Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Two Minute Reviews: The Suffragette Scandal and Talk Sweetly To Me by Courtney Milan

Title: The Suffragette Scandal
Author: Courtney Milan
Genre: romance, historical fiction
Series: The Brothers Sinister #4
Pages: 281
Published: July 15, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5 out of 5

An idealistic suffragette...

Miss Frederica "Free" Marshall has put her heart and soul into her newspaper, known for its outspoken support of women's rights. Naturally, her enemies are intent on destroying her business and silencing her for good. Free refuses to be at the end of her rope...but she needs more rope, and she needs it now.

...a jaded scoundrel...

Edward Clark's aristocratic family abandoned him to die in a war-torn land, so he survived the only way he could: by becoming a rogue and a first-class forger. When the same family that left him for dead vows to ruin Miss Marshall, he offers his help. So what if he has to lie to her? She's only a pawn to use in his revenge.

...and a scandal seven years in the making.

But the irrepressible Miss Marshall soon enchants Edward. By the time he realizes that his cynical heart is hers, it's too late. The only way to thwart her enemies is to reveal his scandalous past...and once the woman he loves realizes how much he's lied to her, he'll lose her forever.

Reviewed by Danielle

"A paper written by women, for women, and about women obviously NEEDS a man to speak on its behalf. If it is a joke for men to speak on behalf of women, then our country, our laws, and our customs must all be jokes, too."

I see what you’re doing with this book, Courtney, and I approve.

The Brothers Sinister series has played a lot with what a romance heroine is. She's a survivor, a prodigy, an individual, a scientist, a feminist. She's more than a love interest. She's a fully realized character. These tenets have come to a raging boil with Free, out titular suffragette. Through her character, Ms. Milan has a lot to say on women's rights in Victorian England and their parallels to modern struggles. It's not your typical bodice ripping fare, and that's why it's so special.

I adore that Free’s able to be open and sexual and throw Edward off his game. Their relationship felt wholly unique. I loved both characters individually and together. At first, their romance is overshadowed by the plot against Free, but as the book progresses and both characters soften, there’s a really interesting part where they’re separated and writing letters, (including Edward’s infamous puppy letter that melted me into goo,) that tied back into Free’s parent’s romance from the prequel novella. It’s a little thing that I didn’t connect initially, but it fleshed out the world and reminded me how much I’m going to miss these characters.

It’s not a perfect book. The villain’s motivations felt thin and I don’t think a lord can just decide he doesn’t want to pay attention to his tenants anymore. Still, this is also the book that gives us TWO beta romances featuring queer characters. That’s something I’ll forgive a lot for. It’s smart, well written, and sexy. I know there’s a coda to the series still coming, but with the epilogue, I’m happy to bid the Brothers Sinister farewell.

Title: Talk Sweetly to Me
Author: Courtney Milan
Genre: romance, historical fiction
Series: The Brothers Sinister #4.5
Pages: 109
Published: August 19, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Nobody knows who Miss Rose Sweetly is, and she prefers it that way. She's a shy, mathematically-minded shopkeeper's daughter who dreams of the stars. Women like her only ever come to attention through scandal. She'll take obscurity, thank you very much.
All of England knows who Stephen Shaughnessy is. He's an infamous advice columnist and a known rake. When he moves into the house next door to Rose, she discovers that he's also wickedly funny, devilishly flirtatious, and heart-stoppingly handsome. But when he takes an interest in her mathematical work, she realizes that Mr. Shaughnessy isn't just a scandal waiting to happen. He's waiting to happen to her...and if she's not careful, she'll give in to certain ruination.

The heroine is a mathematical savant and the hero makes dad jokes. They fall in love watching astronomical anomalies. And it's an interracial love story that deals with race in a sensitive manner without uttering one food based adjective. I couldn't love this book any more if it came to life and brought me wine.

I wonder if Ms. Milan is deliberately writing stories that Harlequin would never dare publish, or if she left Harlequin because they wouldn't dare on her stories. Chicken and egg. I waxed rhapsodic about what makes the Brother’s Sinister heroines so special in my last review, so I won’t repeat myself. Rose is as strong as Serena, as smart as Violet, and as self-assured as Free, but with a wonderful vulnerability that the more socially-secure heroines don’t have.

Her partner is Stephen Shaughnessy, first introduced in the Suffragette Scandal as the outrageous male feminist who wrote the delightful “Actual Man” columns. He’s a bit older now, and is writing novels in addition to his columns, but he’s the same cheeky scamp. No wonder he has a roguish reputation, he’s the kind of character I go gaga for.

The story works fantastically well as a novella. There’s a good balance of gooey happy stuff and “we come from different worlds” tension that never drags with unnecessary miscommunication or contrived separations. If I had one quibble, I wish the book was “sweet”, (see what I did there?) because the one sex scene didn’t flow as well as the rest of the story.

My fangirling level has reached critical maximum. If I can’t convince you to read this book where the hero both says, “But beware - if I have to drawn another diagram, thing may become graphic” and, “You look at the sky and see not pretty lights, but a cosmos to be discovered,” and both of those are absolutely perfect in the context of their conversations, I don’t know what else to say. Buy, devour, love the Brothers Sinister.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Review: Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper

Title: Salt & Storm
Author: Kendall Kulper
Genre: fantasy, historical fiction
Series: None
Pages: 416
Published: Expected September 23, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 2 out of 5

A sweeping historical romance about a witch who foresees her own murder--and the one boy who can help change her future.
Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants only to take her rightful place as the witch of Prince Island, making the charms that keep the island's whalers safe at sea, but her mother has forced her into a magic-free world of proper manners and respectability. When Avery dreams she's to be murdered, she knows time is running out to unlock her magic and save herself.
Avery finds an unexpected ally in a tattooed harpoon boy named Tane--a sailor with magic of his own, who moves Avery in ways she never expected. Becoming a witch might stop her murder and save her island from ruin, but Avery discovers her magic requires a sacrifice she never prepared for.

Reviewed by Danielle

Salt & Storm is a creative debut with a great blurb and a top notch cover. Which is what makes my initial review:

My face is the personification of the :\ emoticon.

all the more disappointing. It’s not that Salt & Storm is a bad book. I applaud the author for trying something new with the standard supernatural love story and for creating a magic system with real consequences. But unfortunately none of that makes up for some very serious problems.

Avery is not a likable or relatable character. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I got the sense that the book thought she was. Despite the fact that she’s selfish and rude and has no interests or thoughts outside of escaping back to the witch’s cabin, she’s immediately adored by the love interest, rooted for by the townspeople, and captures the mind of a mysterious smuggler. The argument could be made that the townspeople never cared for her, only her status as the witch, but even so I felt like the book never saw Avery as badly as I did. Especially the way she treated Tane.

We need diversity in young adult literature, so I was absolutely thrilled to meet Tane, a Pacific Islander who is out for revenge when his made-up fantasy tribe was slaughtered while he was learning to be a whaler. While there are problematic elements to that backstory, it was when I learned that Tane’s magic comes from his traditionally carved tattoos that I became really upset. Without going too deep into history, what Captain Cook and his missionaries did to the Pacific Islands and their culture, including tattoos, is despicable. To take a lost art, especially in a time when people like the Māori are still struggling for basic rights in their home islands, and use it as a cheap and lazy backdrop for “strange” magic is not right. (Funny how all the “strange” magic in this book seems to belong to people of color.) Inking up your white girlfriend with no spiritualism or ritualism behind it, for the sake of magic, is doubly so.

Beyond that, I had a lot of pacing issues. For a book that constantly drills urgency following Avery’s dream, I felt like too much of the plot was stagnant. There’s also a lot of introspection following the climax and I wasn’t in love with how it was presented. I absolutely hated the final part, where characters reveal brand new motivations and apparently cheat death through the power of familial bonding. For such an angry book, it was schmaltzy.

I wanted so much better from Salt and Storm. The climax is ballsy, but the end didn’t follow through. The love interest is a person of color, but used in a lazy way. There’s interesting ideas explored in the magic system, but they could have played a larger role in the story. The only thing I really loved was the way the time period came alive. There’s some beautiful prose, especially when describing the whaling lifestyle. It’s obvious the author is talented and passionate, it just didn’t all come together this time around.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review: An American Duchess by Sharon Page

Title: An American Duchess
Author: Sharon Page
Genre: historical fiction, romance
Series: none
Pages: 384
Published: Expected September 30, 2014
Source: publisher via Netgalley
Rating: 3 out of 5

Set on a crumbling English manor estate during the height of the Roaring Twenties, an American duchess must decide how much she's willing to risk for the life she truly desires…
It's 1922, and New York heiress Zoe Gifford longs for the freedoms promised by the Jazz Age. Headstrong and brazen, but bound by her father's will to marry before she can access his fortune, Zoe arranges for a brief marriage to Sebastian Hazelton, whose aristocratic British family sorely needs a benefactor.

Once in England, her foolproof plan to wed, inherit and divorce proves more complicated than Zoe had anticipated. Nigel Hazelton, Duke of Langford and Sebastian's older brother, is as austere and imposing as the family's ancestral estate. Still reeling from the Great War, Nigel is now staging a one-man battle against a rapidly changing world—and the outspoken Zoe represents everything he's fighting against.

When circumstances compel Zoe to marry Nigel rather than Sebastian, their heated quarrelling begets passion of another sort. But with Nigel unwilling to change with the times, will Zoe be forced to choose between her husband and her dreams?

Reviewed by Danielle

I was surprised to find An American Duchess was published by Harlequin, because this is far from a traditional romance novel. We all know the formula: couple meets, falls in love, is driven apart by misunderstanding, reconciles, marries, happily ever after. Those elements are all present in the novel, but it focuses much more on making that impulsive marriage work and if love is actually enough.

Zoe is a new money, New York heiress who has decided on a marriage of convenience in order to access her trust fund. Sebastian is an old world noble with a secret and a desperate financial need. Together they decide to wed and divorce so everyone gets what they want. Except Nigel, Sebastian’s brother and the prideful Duke of Langford, to whom Zoe and divorce represent a modern world with which he can’t cope.

Obviously, Zoe and Nigel fall in love and she becomes the duchess instead of just Lady Hazelton. Even if that wasn’t the title, it’s right there in the blurb. Still, this happens less than halfway through the book and isn’t the true focus of the story. Both characters lost practically everything in World War I. Zoe’s beloved father has passed, as has the love of her life, a flying Ace who taught her everything he knew, and her brother. Nigel is mentally and physically scarred from the fighting. His fiancee left him, his other brother died of influenza and his mother hasn’t recovered. Zoe copes with her grief through fast driving, high flying, and partying ‘til dawn. Nigel turns in on himself, freezing out his family and friends. Shockingly, as they face numerous personal tragedies in their short marriage, these grieving styles don’t work together.

Where the book is best is describing the horror of the war and its impact on civilian life. No one, not the laundress or the Duke, are untouched by loss. I found myself extremely sad for their futures, which finally seem bright, with WW2 on the horizon to take their children and nephews. It’s a point of view I’ve seen a lot of historical novels struggle to relate, which makes it all the more impressive in a so-called “pop fiction” genre.

Unfortunately, my biggest problems with the book are the pacing and Nigel’s reactions to Zoe; both are pretty big issues. The pacing is something of a rollercoaster, with plot points, (like an embezzling lawyer and a suicide,) flashing right past, while other, minor things climb for ages. I had a real issue specifically with the trip to California. The previous chapters are ignored for set pieces that didn’t have enough impact, (the beach and the party specifically,) but feel included to set a Gatsby like atmosphere to counter England. I felt like we either should have moved into that setting a lot sooner or had a tighter focus on the main characters and their relationship turning point.

Nigel came across as alternatively neglectful and overbearing. While Zoe obviously wanted him to fight for her, the artist and the pilot were both eyerolling. And selling all of a woman’s modes of transport while she’s ill? That’s just abusive, Nigel. On the other side of the coin, I understand his coping mechanisms required him to stay away, but the way he treated her after both miscarriages was abominable. Zoe’s not faultless, but I could never take Nigel’s side.

Now, I did like Nigel as a character, and I was rooting for them to make up and make the marriage work. I liked the idea of focusing on the after-the-wedding scenes that we don’t often see in romance novels. The passion was palpable, and the sorrow was heartbreaking. I do wish the pacing had been steadier and some of the rougher relationship patches felt like a slog as Nigel and Zoe rehashed the same arguments over and over. In all, a good read with a few caveats.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Spotlight: The Captive Queen by Danny Saunders

Political schemes, religious partisanship and unbridled love shake the Royal Court of Scotland at the end of the Stuart dynasty.

Witness to sordid murders, spy for Her Majesty among the Protestants of the infamous preacher John Knox, forced to give up her one true love, thrown out onto the streets then ruthlessly attacked by a drunkard, Charlotte Gray will do everything in her power to remain the sovereign’s lady-in-waiting.

As for the Queen of Scots, she faces turmoil of a completely different kind: prisoner in a castle under the command of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Mary Stuart learns that she is the victim of a vast conspiracy and that her English counterpart has ordered her imminent execution.

Despite their hardships, Mary and Charlotte will keep their dignity throughout the storm. The two women will finally find serenity, one in the arms of a man and the other in the arms of God.

Interwoven with historical facts of the era, the thrilling The Captive Queen saga is worthy of the greatest royal intrigues that still fascinate us several centuries later.

The Captive Queen: A Novel of Mary Stuart Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, August 25
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past

Tuesday, August 26
Spotlight & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Obsession

Wednesday, August 27
Review at Flashlight Commentary

Thursday, August 28
Interview at Flashlight Commentary

Friday, August 29
Spotlight at Ageless Pages Reviews

Monday, September 1
Review at JulzReads

Tuesday, September 2
Review at A Chick Who Reads

Wednesday, September 3
Interview at To Read or Not To Read

Friday, September 5
Review & Giveaway at Book Lovers Paradise

Monday, September 8
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Review & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair

Tuesday, September 9
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages

Wednesday, September 10
Excerpt & Giveaway at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time

Friday, September 12
Review at Princess of Eboli

About the Author

Danny Saunders is a true European history enthusiast. He has always been keenly interested in royalty. Danny holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and also pursued communication studies at the university level. He has worked as a journalist for various written and electronic media. Of Scottish descent, Danny takes genuine pride in his British roots. The Captive Queen: A Novel of Mary Stuart is his first historical novel.

To find out more about the author Danny Saunders, you can visit his website at www.dannysaunders.com

You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Tour Review: Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly

Title: Dark Aemilia
Author: Sally O'Reilly
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 448 (hardcover edition)
Published: May 2014
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 4/5

A tale of sorcery and passion in seventeenth-century London — where witches haunt William Shakespeare and his Dark Lady, the playwright's muse and one true love.

The daughter of a Venetian musician, Aemilia Bassano came of age in Queen Elizabeth’s royal court. The Queen’s favorite, she develops a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a young woman known not only for her beauty but also her sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemilia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, but her position is precarious. Then she crosses paths with an impetuous playwright named William Shakespeare and begins an impassioned but ill-fated affair.

A decade later, the Queen is dead, and Aemilia Bassano is now Aemilia Lanyer, fallen from favor and married to a fool. Like the rest of London, she fears the plague. And when her young son Henry takes ill, Aemilia resolves to do anything to save him, even if it means seeking help from her estranged lover, Will—or worse, making a pact with the Devil himself.

In rich, vivid detail, Sally O’Reilly breathes life into England’s first female poet, a mysterious woman nearly forgotten by history. Full of passion and devilish schemes, Dark Aemilia is a tale worthy of the Bard.

Sally O'Reilly's Dark Aemilia is not going to be a novel for every historical fiction reader. Aemilia is understandably difficult to like despite her many talents and qualities, the storyline only halfway succeeds at being an effective attempt to blend history and the supernatural, and the present tense is always odd perspective for a historical novel. That said, the creativity of the author and the subject, and Aemilia herself really stood out to me over the course of Dark Aemilia. The writing is consistent, strong, and evocative and I found myself drawn to the sharp edges of Aemilia as well as for her stubbornness and way with words.

Aemilia and Will Shakespeare's intense relationship fuels a lot of the narrative, despite that relationship not being shown on the page for very long. Their chemistry is both believable and natural, and though they are more often apart than together (in both a physical and romantic sense) they provide the real emotion and drama for a lot of the novel. Aemilia is shown to be a good representation of real woman in that she has many feelings and failings and the O'Reilly lets her be unlikeable sometimes. So too is Will flawed, which makes him all the more defined as a character.

The fantastical elements, though slight enough for first 200ish pages, become more prevalent after, and are often overwhelming and only distract from the more interesting real-world (and believable) events that also take place in Aemilia's life. The "deal" mentioned in the blurb is one particular time I felt the story became unpolished and that episode unnecessary. On the other hand, the inclusion of the plague added additional suspense and tension to the larger story and also gave Aemilia more agency and motivation during a less intense time in her life.

I enjoyed a lot of smaller things in the book (that it's broken into scene and acts rather than chapters, Aemilia's many great one-liners, several side characters, Aemilia's proto-feminism and independence) and thought the overall picture strong and distinctive. Sally O'Reilly has convincingly created some memorable versions of popular historical figures and Dark Aemilia is a compelling read for it. It's a rich story, full of romance, pride, great rivals, and great works. Aemilia Bassano was an impressive woman, first as England's first published woman and also as inspiration for William Shakespeare, and Sally O'Reilly does her justice here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Tour Review: The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson

Title: The Agincourt Bride
Author: Joanna Hickson
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Catherine de Valois #1
Pages: 578
Published: January 2013
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 3/5

The epic story of the queen who founded the Tudor dynasty, told through the eyes of her loyal nursemaid. Perfect for fans of Philipa Gregory.

When her own first child is tragically still-born, the young Mette is pressed into service as a wet-nurse at the court of the mad king, Charles VI of France. Her young charge is the princess, Catherine de Valois, caught up in the turbulence and chaos of life at court.

Mette and the child forge a bond, one that transcends Mette’s lowly position.
But as Catherine approaches womanhood, her unique position seals her fate as a pawn between two powerful dynasties. Her brother, The Dauphin and the dark and sinister, Duke of Burgundy will both use Catherine to further the cause of France.

Catherine is powerless to stop them, but with the French defeat at the Battle of Agincourt, the tables turn and suddenly her currency has never been higher. But can Mette protect Catherine from forces at court who seek to harm her or will her loyalty to Catherine place her in even greater danger?

Historical fiction author Joanna Hickson kicks off her Catherine de Valois series with the hefty The Agincourt Bride -- a story that revolves around Princess Catherine but is not narrated or written from her perspective. Instead a commoner/wetnurse named Guillaumette ("Mette") serves as the book's main protagonist and narrator for the nearly 600-page duration. Her devotion to her mistress is apparent early on and Mette ably guides the story through years of Catherine's tumultuous life in the 14th century court of France.

The unknown narrator allowed for a fresh approach to a royal story; though Catherine is not written about as much as her genre counterparts (like the Tudors/Plantagenets), her story is recognizable but still original. The author has all the facts and details covered, woven into the narration. One thing about The Agincourt Bride is that it is obvious how much time and research went into crafting and recreating the world and time Mette and Catherine would have lived in. That devotion to description can make certain sections and times covered feel bland in comparison or more dry.... and the book can feel very long.

While Mette herself comes across the page as a real, viable person, Catherine can seem remote, or too idealized by her nurse and our narrator. Even on the few occasions when Catherine acts out of sorts or rudely, it's either immediately dismissed or glossed over by Mette's narration. Her single-minded view makes Catherine more a caricature of a famous historical person rather than a fully-fledged and imagined version of her. I liked that Catherine was smart, capable, and determined, but the ability to see her from more than one viewpoint would have enhanced the overall story and impact.

The first in a series, The Agincourt Bride is an excellent place to launch the introduction of such a compelling story. There's more than enough foundation and detail to support the final two books, and Hickson ends her novel on a great hook. Catherine de Valois was a fascinating woman and I am curious to see how this author continues to interpret the rest of Catherine's complicated and fascinating life story.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Title: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place
Author: Julie Berry
Genre: mystery, middle grade
Series: None
Pages: 368
Published: Expected September 23, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4 out of 5

There's a murderer on the loose—but that doesn't stop the girls of St. Etheldreda's from attempting to hide the death of their headmistress in this rollicking farce.

The students of St. Etheldreda's School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home—unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong.

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a smart, hilarious Victorian romp, full of outrageous plot twists, mistaken identities, and mysterious happenings

Reviewed by Danielle

*doorbell rings* Oh, who ever it is, they gotta go away or they'll be killed.

Victorian murder mysteries and drawing room farces are genres that have faded away, but if they were all written with the wit of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, let's hope for a come back.

There's been a murder at St. Etheldreda's School for Girls and each of the seven students, defined by the poor home life that lead her to the institute, is determined to cover it up lest they be returned to the family that calls them Dull, Pocked, or Disgraceful. 

The characters are intentionally one dimensional, with the exception of the girl who emerges as the main character who does undergo a surprising, (and forced,) amount of growth. I thought their adjectives and character traits lent the book most of its humor, though some of the characters, like the dumb one and the slutty one, ran thin by the end. 

Still, the girls band together to solve a whole host of mysteries, starting with who killed poor Mrs. Plackett and moving down to jeweled elephants, missing wills, and falsified ledgers. This isn't one of those books where the question is whodunit, but instead, who didn't? Everyone has motive, from the reverend to the neighbor. (Fortunately there's no butler to have done it.) It's twisty, impossible to pin down, and full of red herrings, but when the mysteries all come out in the inevitable drawing room scene, the clues were all there. It's satisfying, though a few red herrings leave dangling plot threads.

The biggest problem with the novel is the size of the cast. With seven main characters, the deceased, a bevy of suspects, nosy neighbors, and constables, having six love interests felt like major overkill. They do all move along the plot in some way, so I can't point at one and say, "that's the superfluous one! Take him out!," but I wish they could have been pared down somehow.

I found The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place to be a exceptionally fun mystery with an old soul. It sacrifices character building for mystery building and suffers from some expendable threads, but if you liked Clue or want a feminist Sherlock Holmes, it's easy enough to sit back and enjoy the ride for what it is.

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