A Note in the Margin by Isabella Rowen

A Note in the Margin by Isabella Rowen


John McCann, a man who judges life by the tally of an accounts ledger, has a supreme goal in life: To achieve, live, and enjoy the rarified executive lifestyle. But he’s encountered one problem: 

The migraines are going to continue to get worse unless you make some major changes in your lifestyle. What you need is a ‘sea change’… Perhaps buy a nice little business in the country, settle down, something easier to occupy your time…

While John knows the doctor is right, he just can’t resign from the job he’s fought so hard for. He decides the sacrifice of taking a year’s leave of absence won’t interfere too much with his plans, and so he finds himself running Margins, a cozy little bookstore, with the help of the former owner’s son, Jamie.  John expects to put in his year, get his stress under control, and then get back to business.

What John doesn’t expect is how Margins and its denizens draw him in, particularly the quiet, disheveled man who takes refuge in the old leather chair in the second-hand book section. John’s plans for an unattached year of simple business crumble when he meets David and is forced to reevaluate life, love and what he really wants from both. John and David are forced to come to terms with their pasts as they struggle to determine what possible future they might build together.



*reviewed for Manic Readers Reviews


As the blurb summary does a great job of giving you the basics of the story, I won’t delve into the plot basics but know this is an emotional story that will pull your own experiences into question. There are so many elements woven into this story that it could have easily lost itself within the heavy weight the story creates, yet the author has delivered a touching, poignant and beautiful story depicting a complex and difficult relationship between two unlikely men. Easily one of the best books I have read all year, I highly recommend this story to everyone – not just m/m romance lovers.

John is set adrift when he’s told to take time off from his high pressure corporate world and finds himself lost within the quaint and slow paced atmosphere of a neighborhood bookstore. He struggles to find his balance and lapses back into his comfort zone of profits and balances, but the son of the previous owner refuses to let John stay within his staid life. John’s initial reaction to the homeless David is one that resonates with all readers as he expresses his disgust at the smelly, dirty, and gaunt man that shuffles in to sit in the corner of the bookstore. It is only through Jamie’s persistence that John starts to see beyond the initial appearance to the man within. John’s struggle against ingrained stereotypes and reactions never ends. Even when he’s able to see the real man David is, a new struggle begins to understand David’s mental illness and the impact it has on all relationships around him.

John’s anger, confusion, and fear are depicted in a stunningly honest voice from his desire to protect David against everything to his all consuming fear of losing this man he’s come to love. John also struggles with anger and disappointment, as David is unable to act and respond like most people would in a relationship. It’s a long process for John to understand how David lives in his own altered world and what it means to be with someone who will never be easy, but is undeniably worth any amount of pain and hardship – of which there is a considerable amount. John’s character easily strikes a cord with any reader and his considerable human emotions and flaws are drawn beautifully.

David is a lovely character wrapped in silence and stillness. His every word and movement has a purpose and a cost, vibrantly highlighting the difference between the casual actions and words John initially uses. David’s inner core of strength and dignity shine through the frailty of his situation and appearance, showing the depth and complexity of a man who has been changed forever by his experiences. David struggles with the very real threat of HIV and the knowledge that there are very few choices for the hopeless where survival is the only real goal. His own lack of self worth and overwhelming shame cast him easily as a sympathetic character just as his actions allow the reader to sympathize with John’s anger and confusion. David’s relationship with his son and glimpses into the man he once was are a tantalizing taste of how life used to be. David will never be the same man and will continue to lapse into the survival mindset undoubtedly in the future, showing an honest reality even amongst a romantic relationship.

The cast of secondary characters was wonderful and added to the depth of the story while giving a much needed lightening of the intensity between John and David. Jamie was a particularly delightful addition with his surprising insight and perception against a perpetually cheery and flirtatious outlook. His confidence and unyielding strength are integral for both David and John. Just as Barbara’s subtle therapy are necessary to helping both men with their confusion and difficult trials. Even the late addition of Adam, David’s son, created another link between the men and an additional layer of dimension to the story and characters.

Within this honest romance filled with complex issues, there were a few problems with the execution of the story. First was the repeated and sometimes confusing point of view changes. The author attempts to show what each and every character is thinking and thus frequently changes the point of view for each paragraph to show this. Unfortunately, this head hopping was unnecessary to show the point of the characters feelings and occurred too often for comfort. Additionally the character of John’s occasional girlfriend, Marian, was introduced but then completely dropped once John and David became involved which questioned the need for her appearance at all. The pacing was well done considering the number of side elements the author introduced and although it may have been slightly uneven, the added emotion and information easily outweighs the pacing problem.

Rowan is an incredibly talented writer and her book vaulted to my best book list easily. The genuine voice she offers when dealing with the complicated emotions and problems never allows this to be a simple romance. Yet the characters are lovely and will resonate easily within each reader, calling out experiences to both the shame and pride. This is not an easy book to read, but it shouldn’t be and is infinitely better for the honesty it offers. You’ll not want to put it down.

Get it HERE! 


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15 thoughts on “A Note in the Margin by Isabella Rowen

  1. I haven’t read this book, but I wanted to comment on the cover. Do you know who the artist is?
    I have to admit that I am very much an ‘Ooh, look at the shiny cover!” impulse book buyer. This one is the type of cover that would make me (in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, at least) to want to pick up the book, read the back cover and the inside jacket information, and if I’m still interested I’ll read the first few pages.
    In the end, I may not buy the book—if I’m not completely hooked in the first few pages there’s no hope of me ever finishing—but if not for the cover, I would never have given the book even that small chance to begin with.
    I love it when a book cover tempts me with something about the story other than the fact that there are bare-chested menfolk in it. That’s why I adore the gorgeous cover Rose Lenoir did for our SC3; it’s the sort of cover that causes me to make a distinctively squee-like noise in the aisle of my local Barnes and Noble.
    So, I’d like to know who the cover artist is for this book so I can pat them on the back. I think far too little attention is paid to this aspect of (e)book publishing, and it’s so very important.
    Also, I love reading your reviews, if I haven’t mentioned it lately. You have this deft ability to offer very harsh but constructive criticism. You do it in an intelligent manner that doesn’t unnecessarily bruise our fragile artistic egos, and it allows us to sit back, absorb, and take heed. Thank you for that, most sincerely. We’re listening, and hopefully that will result in even better and more well-crafted books for you to read.

    • The artist is credited as Mara McKennon.
      You’re absolutely right that it’s a beautiful cover and I meant to comment on how I loved it’s simplicity and perfect correlation to the book. I’m sorry I didn’t add it though I rambled on enough I simply forgot. Too often covers are full of men, which is fine and wonderful, but this cover really does an excellent job with the book material.
      This is the type of cover that I would buy in print (and I just may if it comes out in print with the same cover) and be happy to walk around with, whereas I cover up the covers of anything resembling “romance”. I admit it! I should make a point to comment on covers more often as you’re correct they are often overlooked.
      On a personal note, thank you for your comment. It’s a pleasure to write my reviews for the “nether” even if no one reads them (I can pretend the anonymous hordes do) and I like to think they offer something than just another review. Either way, thank you very much. It meant a lot that you would say so.

      • Mara McKennon unfortunately it’s not the “cover” artist, but she is the artistic director of Dreamspinner Press. Infact she is credited as “Cover Design”, means that probably she didn’t create the artwork but only the layout. Elisa

        • I never caught that distinction Elisa, thank you!
          I agree, we should find out who exactly was the artist. I wonder if we can write to the press asking.

          • Yes, probably it’s the more “straight” way (pun intended). I know that the new cover by Jane Seville is by Paul Richmond, an artist I previously featured on my LJ, but he told me he did only that cover for now. Elisa

      • As one member of the anonymous hordes, you’re welcome. 🙂
        I also want to thank you for posting your review of “Soft Focus” on its Amazon print entry, and for tagging the book. Thanks!
        (And speaking of awesome covers, wait until you see the cover Reno has created for the combined print novel version of our Messiah novellas. It’s magnificent!)

  2. Beautiful review Kassa, I know you would have liked this book, as you said, it’s easily the best book of the year. And I’m bringing on a personal campaign to discover the author of that cover. Elisa

    • You’re so right! Towards the end I remembered your review and was on pins and needles. I kept thinking something bad was going to happen, especially on John’s trip home.

      • Since I was in tears? Oh well I started to cry at page 50 more or less, and my tears were since the story was very moving, not since something in particular happened. Elisa

        • I finally realized that and I admit, I was slightly choked up at the end. I was just worried that the author wouldn’t give them a HFN, so I was incredibly happy she did.

  3. Hi Kassa, I hope it is okay to drop by your Lj! A friend pointed me to your review and I just have to say a big thank you.
    It is amazing to see that people are reading ‘Margins’ and enjoying it.
    I have passed on the comments about the cover art to Dreamspinner Press. I loved it too. 🙂
    Thanks again,

    • Wow. Um..I think I’ll just drool over your icon a bit. *stares*
      oh! Yes thank you for stopping by, it was a pleasure to read Margins and write the review :). I look forward to more of your work in the future.
      *goes back to icon looking*

  4. Good Morning, . I’m glad you enjoyed A Note in the Margin. Mara McKennen is our art director and designed it. It started with a stock photograph of a store front, and she added the other elements (books, signs, silhouette, coloring, and lettering) to capture the spirit of the story. It is available in print with the same cover at the link provided above. Thank you for providing such well thought out reviews.
    Elizabeth North
    Dreamspinner Press

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