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REVIEW:  The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

The Countess Conspiracy (Brothers Sinister #3) by Courtney Milan

Dear Courtney Milan:

It’s not often I find a book, of any genre, that makes me want to cheer – let alone a book in the wonderful, yet somewhat repetitive Regency / Regency-feel romance field.  The character choices and plots tend to be a little limited.  Rakish bad boy meets wallflower / slightly off-beat heroine, throw in one or both of them fleeing from marriage or commitment, add in a dash of interfering families and /or wacky hijinks, and you have a recipe for the normal Regency happily ever after.  I about cried with happiness when I realized that you’d taken that formula, tossed it in the wastebasket, and merrily went on your own way, doing whatever you pleased.  And it worked.  I never thought I’d say this – but it really, honestly, worked.

In this, the third book of the Brothers Sinister series, we find Violet Waterfield, widow and Countess of Cambury daughter of scandal, living in Victorian England (not to be confused with Regency England).  Between a father who committed the unpardonable sin of taking his own life, and a mother who scandalized everyone by penning a work on a lady’s proper behavior (the unspoken rules as well as those everyone knows), not to mention a sister who, by her own admission, gets pregnant every time her husband sneezes in her direction (she’s at 11 children and counting), Violet doesn’t quite stand a chance at a normal life.  Especially given her radical views on marriage and propensity toward scientific endeavors – endeavors she has to hide from everyone, save her best friend, confidante and conspirator, Sebastian Malheur, a simple mister.  While Violet is the brains behind the experiments, Sebastian is the presenter and the public face of the scientific genius – not to mention a man who has known her his entire life, and loved her for most of it.

As familial alliances change and the society around the protagonists undergoes a transformation, so, too, do Violet and Sebastian change.  One of the things I absolutely loved about the book was the chance to watch the characters change and grow.  Despite feeling a touch repetitive in places (how many times can Violet lament her marriage and her husband’s untimely death), it was an absolute joy to watch these two people slowly mature, to see their relationship evolve.  Of course we all know what’s going to happen, given that this IS a romance, after all.  But the romantic bent isn’t overwhelming at all – it’s a subtle spice added to a tale of women’s suffrage and the growing equality movement.

There are some truly beautiful moments peppered throughout the novel.  I particularly like the denouement of the relationship between Violet and her rather intimidating mother.  My husband actually asked me just why I was doing a happy chair dance.  For me, it was completely and utterly satisfying, rather like a gooey caramel sundae topped with real whipped cream and two cherries.  Another absolutely lovely piece of the book is the easy, comfortable interplay between Sebastian and Violet.  It’s very rare that a relationship simply flows over the obstacles in its path rather than pushing through and over them.  Sebastian’s reputation as a rake ensures an utter lack of respect from his dying older brother, while Violet’s prickly, eccentric ways mean she’s usually left to her own devices.  I expected a bit more of the typical angsty awkwardness, but there was none to be found.  All I could see was a very believable, sweet and sensual relationship that flew in the face of expectation – both societal within the story and reader, on the outside.

Now that I’ve burbled happily about the things I enjoyed with the book, let me move on to the slightly less than perfect bits.  My only major complaint with the book was how long it felt.  At 250 pages, it’s considered rather “normal.”  There were times when it felt as though you were going back over the same ground to ensure that I, as a reader, understood that yes, Violet is apparently broken.  Yes, Sebastian has a bad relationship with his brother that’s colored every aspect of his life.  No, life in England during that time period was not kind toward the poor, dogs and women.  I was surprised to find that this is the third book in a series – it stands on its own quite well.  Though I wouldn’t have minded just a hint more history, a few more details about some of the other characters who made themselves known.

For the first time in a very long history of reading historical romances, I’ve found one that’s not only an entertaining read, but somewhat powerful in the presentation of strong, vulnerable, realistic characters presented in believable relationships.  Thank you so much for sharing this world with us – I can’t wait to get my hands on your back list!  A-

Mary Kate

As a reader who’s old enough to know better and young enough to not care, I’ve breezed through the gamut of everything books have to offer.  As a child, I used to spend summer days happily ensconced in one of the Philadelphia public libraries, reading everything and anything I could get my hands on, thanks to the love and support of my parents and aunts – teachers, mothers and/or librarians all.  One aunt started me with Nancy Drew books (whose pages are worn from hundreds of re-reads) while another thought I needed introduced to C.S. Lewis’s land of Narnia.  By the time I was 8, I’d read everything the library’s children’s section had to offer and had “graduated” to the adult room downstairs.  Fortunately for my very supportive parents’ sanity, I didn’t discover romances until college.  My days are currently spent working in law enforcement (dispatchers unite!), working with first responders, and trying to dig my writer/editor/reviewer husband out from his latest pile of books.  I’m a devoted fan of all manner of romance (though I prefer my romance to have a hint of laughter and self-awareness), mysteries, and urban fantasy.

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REVIEW:  The Gentleman’s Madness by Bonnie Dee,Summer Devon

REVIEW: The Gentleman’s Madness by Bonnie Dee,Summer Devon

madnessDear Ms. Dee and Ms. Devon:

An m/m romance between an attendant and an inmate in a Victorian insane asylum… I think I know why this was published after Christmas. It was actually less dark and considerably less dense than I feared it would be, which made it a more accessible read, but also let me down a bit in the end.

He’s been through electric shock therapy, water dunks, an attempted rape for which he was blamed, and the loss of his clothes and writing implements, but fate still holds something worse in store for former professor John Gilliam. When an old friend turns up as part of a visiting group to observe the deviant “Mr. G,” and refuses to acknowledge him, John loses his last remaining shreds of personal dignity. “If he hadn’t been mad before, he had become so; he had nothing left. They had taken his pens, and now they stripped him of his past.” The distraught John is carefully subdued by a hugely strong yet gentle attendant, who promises to try and get his clothes and writing materials back.

Sam Tully is generally kind and sympathetic to the inmates he cares for, but he’s especially sorry for John. “A single glance could tell you the man had tumbled a great distance, down, down, down. All that learning, all that money, and yet here he lay on the floor of of the asylum in one of the padded rooms where they put the most dangerous and damaged patients.” Although he’s wary of being around the homosexual patients — “too close to home” — pity leads Tully to offer to supervise John on his own time, while he uses the oh so dangerous paper and pencil, and John’s gratitude touches him deeply. He knows that getting close to a patient is wrong and dangerous, but he can’t bear to let John down.

As John and Tully become friends, and a powerful attraction grows between them, Tully begins to lose faith in the asylum’s treatment methods. And when their burgeoning sexual relationships puts them in peril, he may be John’s only chance for freedom.

The asylum setting is central to this romance. Gay men in most historical contexts have a huge strike against them to begin with, and John and Sam are also separated by vast class differences. The asylum weirdly equalizes them in a sense, giving them a chance to get to know one another and explore the special gifts each can offer their relationship. The fact that the working class Tully has a lot of power over John in this situation is turned around very neatly, because he’s so worried about taking advantage that he actually helps John recover: “I am not often able to say yes or no in this place and you have given me back that ability. You have given me choice again, Sam Tully.” Their shared experiences also contribute to an unexpectedly strong and believable happy ending.

The setting is also disturbing as hell. What happens to John demonstrates how difficult it is to prove your sanity in a place designed to completely disrupt your sense of self; John can’t even masturbate in peace, because the attendants will check. And this isn’t even one of the worst of the asylums — its head doctor is more misguided and greedy than outright evil. Initially I appreciated that narrative restraint, but I wound up feeling that the book might have been stronger if it had just gone straight for the Gothic jugular. The suspenseful elements in the later part of the story, which should have been utterly terrifying considering John’s captivity, never built up as much tension as I wanted.

I think this will have the most appeal for readers who enjoy seeing opposites attract; the distinct character voices are well drawn, and of course there are strong contrasts between the slender, intellectual John and the huge, calloused laborer Sam. The sex scenes are on the milder side, which feels very appropriate for a shorter novel — the focus stays on the characters and the setting — and the romance comes to full bloom very gently and sweetly at the end. B



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