and “true love always wins” play out beautifully in each story.
- The adventure. Set in wartime, these girls each have to use their special skills not only to protect themselves and their friends, but England, and the world as a whole. And there is a deadline as well as deadly consequences and enemies all around.
So who should read these books? Everybody. I think if you are a teenage girl trying to figure out how you fit in and how to let your unique quality shine, this is the book for you. If you were that girl and you’re still figuring out how to celebrate what makes you you, this is a good book for you. If you’re a young man or a father or brother who’s trying to figure out what’s going on in the head of the young woman in your life, this is a book for you. If you like Regency Era history and sensibilities, this is a book for you. And if you like adventure and mystery and excellent character development, this is definitely a book for you.
Each book in this series has gotten 5-stars from me for all these reasons. I am so happy to introduce you to The Stranje House series, written by my new friend and Texas author, Kathleen Baldwin.
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