"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened
and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you
and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse,
and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was."
Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy:  Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
J.D. Vance
2016

The Summary
"From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a probing look at the struggles of America's white working class through the author's own story of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town.

"Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis--that of poor, white Americans.  The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside.  In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.

"The Vance family story began with hope in post-war America.  J.D.'s grandparents were 'dirt poor and in love' and moved north from Kentucky's Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them.  They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility.  But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.'s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America.  With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.

"A deeply moving memoir, with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels.  And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country."

The Good
I picked up Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance after hearing rave reviews from a local book group.  In his memoir, Vance depicts the various struggles his family endures as poor, white Appalachian transplants.  It's a searing, intimate look at Appalachian culture, and it's carefully crafted and incredibly insightful.

I loved it.

Admittedly, I was a little hesitant to begin reading Vance's memoir.  I worried how he would portray my beloved Appalachia and, with the word "hillbilly" already set in the title, I was automatically on guard for any number of transgressions, like calling it App-uh-lay-shuh instead of App-uh-latch-uh.

However, Vance doesn't berate or condemn or belittle.  He offers an honest, intimate portrayal of his family and his culture; he treats his history with compassion and views his heritage with affection.  He doesn't sugar coat things; in fact, he's very up front with the problems he and his community have faced and continue to face.  Yet he's proud of his heritage and he's proud of the family from which he comes, which I can certainly appreciate.

He's an intelligent writer.  He's eloquent, well-spoken, but he's also accessible.  He doesn't make Hillbilly Elegy nauseatingly academic; rather, he appealed to me for the simple reason that he made his memoir easy to read, easy to understand, and easily relatable.  Moreover, he uses statistics to enhance his work, instead of building his memoir around them.

Overall, I loved Hillbilly Elegy and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see or understand Appalachian culture.

The Bad
I don't really have any complaints.  Granted, there are times that the narrative drops, slowing down to the point of being boring, but those moments are few and far between.  I enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy overall, and I don't really have any major complaints.

The Ugly
Hillbilly Elegy doesn't pull any punches:  Vance is going to tell you about his life and he's going to share all the sordid details, including his grandparents' violent marriage and his mother's drug abuse and his own tumultuous relationships.  I found this quality sometimes made Hillbilly Elegy disheartening.

I mean, as Vance recounts his childhood and his family history, I recognized elements of his story on a personal level.  I've seen many of these things happen in my own neighborhood; I've known people who have dealt with these things, even if I haven't.  And it's heart-wrenching, because it's very, very real and very, very true.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Highwayman

The Highwayman
Kerrigan Byrne
2015

The Summary
"Dorian Blackwell, the Blackheart of Ben More, is a ruthless villain.  Scarred and hard-hearted, Dorian is one of Victorian London's wealthiest, most influential men who will stop at nothing to wreak vengeance on those who've wronged him...and will fight to the death to seize what he wants.  The lovely, still innocent widow Farah Leigh Mackenzie is no exception--and soon Dorian whisks the beautiful lass away to his sanctuary in the wild Highlands...

"But Farah is no one's puppet.  She possesses a powerful secret, one that threatens her very life.  When being held captive by Dorian proves to be the only way to keep Farah safe from those who would see her dead, Dorian makes Farah a scandalous proposition:  marry him for protection in exchange for using her secret to help him exact revenge on his enemies.  But what the Blackheart of Ben More never could have imagined is that Farah has terms of her own, igniting a tempestuous desire that consumes them both.  Could it be that the woman he captured is the only one who can touch the black heart he'd long thought dead?"

The Good
I can only think of one word for this book:  scandalous.

It's interesting, but it's very scandalous and, for the most part, I enjoyed the scandal.  It's a dark, thrilling ride through the seamy underbelly of London, and I rather liked it.  However, I'll be honest, I think I was mostly hooked on finding out the identity of Dorian.  He's not quite who he says he is, and I wanted to find out if my suspicions were correct.

The Bad
While I mostly enjoyed The Highwayman, I was really bothered by Dorian and Farah's relationship (if it can even be called that).  Here's the thing:  he's a violent, damaged man--and he lives in fear of hurting those about whom he cares, Farah being first and foremost on his list.  Farah is his fairy, and he'd do anything to protect.  And yet he compels her to marry him?

Don't get me wrong, I can see how he can offer her protection that no other man can.  He has wealth and power, not just physical strength (although he apparently has that in abundance, as well), and he has an intimate knowledge of human misdeeds.  He knows how the darker side of human nature operates and he knows exactly what to do to stop anyone who would try to do harm to Farah.

However, I don't think forcing her into an unwanted marriage is how to best do that.

Let's just be honest, it doesn't make sense.  Their whole relationship doesn't make sense; in particular, his logic doesn't make sense.  Then again, for a guy who spent years in some of the most brutal prisons in England, I suppose he's not that bad.

The Ugly
This book is so explicit--and I'm not just talking about the more intimate moments between Dorian and Farah.  Dorian endures a lot of bad things, traumatic things that have shaped him and changed him, not necessarily for the better.  It really hurts to think about all the terrible wounds inflicted on him, especially when he goes into some detail about it.

The Highwayman is not a book for the faint of heart.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Norse Mythology

34097209
HarperAudio
Norse Mythology
Neil Gaiman
2017

The Summary
"Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical reams of his fiction.  Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.

"In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon:  Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring and cunning; Thor, Odin's son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of the gods; and Loki--son of a giant--blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.

"Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelist arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants.  Through Gaiman's deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again."

The Good
I listened to Norse Mythology as an audiobook and, personally, I think that's the only way to enjoy Neil Gaiman's latest book.  I absolutely adored Norse Mythology, and I loved listening to Neil Gaiman narrate it.  It has quickly become one of my favorite audiobooks, simply because Gaiman is a master storyteller whether he's using the written word or reciting it aloud.

There's something magical about Norse Mythology.  I mean, you can really tell that Norse myth means something to Gaiman.  He's poured his heart and soul into telling these stories and telling them well, and he's created something that's both familiar and wholly unique.

Moreover, I loved the way Gaiman told the story.  I'm not just talking about the language and cadence of the text; I'm talking about the way he spoke, the way he gave life to his characters by changing tones and inflections to give them depth, real meaning.

For instance, I could tell the difference between Loki and Thor with just a word, because Gaiman imbued them with such distinct personalities.  Likewise, I could envision the enormity and ferocity of Fenris just through his harsh, graveled tones; or the haughty elegance of Freya; or the cool, calculating intelligence of Loki.

Personally, I thought Norse Mythology was fantastic.  After reading The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris, I have found myself captivated by Norse myth more and more--and Norse Mythology only lifts these myths higher in my esteem.  Although I know all the stories, Norse Mythology is a wonderful addition to any collection and it's great for readers who are both familiar with the myths and those who are just starting.

The Bad
No complaints.

I absolutely loved every minute of Norse Mythology, all 389 of them.

The Ugly
I'll say the same thing that I said about Joanna Harris' novel:  the gods are cruel, brutal, violent, and licentious.  More often than not, they're terrible people.  I found it difficult to like any of them, plus it's best not to get attached.  If you know anything about Ragnarok, then you know how things are going to end for the gods.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Apprentice Witch

33605563
Chicken House
The Apprentice Witch
James Nicol
2017

The Summary
"Arianwyn has flunked her witch's assessment:  She's doomed.  Declared an apprentice and sent to the town of Lull in disgrace, Arianwyn may never become a real witch--much to the glee of her archrival, Gimma.

"But remote Lull is not as boring as it seems.  Strange things are sighted in the woods, a dangerous infestation of hex creeps through the town, and a mysterious magical visitor arrives with his eye on Arianwyn.

"With every spirit banished, creature helped, and spell cast, Arianwyn starts to get the hang of being a witch--even if she's only an apprentice.  But the worst still lies ahead.  For a sinister darkness has begun to haunt her spells, and there may be much more at stake than just her pride...for Arianwyn and the entire land."

The Good
I liked The Apprentice Witch.  It's not a bad book, but it's not a great book either.  It's a fun story, more suited for a younger audience, and I liked the magical aspects of it.  I was particularly fascinated by the glyphs, which seemed to help witches control their magic, and I would certainly have liked to learn more about them.

The Bad
The Apprentice Witch feels a little like it's trying to be Harry Potter--and, well, it doesn't really succeed.  Personally, I really thought it needed more detail.  It has such a rich history and a sprawling background from which it could pull, yet it simply doesn't.  I mean, here is a enormous world full of strange creatures and magic and myth and lore...and you barely get a tiny piece of it.

Take the witches, for example.  They have this whole hierarchy and education system in place, but I found very little explanation as to how it works.  What is it that apprentice witches do, and what does it mean to become  full-fledged witch?  How does their "school" work, like what sort of classes do they take and what do they learn?  What are glyphs and where did they come from?  What is "hex," other than just bad magic?

Moreover, I really wanted to know how witches became witches.  I mean, I never met a single male witch--or would they be wizards?--and I couldn't figure out if they even existed.  Were witches only women?  Were women the only ones able to control magic, or was there just more of a predisposition for women to become witches?

I had lots of questions about The Apprentice Witch, but I never received any answers.  Granted, I put my hands on an advance readers copy, so I could be judging this book a little prematurely.  Changes could have been made at publication that cleared up my questions or complaints; however, I doubt they will be so great as to make this novel feel entirely different.

The Ugly
The night ghast is pretty terrifying.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Weight of Feathers

20734002
Thomas Dunne Books 
The Weight of Feathers
Anna-Marie McLemore
2016

The Summary
"The Palomas and the Corbeaus have long been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for more than a generation.  Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows--the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

"Lace Paloma may be new to her family's show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself.  Simply touching one could mean death, and she's been taught since birth to keep away.  But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it's a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace's life.  And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep could be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees.

"Beautifully written and richly imagined, The Weight of Feathers is an utterly captivating young adult novel by a talented new voice."

The Good
Oh, this book.  I think I lost my heart to this book.

To start off, The Weight of Feathers runs almost parallel to William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  It has feuding families (Corbeaus versus Palomas), star-crossed lovers (Cluck and Lace), and tragic undertones (escalating tensions between the families, violence, lies, sordid secrets, etc.).  However, The Weight of Feathers isn't just another Romeo and Juliet remake; rather, it's a modern love story that incorporates elements of Shakespeare's tragic play and subtle hints of magic.

Personally, I loved reading Anna-Marie McLemore's novel.  It was fascinating and lyrical; it was the kind of book that made my heart swoon, but kept my interest piqued with its humor and heart and magic.  The Weight of Feathers is woven with threads of magic and fantasy, but it remains firmly grounded in reality, dealing head-on with personal tragedy and tough truths that will break your heart.

It's emotionally intense, especially as Cluck and Lace slowly grow closer and realize the truth of why the Palomas and the Corbeaus are mortal enemies.  (It's like a soap opera.  No joke, it has that level of intensity--and you can't help but gasp when you learn the truth behind the Paloma-Corbeau feud.)

But, most of all, I loved the writing.  I read a review that noted that McLemore's YA novel is "beautifully rendered," and I found that rings true throughout the book.  I absolutely loved the way The Weight of Feathers was written.  While it did take some time for me to sink into the story, to understand the cadence and the style, I gradually grew to love the way the author described the setting and verbalized feelings and told stories about the Palomas and the Corbeaus.

I loved the way the words simply flowed.  It was beautiful, like a song, even when describing terrible tragedies; it describes things in a different way, utilizing the English language and turning it in different ways; it creates candid, complex characters.  Honestly, I just loved everything about it, like these lines:
  • "The rain burned into her.  She curled up tighter, cheek against her sleeve.  She shut her eyes tight enough to see comet trails of light.  She tried to keep out the feeling that the rain was a million lit matches.  And the strange smell in the air that was a little like apple cider if apple cider was the venom of some night creature, the rain and stars its teeth."
  • "Her mouth left a smudge of lipstick on his.  She rubbed it away.  He closed his eyes and held her hand there, kissed her thumb and took it lightly between his teeth, holding onto it.  It trembled the veins that held her heart, that feeling of his teeth on her thumb pad and fingernail."
  • "He wore his loneliness like a scar.  Most of the time his sleeves covered it, but when she cuffed them back, he couldn't hide it.  She wanted to tell him she was not afraid of what he was, this red-streaked thing in all the pure, perfect black.  But the words dissolved between their lips like ice crystals."
  • "Lace couldn't hear what they were whispering.  But now they were all witnesses to this thing she and Cluck had made them see.  They would have to carry the truth, whether or not they spoke it.  It would cling to them like the burrs off sticker grass.  If they twisted it, it would pinch them back."

Like I said, I lost a piece of my heart to this book and these words.

The Bad
Although I loved this book, I can see how it might be an acquired taste.  I loved the way the story was told, I loved the magic and the drama and the tragedy and the romance, and I especially loved the lyrical cadence of the story.  It was beautiful; however, I can see other readers not liking it for the very same reasons.

Likewise, I think the novel builds slowly.  It takes a long time to set the stage for the inevitable confrontation between the Palomas and the Corbeaus, and it takes a long time for the relationship between Cluck and Lace to build.  I found the conclusion of the story well worth the wait, but it can be a mite frustrating to get there.

The Ugly
Abuse.

I fell a little in love with Cluck.  He's smart, he's creative and inventive, and yet he's constantly spurned and outright abused by his family.  It broke my heart.  And, as time went on, I absolutely hated Dax and his mother.  They were awful, terrible people.  Granted, they were awful, terrible people influenced by their circumstances and their tragic history, but they were still awful, terrible people.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Talk Sweetly to Me

23000024Talk Sweetly to Me
Courtney Milan
2014

The Summary
"Nobody knows who Miss Rose Sweetly is, and she prefers it that way.  She's a shy, mathematically-minded shopkeeper's daughter who dreams of the stars.  Women like her only ever come to attention through scandal.  She'll take obscurity, thank you very much.

"All of England knows who Stephen Shaughnessy is.  He's an infamous advice columnist and a known rake.  When he moves into the house next door to Rose, she discovers that he's also wickedly funny, devilishly flirtatious, and heart-stoppingly handsome.  But when he takes an interest in her mathematical work, she realizes that Mr. Shaughnessy isn't just a scandal waiting to happen.  He's waiting to happen to her...and if she's not careful, she'll give in to certain ruination."

The Good
Talk Sweetly to Me is short and sweet and very cute.  It's a nice little end cap to Courtney Milan's Brothers Sinister series.  I loved the way Stephen treated Rose, how he showed his affection by encouraging her interests and going the extra mile simply to make her happy.  It was heart-warming, and I know I sighed happily when I finished reading.

Likewise, I was fascinated by Rose and by the history Milan incorporated into her novella.  Personally, I would have liked to have learned a little more about Rose and her family.  I would have liked to have known a little more about how her brother-in-law became the first black doctor in England, how her family arrived in London, how she became a "computer" and started calculating huge sums in her head.

However, I was very impressed by the work the author put into make the work historically accurate.  Milan made a point of incorporating scientific discoveries specific to that time and she even based Rose on a real person:  Shakuntala Devi.

According to the author's note:
"Shakuntala Devi...was known as the human computer for her ability to calculate complex cube roots in her head in a matter of seconds.  Her roots were modest--her father was a circus performer--but not only was she a mathematical genius, she also wrote cookbooks, nonfiction on homosexuality, nonfiction on learning mathematics, and novels (many of these are available as ebooks today).  She even ran for office."
I was fascinated, so, of course, I had to read more about Shakuntala Devi and discover what an amazing woman she was.  Truthfully, I'm always a little surprised by the historical accuracy of Courtney Milan's books and I always come away learning something new, some new fact or piece of history I never knew.  It's always worth reading the author's note in the Brothers Sinister series for this reason alone.

The Bad
Although I love the series as a whole and I enjoyed reading Talk Sweetly to Me, I didn't have as much fun with this one as the others.  Like The Suffragette Scandal, Talk Sweetly to Me felt a little more rushed, like it was wrapping up some final details, and I personally didn't feel as connected to characters.

Rose Sweetly was an intriguing character, and I would have loved to have learned more about her and her life; however, I'd met Stephen Shaughnessy in the last novel and I wasn't as attached to him as I was to Minerva and Robert (The Duchess War) or Violet and Sebastian (The Countess Conspiracy).  It's a sweet, little novella, and it's worth reading to round out the series, but, honestly, it wasn't a necessary thing for me.

I didn't have to read it.  In fact, if I'd never read it, I don't think I would have suffered much.

The Ugly
Explicit material.

However, I was more offended by the way Rose and her sister--her pregnant sister--were treated by the the local doctor.  I realize his attitudes were a product of the time, but I was irritated with him and his cavalier attitude toward his patient's health.  I mean, he really didn't care--and it was all because of the color of their skin.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Suffragette Scandal

17343236
Courtney Milan
The Suffragette Scandal
Courtney Milan
2014

The Summary
"Miss Frederica "Free" Marshall has put her heart and soul into her newspaper, known for its outspoken support of women's rights.  Naturally, her enemies are intent on destroying her business and silencing her for good.  Free refuses to be at the end of her rope...but she needs more rope, and she needs it now.

"Edward Clark's aristocratic family abandoned him to die in a war-torn land, so he survived the only way he could:  by becoming a rogue and a first-class forger.  When the same family that left him for dead vows to ruin Miss Marshall, he offers his help.  So what if he has to lie to her?  She's only a pawn to use in his revenge.

"But the irrepressible Miss Marshall soon enchants Edward.  By the time he realizes that his cynical heart is hers, it's too late.  The only way to thwart her enemies is to reveal his scandalous past...and once the woman he loves realizes how much he's lied to her, he'll lose her forever."

The Good
Free is independent, intelligent, and impetuous.  She won't take no for an answer, and she won't back down from a challenge.  Edward, on the other hand, is the tall, dark and handsome cliche personified.  He's dangerous, more so than anyone realizes, and yet he harbors a genuine affection for Free--and he's willing to risk everything to protect her.

Overall, it's a good story.  Free has a lovely sense of humor, and I loved the dynamic between her and Edward.  They're misfits in society, who have managed to find one another and do the impossible:  fall in love.

It's sweet and amusing, and it does a decent job of rounding out the series to which I've dedicated so much time.  Moreover, I was rather excited to see all the characters that I'd come to know and love throughout the series.  It was nice seeing everyone again, including Hugo and Serena.

The Bad
I have two complaints about The Suffragette Scandal:  one, I didn't like the portrayal of Oliver, Free's brother; two, I didn't like the way that this novel felt like it was tacked on to the end of the series.

Throughout the Brothers Sinister series by Courtney Milan, I've had a certain amount of respect for the male characters.  In a way, they have managed to conquer their personal demons and they have made successful lives for themselves, including Oliver.  Granted, I know Free has always had a blatant disregard for her brother's reputation and attitudes; however, I was a little bothered by the way Oliver--as well as Sebastian and Robert--were portrayed.

Free seems to think they're all stuffy and archaic, which they might be given her more radical (for the time) tendencies, but Edward just seems to kick them down a notch.  Oliver, for instance, seems too stiff and practical in comparison.  More to the point, Edward seems to openly mock the camaraderie of the men involved in the "Brothers Sinister."

That is, I've grown to view the "brothers" as a sort of family.  They build their relationships out of necessity, attempting to balance out the more damaging influences in their lives.  They--Sebastian, Robert, Violet, and Oliver--are all very close for it.  I appreciated their humor and I appreciated the lightness their club seemed to provide.

Edward just kind of destroys that feeling, which I really didn't like.

Moreover, I felt like The Suffragette Scandal was just tacked on to the end to give the series some semblance of a conclusion.  It brings together a few narrative threads, drawing in all the characters I'd met in the past, but, in my opinion, it doesn't feel quite right.  I liked the novel, but I don't think it ended the series on the right note.

Part of this could be that I wasn't as attached to Free as I was, say, Violet or Minerva or even Sebastian.  Another aspect is that I was a little bothered by the way this books seems to skip so far into the future, going from 1863 in the The Duchess War to 1877 in The Suffragette Scandal.  It seems so far outside the first three novels, almost feeling like a completely different generation.

I think I might have had a bit of a problem reconciling the knowledge that every character I'd grown to know was suddenly growing older...and their stories had officially come to an end.

The Ugly
Edward's past.

It's more than a little painful.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Countess Conspiracy

13489925
Courtney Milan
The Countess Conspiracy
Courtney Milan
2013

The Summary
"Sebastian Malheur is the most dangerous sort of rake:  an educated one.  When he's not scandalizing ladies in the bedchamber, he's outraging proper society with his scientific theories.  He's desired, reviled, acclaimed, and despised--and he laughs through it all.

"Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury, on the other hand, is entirely respectable, and she'd like to stay that way.  But Violet has a secret that is beyond ruinous, one that ties her irrevocably to England's most infamous scoundrel:  Sebastian's theories aren't his.  They're hers.

"So when Sebastian threatens to dissolve their years-long conspiracy, she'll do anything to save their partnership...even if it means opening her vulnerable heart to the rake who could destroy it for good."

The Good
After the cataclysmic rupturing of their friendship in The Heiress Effect, I really didn't expect to read a romance novel about Sebastian and Violet.  I mean, I loved them in The Duchess War and I liked them in The Heiress Effect.  But would they really make good romantic material?

Answer:  yes.

Sebastian and Violet have been friends for many years and they have hatched plots for just as many.  Together, they made mischief as children and, as adults, they made the most scandalous scientific discoveries to date.  They made a great team and they shared a sense of humor, a witty intelligence that made them seem inseparable.

While I was bothered by Sebastian's violent reaction to Violet in the previous novel, I grew to love the guy.  Violet is intelligent, head-strong, and witty, which I appreciated.  I love strong, smart heroines, especially when no one expects them to be; however, I think I appreciated Sebastian for his complete and utter loyalty to Violet more than anything.

Sebastian is a goof.  He's the Regency equivalent of a class clown, and he doesn't really grow out of it.  And yet he's probably the most stable relationship that Violet has ever had in her life.  She's dealt with the death of her father and then her husband; she's a woman of science in a world that scoffs at intelligent women; she's endured a tumultuous childhood under her chilly, reserved mother.

And Sebastian has always been there.

He's like the other piece of her heart and mind, even if she doesn't realize it.  When she's consumed by her experiments, focused so keenly on planting the next seed and documenting her latest discoveries, he's by side handing her a ceramic pot filled with soil.  Don't ask me why, but I found that to be one of the most romantic things I've witnessed.

He's memorized her routines; he knows what she needs, even without her asking; he understands and encourages her to explore, to experiment, to be whoever she wills herself to be.  Their relationship is far from perfect, I know, but I just love how Sebastian is always there.  He makes her laugh, encourages, he supports, and he appreciates her--and I absolutely loved that about him.

The Bad
No complaints.  I enjoyed The Countess Conspiracy almost as much as I enjoyed reading The Duchess War.

The Ugly
Violet is damaged.

Not only was she hurt by her father's unexpected death, she endured a terrible relationship with her husband before he died.  Abuse is ugly, no matter the circumstances, and it was rather distressing to read about what she faced.  It makes her chilly, reserved manner and her inability to connect in intimate relationships more understandable.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Heiress Effect

The Heiress Effect (The Brothers Sinister Book 2) by [Milan, Courtney]
Courtney Milan
The Heiress Effect
Courtney Milan
2013

The Summary
"Miss Jane Fairfield can't do anything right.  When she's in company, she always says the wrong thing--and rather too much of it.  No matter how costly they are, her gowns fall on the unfortunate side of fashion.  Even her immense dowry can't save her from being an object of derision.

"And that's precisely what she wants.  She'll do anything, even risk humiliation, if it means she can stay unmarried and keep her sister safe.

"Mr. Oliver Marshall has to do everything right.  He's the bastard son of a duke, raised in humble circumstances--and he intends to give voice and power to the common people.  If he makes one false step, he'll never get the chance to accomplish anything.  He doesn't need to come to the rescue of the wrong woman.  He certainly doesn't need to fall in love with her.  But there's something about the lovely, courageous Jane that he can't resist....even though it could mean the ruin of them both."

The Good
Like Courtney Milan's previous novel, The Heiress Effect is a delightful little romance novel filled with many of the same humorous characters I enjoyed the first time and packed with unconventional heroines.  And, speaking of unconventional heroines, I loved Jane Fairfield precisely for her ability to say and do the wrong things.

Although she's a walking fashion faux pas, Jane is a witty and intelligent young woman.  She's unexpectedly crafty, and she's calculating.  Jane doesn't simply step on everyone's toes because she doesn't know any better; rather, she does it with the knowledge that she will offend.  That's her goal:  to keep everyone at arm's length and protect her sister.

She's startlingly selfless and she's resilient, which makes her a force to be reckoned with.

I liked Oliver, too.

He's smart and, like Jane, he's calculating the repercussions of every step.  He's a quiet observer of human nature; however, rather than using it to offend, he pounces on every opportunity to gain traction for his ideals in Parliament.  More to the point, he's kind to Jane even when the rest of society is openly mocking her--even when she doesn't exactly attempt to be polite to him.

Plus, he makes the attempt to fix his mistakes.  For instance, when he breaks Jane's heart, he doesn't just tell her he loves her; rather, he makes a huge gesture to win her back.  He makes a point of showing her that he loves her more than his career, and he always will.  It's an incident that's guaranteed to give you all the warm and fuzzy feelings.

The Bad
Admittedly, I didn't like The Heiress Effect as much as I liked The Duchess War.  I think I might have been more attached to Robert and Minerva, simply because read their story first; however, I think it might be because this novel was also setting up for the next in the series.

You have a little bit of that in The Duchess War with the introduction of Lydia and Jonas (from A Kiss for Midwinter), but you have more of it in The Heiress Effect with Violet and Sebastian, Emily (Jane's sister), and more.  I found there was a little bit too much going on with this novel, which dimmed the central story a little.

It's still a great book, don't get me wrong, but it's not quite as good as The Duchess War.

The Ugly
The Marquess of Bradenton.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Kiss for Midwinter

16116470
Courtney Milan
A Kiss for Midwinter
Courtney Milan
2012

The Summary
"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..."

The Good
A Kiss for Midwinter answers a very important question I had at the end of The Duchess War:  who did Lydia Charingford marry?

After the very loud, very public implosion of Lydia's engagement midway through The Duchess War, I was surprised to learn she had a husband in the epilogue.  Lydia was a rather lovely character--happy, optimistic, caring, kind--and a wonderful friend to Minnie, so, of course, I was intrigued to see who won her heart.

It was Jonas, which I didn't expect.

Given the animosity she harbors for him and the apparent distaste he carries for her, it seemed like such an odd coupling.  I decided to find out what happened, and I'm pretty glad I did.  I mean, I wasn't thrilled with A Kiss for Midwinter, but it wasn't a bad novella.  I liked it, because it has a sweet little story that culminates in a wonderful relationship--and I definitely liked the author's note.

The Bad
Jonas is a bit of an ass.

The Ugly
My heart went out to Lydia for what she suffered.

I knew a little bit about her predicament from The Duchess War, but directly hearing what she endured, knowing how she suffered so terribly at the hands of her lover and then her doctor, it was heart-wrenching.  I mean, you can really see why she distrusted Jonas so much:  he was another pompous male in her life, he was a doctor, and he knew her darkest secret.

No wonder she hated him at the outset.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Duchess War

13489919
Courtney Milan
The Duchess War
Courtney Milan
2012

The Summary
"Miss Minerva Lane is a quiet, bespectacled wallflower, and she wants to keep it that way.  After all, the last time she was the center of attention, it ended badly--so badly that she changed her name to escape her scandalous past.  Wallflowers may not be the prettiest blooms, but at least they don't get trampled.  So when a handsome duke comes to town, the last thing she wants is his attention.

"But that is precisely what she gets.

"Because Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, is not fooled.  When Minnie figures out what he's up to, he realizes there is more to her than her spectacles and her quiet ways.  And he's determined to lay her every secret bare before she can discover his.  But this time, one shy miss may prove to be more than his match..."

The Good
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Duchess War.  This actually makes the second time I've read it, and I enjoyed reacquainting myself with the story and the characters.  It's a surprisingly complex story:  not your generic boy meets girl, but rather boy meets girl and girl, who has already had a tough history and wants none of the attention a duke can bring on her, immediately decides to wage a quiet war against said boy to keep him at arm's length.

That's a gravely simplified plot, but it's fairly accurate.  You see, Minnie--I much prefer her name Minerva to Whilhelmina--harbors a dangerous secret and she's not about to let anyone else exploit her.  She's a wallflower now, and she's content (or wants to feel content) with simply slipping into the background.  She doesn't want to be the center of attention, anyone's attention, including Robert's.

And she'll be damned if she lets Robert outsmart her in any regard.

I suppose that's why I enjoyed this novel so much.  Minerva is quiet, unobtrusive, but she's incredibly intelligent.  She's always thinking ten steps ahead of anyone else, in order to protect herself and those she loves.  Even when odds are stacked against her, she manages to pull the rug out from any opponent.  It's thrilling to watch.

Plus, I really like Robert.

Personally, I thought he was probably one of the best romantic heroes I've come across.  He has his flaws--I mean, who wouldn't after the childhood he suffered?--but he's willing to admit his mistakes and he's willing to change.  He cares deeply about his friends and family; he loves Minerva, even if he isn't quite sure how to say it.

I think that's what I liked best about this novel:  Minerva and Robert are both badly damaged by their upbringing.  Minerva acquired a phobia of crowded rooms and a distrust of men; Robert distrusted affection and saw relationships as tumultuous, harmful, and dangerous.  They don't immediately meet and fall in love; in fact, Minerva wants nothing to do with him, and Robert can't see her in any other light than a mouse spinster.

However, as they get to know one another, they slowly grow in the other's esteem.  Minerva learns that not all men merit distrust and she finds that, sometimes, it's okay to make decisions for love and affection; Robert discovers that marriage doesn't have to be quiet, cold and hostile, and he learns that some people are worth risking everything.

I know how corny it sounds to say they learned to love again, but, in a way, they did.  Their relationship was built on mutual respect and a budding trust in the other.  They didn't simply jump into marriage and hope for the best; rather, it grew from Robert's appreciation of Minerva's intelligence and, eventually, her ability to trust him with her heart and well-being.

The Duchess War has believable relationship development.  That is, you can visibly see how Minerva and Robert are drawn together.  Their love isn't spontaneous; it takes time and effort and more than a few bumps and bruises.  I loved that aspect of Courtney Milan's novel, and I honestly couldn't wait to read more from her.

The Bad
Admittedly, The Duchess War does get a little explicit.  If that's not your cup of tea, it's pretty easy to just skim over.

The Ugly
I'll admit, it's kind of hard to read about Robert's childhood under his abusive and controlling father, and Minerva's betrayal at the hands of the father she loved most in the world.  I mean, they were both screwed over by the people who were supposed to care for them--and it's kind of heart-wrenching to watch.