Review: The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Trigger Warning: Rape

Oh hey, the Brothers Sinister! What a surprise!

The Governess Affair is actually the prequel novella that provides background on book two’s hero, Oliver’s parents. Robert (from The Duchess War) has a half-brother named Oliver whose biological father was Robert’s odious father (also Robert but henceforth referred to as The Duke ) and Serena Barton, a governess he sexually assaulted. Oliver’s true father, Hugo Marshall, originally works for The Duke in cleaning up problems. Serena becomes a problem for The Duke when she begins to show up, visibly pregnant, and sit by his offices until her demands are met to provide for their child. Hugo is tasked with getting rid of her (nonviolently – this is romance, not true crime) but struggles with his own ambitions and this woman who has been grievously injured.

Milan is able to take on a very difficult subject and still craft a love story that feels real and well-deserved for both. Even better, it sets up a relationship that will give the child resulting in this assault a family that genuinely loves him. Although Oliver’s birthright (or lack thereof) is a source of conflict for the character going forward what is never in conflict is whether he was loved or appreciated. Oliver was able to grow up in a family that loved him, devoid of resentment.

I also appreciate that Milan did not just use sexual assault as a throwaway tragic backstory for her hero. She gave the character who was assaulted an identity and her own agency and happiness. That is done very rarely despite the fairly prevalent use of sexual assault in entertainment nowadays and was very refreshing.

Big surprise, if it won’t be triggering for you, I think you guys should read this book! I believe this is the last Brothers Sinister book review I have this year so if you’ve been getting tired of them, don’t worry. We move onto other things now, for better and worse.

Review: A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock

I think I picked up A Broom of One’s Own at a library or local bookstore sale because it sounded interesting and was short and at this point in the year I was very far behind in my reading challenge for the year and needed something quick. The book is a brief memoir by author Nancy Peacock on what it’s like to publish a book, have it go over well, and then still end up needing to get a job to maintain your life. It’s an interesting perspective from a voice we don’t get often – the voice of the published but not prolific author.

Peacock’s profession is also interesting as she works as a housecleaner, a profession which gave her quite a few stories just from her experiences cleaning people’s homes. She also talks about some personal losses that occurred through this period of time.

I won’t lie to you all, I don’t remember it incredibly well but I do remember feeling an odd sense of melancholy. Maybe because of the different human experiences she shares. Maybe because of the reality that publishing a novel doesn’t change your life like the fairytale Cinderella stories make you want to believe. Maybe because it kept reminding me how messy my house is and how much I should clean it.

In any case, it was an interesting read and helped kickstart me back into reading after a slump. I haven’t checked out any of Peacock’s works yet. Maybe that will be a goal for next year.

Review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

The book that launched my love of romance is finally here!

I originally read this book last year after the episode from Heaving Bosoms. I had been listening to the podcast as an amused observer without actually reading romance, not out of a sense of superiority but mostly because I felt intimidated. Romance is such a big genre with so many possible ways to start and I didn’t feel like I could navigate it on my own so I just enjoyed their recaps until this episode where I thought the book sounded good enough that I had to read it for myself.

The Duchess War is set in Victorian England and the first in the Brothers Sinister series. Robert Blaisdell is a handsome Duke who runs into Minnie Lane, a faux wallflower, while hiding out from a social event. Robert has been anonymously spreading seditious handbills encouraging workers to unionize because he is desperately trying to clean up the horrible mess his father left. Minnie is trying to escape her past with a new identity and stands accused of passing out the handbills. The two face off and as secrets are revealed and motives come out, the characters fall in love.

One of the things that I appreciate about Milan’s work is her brilliant use of banter between characters. Robert and Minnie sass each other in ways that are amusing but never mean-spirited. The respect the characters feel for each other are evident throughout. They both accept each other where they are but also encourage and help each other to grow. Neither character is perfect but even as mistakes are made you root for them instead of just getting aggravated at them. Also, top notch sex scenes and *drumroll* A VIRGIN DUKE!

After years of rapscallion, wanton dukes we get a virgin duke! And a believable (and not comedically cringy) first time! Followed by communication and improvement!

*chef’s kiss*

When I said that Milan is the author I recommend without reservations, this is the specific book because it is the start of the series and a genuinely good story on its own.

Review: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

This is another third book in a series and another series that I collect!

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan is a beautiful story of a rake and a scientist and growing beyond the facades you build to protect yourself.

Sebastian Malheur is a rakish playboy and, more scandalously, a scientist who specializes in genetics. In the Victorian era this is considered especially brazen because it references reproduction. If there’s one thing worse than a male scientist it is a female scientist which is why Sebastian actually a front for his childhood friend Violet’s research. In truth she is the scientist and he is just the way for her to communicate her findings. It’s an intriguing twist on a nom de plume and offers an interesting conflict for the characters when Sebastian announces that he will no longer play along with her charade. His reasons are understandable, as is her anger and fear over his choice. I always feel that the best conflicts are ones where there’s no one clear right or wrong person but rather a situation where both people are responding reasonably based on their experience and circumstances and finding a way through it will require growth and courage on both people’s parts.

Another conflict is that Sebastian, for all of his philandering and raking about, has been in love with Violet for years. Meanwhile Violet, believing herself undesirable and also just plain too busy with her work, has survived a horrible marriage and has sworn off romantic relationships with people both for her heart and her body’s safety.

Quick note – If you may be triggered by discussions of domestic violence and miscarriage, please skip past this book or make sure you’re in a good place mentally before reading. It isn’t gratuitous by any means but Violet’s experiences are treated with the correct amount of solemnity and her grief may be especially hard for people who can relate to her circumstance.

The challenges these characters have faced, in their personal lives and with each other, makes their Happily Ever After all the more satisfying. I also appreciated that the HEA for Violet includes recognition and professional happiness just as much as romantic happiness. Milan does a brilliant job of ensuring that each of her characters have lives outside of their relationships while still making the romance a driving force of the plot. Every book in this series would be interesting enough to read without the romance just based on the characters and their challenges, but the romance doesn’t feel unnecessary or forced. Courtney Milan is an author whose books have yet to disappoint and is one of the few authors I automatically and without reservations recommend when people are dipping into the Romance genre.

I will be writing a review for two more of the books in this series (including the first one) coming up so look for more Milan gushing then!

Review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart

This book is actually the third in the Kopp Sisters series of historical fiction based on an actual person. Amy Stewart’s series starts with Girl Waits With Gun and follows the life of Constance Kopp, the first female Sheriff in the United States of America.

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The basic premise is that Constance Kopp stood up to people no one else would, won the respect of the Sheriff of New Jersey and began working with him despite objections from many, many people and society in 1914 in general. This book, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, is a bit different from the first two.

In this book, Stewart brings in the issue of sexist policies in early 20th century laws. Kopp is brought in to help with two different young women who are arrested for, essentially, being “unladylike” aka sleeping with men while unmarried, being accused to staying out too late and dancing, etc. There are two different kinds of women who Kopp helps. The first is legitimately a “good girl” even by society’s standards. The second is guilty of all the things she is accused of and Kopp struggles to help her avoid a life in a sanitarium for troubled girls.

Quick note – I’m calling them women but if memory serves (I read this book sometime in August I think), they are technically teenagers, but I believe legal adults. In any case they were in that odd stage of womanhood where they could be infantilized and/or sexualized and/or just married off to make babies.

While Constance deals with the sexism she faces systemically and professionally, we get more of her younger sister Fleurette’s life as she runs off to join a traveling dance troupe. This character has shown a lot of growth without sacrificing the parts of her that make her a unique voice that stands out from her more stoic and hardened sisters. The middle Kopp sister, Norma, is still more of a background character but I hope to hear more about her in the future books.

It’s not very common for me to start a series and then commit to buying every book in the series that comes out but when I see that a new one has been published it’s an automatic buy, or at the very least an automatic add to wishlist. I love a good historical fiction, especially when featuring a female historical figure I hadn’t heard of before, and this series is two for two.

Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

This was another book club read! July’s genre was Cyberpunk and of the options presented we chose Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.

This was the first (and so far only) cyberpunk novel I’ve read and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel but I’ll do my best to suss it out as I go here. Another quick note is that this is also the first novel by a nonbinary author I’ve ever read (to the best of my knowledge). I mention that here because representation is important and so no one tries to correct my use of “they” when I reference the author.

Falling back on the Amazon synopsis for this one:

“Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

The overall genre has never interested me but this synopsis did because the question of autonomy, what is it and who can have it, etc., is one that intrigues the moody philosopher in me. I also enjoy a Robin Hood angle anytime, in space or earth. The book takes on some very big concepts beyond autonomy.

One prevalent issue is that of patents and freedom of information. I appreciated the way Newitz recognized this topic’s nuances. It would have been easy for them to push Jack as an uncomplicated hero and being anti-patent as a clear, moral victory. However, they acknowledge the issues that can come from unchecked patent freedom including the costs if medications aren’t peer reviewed and checked for side effects. A distinct difference between Jack and the anti-patent people and the patent companies is that Jack feels remorse and tries to make things better whereas the patent companies are truly soulless, faceless corporations that don’t care about human cost as much as literal, financial cost. I also appreciated the discussion of productivity and quality of life. I think pretty much everyone in the book club was concerned by how wistful we were at the idea of a medication that makes you incredibly productive and happy about it. But that also isn’t something we could easily discount as evil because there will always be people who have to take on these jobs no one else wants and if there is something that can make it easier for them, is it cruel to deprive them of it? Then again, if they are always content, won’t that lead to further human rights violations because there won’t even be the pressure of people raising issues over the conditions they work in.

As I said, Newitz does a great job of presenting these issues without pushing the reader too hard in either direction. They just present a set of societal concerns and let their characters work in this world, their choices shaped by their unique values and goals.

At times, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the genre, I felt that the language grew needlessly complicated and “techy” as though the author were trying to really hammer home that this is a Sci Fi Futuristic Setting. At the same time the actual changes or signs of futurism in the novel were fairly realistic.

Perhaps the true main character is the robot Paladin. The discussion surrounding gender identity was just as prevalent as the discussion surrounding autonomy with this character. Newitz makes it clear that robots are genderless and that even the gender or sex of the brain that is used in their development does not implant a gender on the robot themselves. Paladin is very clear about this with their partner, Eliasz, and yet when Paladin discovers that their brain was from a woman, Eliasz uses this information as a justification for the sexual feelings he is having for Paladin. Paladin chooses to use female pronouns at this point because she sees that it helps Eliasz feel better and she feels drawn to Eliasz so she is willing to live with that label. This is an especially poignant and somewhat distressing choice based on the gender identity of the author. I wondered as I read it if the author was sharing some real life experience there from past relationships and what was expected from them.

The relationship between Paladin and Eliasz is a difficult one. First of all it’s difficult because Eliasz is a bigoted prick whose tragic backstory is some children saw him on his knees by a robot and accused him of being a “f****t” and now he is hyper afraid of people thinking he’s gay.

Side Note: I took real issue with the use of the F-slur. Both because it’s an ugly word but also because surely in the future there would be a slur specific to fucking robots.

The relationship between Eliasz and Paladin is very much the story of one man projecting desire and even gender identity onto a character so it fulfills his needs and justifies his choices. Paladin never rejects the advances or the identity, but they also very clearly go along with it for Eliasz’s sake. In their very relationship, Paladin is stripped of autonomy. In the end Eliasz buys Paladin to set her/them free but I couldn’t help but read this as a man buying his partner for himself. This might be too harsh but I just couldn’t get on board with the relationship, nor could I decide where Newitz landed on it.

There is a lot of interesting plot material in here including run-ins with other robots who have very strong, clear opinions on autonomy and Jack’s plotline is also interesting. In the end, as I write this review, I think I enjoyed the book more than I realized at the time. I appreciate that it still has me thinking about it and that Newitz was able to avoid infodumping which would have been easy based on the worldbuilding they developed alone. There is also a couple of side characters I find fascinating and would have read an entire book about but I hope you’ll find out more about them if you pick up the book yourself.

Review: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

I read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel with my book club in our second meeting in June where the genre was LGBTQ+ authors. I have not heard or seen the musical and my knowledge of Bechdel was limited to her creation of The Bechdel Test.

Fun Home was a searing memoir about discovering yourself, discovering the truth, and trying to reconcile grief, disappointment, and empathy. It would be too simplistic to say that it’s a story of a woman recounting her journey into adulthood and discovering her sexual identity as a lesbian in the 80s. It is also too simplistic to say that it is about a woman discovering her father’s own closeted sexuality and how it shaped and informed her own relationship with homosexuality and herself. It’s hard for me to really put into words what this book does or communicates because it manages to share so much in a way that doesn’t make the reader feel overwhelmed, even while reading through the author feeling that way. There were aspects of the story that resonated for me and aspects that I could only appreciate from the outside looking in. This book didn’t feel like it was written for me, or for you, or for anyone. It felt like it was written for Bechdel as a way of processing her grief and confusion and pain and the reader is the lucky witness, all the luckier if there is something that they can share and feel seen by.

The graphic novel is visually captivating and the words and images matched in tone. There were references to literary works by Proust and Joyce and this also felt like a way in for the reader if they could connect with those works. I knew on a surface level about some of the themes and how they related to the overarching story but I’m sure it was just another aspect that would have hit home harder if I had a familiarity with them.

This is not a light read, though it was at times humorous. I remember distinctly that once I finished reading it I sat in silence for a moment, walked to the kitchen and squirted a bunch of reddiwhip in my mouth, and then continued sitting in silence for a bit longer. I want to read Bechdel’s sequel graphic novel about her mother, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, but I decided to wait after reading this before taking that on one so I could read something lighter to space the two out. I think one of my reading goals for next year will be to read that one and we’ll see how it goes. In the end, I do recommend this book, but be aware that even if you don’t feel that you hit any of the traditional boxes to connect with or be deeply affected by this book, the themes of family secrets and fraught parent-child relationships are widely applicable so don’t go retraumatizing yourself willy nilly.

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been planning on starting a book club since I was in undergrad and am so proud to announce that this year I finally jumped in and started one! I tried googling to find advice about how to run a book club but didn’t find much that was helpful so I ended up making something that has worked so far for us. Each month, going in alphabetical order, someone gets to choose the genre for the month and then everyone can submit choices of novels for us to read in that genre. We then vote for the book we want to read and whichever one wins, we read. The only set rule is that the books have to be no more than 300 pages to accommodate people’s schedules. It’s an imperfect system but we’re seven months in and it’s going ok! The genre for our first book club was Fantasy and the book we ended up reading was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This was the second of Ishiguro’s works I’ve read, having been introduced to him in undergrad when we read The Remains of the Day. This is a very different novel, however, and I think I ended up liking this one better than the other.

Though it is genuinely a fantasy novel it is not the typical dragons and swords book that comes to mind (though both a dragon and swords are in this novel). It is set post-Arthurian Britain and the main characters in the novel are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who find themselves losing their memories at an alarming rate and choose to try and go in search of their son who they can hardly remember and have been filling in the gaps with their own projected desires or beliefs. There is a mist that has spread throughout Britain complicating matters and we follow the couple as they journey to find answers and companions on their quest including a former Knight for King Arthur and a boy determined to find and save his mother.

This book left me feeling deeply, deeply, sad. But not in a bad way. In a reflective way that sort of feels good in its own strange, aching way. I related to Axl a great deal and his quest to make everything be ok and fight hard to refuse change. The novel also brings into question what being a hero is and who you can trust, including yourself, in times of chaos. I enjoyed the choice Ishiguro made to have the main characters be elderly because so often, especially in fantasy, the protagonists are in their prime and at the start of their journey, looking forward more than they look back.

Not everyone was affected by The Buried Giant in the same way I was though it still caused a good conversation and everyone took something away from it.

Review: Becoming A Counselor by Samuel T. Gladding

Alright you guys this is gonna be quick.

This is a series of vignettes by renowned Wake Forest University professor who has worked in the counseling field for years. In this book he recounts different events from his life and in the last two sentences relates it to counseling. Reading this book was like sitting through a holiday dinner with your grandfather who tells you meandering stories that he finds hilarious and poignant and you find a speed bump between dinner and going home. Except in this instance I had to pay $30 for it because it was required reading in a class for a university that already took enough of my money that it felt especially rude to make me buy one of their professor’s publications.

Review: Slouch Witch by Helen Harper

I chose this book because I needed something to fulfill the Because Witches category in the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace. Before this one I DNF’d Witches of East End by Melissa de la Cruz. In all honesty, I almost DNF’d this one and still read another witchy romance because I didn’t feel this could actually fulfill that category.

First of all, here’s the Amazon synopsis:

“Let’s get one thing straight – Ivy Wilde is not a heroine. In fact, she’s probably the last witch in the world who you’d call if you needed a magical helping hand. If it were down to Ivy, she’d spend all day every day on her sofa where she could watch TV, munch junk food and talk to her feline familiar to her heart’s content.

However, when a bureaucratic disaster ends up with Ivy as the victim of a case of mistaken identity, she’s yanked very unwillingly into Arcane Branch, the investigative department of the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment. Her problems are quadrupled when a valuable object is stolen right from under the Order’s noses.

It doesn’t exactly help that she’s been magically bound to Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter. He might have piercing sapphire eyes and a body which a cover model would be proud of but, as far as Ivy’s concerned, he’s a walking advertisement for the joyless perils of too much witch-work.

And if he makes her go to the gym again, she’s definitely going to turn him into a frog.”

Here’s the thing, I had some misgivings right from the jump with this synopsis. Some HB’s had highly recommended it to me so I pushed past it but I got a real meh vibe from this summary. Whenever a character’s voice starts with “let’s get one thing straight” I have a knee jerk eye roll reaction. It just feels like that kind of high school not-like-other-girls tone that really irks me because I was 100% that girl. I could appreciate that she wants to relax and hang out with her cat because I am 100% that grown woman. Through reading the book I found the mystery compelling but the heroine and hero irritating in different ways. She gives too few fucks, he gives too many, and I understand they’re going for an opposites attract vibe but it didn’t play for me as it was supposed to. Also the romance felt thoroughly unnecessary and unrealistic. There were some side characters I felt they could have done more with and by the end of it I didn’t feel compelled to read further into the series. I think my biggest concern was that it felt sometimes like the author was trying too hard to impress upon the reader that this character was Too Above It All To Care and I can appreciate that in a character to an extent but it became a bit repetitive. The book was also written in first person so the author ended up telling more than showing which is a common problem I have with first person narration (both writing and reading).

Ultimately I don’t regret reading it but I don’t intend to keep going and as I said I did end up reading another witch-based book that was actually a romance to fulfill this category.