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REVIEW:  Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

REVIEW: Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

Sweet-DisorderDear Rose Lerner,

I’ve barely read any historical romance in the past couple of years but when I found out you had a new book releasing, it was enough to tempt me back into the fold, even if (possibly) only temporarily.  I adored your debut book In For a Penny and so I had high hopes here. (I’m also really pleased that you’ve got your rights to your first two books back and that they will be re-released, by Samhain this time,  later this year.) For people looking for something a bit different than the usual, your books are always a refreshing change.  There are no references to Almacks, not walks along the Serpentine, no carriage rides in Hyde Park.  Even though the hero here is the son of an earl, most of the rest of the cast are working people of the middle classes.

Under the Lively St. Lemeston charter, every freeman of the town has the right to vote for up to two candidates in an election.”

“I know that, Mr. Gilchrist.” Men always wanted to explain things, didn’t they?

“Also under the Lively St. Lemeston charter,” he continued, clearly having no intention of modifying his planned oration, “the eldest daughter of a freeman who died without sons can make her husband a freeman.”

Phoebe tapped her foot on the floor. “My husband is dead,” she pointed out, since apparently they were telling each other things they both already knew.

The young man took a sip of tea. He had an eye for a dramatic pause, anyway; she had to give him credit for that. “You could marry again.”

Phoebe Sparks is a lawyer’s daughter and the widow of a newspaperman.  She has lived all her life in the sleepy town of Lively St. Lemeston.  Her family have always been staunch supporters of the Whigs.  She is intelligent, independent and well-read.  Given that her marriage to Will Sparks turned sour before he died, she has no desire to marry again.  She lives in two very small attic rooms she rents from Mrs. Pengilly and (barely) supports herself by writing Improving Tales for Young People for the Girl’s Companion in London.  When the Tory election agent calls upon her and attempts to cajole her into marriage to a Tory for her votes (which could be enough to swing the upcoming election), Phoebe gives him short shrift.

But her sixteen year old sister finds herself in an interesting condition and all of a sudden, the money and connections of a prominent party member (either Tory or Whig) are exactly what Phoebe needs to protect her sister.

The Honorable Nicholas Dymond is the second son of an earl and a former military officer.  He was forced to resign his commission after his leg was injured at Badajoz and he now walks with the assistance of a cane.  He is very self-conscious about his injury and his feelings about his leg; his stubborn pride which necessitates him never asking for help form one of the major themes of the book.  His formidable mother, Lady Tassell, sends him to Lively St. Lemeston to assist his youngest brother, Tony, in his election campaign and in particular, to secure the votes of Phoebe Sparks by marrying her off to Mr. Moon, a confectioner in town who will vote for the Whigs in return for the payment of his debts.

The set up reminded me a little of the Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed – not so much in story, but in tone.  They are both set in a small town where everybody knows everybody’s business and they both felt historically accurate in their portrayal of village life in their respective time periods.   (I did a little Googling to see if the situation with Phoebe’s two votes was the kind of thing which really happened. My google-fu isn’t great but what I did find supports my feeling from the the book that it was authentic. Certainly I read that people in 1812 expected to be paid for their vote as it was a form of property.)

The Dymonds are a political family. Lady Tassell particularly is always off involved in some political endeavour and election time is especially busy. As a child, Nicholas had even less of his mother’s attention during elections.  Like Lady Tassell, Nick is blessed with a silver tongue.  He is charming and knows all the right things to say.  One of the other themes in the book is about saying what you mean, what you want – because you mean it, because you want it, and not because it is what someone else wants or expects to hear.  Both Nicholas and Phoebe learn lessons in this vein and both of them practice saying what they mean first, with each other.

Phoebe thinks Helen’s best bet is to go away somewhere, have the baby and give the child to a good home and return to town.  That requires money and influence and she’s leaning toward Mr. Moon because Lady Tassell would certainly see that Helen’s child went to a good family and she has the connections to preserve Helen’s secrecy in the endeavour.  However, Phoebe doesn’t particularly like sweets and she doesn’t particularly like Mr. Moon.  He’s nice enough, but they have very little in common.  The Tory candidate for her hand is a widower with a young daughter.  He is more to Phoebe’s taste (as long as they don’t discuss politics).   But, the person she prefers most of all is Nick Dymond.  They spend a lot of time together during the election campaign and they enjoy each other’s company.  Both are quick-witted and Nick loves that Phoebe sees right through the gloss to the man underneath – that she seeks to know the man underneath.  Similarly, Phoebe realises that to Nick she is more than just two votes in the election.

Nick’s scars are not the only ones in the book.  Phoebe’s marriage to Will had been somewhat of a challenge in that they bickered often and things didn’t really get resolved, but they were mostly happy until Phoebe miscarried their child when she was five months pregnant. The experience was devastating for her and left her somewhat “frozen” inside.  It scars Phoebe at least as much as Nick’s injury scars him – but her scars are on the inside where nobody can see them.  This is a bit of a hot button for me and to be honest, I may not have picked up the book had I known of Phoebe’s loss.  It’s something I find incredibly difficult to read about.  Done well it is too emotionally draining for me and done poorly, where such a loss comes across as flippant or merely a plot device, is even worse.  Here, I found the handling of the topic both sensitive and honest, while at the same time the narrative didn’t dwell in the grief and loss to the point that I felt manipulated as a reader.  It is possible however that I may have kept myself at somewhat of a distance to the text here and that may have affected my overall feeling about the book.  It may also explain why the quotes I chose were about Nick’s scars and not Phoebe’s.

 “They held me down to operate on my leg.” Of all the things one shouldn’t talk about in bed, that filthy operating room topped the list. But letting her see his body and his thoughts was all of a piece. The words flowed with the same swirling tension as his arousal. “But it was understood that an officer shouldn’t struggle. He shouldn’t make a sound.”

She sat on the edge of the bed. She listened with her whole body, mouth frowning, head tilting, shoulders leaning towards him, dark eyes focused on his face. He knew he must look ridiculous, but if she noticed, she didn’t show it.

“I’ve never felt pain like that before or since,” he told her. “But every time I moved or winced or strained against their grasp, I knew I’d failed in my manly duty. And I remember the shame more vividly than the pain.”

She leaned down and kissed him; he gathered her up against his side with his free arm.

“It’s hard to be a woman.” She sighed. “Sometimes I forget how hard it is to be a man.” She traced a finger over his scar. He tensed, holding himself carefully still. The skin there was sensitive; her touch tickled and teased. “Is it perverse that I want to lick it? To you it means pain and shame. But all I see is you.”

I liked the way scars and limitations – imposed by loss or class or society was handled here.  It seemed matter of fact to me, neither something to be pitied nor something to be lauded as noble.  It just was; a part of that person’s lot.  The reality is that Nick’s disability is fairly minor in the big scheme of things – it is terribly important to him of course, but let’s face it, things could be much worse.  Even he knows that and this is part of what he struggles with actually.  He knows he’s not too badly off but he’s still resentful.  It felt like a realistic portrayal of disability to me.  (My work involves helping people with disabilities but I do not have one myself and I don’t purport to speak for everyone here of course.)

But he could feel her fingers on it. He felt it when she leaned down and ran the tip of her tongue up it. She couldn’t really see, that close, and he felt it when she missed the jagged bit at the end. To her, it was just a part of him, like his fingernails or the dark blond hair on his chest.

Then he saw what he had tried to do: take his pain and his shame and put them in the scar, pretend they weren’t really part of him. But they were, and they couldn’t be amputated or lanced. He had to feel them.

He didn’t want to.

Over the course of the book, both Nick and Phoebe come to realise the limitations their respective scars have placed on them – or perhaps more correctly, that they have imposed on themselves as a result, and both start to let those things go and heal.

It wasn’t his leg that kept him from feeling like a whole man, he realized. It was something far deeper, a lack within himself. He had never wanted anything with such a bone-deep conviction. Sometimes, it seemed, he could go all day without wanting anything at all.

The plot is cleverly woven to make it seem impossible that everyone (who deserves it) can have a happy ending and the conflicts are realistic and believable.  Phoebe has good reason for her actions even when I didn’t always like them. The election, the votes, family reputation, personal reputation, sacrifice, practical financial considerations are all mixed in and for a little while there it really seemed like there was no way out.

I’m happy to say that there is (it is a romance after all) but it’s not a deus ex machina and having a happy ending doesn’t mean that there are not challenges of the practical and financial variety for the various couples to work out (there is more than one romantic relationship in the book but the main focus is very much on Phoebe and Nick).  I was delighted that the conflict while it did seem impossible, didn’t take a long time to resolve and that it was resolved in a believable way which kept to the tenor of the rest of the book, even if it was just a little convenient and neat.  (This is not a complaint. I like convenient and neat.)

I thought Sweet Disorder was a lovely read, enjoyable and engaging and cleverly drawn.  I wavered between a B and a B+.  My first instinct was a B but then I wondered if I’d distanced myself somewhat from the text because I think it really should be a B+.



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REVIEW:  The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

Dear Ms. Milan:

When your books and novellas work for me, they are among my favorite historical romances. When they don’t, it’s not always clear to me why, and often I wonder if it’s my reading approach rather than the book itself. I wanted to read your latest novel for a couple of reasons: it has received both rave reviews and DNF reactions, and it grapples with class and economic issues in mid-19th century England. I really wanted to love this book, but instead I found myself frustrated, especially by the hero, even as I was captivated by the romance.

The Duchess War is about the romance between the 9th Duke of Clermont and Wilhelmina Pursling, neither of whom is at all what they seem to be. Robert, Duke of Clermont, hates being a duke and wishes he could abolish the peerage as an institution. Since even he realizes that is unlikely, he spends his energies writing and distributing handbills to factory workers in Leicester, encouraging them to rise up against their exploitative masters. Minnie and Robert meet accidentally when both are hiding out during a musicale, and their lives soon become intertwined. Minnie has resigned herself to a quiet life, living with her aunts and avoiding the public gaze. An accusation that she is behind the handbills leads her to uncover the real perpetrator, and, fearful that her past will be uncovered, she confronts the Duke and demands that he cease his activities. In return, he offers her a proposition: he will pretend to flirt with her so that she can snag a husband, all the while continuing his attempts to rile up the workers.

There is so much going on here, even by the standards of a full-length novel. Minnie and Robert have complicated pasts that shape their personalities and adult choices. Each has friends and relatives who are important (for good or ill) in their lives, and their stories are introduced and followed to varying degrees. The plot progresses from their first meeting through their growing attraction to their hasty but willing marriage to dramatic events after their abbreviated honeymoon. Class, gender, and political issues all jostle for attention alongside the personal stories.

I understand that this is the first of three novels in a series and was preceded by a novella, but I had no trouble starting with this installment. I realize that I missed aspects of the backstory for several of the characters, but I think the book stands alone quite well, and I’m not sure knowing more about Robert’s youth would have changed my attitude toward him.

My favorite parts of the book are the interactions between Minnie and Robert. Their first meeting sets the stage, where they are both irresistibly drawn to each other and fencing for position. These kinds of relationships often don’t work for me because the bickering feels as if it’s taking over. But here, in Milan’s hands, the disagreements and sparring feel balanced and substantive, a product of two people who see the world differently even as they realize how much they want to go through it together. Minnie’s character was an interesting, complex blend. I didn’t really understand why the critical event in her life shaped her so thoroughly (especially for someone living in that era), but I accepted that it had that consequence for her. And even when Minnie was at her most terrified, she wasn’t completely beaten down, and she still retained her intelligence and her determination.

I’ve found Milan’s writing style prosaic and almost flat in other works, but her prose here is warmer and more lyrical:

“Minnie,” he said slowly. “After today’s tiring journey, I thought we might—”

She undid the tie of her robe and let it fall to the ground, and the remainder of his sentence dried up.

“You thought we might?” she inquired, smiling at him.

God, that voice. God, that body. She was wearing a gown of sheer white fabric, embroidered in white scrollwork that twined suggestively from her hips to her breasts. Which were unbound. All too visible through the fabric.

The fabric was sheer enough to show the form of her breasts. It molded to the peaks of her nipples. Dreams and fevered imaginings paled before reality. A dream conjured up a perfect half-moon of a breast, but it missed the light smattering of freckles. He might imagine smooth, pale skin. This close, he could see that her skin was pebbled with cold. And it was a smattering of colors—a light overlay of pink, where her blood pounded beneath the skin, hints of tan and white. He could even make out a pale white line along one rib that could have been a scar.

The writing is great, the heroine is unusual and interesting, the romance is yummy. The sex scenes break the mold without losing their sensuality and power (lovers of awkward first-time sex that then turns seriously hot, this is the book for you).

If only the hero had worked for me.

Robert Blaisdell is introduced in the first sentence of the novel as the 9th Duke of Clairmont. That means that eight dukes have preceded him, and the last, his father, was a truly horrible person. (The 8th Duke was a key player in The Governess Affair, which I have not read.) But Robert’s father is the only one of his predecessors who appears to have had any effect on him whatsoever, and what an effect it is. Robert hates being a duke, feels isolated and unloved, and wants to empower the working class. He is scarred from his years of parental neglect and believes he is unworthy of love. Reassuring Robert of his worth and good qualities is an ongoing task for those around him.

I would have found Robert a more convincing character if he had been consistent about his attitudes, but there are just too many contradictions. (I call him Robert rather than Clermont or His Grace because that’s what he is called by everyone who knows him). I can accept that for a given individual, being neglected by one parent and watching another’s abuse could be traumatizing well into adulthood, but I would have appreciated some recognition that absent and neglectful parents were not unusual among the aristocratic English of the 19th century. Especially since Robert was sent to Eton, where he could reasonably have met quite a few other boys who were growing up in similar conditions.

Along the same lines, there is a scene early in the book where Robert and his estranged mother argue over whom he should marry. Robert seems to reject the idea that a socially appropriate marriage is part of his ducal responsibilities:

The last time they had talked had been two months ago. He had, in fact, agreed when she’d said that as a man approached his thirties, he ought to consider marrying. It had seemed an innocuous enough statement at the time. It had been talk that was not just small, but miniscule.

“You agreed to do your duty,” she said calmly.

“I said I would marry,” he said carefully. “I don’t believe I spoke a word about duty.”

Robert may be taking a contrary stand to irk his mother, but no point in the novel do we ever see Robert thinking about his presumably vast estates and dependents, for whom he has a responsibility, and, yes, a duty.

Robert’s hatred of the peerage and his chafing at his own privilege was under-motivated and annoying. If we accept that as part of his personality, the next logical question for me is, what did he do to lessen that privilege gap? We see him doing only one thing: distributing handbills to encourage worker action. But Robert is a duke, for heaven’s sake. There are any number of things someone with his power and resources could do. He could create a model factory (rather than just anonymously providing annuities to workers his father exploited). He could join forces with other radicals organizing for worker rights. He could seek out sympathetic colleagues in Parliament.

Robert complains that Parliament moves too slowly. But this was the era of great political transformation and democratization. The Whig party broke up and was succeeded by the more reform-minded Liberal party. The book is set five short years before the passage of the Second Reform Act, which extended the franchise to most urban male workers. This didn’t happen in a vacuum or all of a sudden; it was the result of many decades of social pressure and political conflict. Real political actors were engaged in robust and interesting debates over issues of worker rights and democratization of politics. In The Duchess War, I am never even told with which political party this committed radical hero is allied.

And finally, there is Robert’s inconsistent attitude toward his privilege and power. Robert is endlessly guilt-ridden about his ducal privileges, but he doesn’t hesitate to use them when they serve his purpose or help those he cares about. He distributes handbills because he thinks they are the correct strategy (he is apparently ignorant of the existence of trade union organizations, never mind Robert Owen). He knows he will not be prosecuted, but he doesn’t spend much energy thinking about the potential negative consequences for the workers. Minnie’s marriage to him negates the scandal in her past precisely because of his aristocratic stature and power, and he unhesitatingly wields that benefit of privilege. Robert’s guilt comes and goes, depending on the circumstance.

What is most frustrating to me about Robert’s characterization and the historical aspects of the novel are that the real world of Leicester and this particular period of Victorian social and political change were lively and fascinating. Had the character been more firmly grounded in the details of the era I would have found him both more admirable and more complex. We don’t have to wonder about what aristocrats were like in 1863; we know what many of them were doing. And some of them were sitting in Parliament and pushing for reforms that Robert would have approved.

This is a difficult book for me to grade. The historical context and the liberties taken with the period reduce rather than enhance the effectiveness of the story. But The Duchess War succeeds for me as a romance, and I can see why so many readers have found it satisfying. Grade: B-

~ Sunita

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