Review of “The Duchess War” (Brothers Sinister #1) by Courtney Milan

Milan, Courtney. The Duchess War. [United States]: Courtney Milan, 2012.

Paperback | $8.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1536846584 | 315 pages | Victorian Romance

5 stars

While I read a bit of Courtney Milan’s early work published by Harlequin earlier this year, I knew the Brothers Sinister was considered her most popular series and represented something of a turning point, being the first series that was entirely self-published. And despite being initially skeptical of its somewhat unassuming blurb, with buzzwords like “wallflower” and “handsome duke,” I was told that The Duchess War was a duke book that I would enjoy.

And to my delight, it was everything I’ve been looking for in a historical romance, with characters who don’t fit within the status quo, especially Robert, the Duke of Clermont. Amid all the recent events of people touting the Heyer-esque version of “historical accuracy” that favors of a sanitized view of the aristocracy and the erasure of everyone else, including marginalized groups, it’s refreshing to read about Robert, who is so opposed to not just his father’s profligacy as the former duke, but the fuller extent of power afforded to the aristocracy itself, to the point of wanting to abolish it altogether.

And Minnie’s journey as a character is equally compelling. I could sympathize with her in terms of her discomfort with large crowds, and loved her growth in that regard, in terms of the way she chose to attempt to face the public in the end, even knowing what it meant for her. It’s also wonderful how she complements Robert in their relationship, recognizing that their marriage takes work even when he feels horrible enough to want to throw in the towel.

I also love how the story focuses just as much on the familial/friend relationships, balancing out well with the romance. The brotherly bond between Robert and Oliver is a touching one, and I found it touching when, in a moment of crisis, Oliver’s mother shows more compassion toward him in that moment than Robert’s mother showed him in his whole life, in spite of the fact that Robert carries the guilt of his father raping Oliver’s mother.

This is a wonderful series starter, and I can understand why it’s one of Milan’s most popular books, if not the most popular. If there are any other historical romance fans who haven’t read it yet (please tell me I’m not the last HR fan on Earth to read this?), I heartily recommend it.

#CopyPasteCris and the Amazon Algorithm

It’s been a while since I posted about book community drama and issues, and while I could have posed about #CockyGate or The Blood Heir, or some of the other controversies that have come up in the past year, I resisted, out of a sense of either not knowing the subject well enough, feeling it was explained better by others, or just not knowing what my voice contributed to the matter. But while those two aforementioned scandals were rather single-minded, if a bit divisive (particularly in the second case), this one is multilayered in a way I did not expect it to be, bringing to light issues that have long lurked in the underbelly of the book world.  

Context

By now, you’ve probably heard about #copypastecris from other sources, whether it be when it trended on Twitter, when author Courtney Milan posted about it on her blog, or when Nora Roberts made three killer blog posts of her own. But in case you have not, in summary, a person calling themselves Cristiane Serruya (it’s debatable whether it’s one person working alone or part of a larger group of scammers, or whether she is who she claims she is), publicly lauded as a USA Today Bestselling author, has been revealed to have copied and pasted passages from a multitude of sources, with the current totals adding up to fifty-one books by thirty-four authors (Milan and Roberts having multiple titles among this number, with other prominent names including Tessa Dare, Christi Caldwell, and, most recently, Julia Quinn and Diana Gabaldon), three articles from web and magazine sources (including one called, quite ironically, “Law, Grace and Redemption in Les Miserables”), two recipes, a Wikipedia article, and a Wattpad story across her backlist, all of which were compiled into a growing list by the amazing @CaffeinatedFae on Twitter on the #copypastecrislist hashtag as more and more are uncovered.

In short, the fact that she copied and pasted passages from others should make this an easy, black-and-white situation with little to debate upon. However, in the last several days, more and more layers have been brought to light about the issue, which has made it more complex and divisive.

The first is the use of ghostwriters when writing fiction. This came about when Serruya, in a tweet on her now-deleted Twitter account, cast the blame on a ghostwriter she hired on Fiverr (it should be noted, for those few that are unfamiliar with the story, that this came out when only a few authors, such as Milan and Tessa Dare, were revealed to have been plagiarized and the only work of Serruya’s in question at the time was Royal Love, so this tweet was written in the context of it being a one-time thing that she could blame on a shoddy ghostwriter). However, two ghostwriters subsequently reached out to Milan, independent of one another, stating that they were given bits and pieces by Serruya for them to rework, thus making them at worst only irresponsible for not confirming the words not plagiarized.

However, in reaction to Serruya, many authors began to post the affirmation that they “write their own books.” And I don’t disagree with this response, given the way that many in the community, some of whom are legitimately fast writers and put out a book every few months, or even a book a month because of their writing speed, get shamed and subjected to false accusations.

But it does also feed into this anti-ghostwriter narrative. And while I do feel that, much like any other profession, if you can’t write fiction, you probably shouldn’t do it, I also see where ghostwriters are coming from when they talk about the reasons they ghostwrite, like it pays the bills, or they don’t want to deal with the business aspects of writing. But there should be some acknowledgment of the contributor’s hard work, whether it be on the cover, as is often the case with many works “co-authored” by James Patterson, or at least a mention of them within the acknowledgments. More transparency is needed to ensure readers aren’t being duped, especially as readers today crave that connection to their favorite authors, and the feeling that they are real people they can connect with. That, does, of course, bring about its own issues, meaning authors need to be mindful of the personas they curate online, but that is another topic for another post. Now, onto the most polarizing aspect of the issue that gradually has come to be discussed more frankly.

The Readers, the Authors, and the Algorithms

Another issue that has come up is one concerning Amazon’s broken algorithms. I have numerous issues with Amazon, like the way they’re a huge conglomerate and authors depend on reviews for promotional purposes, yet limit those who can post reviews of their products to those who make purchases of $50 or more with a credit or debit card, thus making it impossible for people who don’t have consistent access to that to help their favorites in this way, among other reasons I may go into later.

Admittedly, because of my lack of experience with Amazon, I’m a little out of my depth in terms of describing the specific scams some readers have been discussing, both in this case, and in previous cases, like #CockyGate, but I do understand the implications of something like a click farm could be used to game the already imperfect Kindle Unlimited program, thus meaning that scammers gain more money from the “pot” allotted to be distributed among authors with books in the program.

And it’s also an issue of the reader’s perspective, and what they are willing to pay for a book, especially by an author that’s new to them. Several people took issue with a statement in Roberts’ second blog post:

“And to readers, those of you who keep pushing for more and cheaper books, just stop it. Writing, real writing, is work, it takes time and talent and effort. By snapping up a book just because it’s ninety-nine cents on line, you’re encouraging this. The creator and the content they work so hard to produce is devalued.

Pay the artist, for God’s sake, or the artist can’t create. What you end up with is rushed from a desperate writer struggling to keep up to pay the bills. Or mass-produced crap thrown together by scammers.”

I had mixed feelings upon reading this passage. I could understand why people were a little hurt, as the way she worded it felt like she was putting part of the blame for this on the readers, believing all they care about is free books, and not considering they may not always have the money to purchase a book, because it’s often either that or the basic necessities. There was also an argument that Roberts was a hypocrite, due to the fact that her publisher advertised some of her early “In Death” titles for $1.99, never mind that this, like many an eBook sale, was done for promotional reasons, and might entice readers to shell out more on future titles.

Bit I could also see where she was coming from, as an injured party in this awful mess. And I understand, from what she states elsewhere, both in this post and her previous one, that she understands her place of privilege as a bestselling author who has not only a lengthy backlist, but funds and clout enough to defend not only herself, but can take on the fight for others who may not as well.

And readers do have the power of choice of authors to invest their time in, and I believe that is why Roberts puts so much responsibility at their door. There is a difference between promoting a quality product through a sale with hopes of hooking the reader, which is the intent of a legitimate author or publisher’s goal in marking down a book’s price either temporarily or permanently, and there is enticing the reader purely through the price point to consume cheap crap, which is usually the domain of a scammer so they can profit off it. And if all a legit author, whether it be Nora Roberts or Courtney Milan or anyone else,  cared about was making more money, why would so many authors promote libraries, with many of them that I’ve spoken to being excited to see their work represented in library collections? In fact, the library came up as a valid, legal alternative to purchasing books in the comments section of this blog post, including from Roberts herself, when responding to a commenter of the mindset to clap back at her for criticizing people who pick up books for free or on sale, and essentially that because Roberts has a “fortune,” it should not be something she should lecture readers about, especially if they are on a budget, among other claims, which Roberts refuted splendidly. Given that this is also a sore spot for her, with readers taking issue with the prices of her books (something she does not control, as she works with a publisher), I can understand her outrage here, regardless of any initial (albeit slight) agreement I may have had with the opposing arguments without thinking about it within the context of this situation.

And this sense of entitlement feeds it to the bigger issue in our Internet-saturated culture that has allowed scammy, illegal behavior to thrive. When watching all this play out, I could not help but be reminded of Taylor Swift taking issue with streaming services, who I also recall being criticized for being overly money-grubbing in spite of her vast fortune when she pulled her catalog from Spotify. In both cases, there was a sense of entitlement on the part of the consumer, that because they were on a fixed budget, they should not be obliged support the creators they enjoyed in a fair and legitimate way, essentially devaluing the art the creators create. And while yes, both Roberts and Swift are successful in their respective fields, this entitlement creates an problems for the struggling up-and-coming author or musician, who genuinely loves to write or perform, and would love to make a full-time career of it, but is denied this dream due to the fact that their career isn’t profitable.

Roberts then made a third blog post earlier today as of this writing, confirming all of my suppositions that I posited earlier and shutting down her detractors in the best way. Unfortunately, in subsequent keyword searches on Twitter for people talking about “Nora Roberts,” I saw that the post either did not alter their opinion that books should have value, or they did not bother to read it.

“Trashy Books?”: The Widening Debate Between Quality and Quantity

Upon reflection, however, I did find this a strange conversation to come to light in the romance community, especially when so many readers and authors are champions for the genre and its place as equally important to any other work of fiction. This debate around the idea of “quality” is at the root of several romance aficionados’ forays into academic studies of the genre. Author Maya Rodale wrote of the long history of the dismissal of romance novels in her book, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. She  spoke about the romance industry as being very focused as being a system where “high volume = low cost = less risk,” (71) writing of the promotional tactics of a series, hooking a reader with book one at lower price, thus making it more likely they may buy the second (and the third and so on), which is a very familiar model that has already been discussed, and unfortunately, exploited, in this discussion on cheap books. But the argument for cheap books dismisses Rodale’s other claim of the close bond formed between an author and a reader, as well as the ways the genre has been dismissed to no avail throughout history due to its presentation, in a similar way that these readers are ironically devaluing a genre they claim to love.  

The lack of perceived lasting value of romance novels in society is one that other scholars have also confronted, like Australian Library and Information Science (LIS) scholar Vassiliki Veros. In an article, “A Matter of Meta: Category Romance Fiction and the Interplay of Paratext and Library Metadata” (2015), Veros wrote about the contrasting values of libraries and librarians toward books with cultural capital (which also can be symbolized by any intellectual romance detractor who views romance as “trash”) and the vast economic capital generated in the romance industry. While her argument pertains more specifically to the way in which libraries devalue romance novels, especially category romance, and don’t catalog them correctly, the general gist of her explanation surrounding economic vs. cultural capital is how I assumed it stood prior to the explosion of this scandal. But to have people so firmly in the economic capital camp that they think of books of any type as disposable and not worth paying for at any point is crazy to me, especially since scamming has become such a prevalent thing in the book industry.

Final Thoughts

As this situation continues to develop on all sides of the issue, I don’t know what the outcome will be, or if it’s possible for their to be one that will end peacefully for everyone who’s since gotten involved. The main hope that I hope to see materialize is that Cristiane Serruya is fully taken down and the lengthy list of authors, both notable and unknown, get some recompense for this. But as many have noted it’s not just a problem of just one scammer messing with the system, but many who are taking advantage of algorithms to get ahead and crush legitimate authors, many of whom are working hard for little reward. Contrary to what some readers believe, we can and should do better to stop this and show that this won’t be tolerated. And hopefully, if all our voices are loud enough, Amazon may finally listen.

Sources:

#copypastecris and #copypastecrislist on Twitter (special shout-out to @CaffeinatedFae)

Various tweets and Twitter threads

Courtney Milan’s blog post: http://www.courtneymilan.com/ramblings/2019/02/18/cristiane-serruya-is-a-copyright-infringer-a-plagiarist-and-an-idiot/

Nora’s first blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/plagiarism-then-and-now/

Nora’s second blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/not-a-rant-but-a-promise/

Nora’s third blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/let-me-address-this/

Article on Taylor Swift and streaming services for context: https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/9/15767986/taylor-swift-apple-music-spotify-statements-timeline

Maya Rodale, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained (2015)

Vassiliki Veros, “A Matter of Meta: Category Romance Fiction and the Interplay of Paratext and Library Metadata,” In the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, 5.1 (2015), 1-13

Review of “Unveiled” (Turner #1) by Courtney Milan

Milan, Courtney. Unveiled. Don Mills, Ontario: HQN, 2011.

Mass Market Paperback |$7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0373775439 | 378 pages | Victorian Romance

5 stars

Unveiled is an unexpected delight, and much more in line with what I have heard from others about Courtney Milan’s work, with uinique and sympathetic characters that don’t fall into annoying cliches like the “alphahole” or the innocent debutante.

And it is an even greater accomplishment, as the book is billed as a story involving revenge, and I can’t stand reading about heroes who essentially prey on an innocent to get their ends, with no redeeming qualities to them whatsoever, and wait for it to all blow up in their face. Ash is very different. Yes, he is out to get revenge, but I love how honorable he is in making his family’s needs his paramount concern, which provides a stark contrast to that of the current Duke of Parford and his sons, who care for nothing but themselves.

I also love the evolution of his dynamic with Margaret. She begins their acquaintance with deception and misplaced loyalty to her family, and once this is discovered, Ash doesn’t hold it against her. And I love how even though the idea is brought up that Ash might try to use her to legitimize his claim to the title, he doesn’t do that, and both of them end up compromising to show how much their love for each other and seeing the other happy is the most important thing.

This is definitely a fabulous book that I would recommend to new and old readers of historical romance alike.

Review of “Hamilton’s Battalion” by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole

Lerner, Rose, et. al. Hamilton’s Battalion. [United States]: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017. Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1977530691 | 346 pages | Historical Romance

5 stars

While I rarely rate novellas in anthologies individually, this is one of those rare collections where each story was so uniquely layered, that it deserves a collective 5-star rating. I also give the authors props for taking a story motivated by some of the less-than-wonderful events going on in our country at the time the stories were written and expanding the fervor generated by the entertaining and politically conscious musical, Hamilton, writing the long-forgotten stories inspired by people during the Revolution that don’t fit the traditionally white, heterosexual male narrative.

Rose Lerner’s “Promised Land” is lovely in terms of how it tackles the issue of a Jewish person’s identity in the context of their country, given the way Britain has not allowed them citizenship. It was beautiful to see Nathaniel and Rachel, an estranged married couple whose issues are rooted in religious difference to an extent, navigate not only what led to their separation, but finding their place in the new country of the United States.

“The Pursuit Of…” by Courtney Milan strikes the perfect balance between being funny and conveying an impactful message. I loved the cheese, both the literal variety and some of the more romantic sort, while it also touched on John’s family’s experience as slaves, ending with an optimistic ending not only for him and Henry, but for the others as well, that feels completely believable.

I was most excited for “That Could Be Enough” by Alyssa Cole, as I was dying to read an f/f historical, and like the others in this collection, it did not disappoint. I love how this tied the other stories together, following Mercy, who played a peripheral role in the other two stories. And it was nice to read a story where the community surrounding her and Andromeda was more or less accepting of their relationship, with Mrs. Hamilton being a wonderful supporting character in this one.

I would recommend this one to fans of Hamilton and the American Revolution setting.

Review of “Proof by Seduction” (Carhart #1) by Courtney Milan

Milan, Courtney. Proof by Seduction. Don Mills, Ontario: HQN, 2009.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0373774395 | 345 pages | Victorian Romance

2 stars

Courtney Milan is an author who I had wanted to read for ages, but the library only has a few of her early Harlequin titles. Wanting to give her a chance anyway, and liking the impression I got from the prequel novella to this one, I checked this one out. And this one definitely suffers in a number of areas.

It shows her promise as a writer, for sure. Her prose is easy to get into and relatively compelling, and her characterizations are solid and layered, with some moments of comedy that actually made me laugh, like the moments where we see how awkward Gareth can be with people. And both Gareth’s and Jenny’s backstories, while now familiar to the average romance reader, made me see them as a little more beyond the stock romance characters I thought they were at the beginning, with him being the emotionless lord and her being the poor working girl.

However, while I could sympathize with Gareth in his vulnerable moments, I still had a hard time seeing him as a romance hero when he was yet an arrogant lord taking advantage of a vulnerable woman who he saw as beneath him and as only good for sex and not much else. And I also failed to see what the attraction was between them, aside from their sexual attraction. And I felt like Jenny was a bit dumb at points as well. I had difficulty suspending disbelief when it came to those repeated encounters of unprotected sex, and how the issue of the consequences wouldn’t come up, even in the aftermath. And while I did like that she did finally get some spine and tried to leave him, I found it ridiculous that she wanted to leave the country, as if she wasn’t poor and unconnected.

Thinking about it, this is a classic example of a book I probably would have devoured when I was new to the genre, but I am finding hard to stomach now, what with the tropes I now dislike and the somewhat predictable and tired nature of the power dynamics. Given that the book is also now about a decade old, I think that might play a role as well. That being said, I don’t know who I’d recommend this to. Not avid fans of the genre, that’s for certain. Perhaps this is one of those books you can only appreciate if you’ve grown with Milan as an author, from her Harlequin days to becoming self published? Either way, I definitely want to check out more of her work if I can.

Review of “The Heart of Christmas” by Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, and Courtney Milan

Balogh, Mary, et. al. The Heart of Christmas. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin Enterprises Limited, 2009. 

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0373774272 | 378 pages | Regency Romance

In my continued reading of holiday romances this December, I stumbled on this older anthology that featured reprints of stories from Mary Balogh and Nicola Cornick, and more importantly, an early Harlequin publication from Courtney Milan, an author I’d longed to read, but books on her extensive backlist are surprisingly hard to come by through my normal channels of finding books. And in general, I found a wonderful collection of stories by both new (to me) authors and familiar ones as well.

A Handful of Gold (1998) by Mary Balogh

4.5 stars

This novella surprised me in a number of ways, in that I tend to dislike both rakish heroes and heroines who are courtesans, but both were handled in such a way that I did not have any issues. Despite the shorter length, I liked that Julian genuinely grew over the course of the story. And Verity had the noblest of intentions for making the choices she did, with her family’s survival in mind (something I’m often coming to see is often the case in situations like that, at least in historical romance, as it likely was in real life).

The Season for Suitors (Tallants 3.5, 2005) by Nicola Cornick

3 stars

This one ok, but largely unmemorable, in comparison to the other two. The premise is interesting enough, with Sebastian helping Clara with the virtual plague of other rakes that have been trying to seduce her, but given that I didn’t feel overly connected to either character, there’s not much I can say about it.

His Wicked Gift (Carhart #0.5, 2009) by Courtney Milan

5 stars

This is yet another one with tropes I typically dislike, especially in novellas, that surprisingly endeared itself to me, in that it balanced out the somewhat odd concept of using sex to settle a debt by not only showing that Lavinia and William have genuine feelings for one another, but also not making the power imbalance more uneven than it had to be. I love stories where both the hero and heroine both work for their living, and I love the way it informed William’s slightly negative outlook during the holiday season in particular, and thus making it a new take on what I thought was a tired trope, what with it done endlessly with broody aristocrats and starry-eyed debutantes.