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historical romance

REVIEW:  Talk Sweetly to Me by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: Talk Sweetly to Me by Courtney Milan


Dear Ms. Milan:

I’ve had an odd pattern with the “Brothers Sinister” series — I’ve loved every other book. Which means three books I loved in one series — not a bad record at all. This novella falls in the “like” zone. Parts of it are delightful, but it never fully jelled for me.

It’s quite common for heroes of romance novels to declare that they like women, but Women’s Free Press columnist and Victorian feminist Stephen Shaugnessy — know for his “Ask a Man” column — means it more literally than most; he likes women for their minds and souls as well as their bodies. And he’s found a woman he likes very, very much indeed — his neighbor, Miss Rose Sweetly, who works as a computer. (Literally, someone who does computations.) Enchanted by her enthusiasm for mathematics and astronomy, Stephen arranges for Rose to tutor him as a means of spending private time with her. His motives aren’t fully formed, but they’re certainly not evil:

He wasn’t planning to seduce her, not really. It would be a terrible thing for a man like him to do to a woman in Miss Sweetly’s position, and he had a very firm rule that he did not do terrible things to people in general, and to women in particular. Liking a woman–even liking her very well–was more reason to adhere to the rule, not less.

Rose may be young and a genius, but she’s no fool. She knows Stephen’s reputation as a rake, and she knows the likely outcome for a black woman and shopkeeper’s daughter if she falls for his charm. And so she resists all of Stephen’s honest efforts to tell her how he feels.

‘If I ever have you in my bed, I want you to remember yourself. I like you. There’s no point having your body if you’re not included.’

‘This–talking to you, just like this–is already the point. I like you. I like talking to you. If you don’t like me, send me off.’

That is, she tries to resist it. But it’s hard to feel nothing for a very attractive man whose interest is so genuine.

He liked people. He liked her. She suspected he’d told her the simple truth: He wasn’t trying to seduce her.

He was just succeeding at it.

The novella is short, about 90 pages in epub, but there’s room for an important subplot about Rose’s sister, who’s close to giving birth and is being treated very badly by the racist white doctor attending her. This experience is pivotal for both Rose and Stephen.

Spoiler (spoiler): Show

It shows her how dependable he is, and shows him the validity of her fears. I’m a little dubious about the end of this episode; Rose reacts to the doctor with violence, which seems both out of character and dangerous. It failed for me as an empowering moment, because I thought she only get away with it because Stephen was there to back her up, and it made me frightened for her.

I enjoyed this story most at its serious points: when Stephen feels hurt and rejected — but never fails to be eloquent — and when Rose is struggling to help her sister, and to decide what’s right for her future. The parts that failed for me were the more light-hearted courtship scenes: for example, one in which Rose has Stephen calculate the odds that he would be able to seduce her, using factors like the probability that she would be hit on the head with an anvil. It’s clever and it’s cute, and I’m damming with faint praise there…. cute rarely works for me, especially in historicals, and the cleverness feels unnatural.

I also didn’t feel the love quite as much as I wanted to, perhaps because I’m not as enamored by discussions of math and astronomy as Stephen is. Or rather, the idea is that Stephen is generally entranced by Rose’s enthusiasm and brilliance, which is certainly believable… but I didn’t connect with his feelings. This is the same issue I had with The Countess Conspiracy: I’m supposed to love the hero for loving the heroine’s brains, but somehow I just didn’t.

But though it wasn’t a perfect book for me, there was much to enjoy. Both characters have interesting backgrounds, which leads to some powerful conversations as they really get to know each other. And there is definitely a sweetness to them. C+



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DA3 Interview & Giveaway: Back to School

DA3 Interview & Giveaway: Back to School

The school year isn’t fresh and new everywhere at the beginning of September, but it’s a good excuse to bring you some books with peeks inside the classroom. These stories also share the theme of communities facing conflicts of values and culture:

Farmer In Your ArmsHuguley Preachers PromiseRice Dixie Rebel

In Merry Farmer’s historical In Your Arms, a Native American raised among whites struggles to teach in a racially-mixed school on the Montana frontier.

Piper Huguley’s The Preacher’s Promise takes readers east of the Mississippi to Reconstruction Georgia and a town founded by newly-freed men and women, who aren’t so sure they want a Northerner helping them, no matter how well-educated she is.

Finally, a favorite with many Dear Author regulars is Patricia Rice, who keeps us in the South, but for a contemporary, Dixie Rebel (formerly published under the title Impossible Dreams), in which an idealist’s school for kids who flounder in traditional classrooms is threatened by the town’s desire for–well, they call it progress.

Your heroine’s best and worst qualities: 

Merry Farmer: Lily’s best quality is her compassion and dedication to making sure all of her students are given the best chance to succeed in life. Her worst quality is her impatience, which leads to some dangerous choices.

Piper Huguley: Her persistence is her best quality and her worst is her impulsiveness. 

Patricia Rice:  Best: empathic compassion; Worst: a dreamer of ridiculously impossible dreams.

Why readers will fall in love with your hero: 

Merry Farmer: Christian is determined and sure of himself, but with just enough vulnerability that you aren’t sure whether you want to tell him off or kiss him.

Piper Huguley: He’s hot, tortured and in desperate need of the love of a good woman.

Patricia Rice: He cares too much but hides his heart for fear he would lose the authority he wields–authority upon which so many people depend.

The first kiss happens…

Merry Farmer: In the classroom when the kids are at recess and Lily and Christian are alone…almost.

Piper Huguley: in front of their house, after they are married. 

Patricia Rice: Wadeville, North Carolina.

For you, what is it about teaching that made it seem compelling enough to draw a character from? How does that compelling aspect show up in the character or plot? 

Merry Farmer:  Teachers, whether in Montana in 1897 or today, have so much power to shape the lives of their students and to open their minds to new ways of thinking. Lily certainly feels that responsibility and is determined to teach racial equality in an era where the concept was a new and revolutionary issue. What gives her an edge that many of the activists of her time didn’t have is that she truly loves her students and can work with their hearts as well as their minds to teach equality. All of the speeches in the world don’t have as much impact as the daily activities of a classroom.

Piper Huguley: These people, like Mary Peake, who Amanda is based on, were teaching warriors.  They dared to go into the southern states and teach the enslaved the literacy they knew they would need before the Civil War was even over. That fortitude and bravery make for characters modern day readers can connect with. The fact that Amanda is willing to go toe to toe with Virgil made for great conflict. 

Patricia Rice:  To me, teachers are the hope of our future, the valiant people dedicated to making our children the best they can be so our world will be a better one. I don’t think any trait can be more compelling than wanting to improve the world. And that’s what idealistic Maya, my heroine, really wants to do, because the world as she knows it has never been a happy one. And she ends up battling that cynical world to make dreams possible for her students. Unfortunately, Axell, the hero, is part of the cynical world she has to fight.

Your teacher characters end up as activists–they have to take a stand against the community, or at least a segment of it. 

Merry Farmer: Lily is trying to teach tolerance for people of different races in a time when the world was changing so fast that many people were having a hard time keeping up. She is herself a Native American in an area with an uneasy blending of peoples, and a woman at a time when the push to give women the vote was at its height. This really raises the stakes when it comes to Lily finding love with one of the town’s most prominent citizens and fighting for that love against prejudice that would keep Lily and Christian apart. Fortunately, both Lily and Christian are far too stubborn to put up with other people’s small-mindedness, but boy, does it affect them!

Piper Huguley: Amanda is a black woman the enslaved have never seen before.  Just her presence is activist enough.  Virgil is not sure he approves of her ways—so there’s more conflict. 

Patricia Rice: Maya never set out to be an activist. She simply wanted to teach kids. But the men in charge of the community want to make money—something Maya is pretty much incapable of doing. When it becomes apparent that the school she’s established stands in the way of the community making money…the conflict boils down to reality vs dreams. In the short term, people would profit by tearing down her school. But in the long term, the children would benefit from the education she can provide not just to them, but to the community, since the school is a historical and botanical museum. With Axell being the leader of the town council, he knows the town needs money…but his daughter needs Maya’s understanding nature.

Events escalate with the arrival of Maya’s ex-convict sister. When the powers-that-be want to arrest her sister for crimes she didn’t commit in hopes of sending both sisters out of town, Maya has to finally wake up and fight for what she wants. And Axell has to choose sides. Can’t get much more romantic than a man surrendering his tried-and-true path for the love of his daughter…and a woman who is the antithesis of everything he thought was true.

What does your teacher character still have to learn? 

Merry Farmer: Lily still needs to learn to trust. She needs to trust Christian to have her best interests at heart, she needs to trust that her new friends really do care for her, and she needs to trust herself and the love she feels

Piper Huguley: She has to learn that the South she has just moved in to will not be so slow to change. Virgil will have to teach her that. 

Patricia Rice:  Practicality. <G> Maya has a huge heart and dreams bigger than she is. She can accomplish a lot on her own, but to carry out dreams as large as hers, she needs help, big help, practical help, people who will channel her dreams down workable paths. And she needs to learn to sort through the people and advice to find the ones who believe in her. It’s a lot for an idealist to learn.

Your favorite school/office supply:

Merry Farmer: Mmmm… It has to be spiral-bound notebooks! I love the smell of paper and the potential a good notebook has!

Piper Huguley: Post-it notes. What did they do without them in the 19th century?

Patricia Rice: Oh, don’t make me choose! I love office supply stores, have ever since I was a kid. New pens, pretty mechanical pencils, bookmark post-it notes…!

And your best back-to-school tip: 

Merry Farmer:  Make friends with the school secretary! My mom was a school secretary, and I tell you, they know everything and everyone. They pretty much control the school. And my mom used to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for the kids whose parents forgot their lunches.

Piper Huguley: Write down your notes and don’t take pictures of the board.  Learning doesn’t happen that way. 

Patricia Rice:  For students or teachers? Perhaps the answer is for both: Smile. People want to talk to people who appear happy and look them in the eye, people who say hi and exude confidence. Even if you’re new to school, a smile shows you’re glad to be there, that you’re open to new adventures and friends. And make sure to add an extra smile for those who aren’t the most popular. It’s amazing what you can learn from the introvert sitting alone.

A copy of in Your Arms is going to a commenter, so we’d love to hear your back-to-school tip or  your thoughts on the interview. Many thanks to Merry Farmer, Piper Huguley, and Patricia Rice.