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review 2013-10-18 20:29
This Would Be a 5 Star Review, Except for the Heroine's Tiresome Body Image Issues
Bet Me - Jennifer Crusie

This is another one I re-read about once a year, and I love everything about it EXCEPT the heroine's food/body image issues, discussion of which takes up a fair amount of text and detracts from an otherwise near-perfect book. As with most Crusie books, there's A LOT going on in this one -- not just the romance between the primary couple, Min and Cal, but also flirtations between their friends Bonnie and Roger and Liza and Tony; and scheming by Min's and Cal's respective exes, David and Cynthie, plus preparations and drama surrounding the upcoming wedding of Min's sister Diana, plus Min and Cal both have mommy- and daddy-issues -- but it all comes together in the end. 

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review 2013-10-07 02:12
I Kinda Wanna Be Courtney Milan When I Grow Up (except I think I might already be older than she is...)
Unveiled - Courtney Milan

Courtney Milan is easily, far and away, my favorite author of historical romance. She has a graduate degree in theoretical physical chemistry from UC Berkeley and graduated summa cum laude from law school at the University of Michigan, and after clerking for important judges and teaching law for awhile, she now spends her time writing the smartest, beautifully-plotted, emotionally-rich, gorgeously-written historical romance I've ever read. I live in wait for her books, and in between new releases, I re-read what she's written before. This week, I re-read Unveiled for the third time, and if you've never read it, get it and put it right at the top of your TBR pile right now.


Unveiled is the first book of the Turner trilogy, which tell the stories of the Turner brothers, three brilliant men who have risen from modest beginnings to the top of Victorian English society despite a tortured childhood. After the death of their father, their pious-to-the-point-of-insanity mother gave everything the family had to the Church, leaving herself and her four children with nothing. When the only daughter, Hope, became sickened after a rat bite, the oldest child, Ash, walked twenty miles in order to beg the Duke of Parford (a distant relation) for enough money to hire a doctor to treat her. Parford only gave him a coin with which to buy himself a bath, the sister died, and Ash grew up determined to avenge this injustice.


When Unveiled begins, Ash is on the cusp of accomplishing that revenge. He has discovered that Parford secretly married his mistress before he married the mother of his children. By unveiling (note this word: it's the book title for a reason) the duke's bigamy, Ash has had that second marriage nullified, Parford's children declared bastards and stripped of their inheritance, and himself installed as heir-apparent to the ailing duke. Parford's grown children, the Dalrymples, will lose everything unless they can convince Parliament to pass a rare act re-legitimizing them and restoring their inheritance.


Ash and his youngest brother, Mark, go to Parford Manor to examine the estate. Ash believes that the Dalrymples are not in residence, but in fact the duke's daughter, Margaret, is posing as a lowly servant in order to keep an eye on the Turners and report back to her absent brothers.


At its core, this is a book about the layers of loyalty (and disloyalty), trust (and mistrust), and love (and enmity) that make up relationships and the way these layers obscure the characters' ability to see one another and, sometimes, themselves. Over and over again, characters mistake one another. Ash mistakes Margaret for a servant because she masquerades as a servant, but many of the mistakes are not as straight-forward. For example, Ash's brothers don't understand him because they are men of learning while Ash is a man of instinct and charisma; they don't realize that Ash doesn't mean to be dismissive of their intellectual pursuits, but being dyslexic, he can't read Mark's book or share Smite's study of the law. In another instance, Ash is stung (and Margaret is offended on his behalf), when Smite comes to Parford Manor and seems to snub Ash, but it turns out that, though he and Ash can't show each other their true feelings, Smite is motivated by love and concern for Ash rather than malice.


Although Ash and Margaret are set up as antagonists (in that Ash's success is literally Margaret's ruin), they bond because they are the same: both fiercely loyal to and devoted to their families, even though that devotion isn't requited (or in Ash's case, doesn't appear to be requited). Margaret's father is cruelly dismissive of her; her brothers are, at best, benignly inattentive to her situation, and at worst, cravenly unconcerned. Similarly, everything Ash does is motivated by love for his brothers, but Mark and Smite lived through childhood tragedies while Ash was in India (making a fortune in order to save them from poverty) and share a love of learning, and the two younger brothers share a bond that, intentionally or not, sets Ash forever apart.


"You see?" Ash said in his cheeriest tone. "My brothers are both here. What could I possibly have to grieve over?"


"You're not grieving," Margaret said. "I know that look on your face."


"Do you then?" He asked the question out of genuine interest. He'd not been faced with both his brothers before this moment. How could she possibly have seen it?


"Intimately." Her voice was low. "I know what it's like to stand on the outside and look in, believing I will never be accepted. I know what it's like to yearn to be a part of something, and yet to know that it will never come. Trust me, Ash. I know."


(p. 214) Ultimately, it is this sense of being outsiders to all others that allows Ash and Margaret to come together when all rational thought should keep them apart: they each crave acceptance and find it, not with their families, but with each other.

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review 2013-10-07 01:30
Not as Tightly-Plotted as Courtney Milan's Prior Books
The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister #1) - Courtney Milan

The first time I read this, I loved it. This time, though, I read it on the heels of re-reading Milan's Turner trilogy, and in my opinion, The Duchess War isn't quite as strong as those books. Courtney Milan can always be counted upon to write a smart, well-plotted story with complex, compelling characters, and this book is no exception... It just didn't hit my sweet spot as hard as Milan's books usually do.


Wilhelmina "Minnie" Pursling, aka Minerva Lane, is living a life of quiet desperation in Victorian Leicester. She was a chess prodigy in childhood and, at her father's urging, masqueraded as a boy so that she could compete in elite international competitions. Her life unraveled at 12, when her father was arrested for fraud and inexplicably blamed her for his misdeeds at his public trial. (This part of the backstory never really made much sense to me; one of the problems I had with the story.) Long story short, the crowd turned on Minerva, actually stoning her like a righteous mob, leaving her permanently scarred and terrified of crowds. Following this ordeal, Minnie changed her identity and now lives in obscurity with two spinster aunts who may or may not be closeted lesbians. She hides her intellectual light under a barrel and aspires only to the respectable security of marriage to a disinterested man. (There's another problem: if Minnie is so smart, I don't think she'd have believed an unhappy marriage would provide the sanctuary she craves.)


Robert Blaisdell, Duke of Clermont, had a childhood as miserable as Minnie's: his father was a cruel and manipulative man who used his position to rape and pillage with impunity. (Robert's best friend is actually his half-brother, the product of his father's rape of a governess; the two boys met at Eton years before.) Robert's mother could not live with his father, so left him even though it meant abandoning Robert, too. Now grown, Robert is determined to right his late father's wrongs: he is in Leicester to make amends to workers at a factory his father ran into the ground decades before.


The dialogue between the characters is sharp and funny (perhaps Courtney Milan's greatest strength), and some of the supporting characters are great fun, especially sequel-bait Sebastian and Violet. That said, the plot of this book wasn't as tight or as plausible as I would have liked: it felt contrived, as if Milan mapped out in advance the way she wanted the story to go, and then had to wrestle characters and events into submission in order to follow the plan.

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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 2013-10-06 17:16
I'm a Sucker for Friends-to-Lovers Tales
All He Ever Dreamed - Shannon Stacey

This sixth book in the Kowalski series started a little slow, and I wondered if Josh was ever going to realize that his best friend, Katie, was totally in love with him. I generally love friends-to-lovers stories (not for nothing: I married my best friend from junior high), and I enjoyed this one a lot.


Josh is a little self absorbed. The youngest of five, he got left running the family business--a snowmobile resort--while his siblings struck out on their own, and he's been seething with resentment for years. That resentment makes him behave like a jerk sometimes, though it becomes clear that he isn't really selfish at all--just nearsighted.


Katie has been hiding her true feelings forever, but when she finally gets what she wants, she's not content to settle for less than she deserves, even if that means letting Josh go. I love that she isn't a doormat, even after pining for Josh for so long.


As slow as the beginning was, the ending felt a little rushed, and these problems with pacing dimmed my overall enjoyment, though I liked the story a lot.

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