Amazon discontinued the ability to create images using their SiteStripe feature and in their infinite wisdom broke all previously created images on 12/31/23. Many blogs used this feature, including this one. Expect my archives to be a hot mess of broken book cover images until I can slowly comb through 20 years of archives to make corrections.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Library Loot Review: Marry Me By Midnight

I was excited about Marry Me By Midnight by Felicia Grossman from the moment I first heard about it. Late Regency, set in the Jewish community occupying London's East End, and it's a gender swap Cinderella? Sign me up. And then, well I saw the reviews. Readers seem to be falling into two camps - either really enjoying the book or finding it slow going, losing steam, and DNF'ing.  So I decided to put myself on the rather long library wait list and it finally came around to me in time for me to board a plane for a planned visit with family.  

Isabelle Lira is in a bind. Her beloved father has passed away, and his business partners, the influential Berab family, are looking to oust her. She absolutely cannot let her father's legacy be wrested away from her and her grandmother, and the only solution she sees is to marry, and fast. But she needs to marry an ally, someone outside of the Berab family influence, and for that she needs to cast a wider net outside her particular corner of the East End Jewish community.  She's going to host a series of festivals and every eligible Jewish bachelor will be there to vie for her hand.  The fly in the ointment? These are men from outside her particular corner of the community, she needs help vetting them - frankly, what she needs is a spy.  Someone who can ferret out information and supply her with leverage to ensure her new husband's loyalty will be firmly with her.  And the man for the job?  A synagogue custodian.

Aaron Ellenberg is a man with...what's less than no prospects?  Seriously, none. An orphan, he was raised by the community - but he wasn't bright enough to be a scholar, nor did any apprenticeships they pushed him into pan out. He decided to leave the community at that point, proceeded to get into a bit of trouble, only to be welcomed back into the fold.  Which is how he ended up as a synagogue custodian. He's got a roof over his head, a job, and a purpose. He should know better than to have dreams, and Isabelle Lira looks like trouble from the moment he lays eyes on her. But like any good mercenary, she offers him the one thing he can't say no to - money. The kind of money that can help him start a brand new life, the kind of money that can help his dreams of a wife, a family, come true.

This is one of the better role reversal romances I've read in a while, mainly because the author allows her heroine to be rather mercenary. I mean, she's downright Machiavellian at times. Besides the fact that she essentially wants Aaron to dig up dirt to ensure loyalty in her future husband (extortion is such an ugly word...), she's always looking for angles to stay one step ahead of the Berab's. Oh, did I mention the elder Berab is pressuring her to marry one of his younger brothers? Finding a husband who can help her outmaneuver that lot is of the essence. 

Aaron is your classic Cinderella without the mean stepmother. The community isn't "mean" to him per se, but there's no illusions that they think he'll ever amount to anything more than he is - a custodian, a charity case, someone with no prospects. Aaron is a realist and he knows he's lucky to have what he does, but he still can't help but dream. To tell fairy tale stories to the synagogue's children. To take care of strays and feed animals.  

This is a stand-out story for two reasons: 1) the world-building is dynamite and 2) the conflict is high stakes. Grossman takes us inside the East End Jewish community in the mid-1830s, with the larger political concerns and the fact that the community itself was divided among various groups and/ neighborhoods if you will. While Aaron is well-known to some, he's not well-known to all. Isabelle doesn't know who he is early on. Also, she's attending the synagogue where he works in her bid to cast a wider net - she's not a regular attendee in that congregation, but certainly as an heiress, they know her.

And the conflict? Is *chef's kiss.* This is the kind of high-stakes conflict that, quite frankly, we're not seeing in a ton of romances right now. There's a lot riding on Isabelle marrying well and a lot of pressure from outside forces. Besides maintaining control of her father's legacy, the business has been doing more business outside of the Jewish community. Her marrying a man palatable to the gentiles, as well as political ramifications are a real concern. Aaron is so far from being this guy, he might as well be on Mars. It's a cross-class romance where the author never loses sight of how BIG that conflict is. 

All that being said? Sigh, the romance fell flat for me. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it lacked something. Tension? Chemistry? Something. While I liked the world-building and the conflict there was zero anticipation for the first kiss, let alone the first love scene. There is a very well done Black Moment at the end that elevates things somewhat, but I just never quite figured out how or when these two crazy kids fell in love.  It's the kind of book I'm glad I read on the plane, when I was a captive audience. It was certainly good enough to keep reading, but had I been home, living my normal life, I could see myself putting this book down and then just...not being all that anxious to pick it up again.

Damning with faint praise aside, the conflict, the world-building and the fact that the author employed a light touch in setting up her series chess pieces without beating me over the head with them, has me invested and ready for Book 2.

Final Grade = B-


azteclady said...

See, that's what happened to me--put it down and felt zero impetus to pick it up again. Even though the writing was good, and the setting so well done, and Aaron is just adorable, and Isabelle is indeed mercenary and manipulative and interesting.

Intellectually, I should have devoured it in one greedy gulp. In reality...not.


(I have not entirely given up, however; I hope to try it again when my brain is less like a crazy gerbil in a cage. With any luck, it'll fare better.)

Wendy said...

AL: I was engaged enough to keep going (certainly) but yes, had I been living a normal life at the time I read it and not a captive audience trapped on a long flight - I'm not entirely sure this would have passed my put-down-pick-back-up test. The romance just needed...something more. But I'm glad I persevered because I do now have an interest in the next book in the series.