Tina Chen is a poor Chinese-American woman attending college with Blake Reynolds, a young white billionaire man. One day Blake opens his mouth in class once too often, to be mildly condescending about poor people. Smarting from the thousand other remarks from others that have come before, Tina lays into him and tells him that he couldn't survive two weeks of her life. To her amazement, he offers to trade lives for a month.

I love trading places novels. But oddly enough, the "trading places" storyline is minor. We see very little of Tina experiencing a rich person's life, and only a little more of Blake struggling to survive Tina's life. I would have found this disappointing, except that what we get instead is also satisfying: two young people with complex, likable, yet difficult families balancing their family duties with their inner struggles and a slow-burn love affair. It's a romance that reads more like a mainstream novel; the romance aspect takes second place to the family dramas.

Taken on its own terms and without any outside knowledge whatsoever - say, read by someone who doesn't know anything about the romance genre and hasn't read Milan before - Trade Me is simply a very enjoyable novel. If you happen to have any outside knowledge at all of a number of things, specifically Courtney Milan, the romance genre in general, and its current trends in particular, this is still a very enjoyable novel which is also spectacularly unusual.

It's a solid novel which, solely on the basis of quality, could have been published traditionally. Except that it couldn't be, because it's the first book in a set of three and the second novel is about the romance between an Asian-American man and a Latina trans woman. That book will be the only novel I'm aware of published as mainstream genre romance with a transgender main character. I can think of a few genre romances with Asian heroes. Every single one is historical, and most were written by Jeannie Lin.

Trade Me has a Chinese-American heroine. This wouldn't be extraordinary for a mainstream literary novel, but this is marketed as a romance novel. That's wildly unusual.

And then there's its weird relationship to various subgenres. The premise is about trading places, but the book isn't at all a fish out of water story. It's a romance with a billionaire hero that uses almost none of the billionaire romance tropes. I had expected it to be a deconstruction of the genre, but it's not that either: it doesn't engage at all with those tropes, one way or another. What it is a deconstruction of is American attitudes about class and wealth.

Oh, yeah, and the hero has an eating disorder. The hero. Not the heroine. Milan is usually extraordinarily good at depicting mental illness, so I was a little disappointed with how it's treated here: it's a problem until he goes into therapy, and then it drops out of the story. I think she does better in her historicals because the characters don't have the option of therapy, so they're forced to grapple with it all the way through. I appreciate the message that therapy is helpful and that your girlfriend is not your therapist, but sadly it removes most of the dramatic interest from that storyline - the therapy is mentioned but not shown, so the whole storyline just ends. There's nothing wrong with the storyline, it just feels shallow compared to how she handled similar issues in her historicals.

However, if you've been meaning to try Milan but were put off by historical inaccuracies, there are none here as it's a contemporary. It has much (not all) of the quirky charm of her historicals, and a stellar supporting cast. I was actually more interested in the protagonists' families than I was in them.

It's also the only billionaire romance I've ever read where I believed in the hero's company. Cyclone and its gadgets are characters in their own right, and I absolutely believe that the Cyclone Vortex would cause a stir equivalent to the iPod.

Trade Me (Cyclone Book 1)
Catching up on book notes; spot the theme!

The Heiress Effect (The Brothers Sinister), by Courtney Milan. Heiress Jane Fairfield has tons of money and suitors, but is determined not to marry; in my very favorite part of the book, she fends off her suitors with a combination of social obnoxiousness and spectacularly hideous dresses. Her sister Emily is shut in by her guardian due to epilepsy, but sneaks out and meets a sweet Indian law student.

A very enjoyable romance distinguished by excellent characterization, including of the minor characters, plenty of comedy, and good banter. I liked all the characters individually, but the heroines were much more interesting to me than the heroes, so this worked better for me as a novel than as a romance. It's the second in a series, but I accidentally read it first.

Look elsewhere for historical accuracy, though Milan does often use snippets of actual history: the hideous dye which plays a role in the story actually was a recent invention. Anjan could have been doing what he was doing in England at that time, but I don't think everyone would have been anywhere near as accepting of his romance with an English woman. The discussion of colonialism, the rights of disabled people and women, and other social issues are all important and true, but also a bit anvillicious. That being said, in terms of the actual portrayal of people with disabilities, both mental and physical, Milan is outstanding.

The Other Side of Us , by Sarah Mayberry. A woman filmmaker still recovering from disabling car crash injuries moves in next door to a man with an adorable dog. She too has an adorable dog! It must be fate. I liked the realistic treatment of her disabilities, but there were too many stupid misunderstandings for my taste.

Summer Campaign, by Carla Kelly. Genuinely heartwarming romance between Major Jack Hamilton, just returned from years at war and struggling with PTSD, and the bizarrely named Miss Onyx Hamilton, who is illegitimate and so considered lucky to marry anyone, let alone the vicar whom she doesn't love. (The name is explained, but still.) She is set upon by highwaymen! He is shot rescuing her! She does such a good job nursing him that he asks her to come nurse his dying brother. And their relationship slowly blossoms.

The social situation probably isn't historically accurate, but the medical details are. The characters' emotions and the slow growth of intimacy and love are very realistic and believable. If you're tired of insta-love and relationships driven by lust, this is the book for you. Kelly is one of the few romance writers who has heroes who are not particularly handsome, out of shape, etc. Her characters are ordinary people who value each other for their personality and kindness.
With e-publishing getting so easy (unless you are trying to format poetry, sigh), there has been a boom in self-published books. I've found that if I apply the same selection methods I do to traditionally published books (premise, recommendations, reviews, read a sample), the quality is surprisingly similar.

For example, my single favorite romance novel of last year was Courtney Milan's Unraveled. (Click on author tag to see my review.) For a different type of example, click my "awesomely bad books" and "implausible plots" tag-- most of those books were traditionally published and edited by professional editors.

Since self-published authors don't get any publicity beyond what they can drum up themselves, I'm sure there are many self-pubbed books and authors which are completely off my radar. Please recommend self-published books or short stories to me. (I'm not including reprints of books which were originally traditionally published.)

I am already aware of Courtney Milan, Andrea Host, Sarah Diemer, Zetta Elliott, Neesha Meminger, and Judith Tarr's Living in Threes. If you want to rec them in comments for the benefit of other readers, go ahead, but please try to additionally rec something else which I may not know about.
Have been madly reading Milan on lunch breaks and late into the night; am now sleep-deprived. As predicted, I did like Unraveled the best due to Smite. But I enjoyed the whole series, with Unclaimed (the one with Mark and Jessica) my second-favorite. Milan's plotting, while tending to result in extremely happy endings, is unusually well-constructed for genre romance, and she also pays more attention to theme than one usually sees in the genre. I am excited to see her self-publishing successfully, because it means that she can push the genre boundaries even more.

Unveiled. The first in the series, in which the oldest brother, Ash, has come back to England after making his fortune to rescue his brothers from poverty and an abusive mother, but he was way too late to prevent them from taking major psychological damage. He's now on a mission of revenge on the family that didn't help them, and has taken over their title and their estate by exposing the lord's bigamous marriage and that his kids are bastards. Unbeknownst to Ash, the beautiful servant is actually the now-bastard daughter, on her own mission to track down dirt on him and protect her family.

Whew! Lots of plot there. Additionally, Ash is secretly dyslexic, which Milan milks for so much angst that I sometimes started laughing at how cleverly she managed to get every secret angst trope ever to plausibly relate to dyslexia. Seriously, it really was clever, but also a bit over the top. The angst in the other novels felt more organic. I liked this, but not as much as the other full-length novels.

Unlocked. A novella about a bullied lady and her now-guilty bully. I liked her a lot and him more than I would have expected, but it was so short that their relationship built too fast. Her characterization also seems completely different from what it was in Unveiled.

Unclaimed. The youngest brother, Mark, has written a bestselling gentleman's guide to chastity; Jessica, a down-on-her-luck prostitute, has been hired to seduce him to ruin his reputation. I really enjoyed this: very likable main couple, some good comedy (the "tupping for kittens" discussion cracked me up), and also good angst. The climactic duel was probably implausible, but so satisfying.
Courtney Milan was recommended to me at Sirens last year by Sarah Rees Brennan, and more recently by Oyce. Great rec! This book was basically written for me: a sweet, sexy romance, with some action and lots of psychologically-based angst. Bonus points for including a bunch of stuff which I happen to like, including scenes at a theatre, food descriptions, characters with families and responsibilities, period-accurate birth control (it bugs me when I keep thinking that the heroine is going to get pregnant at any moment), and a "mistress for a month" agreement.

I managed to read the last in the series first, but it didn't seem to matter. It's a series of historical romances about three brothers who were raised by a psychotic, abusive mother, and what happens to them afterward. In an afterword, Milan said that she was interested at looking at how different people react differently to similar events: a theme right up my alley.

This book focuses on the middle brother, Smite (short for a long Bible verse) Turner, who grew up to be a justice-obsessed magistrate with PTSD. I would love to claim the credit for the increased frequency, realism, and individuality of portrayals of PTSD in romance novels, but I think it must be some sort of zeitgeist phenomena. Anyway, it's very believable, and, of great interest to me, the way he thinks about and deals with it is also very believable.

There was a point early on where he tells the heroine that he isn't broken and doesn't need fixing, and I thought, "Oh, God, here comes the anachronistic lesson on the social construction of disability!" Thankfully, later events proved that he had something much more specific and personal in mind. (Nothing against the social construction model! But while I don't look to romance novels for historical accuracy, I do look to them for plausible characterization. And while people with PTSD often have very complicated mixed feelings about getting better, there is a lot of inherent suffering going on completely apart from social stigma and lack of accommodations.)

I also liked the dialogue, the subplot involving the heroine's entanglement with a mob boss, and the way that the characters consistently told each other what was going on, thus averting a great many opportunities for stupid misunderstandings. They were adults with problems, who acted like adults. Also, I count five sympathetic gay men in the cast. Good going.

Milan was a Harlequin author who decided that she could do better self-publishing. This book is selling for under four dollars on Kindle: Unraveled
.

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Powered by Dreamwidth Studios

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags