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REVIEW:  The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

Dear Ms. Milan,

I’ve enjoyed catching up with your Brothers Sinister series this year despite a persistent reading slump. For this reason, I preordered the newest book in the series, The Heiress Effect, about a month ago. When it popped up on my kindle, I started reading.

The Heiress Effect by Courtney MilanMiss Jane Fairfield has a problem. Or rather, a hundred thousand and four hundred and eighty problems. To repel prospective suitors for the four hundred and eighty days it will take for her younger half sister Emily to reach her majority is no small task, given Jane’s large fortune, which numbers one hundred thousand pounds.

Jane herself is of age, but until her sister reaches her majority, Emily will remain in the dubious care of their guardian, Titus Fairfield, a man who has had Emily subjected to burns and near-drowning, all in the name of “curing” Emily’s seizures. Though Emily’s condition is hardly incapacitating, Titus treats her as a fragile flower in need of sheltering, and does not allow her to leave the house.

It falls to Jane—illegitimate but an heiress thanks to the fortune her biological father left her—to protect her legitimate sibling from Titus’s ministrations. So Jane remains under Titus’ roof and bribes doctors and quacks. She dresses outrageously and acts clueless while insulting any man who might otherwise have wanted to marry her. And she counts. She counts the days until Emily is free.

One day, the Johnson twins, so-called friends of Jane’s who whisper about her behind her back, mention that the gathering at the Marquess of Bradenton’s home to which Jane has been invited will include new guest, Oliver Marshall. Oliver is the illegitimate but acknowledged brother of a duke, and Jane fears he will pursue her for her fortune, so when they meet, she works extra hard at putting him off.

Little does she realize that she is the last woman Oliver would want to marry. Oliver has money that his brother settled on him, but what he really craves is power. Political power. For that he needs a less obtrusive wife, someone who would be viewed as a credit to him and would help people forget that he is illegitimate. This is not something Jane could do.

Oliver’s first impression of Jane is that she is socially completely inept, but well-meaning. When some of the men whom she has insulted as part of her act mock her, Oliver refuses to participate, or to hurt her in any way. He knows too well what it feels like to be an outsider.

But then he receives an offer. The Marquess of Bradenton, a power broker who was gravely humiliated by Jane, asks Oliver to engineer her downfall. In return, Bradenton promises to deliver nine votes, from himself and his friends in the House of Lords, in favor of voting reform, an issue near to Oliver’s heart.

Not only that, but if Oliver does so, Bradenton will also let him be the one who gets the credit for swaying Bradenton’s friends. This will lift Oliver’s political star high enough to eventually net him a seat in Parliament.

Oliver gets a sick feeling in his stomach at Bradenton’s suggestion, because while he would like to refuse, he can’t quite bring himself to do so. His conflict grows when he realizes that Jane’s act is just that—an intentional deception.

Oliver gets to know Jane, and she begins to trust him. When Oliver warns her against doing so, she decides not to listen. Oliver makes her feel less alone, and while Jane may be the “impossible girl” in Oliver’s eyes, he is equally drawn to her.

In addition to Oliver and Jane’s storyline, there are two subplots in the book. One is about Jane’s sister Emily, who sneaks out of the house against her oppressive guardian’s edict, and meets and falls in love with an Indian law student, Anjan Bhattacharya. The other has to do with Oliver’s younger sister Free, and her namesake, his agoraphobic aunt Freddy.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Heiress Effect but before I get into the reasons why, I wanted to mention the stumbling blocks I encountered. Most of these were relatively minor, hopped over easily, but there were several of them.

You have a way of crafting strong and original conflicts. Your plots put the hero and heroine at cross-purposes in unexpected ways, and that is one of the reasons I so appreciate your books. That was the case with this book as well as with the other works in this series.

Perhaps because I am familiar with your other works and you consistently write good guy heroes, though, I didn’t believe that Oliver would actually harm Jane in his quest for the votes Bradenton could deliver. I think the conflict would have felt even stronger if I had.

At the same time, I did believe in Oliver’s desire to fit in, and in the ways this hurt his relationship with Jane. But for this reason, I wanted a bigger grand gesture, sacrifice, or other balancing of the scales by Oliver at the end of the book. This is a redemption story, and the redemptive arc needed to be stronger.

The Emily/Anjan and Free/Freddy subplots were amazing and I loved them, but I felt that the main Oliver/Jane storyline lost a little momentum because of the subplot development. To a degree, the subplots felt more emotionally impactful than the main storyline, but I liked the main storyline a great deal too.

Politics was somewhat idealized by the resolution of the story. The Heiress Effect began with Oliver having to choose between harming one person—Jane—and sacrificing the greater good (a win for democracy by expanding voting rights). But politics is a profession in which you have to be prepared to sacrifice individuals for the greater good, for example sending soldiers to die in wars. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, you may find yourself unable to stomach your profession. There’s no simple solution to this problem, so I wasn’t completely satisfied with the book’s conclusion on that front.

I also felt that the novel tried to dodge a bit of a bullet with Anjan’s character. I loved him and I really felt for him because of the way he had to hide some of who he was to be accepted in England. In this he had something in common with Oliver, but the novel never told us whether he gained the same freedom to be himself at the end that other characters find.

In discussing the book’s premise with Sunita, who has not read it, I learned that Anjan’s last name indicates that he belongs to a high caste (Brahmin). It is very unlikely that someone in his position would have married an English woman, especially in 1867, although it is possible. It is even less likely that such a marriage would have won approval from Anjan’s mother.

On a different topic, while the “to thine own self be true” theme is one of my favorite themes in literature, I feel the worthwhile message of The Heiress Effect is driven home a little more strongly than I prefer, with the result being that the novel feels a bit didactic.

To one degree or another, I’ve had this issue with every Milan book or novella I have read, and I’m not sure to whether it is because the strength of the messages can get in the way of the romanticism of the narrative, or whether it’s that the messages stand out more because they are feminist and progressive, which I like, but which isn’t typical of the genre. I suspect it’s some of both.

Now onto the things I enjoyed in this novel. There were quite a few of them, too.

The ultimate conflict was not about whether Oliver would sacrifice Jane for votes, but rather about whether he would sacrifice himself—his personal happiness with Jane—in favor of marrying a wife more “suitable” for a politician’s public image.

I loved the way Jane, who wore bold clothing and made bold choices, was contrasted with Oliver, who tried so hard to fit in that he stifled who he was. I loved this conflict and especially the role reversal. [spoiler]While the story began with Oliver giving Jane courage, it ended with Oliver taking courage from Jane.[/spoiler]

I thought Jane was a truly heroic figure, and I loved her. She was true to herself and that can take a lot of strength. Oliver was less heroic, but I still liked him. I thought it was a nice bonus that neither of the protagonists was an aristocrat, that both were outsiders, and that two who were once scorned as “illegitimate” found their happiness together.

The sex was sexy and felt necessary to the story. I loved that there wasn’t any extra sex shoehorned in just to make the book more steamy. Instead we got exactly what served the story best.

Similarly, I was glad that though we got to visit with Robert and Minnie, Hugo and Serena, these scenes served Oliver’s growth and didn’t feel like prequel bait (I was a little less keen on Sebastian and Viola’s later scenes – those didn’t feel quite as organic).

One of the things I appreciated most was that The Heiress Effect included a world of characters: family members, friends, and colleagues of the main characters. It’s rare to see such a richly textured tapestry of a novel in this genre and I think the secondary characters contributed to that effect.

Among those side characters were two human and believable villains. Titus, Jane and Emily’s uncle, wasn’t purely evil. He believed he was doing the right thing by keeping Emily confined and allowing doctors to experiment on her in order to “cure” her.

The Marquess of Bradenton was even more believable and more compelling. He relied on his privilege to bring others into line and tried to use it to control Oliver. Bradenton truly believed himself superior to Oliver due to his birth, and putting upstarts like Oliver and Jane in their place was something he saw as natural, part of the social order.

It was such a nice twist that just as the hero wasn’t an aristocrat, his antagonist was one. Romances so often romanticize the upper classes that it feels refreshing and authentic to me to see an example of how power and privilege can corrupt and blind.

Anjan and Emily’s storyline had a subtle star-crossed lovers feel that was deeply romantic. I wondered how they would overcome Emily’s uncle, and the solution to the problem proved delightful.

Anjan was a wonderful character, chafing at bigotry and oppression but aware that rebelling could be costly to him. He was respectful of Emily, and caring and supportive once he learned the truth of her circumstances.

Emily was lovely, and in a way, she too was oppressed—in her case by her uncle’s view of her medical condition. What I loved about Emily was that she did not accept her uncle’s view of her, and she found a way to chart her own destiny. It was great to see a disabled secondary heroine portrayed as competent and capable.

Oliver’s aptly named sixteen year old sister, Free (short for Frederica), was another terrific character. I loved her ambition and her inner strength, which was made up of part idealism and part determination. I am now looking forward to The Mistress Rebellion, the upcoming book that will feature her as a main character.

Finally, what can I say about Oliver’s agoraphobic aunt Freddy? This was the character who annoyed me in The Governess Affair with her constant disapproval of Serena, but in this book I discovered a lot more compassion for her than I’d had previously. She won my affection and respect, and she broke my heart.

While not perfect, The Heiress Effect was a very enjoyable book and a moving one, too. Even with the issues I’ve listed, it is still one of the best 2013 books I’ve read. My grade for it is a B+.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  Suicide Watch by Kelley York

REVIEW: Suicide Watch by Kelley York

Dear Ms. York,

I picked up your book because I saw a Tweet about its release that indicated a book that could fit into the NA category while containing an LGBTQ protagonist and/or romance within the story.  Your debut novel, Hushed, also contained these qualities – I haven’t read it, but aim to after Suicide Watch.  This book was impressive and completely different from other NA books that I’ve read recently.  Its characters are no rock stars or introverted college students getting introduced to The Wonder of Good Sexytimes.  They are damaged individuals that are on the cusp of legal adulthood, if not already there, that struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts.  Suicide Watch is what I’ve wanted to see in NA since it began.

Suicide Watch by Kelley YorkEighteen and ready to leave high school for good, Vincent Hazelwood is one more guy screwed over by a life in foster care.  Caring about grades and a social life seems pretty pointless when you’re used to being juggled from one house to another.  Eccentric Maggie Atkins is the best thing to happen to Vincent; she has actually given him a home to love and a chance to finish high school and do something for himself.  Vincent hasn’t known a lot of love in his life, but Maggie is a wonderful exception.

Her death, caused by a sudden heart attack, sends him into a spiral.  He only has a little bit of time to find an apartment.  She leaves him all of her assets so that he can make a life for himself and hopefully pay for some kind of college education.  Maggie’s death gives Vince the chance to see just how much Maggie cared for him, yet he’s paralyzed by her absence.  No matter how much she loved him while she was alive, it seems like she was preparing to die without telling him.  Now, Vince is alone, and he can’t cope with it.

Around this time, Vincent comes across a website dedicated to those fascinated by the act of suicide.  The website includes an active forum filled with members of all types and a section where people have actually submitted pictures of live feeds that ran during the suicide attempts.  It’s morbid, yet Vincent finds a certain amicability in conversing with people that understand where he’s at emotionally.  He is unsure of suicide; he is sure about having the desire to do it in his current state of affairs.

Vincent soon makes friends on the website: Casper, a girl suffering from cancer that is tired of getting endless treatments without a moment of health in sight, and a boy that sends lyrics to his favorite songs as a way of communication.  Vincent was long abandoned by his few close friends, so Casper’s presence in particular is a welcome respite from his lonely thoughts.  They even dare to meet in real life, bringing their friendship to a dangerous level of reality.  Casper even introduces Vincent to Adam, the boy of the song lyric messages that is surprisingly cute and painfully shy.  The three misfits become friends as Vincent starts to become independent, moving into an apartment and finding a small bit of life outside of his depression.  Each of the teens finds that depression and suicidal tendencies still rear their ugly heads in every which way.  Loving each other may not be enough to help get them through, especially if they are truly done with their lives.

This book reminds me of a snippet of lyrics from a Panic! at the Disco song that uses the phrase “beautifully depressing”.  That is Suicide Watch.  It isn’t a romance in the traditional sense; there is no focal point of Adam and Vincent finding love and an appreciation for an adult sexual relationship.  Well, there is, but it’s not the main point of this book at all.  This book is more about friendship and dealing with the complexities of having depression and being suicidal, and I’m okay with that.  If anything, I think that NA needs to focus on these things more because they are a big part of life in any context.  Suicide Watch just addresses it in a way that is not preachy or focused on the message – it addresses it as something that can occur gradually, in a variety of environments, as something that can be a universal experience.

Vincent’s narration spoke to me because it is simple but, at the same time, exceptionally detailed.  It focuses on the events that go on in his life without a boatload of introspective bullshit; he doesn’t spend hours upon hours detailing his depression and suicidal thoughts like they are the only thing going on in his mind, like this book is just one giant homage to just-graduated teens that get overwhelmed by life’s sadder moments.  Vincent feels alone, and it’s easy to see how that feeling is created after Maggie dies and he is confronted with living by himself.  His former best friend doesn’t have the time to talk with him.  Maggie’s lawyer tries to act like a caretaker but comes across as being yet another adult that’s trying too hard while bringing news that leaves Vincent anything but confident and collected.  Finding Caspar and Adam is a huge, bright moment in Vincent’s life, and it starts a character arc that is subtle and beautifully expressed as he comes out of his shell piece by piece.  Vincent learns to live life again as the people around him contemplate dying.

This character arc is why I loved Vincent as a narrator and a main character.  He’s sensitive, articulate, concise, but manages to weave a lot of subtext into what he says.  I could tell he suffered from depression without being told.  He represented something that I had seen and experienced a lot: a person silently dealing with their depression.  Teenagers are so often silent about it that it would make sense to turn to the internet and to avoid discussing it even with peers who understand it.  There’s so much more to it than angsty writings, self-harm, and botched suicide attempts.  It’s never quite so obvious as the more message-y books make it out to be.

Oddly enough, your other characters feel just as real as Vincent.  It’s rare – in YA, NA, or category-length romance novels – to have a feeling that every character is well-rounded.  Caspar was probably the most beautiful characters that I’ve read about in ages.  She’s visceral, aggressive, and intense about living her life until she’s ready to end it.  She doesn’t use her cancer as a crutch for her emotions, just as an explanation for how she got to her current emotional state.  There’s  a barrier between her and her friends, yet the reader still gets to know her well.  Readers going in expecting a Lurlene McDaniel-like twist of total-tragic-death will be surprised at how the arc is handled.  It’s not particularly pleasant, but it’s also not the usual way of doing things.  You don’t pull punches with Caspar’s character; I appreciated that even when I was utterly shocked at what happened.

There’s something to be said for Adam, too, and what both he and Caspar represent.  As much as Vincent’s experiences are used as a reference point for his emotional loneliness and dependency, Adam and Caspar both come from more privileged backgrounds and still manage to be depressed.  There isn’t a class divide or a sense of one character’s issues being more important.  They all mutually discuss their emotions as a singular type of emotion rather than grade them based on personal tragedy.  Adam’s mother is awful and emotionally removed from him while Caspar’s parents are extremely loving.  That level of removal is what drive’s Adam’s depression.  What I also love is that both Adam and Vincent are LGBTQ without stressing that as a point of depression.  LGBTQ teens do struggle with it more than most, yet it’s never something boldly connected as a cause.  Both teenagers are comfortable in their sexuality to a fair degree.  In Adam’s case, it’s the way his sexuality is perceived by his mother that gives him some problems.

How do I convince people to read this book when it’s so sad?  Sure, it’s real, but readers like me that normally enjoy romances with clear endings may find the undercurrent of tragedy in this book too depressing.  I think that this book’s inherent beauty is the reason to check it out, more so than the LGBTQ characters or the unusual plot for an NA novel.  The writing drives to the heart of the matter in a way that is unfailingly honest.  Adam and Vincent grow to love each other without pomp and circumstance and create a romance that the reader believes in; the three characters have individual struggles with the same general emotional problem, never once feeling like author-controlled messages; the book moves along at a pace that is perfect and quick.  My only real issue with the novel from a writing perspective was the way that the subplot with the website admin faded in and out without much direct connectivity to the rest of the story.  It wasn’t silly or perfectly tied up, but I think it would have helped to make the motif of periodic emails and posts from the admin a bit stronger throughout the narrative.

Suicide Watch is just a gem.  It’s a quick read that packs a bigger emotional punch than I would have ever anticipated.  I can’t recall the last time that a book about so many dark issues has truly captured my every emotional facet.  Vincent’s a great narrator, and the strong focus on friendship and mutual understanding of suicide is unlike anything I’ve read in New Adult.  I wish that every issue book tackled things with this much honesty and understanding.  The only downside is that this book is very sad in its beauty.  Even when it’s hopeful, the reader is reminded of the events that allowed that hope to grow.  This book was beautiful; it made me cry.  A

All my best,

John