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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:  It Had to Be You by Delynn Royer

REVIEW: It Had to Be You by Delynn Royer

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“New York City, 1924

Determined to pursue her dream of becoming a crime reporter, heiress Trixie Frank believes she’s off to a running start when she lands a job at the most successful tabloid in Manhattan. Unfortunately, her high hopes fade fast when she’s assigned to the rewrite desk.

Sean Costigan is a demoted homicide detective on the commissioner’s blacklist. The last thing he needs complicating his life is a perky debutante with delusions of becoming the next great American journalist. Too bad she happens to hold one of the keys to solving his latest case, the Central Park murder of a notorious gangster. The other key? Sean’s childhood sweetheart, the victim’s widow, who has gone missing.

Sean soon has more trouble with dames than any good man deserves. But that’s the least of his worries. When he suspects deadly corruption within his own department, it’s not just his and Trixie’s careers that depend on finding the killer. It’s their lives.”

Dear Ms. Royer,

When I saw this book offered at Netgalley, I knew I had to look into it. At Dear Author, we’ve been looking for good historical romances which earn bonus points from me if they also fit the bill as an unusual era. I’m especially delighted to see more 1920s stories being published since this seems like such a gold mine of social changes and modernization.

At first the blurb and book have a bit of a screwball feel but that quickly falls away to reveal some of the lingering, darker aspects of life in NYC. The tenements have improved slightly but the poor and orphans are still on the edges of society. Radio and the pictures are changing entertainment but the speaks are well known places to get your illegal hootch, and thanks to the Volstead Act bootleggers are raking in fortunes. Flappers aren’t hindered by long skirts anymore but they’ve still got a long way to go before most men will think of them as anything but “dolls and dames.”

The conflicts between Sean and Trixie are believable and not easily overcome. He’s working class, she’s upperclass. He’s a cop, she’s a reporter – and one who is known at the precincts for her piece dinging the NYPD for not solving an easy case a year ago. Sean’s also got a past love he’s got to lay to rest while a broken engagement caused by a philandering fiancĂ© has left Trixie determined to focus on her career instead of romance.

And yet these two are, deep down, very similar. She’s got a good instinct for what makes a front page story and the beginnings of the chutzpah to go after it. He’s dedicated to seeking justice, even if it involves exposing the department and the job he loves as riddled with corruption. Both are determined to discover the truth regardless of danger, which causes frequent clashes between them, and people who’d rather see it buried or reported by someone else.

The plot revolves around the gangsters of the era x bootlegging x police corruption. Yeah, not much has changed in 90 years, has it? It all makes sense and the tension slowly winds up until the final showdown with Trixie and Sean facing three people, with guns, who have concrete reasons to see them dead. I could understand Trixie’s slight naivete, though she did catch on quickly without having to have everything spelled out for her, but I kept thinking that Sean ought to be been a bit quicker on the uptake since he did have suspicions and doubts early on. Still the clues needed to solve the case are there even if it takes until the end to realize they were there all along.

The story has a good period feel with clothes, dialog, slang and social mores reminding me of silent movies and other books I’ve read about the era. Two secondary characters do come off sounding and acting like bad imitations of Lesley Ann Warren in “Victor/Victoria” but it’s still fun to picture them and “listen” to how they talk. Trixie has an admirable determination to carve a career out for herself without relying on daddy’s millions and might be liked by modern readers a bit better than Sean who is not a 21st century man in a fedora. Though his attitudes are more old fashioned, they aren’t such as to be objectionable.

With the case solved and such justice as will be found, discovered, is that the end of the story? The resolution is open ended enough for me to hope for further adventures for Trixie and Sean. It’s only 1924 and there’s plenty more left in that decade as fodder for future plots. The attraction between them is still in the crackling sparks stage, never mind a settled romance. And Applegate the butler still needs to be persuaded that Sean is good enough for his Miss Beatrix. I hope to see more of and between these two. B

~Jayne

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