Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Need A Rec!

A category to get your to be read pile jump started

REVIEW:  Caught! by JL Merrow

REVIEW: Caught! by JL Merrow

caught

Dear JL Merrow,

There are some books which take time to reveal their joys and others which hook a reader from the start. Each have their own place – sometimes the book that is not immediately catchy turns out to be a comfort read for years to come. This was a book I relaxed into from the beginning.  Told from the first person perspective of elementary school teacher Robert Emeny, Caught! is a little delight.  Just like the picture on the cover, Robert is a somewhat quirky man but he is never a caricature.  He is precise and ordered and kind of shy.  He prefers bow ties but has a few of the regular sort of ties for emergencies.  Apart from when he’s running or sleeping, he’s always wearing a tie.  He’s the type of guy who knows he has precisely twenty-six minutes of his lunch break remaining and that he takes thirteen minutes in the shower.  While it could come across as annoying, in Robert it was endearing. I think that was because at a bone-deep level he is a genuinely kind and honourable man.

Robert has recently moved to Shamwell after leaving his previous teaching role (at a prestigious high school teaching A-Level Maths) in sudden circumstances which are not fully revealed until late in the book.  He has taken a job at St. Saviour’s Elementary School  where he earns significantly less money. It is, in many ways, a step down for him.  Fortunately, some years after the death of his father (which left he and his mother penniless), his mother remarried well and Robert now has some financial support from his family.  This support enables him to rent Old Hatter’s Cottage in the middle of the village.

Robert is sometimes slow to pick up on cues and tends to second guess himself, so his romance with Sean Grant, a local pest exterminator, has a shaky start.  Sean’s twin nephews Wills and Harry (yes, really) are in Robert’s class (where Robert is called “Mr. Enemy” by almost everyone).  As Sean’s sister Debs (a single mother)  is recovering from recent chemotherapy treatment, Sean often does the school run and attends other school functions.  Sean is openly bisexual (yay for more bisexual representation!) and Robert is initially convinced Sean’s interest lies in the direction of Rose Wyman, a fellow teacher at St. Saviour’s and Robert’s friend.

Robert does have some anxiety over dating a bisexual man – he wonders if Sean will get a craving for ladyparts and leave but they talk about it and Sean is able to put Robert’s mind at rest on that score.  The explanation is simple but not simplistic and makes sense without being trite. I felt it was an understandable concern – Robert is only attracted to men so he is a bit at a loss to understand bisexual attraction but once he and Sean discuss it, the matter rests and falls into the category of “not a big deal”. I appreciated it was there but that not much was made of it.

At the same time he left his previous teaching post, Robert’s relationship with fellow teacher, Crispin, ended too.  After his heartbreak over that breakup and the circumstances surrounding it, he is shy of getting involved again.   Sean is a bit touchy about the social differences he perceives between he and Robert but Robert isn’t at all a snob.

Even though the story is told only from Robert’s perspective, I felt I got to know Sean reasonably well, as there was plenty of dialogue in the book.  I enjoyed their interactions and the way they celebrated their differences as well as the things they had in common (of which there were surprisingly many). They have a good sexual chemistry and there are some sexy scenes but it’s not terribly explicit, which I thought suited the book perfectly.

The kettle boiled noisily and we broke apart, both of us breathing rather quickly. “Um. Coffee?” I said, my voice shaky.

“Uh, yeah. Wow.”

“Wow?”

“Definitely wow. Talk about your hidden depths.”

I gave him a sidelong look. “Not that hidden, surely?”

“Depends. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the way you dress— it’s different and fun and all that—but yeah , it’s not exactly in-your-face sexy, is it?” He gave my rear a gentle squeeze. “Course, when I saw you in your running gear, with your hair all messed up and that… I mean, most of the time you’re so put together, you know? It was like… Shit , this is a bad analogy, ’cos I liked you before, anyway, but it was like that really corny moment in films when the girl in the lab coat takes off her glasses and shakes out her hair, and suddenly she’s gorgeous.”

I frowned. “I don’t wear glasses. And my hair’s too short to shake out. Plus, and I really feel I should emphasise this point to avoid any possible misunderstandings, I’m not a girl.”

Sean laughed. “I told you it was a shit analogy.” He brought one hand up to stroke my face, and I fought the urge to nuzzle into it as his other hand slid farther around my waist. “But you are gorgeous.”

I enjoyed Robert’s interactions with the students and in particular, young Charlie. I loved how Charlie grew through the course of the book. The scene with Charlie’s dad was a favourite but I will leave it for readers to find out why.

Rose was somewhat of a caricature, even though I liked her quite a bit.  She is loud and forthright but as it happens, that is just what Robert needs – without her interference perhaps he and Sean would never have been. She did have some story of her own and wasn’t merely there to be the enabler for Robert’s romantic adventures but I think some will regard her as too over the top and stereotypical.

I loved some of the word pictures you drew and some of them made me laugh out loud.

Fordy’s always rather exuberant brows had now entirely met in the middle, like a couple of very small, coy ferrets exchanging a kiss.

There were a few times in the story that I felt Robert’s dialogue didn’t fit my image of his character – mostly this was when he was being a bit sexually provocative but this may well have been a failing of my imagination rather than anything else.

Generally, I prefer when characters talk to each other and I’m not a fan of misunderstandings.  That said, Robert has very good reasons for not sharing his secrets with Sean immediately and I didn’t think their falling out over it was drawn out.

Robert, somewhat unexpectedly for him, finds a home and a community in Shamwell and he and Sean make a lovely couple.  I had so much fun reading this book.  I give Caught! a B+ and my recommendation. I’m definitely looking forward to more Shamwell Tales.

Regards,
Kaetrin

 

AmazonBNKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle

REVIEW:  The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

17343236

Dear Ms. Milan:

It seems very apt that the last book in the Brothers Sinister series is being promoted with a funny tumblr written by one of its characters, because it feels like a book that sprang from the Internet. I’m honestly not sure if that’s a complaint or a compliment. I’ve admired how previous Milan books work still current themes into historical fiction in a plausible way — the bullying in Unlocked, for example — yet  at times I’ve felt like I’m seeing behind the curtain too much. That definitely happened here, yet I was so utterly charmed with the book overall, I’m trying to work out a way in which I can rationalize my discomfort.

If I recall correctly, we first met Frederica Marshall — Free — in The Heiress Effect. Through her brother Oliver’s eyes, she was depicted as young, idealistic and naively fearless, liable to get herself into serious trouble. Then it became clear that she has educated herself well, knows what she’s doing as a champion for social justice, and is perfectly willing to get into trouble for the good of her cause. The Free of this story, set ten years later, hasn’t changed much: she’s now the editor of the Women’s Free Press, and a investigate reporter. (She’s in a privileged position to do this, as the sister of an MP who’s the brother of a Duke: her undercover work is certainly dangerous and traumatic, but she can count on rescue when she needs it.) Her visibility makes her a constant target for hate, and she’s no longer fearless, but she conquers her fear by thinking about the agoraphobic woman she was named for. (See The Governess Affair.)

Free is approached by Edward Clark who, unbeknownst to her, is the presumed-dead brother of a ruling class man who’s been harassing her. Edward’s primary goal is to watch out for an old friend also targeted by his brother, Free’s employee Stephen Shaugnessy. (Author of the satirical “Ask a Man” column.) But he’s also very attracted to Free, and soon discovers she needs his specialized assistance even more than Stephen does. The traditional hero for an idealistic heroine is a cynical bad boy, and unusually for this series, that’s what we get in Edward. He’s a liar, a forger, and a thief; as he pointedly comments to Free’s brother Oliver, “Keep your brotherhood of left-handed do-gooders, Marshall. Your sister needs a man who is actually sinister.” Free, who is very much nobody’s fool, takes some time to trust Edward, but once she does, her trust is absolute and warranted:

His mouth was hard and desperate, lips opening to hers. The unshaven stubble on his cheeks brushed her. It made the kiss all that more complex — so sweet, so lovely. She’d wanted this — wanted him — for weeks, and now she didn’t need to hold back.

Still, she set one hand on his chest and gave a light push. “Wait.”

He stopped instantly, pulling away. “What is it?”

She laugh and dropped her voice to mimic his. “‘A trustworthy man would never do this.’ Oh, yes, Mr. Clark. Look how untrustworthy you are. You stopped kissing me the instant I asked you to do it.”

Edward’s cynicism is based on a very hard life, and he’s particularly contemptuous of do-gooders, because his own attempts in that line failed so spectacularly.

“… you’re delusional if you think you can accomplish anything. You’re pitting yourself against an institution that is older than our country, Miss Marshall. It’s so old that we rarely even need speak of it. Rage all you want, Miss Marshall, but you’ll have more success emptying the Thames with a thimble.”

He touched a finger to his forehead in mock salute, as if tipping a hat. As if she’d just departed the land of reality, and he wished her a pleasant journey.

[...]

“You’re right about all of that. If history is any guide, it will take years — decades, perhaps — before women get the vote. As for the rest of it, I imagine that any woman who manages to stand out will be a target for abuse. She always is.”

His eyes crinkled in confusion.

“What I don’t understand it why you think you need to lecture me about this all. I run a newspaper for women. Do you imagine that nobody has ever written to me to explain precisely what you just said? [...] Do you suppose I’ve never been told that I’m upset because I am menstruating? That I would calm down if only some man would put a child in my belly? Usually, the person writing offers to help out with that very task. [...] Do you think I don’t know that the only tool I have is my thimble? I’m the one wielding it. I know.”

Free explains to Edward that her work is about women, not about men, and that what he sees as a futile emptying of the Thames, she sees as watering flowers and making them bloom. I wish I could quote this entire scene, because it’s so wise and lovely. And it sets the stage for a tender romance. Free is too smart to give in to her initial attraction to the unscrupulous Edward, but as time goes on she realizes that he always, always has her back, and she sees that he’s her match:

She could see herself with Mr. Clark at some point in the future — an old married couple sitting on a porch in summer, holding hands and reminiscing over past times.

Do you remember the time you blackmailed me?

Yes, dear. You blackmailed me right back. It was the sweetest thing. I knew then we were meant for each other.

The con-man in Edward is equally thrilled by Free’s intelligence, and the caring person beneath his cynicism is drawn to her positive insights:

“…every time you talk you turn my world upside down.” His smile was tight and weary.
“You’re wrong again. The world started out upside down. I’m just trying to set it right side up.”
“Either way gives me the most astonishing vertigo.”

I loved seeing the experience, intelligence, and bravery of a genuine social activist, a role usually treated with, at best, condescension in romance. Edward is a bit more of a type — the tortured man who doesn’t feel good enough for the heroine — but he’s so sweetly drawn, he doesn’t feel like a cliche. They’re both very appealing, and the yearning between them is a delicious, bittersweet ache. I felt that both begun to act out of character in the second half of the book — Free doing something outrageously foolish, Edward feeling cowed — but I suppose it can be justified as the effects of love. (Though I did find the lack of any discussion about birth control or disease prevention just wrong; Free would be very much aware of these issues.)

I was more bothered by moments that really took me out of the story, like Free’s suggestion for an article, “Won’t someone think of the dukes?” I think the book is very deliberately drawing on current issues for women, particularly online — such as the letters Free mentions above, and the fact that a man has a vicious vendetta against her simply because she refused to be his mistress. This all seems quite plausible. But there are a few places in which the book reads to me like its tumblr account — that is, a modern element being jokingly forced into a Victorian mold. And as with A Kiss for Midwinter and its long discourse on the true nature of the hymen, the story sometimes felt self-conscious. One of Free’s assistants helps by telling them when their writing is “condescending to women who knew the confines of their station better than they did” –I may be wrong, but from what I know of the history of feminism, this seems like wishful thinking.

I did find a rationalization: the book may be a bit of a historical fantasy, but in a genre so filled with disturbing fantasy elements, why not embrace those with a deliberately subversive and feminist slant? But the real truth is, I just liked it tremendously, and so am willing to overlook the parts that I found jarring.

Although there’s still a novella coming — an interracial romance featuring the charming Stephen Shaugnessy (Actual Man) — this has the feel of a series wrap up. Robert finally gets to know his half-brother Oliver’s other family, long a heartfelt wish, and there’s a secondary romance for Jane’s friend Genevieve (now her secretary) and Violet’s lonely niece Amanda (one of Free’s assistants.) The end is a sentimental treat for readers of the series, so although this could stand alone, you’ll probably enjoy it even more if you’ve followed the others. B+

Sincerely,
Willaful

AmazonBNKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle