Tag Archives: Courtney Milan

The Brothers Sinister Series: Talk Sweetly to Me by Courtney Milan

Wrapping up her brilliant Brothers Sinister series, the novella Talk Sweetly to Me, wisely centers on one of Milan’s most charming characters: Stephen Shaughnessy. Readers know him as the sole male writer for the  newspaper in the penultimate book in the series, The Suffragette Scandal. An irreverent iconoclast, he makes an unlikely suitor for an astronomer’s computer (mathematician) and also the perfect one to help her seize her chance at happiness on her own terms. Courtney Milan continues to play with tropes and write spectacular prose, but I found Talk Sweetly to Me fell short and despite some powerful and entertaining moments, the story never quite gelled.

Living with her pregnant sister to provide support in her husband’s absence, Rose Sweetly has a quiet life that she hopes to keep that way. Her appealing neighbour, satirist and bon vivant Stephen Shaughnessy, keeps disrupting her peaceful life by his very existence, proximity, and sincere flirtation. Rose knows the price she could pay with her family and in society for walking out with such a man, but he is persistent, even following her to work to hire her as a tutor to “help” him with an article he is writing.

I liked Rose and Stephen individually and was happy when I found out he would have his own story. It was almost enough to overlook the borderline inappropriate persistence he showed in pursuing the object of his affection. Rose does her best to resist, taking the role she is told she may have in life and then quietly succumbs to Stephen’s well-intended and honourable overtures.

Milan has a special gift for writing spectacularly appropriate romantic gestures for her characters, one of which, in A Kiss for Midwinter, might be the most romantic thing I have ever read. She does not let her readers down in Talk Sweetly to Me either. Between that and the marvelous way her writing carries you into the story, I almost forgot the seemingly insurmountable obstacles these characters face. Romance novels are built around the notion of “you and me against the world” and this is rarely so true as it will be for this pairing.

On a side note, and I can’t believe I am saying this either, I think Milan rushed the consummation.

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful which includes the aforementioned observations.

 

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Trade Me by Courtney Milan

I have already reread it.

 

In historical romance’s greatest writer (and increasingly open iconoclast) Courtney Milan’s latest novel, Trade Me, her work steps sideways into the New Adult genre. In their early twenties, the main characters are young enough to be my children, but instead of putting me off, it created a similar kind of narrative distance to the historical elements in the romances I generally prefer. So much has changed since I was that age that this really is a different world for me. Milan brings themes of identity and the roles we are given in life, as well as family politics, into this alternate setting and builds a story around them with her usual skill, style, and charmingly memorable romantic moments.

Tina Chen is the twenty-one-year-old daughter of Chinese refugees. Her single focus in life is creating the financial security her family requires and this means she looked down the list of secure, well-paying professions and her finger landed on doctor. Tina has bills to pay and aspirations to fulfill. She works all the time on her university courses and at her job, she has no time to play.

Tina’s classes bring her into contact with Blake Reynolds. The only child of a Tech billionaire, twenty-three-year-old Blake has taken time off from working for his father to complete a university degree. His relentless but loving father sees it as self-indulgent folderol. After an in-class confrontation, Blake suggests to Tina that they switch lives for the remainder of the semester. She is leery of the trust fund baby, but cannot resist the financial incentive that living his life would provide. She and her roommate move into his house. He moves into the not-so-very converted garage they live in.

Blake would seem to be indulging in poverty tourism, but he has excellent reasons for wanting to lift himself out of his daily existence and hopes to make the most of this escape. Tina’s pressures are visible and more tangible. Blake’s are internalized and haven’t been acknowledged or even noticed by the people around him. His responsibilities to his father’s company and Tina’s assumption of them require that they spend a lot of time together working/trying not to fall in love. Just Tina really. Blake is ready, willing, and able to fall in love with as soon as Tina gives the word, and before that really.

Trade Me flew by in the best possible way. The story was so well-constructed and written that I just floated through the book absorbing the characters and enjoying the ride. Tina and Blake were both interesting and sympathetic, which is not surprising for her given her challenges, but quite an author’s feat for him as he is  good-looking, successful, and filthy rich. The rich man’s son has problems of his own, most stemming from his relationship with his father, and he is young enough that his dad could participate in helping to fix them if only Blake could bring himself to voice his feelings.

The last portion of the book did suffer from Too Much syndrome. There was a whole lot of family drama and the kind of public denouement that is almost impossible to get away with. Milan nearly pulled it off and it certainly made for an exciting finish. Trade Me was a great, engrossing book which I would recommend warmly to readers. I look forward to the rest of the series.  If Milan has been bolder in character choices in her last books, the next one in this Cyclone series, Hold Me, promises to be a game changer.

New Adult romance recommendations can be found here.

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful which includes the aforementioned observations.

 

The Complete Reading List by Author

Short Version: Recommended books are in bold, reviewed books are linked, these are ruthlessly streamlined recommendations lists –

So You Want to Read a (Historical) Romance
Ten Great Romance Novellas to Get You Started
Plus just for funsies: The Worst Romance Novels I Have Ever Read

I have more content based lists over there on the right  –>

Annual Reading Tallies & Author Commentary 2012 – 2017
On reading romance: Emotional Version and Pseudo-Intellectual Version.

My AUTOBUY List (Links Will Take You to a Summary of the Author’s Catalogue)
Tessa Dare (on double-secret probation right now actually)
Laura Florand
Lisa Kleypas
Julie Anne Long
Courtney Milan – The. Very. Best.

-A-
Albert, Annabeth Waiting for Clark (Bryce/Clark)
Albert, Annabeth Save the Date (Randall/Hunter)
Alexander, R.G. Ravenous novella (Declan/Trick/Jennifer)
Alexander, Victoria Love with the Proper Husband (Marcus/Gwen)
Alexander, Victoria Lady Amelia’s Secret Lover novella (Robert/Amelia)
Alexander, Victoria The Prince’s Bride (Rand/Jocelyn)
Alexander, Victoria The Importance of Being Wicked (Winfield/Miranda)
Alexander, Victoria Lord Stillwell’s Excellent Engagements novella (Winfield/ Felicia&Lucy&Caroline)
Alvarez, Tracey In Too Deep (West/Piper)
Andre, Bella The Way You Look Tonight (Rafe/Brooke)
Ann, Jewel E. When Life Happened (Gus/Parker)
Ashe, Katharine In the Arms of a Marquess (Ben)
Ashley, Jennifer The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie (Ian, not surprisingly/Beth) – GENRE OUTLINE
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The Brothers Sinister Series: The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

The Suffragette Scandal is an instant classic and a master work of romantic fiction.

In a genre that wallows in cultural necrophilia, you have to love characters fighting actively against the  aristocracy and existing power structures. Or at least I do. Apparently, so does author Courtney Milan because she is doing it again in a novel that is easily one of the best historical romances ever written and one that simultaneously subverts and embraces the genre. Never afraid to beat romance tropes about the head and shoulders, The Suffragette Scandal, like The Countess Conspiracy before it, takes feminism and themes of identity and wraps a love story around them.

In 1877 Cambridgeshire, Frederica Marshall, Free to her friends, runs a newspaper that is, by, for, and about women and the issues they face, much like the romance genre. A radical who has chosen her battles carefully, she is the target of derision and efforts to silence her. Into Free’s life walks Edward Clark. He approaches her with a warning that someone is trying to sabotage her and an offer to help stop him. He makes it clear that he is not doing so out of altruism, he claims to be incapable of it, but because the enemy of his enemy is his friend. Already aware of the challenge Edward mentions, she decides to trust him even when he says she shouldn’t. Free knows better than Edward. She knows better full stop.

Free’s current problem comes in the form of Lord James Delacey, a man whose overtures she had the temerity to reject. It would seem farcical that a man should react so extremely to rejection, if we didn’t know that it is sometimes so sadly true. A woman standing up when virtually the whole world is telling her to sit down, Free makes a convenient public target for Delacey’s ire:“That’s precisely it. You said no, so that is what I am giving you. No newspaper, no voice, no reputation, no independence.”

Spending her life lighting candles against the darkness, Free is a magnificent character. Sanguine and undaunted, she hides none of her intelligence and knows she should not have to. She is not naive, she knows what she faces, but she has decided who she will be and acts accordingly. Her choices have a price she is willing to pay and she finds strength in small victories and in laying the groundwork for the victories to come, even the ones she knows she will never see. Her swain is one of those alluring rogues one encounters in romance. Edward has a disaffected view of the world and of himself, but he is also heartbreaking, appealing, and understandable. As a younger man, he tried to stand up and was forced down so violently that he tells himself he has withdrawn from considerations of right and wrong. Free makes him see that “maybe pessimism was as much a lie as optimism” and in each other they find a suitable partner to stand against the world with.

I cannot possibly do The Suffragette Scandal justice. It is everything a romance novel can be when giving full rein to the genre’s central tenet of a woman’s right to self-determination and in conjunction with Milan’s undoubtedly masterful skills as a writer. It’s a glorious homage to the brave and quiet warriors of the world insisting on what is right. It’s romantic. It’s funny and moving and entertaining. It’s on sale now and you should buy it.

Reviewer’s Note: As a captious reader (I maintain a list), I want to give kudos to Milan for the little details, too, such as the fact that Free’s long hair is held up by nineteen pins instead of the usual two, and, although Free is “small but mighty”, Edward acknowledges that their height difference makes kissing somewhat awkward.

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

 

The Brothers Sinister Series: The Governess Affair and The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

As The Governess Affair and The Duchess War are Victorian romances by Courtney Milan, you can simply assume that, after providing the standard review content, I am going to encourage you to read them and virtually everything else she has published. Thematically, her stories focus on the questions of identity: Who are you? Who does society say you are? Who do you want to be? Romance tropes are flipped or shaken and Milan crafts lovely and heartfelt stories. Moreover, they contain social commentary and an unusually honest view of  the era they depict, as well as of modern mores. Courtney Milan is amazing like that. She is the best romance writer currently publishing and quickly becoming one of the all-time greats in the genre.

The Governess Affair

Setting up the Brothers Sinister series, The Governess Affair is about the coming together of Serena Barton and Hugo Marshall. She was assaulted by her former, and his current, employer, the Duke of Clermont. Serena is staging a sit in on a bench outside of the Duke’s London residence insisting on reparations in the form of financial support for herself and the Duke’s unborn child. Tasked with removing this inconvenience is the Duke’s man of business, Hugo Marshall. They quickly discover that in any other circumstance, they would be rushing to a vicar. Because of the complications of Hugo’s employment and Serena’s pregnancy, their union faces stumbling blocks before it can begin. Serena has already decided who she wants to be and what she is willing to do to become that person. Hugo takes a little longer, but gets to where he needs to be as well.

Story threads beyond Serena and Hugh’s sweet relationship are created in The Governess Affair. What is a triumph for the protagonists has repercussions for both Oliver, their son, and his brother, Robert, the next Duke of Clermont. He just happens to be the hero of the next book in the series.

The Duchess War

Not only has Minerva Lane been told who she is, she has participated in her own belittlement. A lioness terrified of her yearning to roar, her tightly laced corset is the perfect metaphor for the compression of her spirit. When she encounters Robert Blaisdale, Duke of Clermont, at a social event, he witnesses her frustration and gets a glimpse of the formidable woman she hides. Thrown together repeatedly by their political interests and Robert’s fascination, he and Minnie find their way towards each other as much as they do into themselves. He is a Duke with no use for the peerage, she is a woman fighting for security on her own terms, and neither can resist the challenge the other one represents. The limitations imposed on and accepted by Milan’s characters are front and center for Robert and Minnie. They both want so much and are so afraid, often very reasonably, to reach and fail that they both have to find ways to stand up and together.

Both of The Governess Affair and The Duchess War are fantastic and I encourage you to read them and virtually everything else Courtney Milan has published. Minnie’s best friend, Lydia, is featured in the wonderful novella, A Kiss for Midwinter, that follows immediately on the heels of the latter novel. The Duchess War is a great romance, A Kiss for Midwinter is a classic of the genre and one of my top five romances of all time.

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

 

Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained by Maya Rodale

As someone who has been reading romance novels virtually non-stop for two years, I have a lot of feelings on the subject. As a successful writer in the genre, Maya Rodale has feelings and actual research on the subject. I purchased her thesis, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, because I wanted to understand why this mass market genre is so consistently derided not only by readers, but also seemingly by the book industry as well.  Many people read these books and publishers make a lot of money. Obviously, manifestly, clearly, profit does not equal quality, but why doesn’t it at least equal some respect for the readership?  What is with the titles? What is with the “clinch covers”?

Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained is largely a historical overview, and, I think, a good one, providing context for the origins, specifics, and reputation of these books. A historical perspective seems a good place to start. If American attitudes are still frequently puritanical, why shouldn’t attitudes towards certain kinds of novels be understood through the prism of an earlier century as well? While reading, I kept waiting for an answering “CLANG!” in my brain to help me understand why reading romance is regarded with greater stigma than other genre fiction, including science fiction, spy novels, and murder mysteries. I was seeking vindication. These are the kinds of reactions I get when I people what I like to read:

“It’s pornography for repressed women.”  It’s 2014. If I wanted pornography, I could find pornography.

“I wouldn’t think you were the type.”  I don’t even know what this means. Is it that I have so carefully crafted the illusion of intelligence? I don’t seem pathetic? That is the general implication with statements such as these.

“They’re sexist.” No. Historical romance puts a bonnet on current social mores and uses the setting to create narrative distance and reinforce the elements of escapism. There are cultural limitations placed on the women, but these are obstacles not virtues.

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The Brothers Sinister Series: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

The Countess Conspiracy is a feminist treatise wrapped in a historical romance. It made me cry. I have read scores romances in the past two years. I have laughed, swooned, scoffed, gasped, cackled, writhed, and sighed, but I have NEVER cried. What’s more, I did not cry over the romance, I cried over the gender politics. Once again, Courtney Milan has upended the tropes of the genre and crafted something tremendously entertaining that rises above the theoretical limitations she works within.

Violet, Countess of Cambury, and her dearest friend, Sebastian Malheur, have been keeping secrets from each other and from the world for many years. As the story opens, Sebastian has decided that he can no longer lie, not about the fact that he loves Violet, nor to continue his scientific work on her behalf. He is tired of secrets and exhausted from the hostility and derision their work is greeted with. Sebastian is a bright, kind, charming man, but while romances frequently come down to the hero, The Countess Conspiracy is not really about him, despite his strong subplot, or even the two of them together. This is Violet’s book. Milan blends the love story with an examination of society’s limitations, the roles we play, the restrictions we create on our own lives, and the prices we pay when we struggle against them.

A splendidly complicated, strong, and wounded character, Violet is closed-off and abnegating, brilliant and driven. She has been told by others for so long who she is that Violet has begun to believe them and, worse, believe that she must be this way to survive. She broke my heart. Her world that tells her very clearly what a woman, a woman of worth, must and must not be. What is considered good, proper, and natural, and what will happen if any woman, even one of privilege, transgresses against these rules. Violet’s story is about the perception of oneself and the fear those rules create, and the strength it takes to defy them.

The story makes its way towards a happy ending. Milan’s writing is clever, well-researched, and diverting as always, her characters well-drawn and visits to old favourites included. In the past, she has taken on poverty, the class system, and even women’s health issues. Not every book is superlative, but when she’s good, she is one of the very best historical romance writers ever. To my mind, Lisa Kleypas is one of the genre’s master craftsmen, but Courtney Milan is an artist. If you want to read a superior, entertaining, and heartfelt romance, read The Countess Conspiracy. Was it entirely realistic? No, but it is still a romance and its escapist vindications need not be only in the relationship sphere. Was it wonderfully romantic? Not quite, but the decline in swoon was made up for by the excellence of the other story elements and the fist pumping I engaged in while reading. Read The Countess Conspiracy, read the Dedication, and read the Author’s Note. It is Milan’s most fully realised work so far and I am saying that with the addendum that I feel she has already written one truly great romance, Unraveled, and one classic, A Kiss for Midwinter.

A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.