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review 2013-10-07 00:57
Courtney Milan Rarely Disappoints
The Heiress Effect - Courtney Milan

I started reading this book at 2:00 AM while nursing my son, and I couldn't put it down in order to go back to bed. It was a really uncomfortable read, in some ways, but by the time I reached the end, I loved this book. I need some time to reflect on it to be sure, but right now I think it might even displace Unraveled as my favorite Courtney Milan story.


This is an opposites attract story, but not the kind where the hero and heroine are at each other's throats before they suddenly fall into bed together. Jane Fairchild is a social misfit--by design. She knows her immense fortune makes her attractive to suitors, but she is determined not to marry until her epileptic younger sister comes of age and can leave the clutches of her misguided guardian, who allows quack doctors to perform heinous and painful "treatments" on the girl in hopes of curing her convulsions. If she married, Jane could no longer be with her sister, and more importantly, she would no longer control her own fortune (as a husband controls his bride's property in Victorian England), and Jane relies on that money to bribe doctors to leave her sister alone. Therefore, she staves off would-be-suitors by being deliberately gauche: her clothing is obscenely gaudy, her manners are atrocious, her voice is too loud.


Oliver Marshall, by contrast, is the bastard son of the former Duke of Clermont (his origins are explained in the novella The Governess Affair, which I also recommend). Although raised in a loving, secure family of his mother, adoptive father, and younger siblings, Oliver has grown into an insecure adult, too conscious that his illegitimacy means he will never fit in the social circles to which he aspires. He wants to be the Prime Minister someday, so his behaviour is as proper as Jane's is crude. He is attracted to Jane immediately, but he cannot act on the attraction because she would make a terrible wife for a man of his ambitions.


The plot of this novel was not as tight as Ms. Milan's previous novels, but that made this story less predictible. There were times when the odds against the couple seemed insurmountable, and the dramatic tension was strong enough to actually give me a stomach ache. (I told you this was an uncomfortable read.) Several of my favorite scenes actually had very little to do with the main plot and might have been left on the cutting room floor in a more rigidly-crafted novel: there is an early scene wherein Oliver goes fishing with his father which was just delightful--funny, emotional, and so full of insight into Oliver's family dynamic; a similar scene in which Oliver goes to rescue his youngest sister (a budding suffragette) from a rowdy political rally only to have her shame him into staying;and a scene between Jane's sister and her paramour, a law student, in which they are puzzling over the arcane property law precept, the Rule Against Perpetuities, just as every law student has since the dawn of time (myself included). On the other hand, sometimes the plot moves at a whirlwind pace and the reader just has to roll her eyes and hang on tight.


I love that Jane and Oliver are both sympathetic, moral people trying to hold on to their principles while doing what's best for others, even if doing what's right means they can't be together. Jane can't let herself be swept away by love, because doing so would leave her sister unprotected. Even when her sister's situation is happily resolved, Jane isn't willing to sell herself short by becoming the meek, mannerly "wren" of woman Oliver thinks he needs. Oliver's desire for a proper wife is fueled by his political ambition, yes, but he is not ambitious for his own sake: he is driven by the injustice inherent in the fact that the best, most ethical man he knows, his father, can't vote because he doesn't own property. Because Oliver identifies the cause with his father, he sees anything that hurts his chances for political success--including an alliance with Jane--as a betrayal of the man who gave up his own ambitions to raise a boy who was not even his own son. Often times, the barriers that keep lovers apart in romance novels seem contrived or overblown, but this conflict feel real and heartrending, and I loved the way it finally resolved.

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review 2013-10-07 00:43
Gorgeous Prose, but Too Rape-y and Old Skool For My Tastes
To Have and To Hold (Wyckerley Trilogy #2) - Patricia Gaffney

This is a beautifully written, terrible, infuriating story. I knew this was a controversial book when I picked it up, but it's also an influential book in the "romance canon," so I wanted to read it. There are a lot of blogs and articles out there hashing out the merits and moral failings of this book in a lot more detail than I have time to match here. The controversy stems from the fact that--(spoiler alert, though I think every reader should be forewarned at least this much, because here there be triggers)--the hero rapes the heroine, in a harrowing, gut churning scene that spans twenty pages.


Then the hero and heroine both undergo dramatic transformations as characters, which are compelling and emotionally satisfying if you are the kind of person who can get past the whole he-raped-her bit. I am not that kind of person.


I loved Patricia Gaffney's prose. I will read more of her--just nothing quite so rapetastic next time.

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review 2013-10-06 20:47
Refreshingly Down-to-Earth Contemporary Romance
Exclusively Yours (The Kowalskis) - Shannon Stacey

At first I wasn't sure I'd like this. I guess I'm a bit of a snob about ATVs, and so the idea of a book where the bulk of the action takes place during a two week camping/four-wheeling vacation wasn't initially my cup of tea. It also took me awhile to warm up to the hero and heroine, but I was totally smitten with them both by the end.


I love a good hero-in-pursuit story, probably because they're rare in a genre populated mostly by commitment-phobic rogues and playboys. It's refreshing to come across a hero who recognizes love when he sees it and doesn't run screaming in the other direction just to stretch out the story. Joe is such a guy: he knows from the start that Keri is The One Who Got Away, and now that she's back (albeit temporarily), he means to win her for good. He's not afraid of settling down. He's mature enough to understand the dark side of being single: sure, he can do what he wants, but he has no one to talk to when he's had a bad day or has exciting news to share; he can take up the whole bed, but he's got no one warm to snuggle with.


Other reviewers have said Keri is shallow and self-absorbed, but she resonated with me. She's an intelligent woman determined to build a career for herself, longing to give her life purpose and meaning beyond being someone's wife, someone's daughter, someone's mom. At the same time, though, she has reached the point in her life where the paths she didn't take are beginning to haunt her, and as she approaches her forties without spouse or family, she remains devoted to her career but aches for all she has given up.


I loved the supporting characters (Joe's family), and the subplots featuring them (two of Joe's siblings have hit rough patches in their marriages, and they are struggling to fix what's broken as Joe and Keri are falling in love). I found the portrayal of the setting (northern New Hampshire) to be very familiar and believable. (I live in Vermont right across the river from New Hampshire. Books set in northern New England are rare and often tone deaf, turning our small towns into twee travel brochures and peopled with characters who are flat caricatures of backwoods hillbilly farmers. This wasn't like that.)


This book will definitely stay on my "keepers" shelf!

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review 2013-10-05 01:17
Romance + Roller Derby? Yes, Please!
The Derby Girl - Tamara Morgan

I must be on some kind of tattoo kick. I devoured Kit Rocha's Beyond series last week, and then stumbled upon this...and loved it. I was sucked in by the premise: I love roller derby. I was on the cusp of joining a league when I learned my son was on the way (and it's no good getting bashed around the derby track while in a family way.) Gretchen is a roller derby queen with tons of tats and 'tude, but her tough-girl exterior masks a sweet, generous, vulnerable soul. (She failed out of culinary school because she couldn't cook a lobster for the final exam of her final class, and instead brought him home, named him Wally, and has kept him as a pet for the past five years.) Jared is a plastic surgeon who has worked for years traveling the world fixing kids' cleft palates, healing burn victims and soldiers' war wounds, only to realize that he's desperately lonely. He's returned to the States to start the medical spa he and his best friends dreamed of back in medical school, but time and his travels have changed him, and he has no idea how to connect with anyone: not his friends, not his parents, not Gretchen.


The dialogue is really witty and often laugh out loud funny, the pacing is fast without feeling frenzied, but I think what I liked best was how well these mismatched characters complemented each other so perfectly. This is an opposites-attract story, but Jared's and Gretchen's relationship is never antagonistic. Jared has intimacy issues and runs hot and cold, but Gretchen doesn't whine or retaliate: she calls him on it, and he apologizes and does better. Gretchen is very aware that underemployment, incomplete education, and her very visible tattoos make her a totally inappropriate choice of partner for an important pillar of the community surgeon and humanitarian like Jared, but Jared never behaves as if she is beneath him. He admires her joy, her refusal to live by other's terms. As he tells her: "I've given my life to my career. You demand life from yours." (Loc. 987).

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2013-03-22 00:00
The Brides of Rollrock Island
The Brides of Rollrock Island - Margo Lanagan

What is there to like?

A lot!

▪ First, the language blends and balances lyricism and colloquialism in its dialogue and first-person narration beautifully.

▪ I love that the story shifts in perspective as a means to show the progression of what happens on Rollrock through the generations: the before-, the as-, and the after-it-happens. It’s a skillful, yet genuine way of accomplishing the next point that is so well done, namely…

▪ …the way that the reader is slowly able to piece together what happens, based on the way the characters speak to each other in keeping with what is and isn’t given knowledge from their point of view—which changes over generations (which is fascinating but also makes so much sense!). I loved, for example, the way the dialogue allows the reader to figure out why there are no girl children on Rollrock, in just a tiny exchange between the Rollrock boys. The mystery is slowly and naturally revealed, such that both the suspension of the mystery and the gradual understanding are a pleasure for the reader.

▪ Occupying the border between magical realism and outright fantasy, this book, like Tender Morsels, uses fantastic elements to tell a story that is deeply involved in some of the darker issues of women’s lives, places in society, and treatment by men. Though I confess that I was able to enjoy The Brides of Rollrock Island more than the often-devastating Tender Morsels, Brides is still troubling, challenging, and rewarding.


What's not to like?

▪ The cover photo and jacket copy! Seriously, this is problematic—I would never in a million years have picked up this book in the store or library based on the cover, and if that were how I decided to read most of my books these days (sometimes it still is!) I would have missed out. I’m actually really mad at Knopf’s marketing team for not doing their job of helping Lanagan connect to her readers.

▪ This is really just nitpicking, but there is a bit of highly-unbelievable logistics going on in the second Daniel Mallett chapter. But this is a really minor flaw. I'm only mentioning it to maintain some critical credibility, honestly.


Similar To:

It’s not really all that similar to Lanagan’s previous book, Tender Morsels, but I would certainly recommend it to anyone who finds him- or herself intrigued by Lanagan’s style and the themes in Brides

Likewise, I would recommend Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link, for people interested in stories about women with a hint of slightly unsettling fantasy.


What made me pick it up?

It got five starred reviews, according to Elizabeth Bluemle’s roundup of 2012 Starred-Review Children’s and YA Books, which I am steadily working through! Also I had it on my to-read list anyway.


Overall Recommendation: Highly recommended.

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