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REVIEW:  The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

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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

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REVIEW:  Rodeo Dreams by Sarah M Anderson

REVIEW: Rodeo Dreams by Sarah M Anderson

Rodeo-Dreams

Love is one unpredictable ride
Ride straight to the top of the rodeo circuit—that’s June Spotted Elk’s dream. Yes, bull-riding is a man’s world, but she won’t let anyone—not even a sexy, scarred stranger—get in her way.

Seasoned bull rider Travis Younkin knows what it’s like to make it to the top—and then hit the bottom. Back in the arena to resurrect his career, he can’t afford a distraction like June. No matter how far he’ll go to protect her from the danger. No matter how deeply the stubborn and beautiful rider gets to him…

Dear Ms. Anderson,

When I saw this in our Dear Authors submissions section, something about it caught my eye. I realized it had been a while since I’d read about cowboys or bull riders and I can’t recall the last female bull rider book to cross my radar so into the reading hopper it went.

June and Travis both have very good reasons for bull riding. For Travis, it’s the only thing he really knows how to do and he’s determined to prove that he’s come back from the horrific injuries that almost took his life. June on the other hand is the up-and-comer who knows she was born to ride bulls. She also wants to prove to those who say that a woman can’t do this, that a woman can do it. Her whole life people – mainly her alcoholic father – have tried to keep her down and June sees this as a way to silence her critics and get herself and her recovering alcoholic mother off of welfare. She’s almost got her college degree in teaching courtesy of scholarships but with a season’s worth of winnings, they’ll have heat in their house on the rez this winter and go from surviving to maybe a bit of comfort.

Their first meeting isn’t memorable with June thinking Travis’s efforts to keep her off the circuit are just another person telling her she’s not good enough and Travis thinking that she’s playing for attention in a way different from the usual buckle bunnies on the hunt for riders. It takes them a while to discover that he’s only concerned for her safety and she’s serious about what she’s trying to accomplish.

Travis matches the lyric from the Garth Brooks’ song in that he’s much too young to feel as damn old as he does some days. Titanium rods and mesh hold him together, 3 long years of rehab are behind him, and his only possessions that survived the bankruptcy he had to declare because of his medical bills are a truck and beat up camper.

Meanwhile June lives out of a used Crown Vic with her dog Jeff – whom Travis calls the Hellhound – until events cause her to go undercover with two other riders trying to hide something the macho bull riders might not accept. And may I say how happy I am about these character. This is the first time that I’ve read a secondary romance like this in a Harlequin. Pooling their resources after that, it’s a step up to staying in fleabag motels. The scraping by that most of the riders do sounds legitimate as well as the risks they’re willing to take for the big purses offered to ride the ranker bulls.

The fears that Travis and June have about a relationship and each other sound reasonable too. Travis’ girlfriend abandoned him after his terrible ride and he wonders if June is merely looking to climb from his bed to someone ranked higher in the circuit standings. June, due to the double standard we women must live with, doesn’t want people thinking she’s trying to sleep her way to the top. But after some inventive storytelling – remember June’s no dummy, and tricky acting – her cousin just loves to play the tough guy, they get that worked out.

So what is the final hurdle to reach their HEA? A “mean as the devil” bull with a wicked kicking twist named No Mans Land. What looks like it might drive them apart is what actually brings them together. June is determined to help out a fellow rider the way no one bothered to help Travis in his time of need while Travis has first hand knowledge of what June will require after a ride on the wild side. They’ve learned from each other and will be there for each other and that’s about as much as I can ask of a romance book.

I thought the way that Travis and June will get their little house, married life and – hopefully in a few years – kids is inventive and realistic. And Travis is going to get a job in a field in which he’s an expert with medical insurance on top of that! Meanwhile June has proved that a poor, Indian woman can ride bulls, graduate and begin to teach.They reach their professional goals, find true love and will get to move on to rewarding careers. Plus they’re not too battered by bulls at the end. B+

~Jayne

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