The Governess Affair (CBR12 #42)

The Governess Affair (Brothers Sinister, #0.5) by Courtney Milan

For my Bingo Gateway Square, I decided on a personal Gateway and one that I would recommend to others. The Governess Affair was my on ramp into the writing of Courtney Milan (and her near perfect Brothers Sinister series) and it’s been a love affair for the past six years. As for others, this lovely little novella is good for a general introduction to romance and romance novellas specifically.

I struggle often with reading novellas or short stories – too often for my liking the story feels like it ends before the narrative should, or worse, is left thin. Neither of those things happen in The Governess Affair. In this crisp hundred-page novella we get the story of Serena Barton, the titular governess who finds herself put out from her job after a run-in with the Duke of Clermont. She decides to take her revenge by quietly sitting in front of his residence until her demands are met… the problem being that it falls to the Duke’s man of business, one Mr. Hugo Marshall, to see that she is on her way so that the Duke can win back his bride, her fortune, and Mr. Marshall’s wages to boot.

It’s not an uncommon historical romance set up, but what makes this one stand out in my memory over the years is the depth to which the characters are developed. The best books I read feature the most well drawn characters and Milan crafts three dimensional characters who exist in a world you are easily able to understand over and over again in her oeuvre. As a bonus her protagonists are beautifully self-aware, which is just down right refreshing.

A Kiss for Midwinter Reread (CBR8 #1)

A new year, an old friend of a book.

I had promised myself a reread of A Kiss for Midwinter this Christmas. It is Mrs. Julien’s favorite novella, possibly of all time, and one that I really enjoyed, but always felt like I was missing something. I think I’m still missing something, but this is definitely a 4.5 star book for me, and proves that Milan is fantastic at novellas (not that I didn’t already know that).

Quickly, A Kiss for Midwinter is the story of Dr. Jonas Grantham and Miss Lydia Charingford. Jonas has decided to get married (for safe access to intercourse, I kid you not) and has fallen for the eleventh most beautiful woman in Leicester (his ranking). Unfortunately for Jonas, Lydia’s foremost thought of him is that he was present for her greatest shame, and she cannot see him without remembering that terrible Christmas.

For those that have read the Brothers Sinister series (and seriously, everyone should) we meet Lydia as the best friend of Minnie in The Duchess War and this story takes place in the months following the end of that book. When I first reviewed this book I was struck by Milan’s ability to give her characters incredible depth in a few short pages, and I was struck by that again. We are plunged into Lydia’s backstory of her being taken advantage of by an older man and left with pregnant and unmarried. We are also brought into her inner workings, as she battles with truly making peace with what happened to her. We are also introduced to Jonas and his particular set of constraints and practicalities. He is a doctor on the forward edge of science (he won’t wear gloves because they could be germ factories) but his default practical nature often catches others completely off guard. That in combination with his dark sense of humor makes most people, including Lydia; write him off as making fun of them when in fact he is almost always telling them the truth he cannot let go unsaid.

This novella is at its top quality in the quiet moments between Jonas and Lydia. The scenes at the Christmas Tree and the Churchyard will make your heart swoon. They certainly do mine.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. REGISTRATION IS OPEN THROUGH JANUARY 15.

Talk Sweetly to Me (CBR7 #50)

The Brothers Sinister series has come to an end for me, and it’s unfortunate that it goes out with a bit of a whimper. I have loved reading this series – it has contained some of my absolute favorite romances and delightful characters while also being a beacon for what quality historical fiction (romantic or not) can and should be. I have spread these seven works out over the course of nearly a year – I read The Governess Affair in late July of 2014 – in order to savor them. I will likely revisit the previous six works, but I’m not sure I’ll ever read Talk Sweetly to Me again.

Talk Sweetly to Me is the story of Stephen Shaughnessy, writer at the Women’s Free Press whom we met in The Suffragette Scandal, and his neighbor Rose Sweetly. Rose is not the typical romance heroine, which we have all come to expect from Courtney Milan. Rose is a computer, someone who literally computes the math for an astronomer. Rose is also black. Both Rose’s intellect and race become the crux of the plot in this novel. Can Stephen convince Rose that he is genuinely attracted to her, supports her career aspirations, and wants to fight the social injustices which haunt her life?

This should all go very well, but there are components missing. It starts for me back in The Suffragette Scandal. Stephen was not the most well drawn secondary character in that novel. Sure, he’s interesting, but a lot of that interest is left off the page in Talk Sweetly to Me. We as the reader are assumed to know/remember Stephen’s own history of discrimination, etc. and his abilities and experiences at Cambridge and with Free Marshall and her paper. Additionally, Rose’s internal life isn’t given time on page as perhaps it should have been. Milan falls victim to telling rather than showing. We know that Rose is concerned that Stephen doesn’t understand what it’s like to be black in 1880s England, but the reader isn’t always clearly shown what that experience looks like. That problem is probably exacerbated by the relative shortness of this work. The novella clocks in at less than a hundred pages, and sometimes brevity does an author no favors.

My other problem is that when I heard that there would be a companion novella for The Suffragette Scandal I was hoping that it might focus on one of the two (!) homosexual couples in that work. I know that those plots were pretty well wrapped up in novel, but that would be a fascinating story to revisit 5-10 years later. Not that this one wasn’t, it just wasn’t what I hoped for, and Stephen wouldn’t have been the Shaughnessy brother I would have chosen to revisit. But I do understand why Milan did choose him and why she chose to pair him with a character like Rose. Milan does write fantastic Historical Notes to go along with her works explaining the real history that inspires her work.

To sum up, read this series, but maybe stop at The Suffragette Scandal.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Suffragette Scandal (CBR7 #38)

As has become my tradition in reviewing Courtney Milan’s Brother Sinister books I was on the lookout for the trope that Ms. Milan had turned on its head. In The Duchess War the male protagonist shows the insecurities which would typically be portrayed by the female protagonist. In The Heiress Effect the ‘damsels in distress’ save themselves. And in The Countess Conspiracy the gentleman at the center of the story works to move forward the career aspirations of his lady love. All of these are reversals of the expected tropes of the world of Romance. Milan is at it again with The Suffragette Scandal and her target is the rescue fantasy and the bad boy making good.

The story should be rather straight forward, and it would be in the hands of almost any other Romance writer. Edward Clark arrives back in England with the goal of revenge. In order to achieve his revenge, he needs to prevent James Delacey from framing an innocent man and destroying the life and work of Frederica Marshall. In other hands the action would have been at Edwards’s command and Free would have been along for the ride. That is most certainly NOT what happens in The Suffragette Scandal.

Free Marshall, youngest sister of Oliver Marshall featured in The Heiress Effect, has used her inheritance from her aunt to pay for her Cambridge education and set up her newspaper, The Women’s Free Press. Free is perhaps the strongest, smartest female protagonist I’ve come across in a long time, and she is always two steps ahead of everyone, including Edward. When he attempts to blackmail her into compliance with his plan (his go to move after 7 years on the continent) she goes around him and blackmails him in return to have exactly the outcome she’s looking for. But this is only the first incident in a book chock full of them. As the stakes increase in the plot against Free Edward attempts to rescue her again and again, only to find that she’s perfectly able to rescue herself.

The other related trope is the bad boy going good for the love of a good woman. It is probably one of the oldest tropes in romance. Normally the heroine is looking for that. Not Free. She loves Edward for the scoundrel he is, and has no desire to see that changed. Free is much more interested in knowing and loving him as he is. She is so confident in the success of her plan that she doesn’t fight him when he returns to France and instead begins to write him letters. Because Edward is besotted, he cannot help but write back and the legendary puppy cannons are born.

There are other charming things about this book. Because Milan is working on a delightful feminist bent Free’s newspaper is not about male bashing, but about empowering women. It isn’t often that you get this overt feminism in romance novels, and certainly not ones set in 1877 England. It is a delight.  The other benefit of the timing of this book, ten years after the events of The Countess Conspiracy is that we are able to visit most of the characters we’ve come to adore in the previous books – Oliver and Free’s parents from The Governess Affair, Minnie and Robert from The Duchess War another ten years into the future, which is something that I always enjoy.

There are so many other wonderful things about this book. I suggest wholeheartedly that you visit emmalita’s review for her musings on punctuation and how the characters use it to flirt. Or scootsa1000’s review of the series as a whole. Or you can have a read of Mrs. Julien’s lovely and insightful review. Or, you can take a look at Malin’s in-depth six star review that convinced me to start reading this series in the first place.

What I’m saying is, read these books.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Countess Conspiracy (CBR7 #19)

In my past reviews of the main novels in Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series I’ve enjoyed talking about the different tropes that Ms. Milan has turned on their heads in this landmark series. In The Duchess War the male protagonist shows the insecurities that one would typically expect in the female protagonist. In The Heiress Effect the ‘damsels in distress’ save themselves. This trend continues in The Countess Conspiracy as the gentleman at the center of the story puts his considerable efforts to work putting forward the career of his lady love.

It’s entirely typical in Romances of all stripes to have the female protagonist work to help further the career aspirations of her love as a way of showing the depth of her affections. In The Countess Conspiracy Milan shows what this looks like from the other side as Sebastian Malheur works to support the scientific work of the woman he loves, Violet Waterfield the widowed Countess of Cambury. Violet, you see, is the foremost scientist in regards to genetics and sexual heredity. It’s also the 1860s, and woman are not to discuss such things, let alone study and publish about them.

With that as the central issue of the book, of Sebastian no longer wanting to act as the public face of Violet’s research, the reader is also treated to the story of Sebastian redeeming himself with his brother and proving his love for Violet is both true and longstanding. While this book hs perhaps less smolder than some of Milan’s other works, it also fits in with the backstory of Violet’s reservations about love in general and sex with Sebastian in specific.

The Countess Conspiracy is not my favorite Brothers Sinister book, (that falls as a tie between The Governess Affair and The Duchess War), but this is another fantastic work in which the author creates multidimensional characters with histories and problems and having them work them out in timelines and methods that are realistic to the time period of the work. Milan also uses her knowledge of the time period to provide continuing social commentary, as we saw in A Kiss for Midwinter and The Heiress Effect. If you aren’t reading this series and this offer I suggest you do so.

This book was read and reviewed (and recommended) as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Heiress Effect (CBR6 #47)

What happens when you aren’t built for the life you’re in? In The Heiress Effect Courtney Milan takes us along with her characters to find out.

I know that’s not the tagline that many would use to convey the point of this historical romance set in 1860s England. There is all the rich historic detail that infuses Milan’s other works in the Brothers Sinister series (and man do I love reading her Afterwords going over those details), we have Oliver Marshall’s quest for Parliament and voting reform and his eventual goal of being Prime Minister while overcoming that he is the bastard son of a duke but raised by Hugo and Serena Marshall (see The Governess Affair) and educated at Eton and Cambridge. We also have Miss Jane Fairfield, an heiress whose wealth makes her a target for the wrong kind of suitor, and suitors she must press off so she can protect her sister Emily, who suffers a mild form of epilepsy, from her guardian who is determined to find a treatment or cure for the malady, even if the treatment is worse than the condition itself. Emily also brings another complication when she begins a relationship with Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian attending Cambridge to become a barrister.

All of the conflicts which come from these various characters are endemic of the time period of the book – the problems of aristocracy, of suffrage, of coverture, of needing a guardian and being unable to escape them, of casual and overt racism, of Empire. Milan is not afraid to dig in to these topics and talk about the things that were really happening in her chosen time period.

For our two main protagonists, each is dealing with something that makes them other. For Oliver it’s his status as a commoner while being known as the brother of the Duke of Clermont (see The Duchess War), for Jane it’s the combination of her hundred thousand pounds (which was left to her by the man who was likely her biological father) and her complete unpreparedness for Society. Oliver was raised to be forthright, to know the difference between what is ethical and what isn’t. In an attempt to correct the ills of the world around him Oliver has decided in a career in politics so that he will be able to do something about the injustices he sees. But, to what cost of his own personality? For Jane she needs to remain unmarried for a year and a half (480 days when we first meet her) to protect the only family she has – her sister. In order to achieve that goal she has made herself a social pariah, but the cost to her emotional health is extreme and has left her friendless and without allies.

Oliver and Jane (and Emily and Anjan) are trying to be what they are not to please others who don’t have their best interests at heart. Each of them has dimmed a part of themselves – the part that in turns attracts the other to them – in an attempt to be who they think they need to be they have become something other than who they are at their cores. In discovering this (Jane first, and then much later Oliver) we get to a story of equals.

I really loved this story.

I love when couples are flawed together, which Jane and Oliver are. I also appreciate greatly when my romance novel reads don’t rely on one character to save another. Both Emily and Jane’s stories resolve in ways that give them full agency, and while Oliver and Anjan are helpful, they aren’t the linchpins. As a full-figured lady myself, I also enjoyed that Jane is not stereotypically skinny (seriously go check out these awesome images of fuller sized ladies from this era), with a 37-inch waistline (which is Oliver’s type!).  She prefers disgustingly bright, garish clothing, because it pleases her, that it offends others is merely a benefit.  And I love when previous works in the series are given shout-outs, such as when Oliver tells Jane about his sister-in-law’s friend who is married to a doctor (see A Kiss for Midwinter), and titles that actually get referenced in the work and mean something  to the narrative.

If it wasn’t clear by now, read these books. They are delightful and I’m excited to read the next three.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read.

A Kiss for Midwinter (CBR6 #42)

I admit I got behind in my reviews; I finished this one over two weeks ago. And it was a delicious quick read so having something to say is proving difficult. The third story in the Brothers Sinister books, A Kiss for Midwinter focuses on Lydia whom we met in The Duchess War, and while this story could stand on its own, I would suggest reading it in order with the other books in the series (seriously, read the series).

Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads: Miss Lydia Charingford is always cheerful, and never more so than at Christmas time. But no matter how hard she smiles, she can’t forget the youthful mistake that could have ruined her reputation. Even though the worst of her indiscretion was kept secret, one other person knows the truth of those dark days: the sarcastic Doctor Jonas Grantham. She wants nothing to do with him…or the butterflies that take flight in her stomach every time he looks her way. Jonas Grantham has a secret, too: He’s been in love with Lydia for more than a year. This winter, he’s determined to conquer her dislike and win her for his own. It all starts with a wager and a kiss…

So what did I think? This is a delightful novella in which Courtney Milan works outside the tropes. Milan takes two characters who probably shouldn’t work together, and in lesser hands would have had a very shallow storyline, and instead in 38,000 words gives us deep backstory, honest connection, and love. It’s a marvel, and at times only serves to make me jealous.

So if I feel that way why am I handing it a four instead of five star rating? Because every so often Jonas’ characterization wobbled for me. His reactions didn’t land, or he seemed to fall back on old habits too hard. But this is truly a fantastic piece of writing and should be added to your list if you enjoy historical romances at all.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Duchess War (CBR6 #37)

I’m writing this review without actually finishing the book. I know, it’s unorthodox, but stick with me here. Thanks to the lovely reviews of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series I have decided to make these books my summer/fall romance reads. Based solely on the reviews I purchased all of the available books and novellas for my Nook and have been sliding these books in amongst my other reading. The Duchess War is the first full novel, second story, in the series and I am in love with it.

There’s a lot to love about these books. Courtney Milan’s style is infectious, her word choice is crisp, her grasp of humor, and how to deploy it, are top notch. Then there are the characters. I love a well written, complex, but not unknowable character. I love them. I think it’s why time and again I am drawn back into the land of Romance novels. The stories are often dictated by known tropes, but the really good ones have some of the richest characterizations you’ll find in fewer than 300 pages. And then there’s the lovely times where your expectations of tropes are turned on their head and you have what makes a truly wonderful story.

In the case of The Duchess War the trope that is turned upside down is that our male lead, Robert, portrays many of the uncertainties one would expect from the female lead. Not that Minnie doesn’t have her own tale of woe, she does. She’s had to change her name to escape a disastrous past that is beyond the simple ‘ruined woman’ trope. But it’s Robert who is afraid of love, afraid of wanting it, and afraid of having it taken away.  And that primal fear in him, placed there by battling parents who treated him like a chess piece and not a son, is what truly moves the course of the novel, not the will they or won’t they, and certainly not the question of whether Minnie’s true identity will be revealed, and if it is, how much of her life will be ruined.

And let’s not forget to mention that it’s steamy, wonderfully steamy without being time period inappropriate. And we have not one but two historical protagonists masturbating in the same book. I may be reading the wrong things, but I have never come across that before, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. And when our leads get together, that ain’t bad either. Through that in with socially aware protagonists worried about people’s rights and some lovely supporting characters who are going to be a hoot along the way (looking at you, Sebastian) and this is a thoroughly well rounded novel.

I promise not to post this review until I have actually read those last chapters. But, I can happily recommend this book to you without knowing how we get to the ending, or what the ending looks like. This book is that well written.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.