Fiction: “The Duchess War” by Courtney Milan

duchess warTHIS IS THE LAST BOOK FROM 2016

YOU GUYS

AFTER THIS I’VE GOT MY RECAP AND I’LL FINALLY BE DONE WITH THAT YEAR

I APOLOGIZE FOR DRAGGING 2016 OUT FOR AN EXTRA NINE MONTHS

I WILL HOPEFULLY NEVER DO THAT AGAIN WITH OTHER YEARS

So I have a habit of bringing a book with me to the gym. I trick myself into multitasking: I sit my ass on the recumbent bike, set it for Ramps, Level 7, 30 minutes, and sit back and read my book. And in the middle of December, I was in-between books: I had just finished Publish & Perish, and I was reading A Rake’s Vow at home (because, terrible train rides aside, I still feel uncomfortable reading romance novels in public), and I was also re-reading Moonraker, but I was reading it to take notes for my pipe dream James Bond thesis, and I can’t ride a recumbent bike and take notes at the same time.

But I didn’t want to just … stare at the digital readout on the bike, either. So I searched through my Kindle app to find something to keep my eyes occupied for the rest of my workout that day, until I could go home and find something else to bring with me to the gym.

I don’t generally use my Kindle app to read books. I’m a Luddite; I like having the heft of a book as I read. Also, my phone is three years old (I am the Oldest Millennial Alive, as I refuse to replace technology until it truly stops working. See also: my seven-year-old iPod, my eight-year-old car), and using the Kindle app — frankly, use of any app — drains the battery something fierce. So it’s rare that I fire up the Kindle.

And this title was on there. I probably got it in a free download, and probably also from some publicity on smartbitchestrashybooks.com.  And I downloaded it, and never gave it a second thought until I was stuck on the recumbent bike, bookless.

Reader, I’m so glad I had it.

This is a great story! The characters are great! And fully realized! And there’s banter! And some modern sensibilities even though the book takes place in the 19th century! And it’s kind of hot, too!

The main character is Wilhelmina Pursling – nicknamed Minnie. She is a quiet wallflower type – keen to fade into the background of every social interaction. She lives with her two aunts, whose names escape me, but they help to shield her from society. At a gathering, Minnie meets Robert Blaisdell, Duke of Clermont, and they have an interesting conversation but then they separate, never to see each other again.

Or so they think. Because there’s this dude who thinks Minnie is inciting the workers in their town to unionize, and he thinks she’s distributing fliers and using her Good Works visits to stir up feelings. But when one of the fliers shows up with her words written on it – words she said to the Duke of Clermont – she knows who’s responsible. So she goes to him to form an alliance – and to make sure she stays a wallflower.

Why doesn’t Minnie want people to know who she is? She’s got a secret – when she was a child, her father taught her chess, and she became a bit of a phenom. However, since it was unbecoming for young ladies to play chess, and to have those chess games be bet upon, her dad dressed her up as a boy. Her dad was then accused of cheating or rigging games, and she’s exposed as a girl and the crowd turns into a mob and she ends up getting stoned. At the age of 11.

Meanwhile, Robert is trying to make amends for his father’s lack of moral compass. His father was terrible to the workers of the area, and a bit of a date-rapist as well. Robert befriends his half-brother and tries to fit into their family, but because Robert looks exactly like his father – even when he was a young lad – his half-brother’s mother can’t stand to go near him. So he makes a family of his own through his friends at Eton, and grows up determined to use his title to make things better for the working class.

To be honest, I feel like I’m doing y’all a disservice – I read this book nine months ago, and I can’t remember much of the intricacies of the plot. I saved some quotes, because I do want to talk about a couple of things, but if you’re looking for more of a “what happened” kind of thing … I really won’t be able to help you.

So, let’s talk about the things I want to talk about, and if you want a more professional review, I’d recommend checking out the review of The Duchess War by Carrie S, over on Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

Let’s talk about: how modern this is?

Let me be clear: the book takes place in the early 1800s. In terms of setting, no, it’s not “modern”. But in terms of language, and sensibility, it’s very modern.

There’s this dialogue, from Minnie and Robert’s second meeting, wherein Robert’s attempt at an alliance is in an effort to gain Minnie the attention of suitors on the marriage market:

“What would you say when it was just men about? When they were asking you what the devil you saw in that mousy Miss Pursling? I daresay you’d never tell them that you were entranced by the curl of my hair […] men don’t talk that way amongst themselves.”

He gave her a shake of his head and a grin. “Come, Miss Pursling,” he said. “Men wouldn’t ask any such thing. They’d already know what caught my eye.” He leaned forward and whispered in conspiratorial fashion. “It’s your tits.”  [Ch. 3, p. 33]

TITS. In a historical romance novel! And the word is said by a duke, not a prostitute or some other lower-class individual!

Furthermore:

If another man had said that her tits were magnificent, it might have been in a leering, lustful way – one that would have made her skin crawl. But the Duke of Clermont was smiling and cheerful, and he’d thrown it out there as if it were merely one more fact to be recounted. The weather is lovely. The streets are paved with cobblestone. Your tits are magnificent. [Ch. 3, p. 33]

Also-also? Minnie and Robert? Both virgins. Who masturbateBoth of them. Yes, even Minnie.

I’ve read many a historical romance where the hero has “taken himself in hand”, so to speak, but never the lady. Even the widowed ones abstain from any … hmm … what’s a good old-timey epithet for that? Oooh! I got it! “Riffling the reticule!”

[okay. I just spent WAAAAY too much time looking for a .gif of someone begging for a joke to land, but apparently the idea of someone telling a joke, and holding out their arms going, “huh? huh??” as if asking “did the joke land?” is not translatable into a .gif search, so … moving on.]

SPEAKING OF PUNS and just generally being awful, there was also this exchange between Minnie and Robert, while they’re putting fliers up around town, using glue:

“Well,” he said, just behind her, his voice low and amused. “You know what they say. ‘Paste not, want not.’”

She blinked. “Puns,” she said, without turning around, “are the lowest form of humor.”  [Ch. 12, p. 109]

“Shall we proceed to the next corner? Miss Peters and Miss Charingford are already outpacing us.” His eyes slid to hers. “Outpasting us,” he corrected. [Ch. 12, p. 109]

“Yes,” she said. “I read everything you wrote. And I’m furious with you.”

“Now, now,” he admonished, “don’t be pasty.”  [Ch. 12, p. 109]

Basically, Robert is the mid-19th century version of the Pun Husky.

Look y’all, seriously – if you like romance that’s got some amazing sexual tension between the lead characters, a sweet romance, and an epilogue that will make you cry in the middle of your workout, I cannot recommend this book enough. I apologize for not being a good enough reviewer, but — I’ll try and get better.

Grade for The Duchess War: 5 stars

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Fiction: “A Rake’s Vow” by Stephanie Laurens

rake's vowBack in November of last year, I reviewed The Rogue Not Taken, which I had read back in July 2016. At the time of my writing the review, I was in the middle of reading A Rake’s Vow, which I had purchased at Wonderbook during My Dear Friend Sarah’s bachelorette party weekend. And I had this to say:

The banter between King and Sophie is great throughout the book, and the romance is quite steamy, and practically modern compared to some other novels I’ve read. (Stephanie Laurens’ next book in the Cynster series, A Rake’s Vow, I’m giving you this face right now:)

angry-kuzco

So now it’s August 2017, and I’m reviewing a book I read between November and December of 2016, and I am so close to finishing the 2016 portion of Alaina’s Book Blog Backlog (which, if I wasn’t so tied to the name That’s What She Read, I’d almost change it, because at least Alaina’s Book Blog Backlog is more accurate at this moment) that I can taste it.

ANYWAY.

This is the second book in the Cynster series. I had read the first title, Devil’s Bride, way back when in 2011, and I was not impressed. I was so not impressed, I gave it the harshest of ratings: twilight stars.  I thought this book was as bad as Twilight. And in retrospect … I am 99% sure I overreacted. Because the only other titles I’ve ever rated “twilight stars” are … well, the entire Twilight series; the two Shayla Black “novels” I’ve read; Wideacre; the two Catherine Coulter “books” I’ve read; and Devil’s Bride.

one of these things

Because it can’t have been as bad as Twilight. It certainly wasn’t as bad as either The Cove or The Maze. I must have been in a funk when I reviewed Devil’s Bride back then and had a poor perception of it. For that, I am sorry.

… Having said that, it’s not Shakespeare. But it’s not Twilight, either.

So as I said, A Rake’s Vow is the second book of the Cynster series of novels, which is approximately a frillion titles long. (According to Goodreads, the Cynster series is 26 titles long, made up of one major series and three additional trios or quartets. Her website has 15 in the Cynster series, a trilogy and a duo for Cynster Sisters, and two more trilogies of Cynster: The Next Generation. That’s … that’s a lot.)

This title stars Vane Cynster, whose real name is Spencer, who is a cousin to Devil, whose real name I completely forgot. (Sylvester. Look, I’ll give this to Stephanie Laurens: she is thoughtful enough to put a family tree diagram in the front of each of her novels. And she numbers the chronology, too! I have to say, I love a good family tree diagram.) (All the primary Cynster men have nicknames, like Devil, or Scandal, or … I don’t know, Maleficent. The nicknames always have an “evil” element to them and part of the story is how he shows how nice and non-devil-ey he really is.)

Vane is traveling somewhere on his way from a church roof dedication and decides to drop in on his favorite quasi-relative, Minnie. Minnie has opened her manse up to a smorgasbord of characters, including one Patience Debbington, and Patience’s brother, Gerrard. Vane comes across Patience in the garden, as she’s bending over looking for something, and he’s immediately taken with her ass. When Patience rebuffs his charms, he becomes even more determined that he must have her.

But Patience has hang-ups with “elegant gentlemen” – she knows them all to be rakes who won’t stay with women. (It’s what her father did to her mother.) So she resolves to avoid Vane as much as possible during his stay at Bellamy Hall.

MEANWHILE, there is a ghost AND a burglar at Bellamy Hall, and they may be one and the same. Possibly. Nearly every individual has had something precious taken from them – Patience was looking for a missing vase when Vane met her – and they all suspect Gerrard. Minnie asks Vane to look into it, as he’s a newcomer to the party and couldn’t have been involved. So Vane plays private detective, and Patience helps, in attempting to clear her brother’s name. And of course, they end up becoming involved.

Like my complaint with Devil’s Bride, I do not like it when a novel gives us a sort of mystery or overarching plot (in Devil’s Bride, a murder; here, the burglaries) and then break away from the plot for at least a hundred pages just to focus on the romance and sex pieces of the novel. And maybe I wouldn’t complain so loudly about that if the sex writing wasn’t filled with such purple prose (hence the Angry Kuzco Direct Side Eye Face up there). In terms of pacing, though, it kind of throws me off.

Also, as with some of the other novels I’ve read, the purple prose is also kind of funny.

As their lips fused, Patience felt his hands slide lower, deliberately tracing the ripe hemispheres of her bottom. [p. 142]

I am totally naming my rock band The Ripe Hemispheres.

I complained about misogyny in my review of Devil’s Bride, but I’m not sure that’s the right word … The Cynster men (that I’ve read about, at least) have very … patriarchal? views? Maybe that’s the word? They certainly don’t have a dislike of, or contempt for, or prejudice against women. But when they fall in love with a woman, they are compelled to make the woman “belong” to them.

There was, however, […] no reason whatever that they shouldn’t wed — that he shouldn’t become his wife. From his point of view, and from that of anyone with her best interests at heart, from the viewpoint of his family, and hers, and the ton‘s, she was perfect for the position in every way.

All he had to do was convince her of that fact. Find out what hurdle was preventing her from marrying him and overcome it. [p. 192]

Of course, having just defended Vane against a claim of misogyny, in the paragraph directly above that one I just quoted, he did think Patience “logical for a woman”, so … who knows.

Now, there were a couple of things that made me … react. There was this:

Eyes shining, [Patience] looked into his. “I love you.”

Vane’s lip lifted as he bent to kiss her. “I know.” [p. 365]

leia angry

And then there was this:

“Who,” Patience asked, “is Sligo?”

Vane’s lips curved slightly. “Devil’s ex-batman.” [p. 245]

jon-stewart-huh.gif

Were … were there Batmen in Regency England? And so prevalent that some could retire? How does one become an ex-Batman? I don’t — ?? I have mentioned before that I love Batmans in other fictional universes, and now I really want to see this Sligo’s Batman story.

Anyway. At the end of the day, A Rake’s Vow is … it’s okay. It’s not great. I’m not going to read it again. Don’t be surprised if I keep up with the series, though, because by now we should all be aware of how masochistic I get about serieses and stuff. But it’s not “twilight stars” bad.

Grade for A Rake’s Vow: 1 star

Fiction: “The Pirate Bride” by Shannon Drake

Pirate BrideOn my trip to My Dear Friend Sarah’s bachelorette party, I had brought A Wrinkle in Time and Killing Orders to read, between the bus, plane, train, Metro, and train rides to get from Portland, Maine to Montgomery County, Maryland and back. But on the Sunday morning of the party weekend, we all trucked out to WonderBook, where Sarah used to work, and I stocked up on I think, six books? to bring back home. The Pirate Bride was one of those titles.

I had read Beguiled by Shannon Drake ages ago, and found it meh. I had forgotten I had found it meh until I just went back and read the review of it I had written seven years ago. I did remember, quite clearly, that Beguiled was just an interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty story. In the interim between Beguiled and The Pirate Bride, I also learned that Beguiled was part of a trilogy which looked at other fairy tales (I think – I know the first, Wicked, is supposed to be analogous to “Beauty and the Beast”). (Also, Shannon Drake is apparently one of the pseudonyms of Heather Graham. I have not read anything by Heather Graham, but if you like her and also like historical romances, you may want to give Shannon Drake a chance.)

So, here’s the bad news about The Pirate Bride: I can’t remember a lot about the plot. Not only because I read it so long ago, but also, I actually started reading this on the train ride back home to Boston, and … well …

Okay. I’m an idiot. It looks like I alluded to my transportation debacles in the reviews of the past two books, but let me be quite clear about what happened, for posterity.

When I learned of Sarah’s bachelorette party, I looked up transportation options, because while my car, Bruce, is an amazing piece of machinery, he was nearing 150,000 miles at that point and one trip to D.C. and back was more than enough for him. Of all the alternatives I could find – plane from Portland, bus to Boston and planes from Boston, overnight trains between Boston and DC – the cheapest option was actually the last: overnight trains from South Station to Union Station and back. So I booked those, and then got the official invitation which extended the party to Friday, so I canceled my incoming train and got a voucher (because of course they were non-refundable) and bought a one-way flight from Boston to Baltimore. I kept my return train trip, however.

The party ends, and Sarah drops me off at Union Station with all my things – including a bottle of Neuro Sleep, which I like to call my “Sleepy Time Drink”, because I’m an asshole. My train is scheduled to pull out a little after 10 p.m., and I should be hitting Boston around 8, bringing me back home to Portland in time for 11 a.m. I settle in for a long ride, and crack open The Pirate Bride to see if I can hasten sleep.

Well, the good thing about the book is that it kept me awake. And for some reason, something kept me from imbibing my Sleepy Time Drink – I’m not sure what it was, but I decided not to drink it. Good thing, too – because when the train pulled into Trenton a little past midnight, our train was stopped “due to police activity on the track”, and given an indefinite delay.

I don’t think Amtrak ever announced why we were stopped, but I found out on Twitter. The night before, at the party, all our phones had gone off because of the bomb found in SoHo (most of the other attendees of Sarah’s bachelorette party were visiting from New York). Well, the night I was going home – on a train – was the night of the bombs discovered in Elizabethtwo stations away.

We remained in Trenton for almost two hours.

We were finally told that we were going to pull forward to the next station (Metropark), at which point we were all to disembark, and there would be buses to take us to either Newark or Penn Station, whichever one we needed to get to.

Buses never showed. We disembarked around 3 a.m., and for over an hour, I had to listen to old white dudes wearing Giants jerseys shout into the void, “WHERE’S THE BUS?!” and then get angry when buses didn’t automatically appear at the sound of their voices, because they’re old white guys and have never been denied anything in their entire life.

There were also the people who tried to make a case that the lack of buses was the result of Democratic leadership in the White House, and that if a certain Cheeto’d Fiasco (this was pre-Access Hollywood tape, be tee dubs) got elected this wouldn’t happen. Sure. How’s that workin’ out for ya, chump? Do you have buses now?

At about 4:30 a.m., I had two women approach me, one of which had scoped out cabs to Newark. We eventually Uber’d over to Newark Station (which is an even longer story) where we caught the PATH to Penn Station. They went on their way, because they were from the city, and I busted through the LIRR and New Jersey Transit to finally find Amtrak, where I learn that the train I was supposed to be on (had I actually waited for the buses to take me to Penn) had pulled out.

It was now 6:30 a.m.  I had been awake since 10 a.m. the previous day. I was dehydrated, and hungry, but also didn’t dare eat something for fear of it upsetting my stomach. I had not napped on the train; nor had I slept standing up, because there were IDIOTS in front of the bus area at Metropark who were CONVINCED that HILLARY CLINTON was the reason WE DIDN’T HAVE BUSES TO PICK US UP, and also one of the women I Uber’d with was someone who had an OPINION ON EVERYTHING, and as I was on the PATH train with her and listening to her have VERY IMPORTANT OPINIONS on the fucking REDSKINS, of all things, I was suddenly completely overwhelmed with the feeling, I just want to go home.

I HAD WATCHED THE SUN COME UP IN FUCKING JERSEY, I AM DONE WITH HAVING ANYONE’S SHIT

And then, the Amtrak guy tried to tell me I had the wrong ticket.

distaste

maaaaaay have lost my shit.

hanni jumpy.gif

“It can’t be the wrong ticket! THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A WRONG TICKET. THIS TICKET is the ticket I had when I boarded the train in Washington at 9:30 last night, and this is the same ticket I had when Amtrak forced us off in Metropark to wait for buses that never came, I just Uber’d from NEWARK, of all places, and I need to get to Boston, and you, motherfucker, are getting me on the next fucking train north, or so help me GOD, I will end you!”

He shut up and got me a ticket.

When I finally got back into Bruce the Car in Portland to drive home, it was raining, and the traffic wasn’t going as fast as I wanted to, and this was an honest-to-god actual shot of me in the car on I-295:

alana 2

I finally made it home, took a shower, called my mother, and was asleep by 3 p.m. I passed out – not slept, passed out – for five hours, and still managed to sleep that night to go into work the next day.

And that’s the bare bones story! There is more detail I could put in, but I won’t! Namely because you probably don’t care, also I want to save it for my memoirs, but mainly because I’ve procrastinated on reviewing this book long enough.

The Pirate Bride is a stand-alone romance novel by Shannon Drake – there is nothing before it, and nothing after it.

The pirate in question is Red Robert – who happens to be Roberta. Or Bobbie, to her friends. When Bobbie was a kid, her parents were murdered by the evil pirate Blair Colm, so Bobbie grew up determined to take her revenge. One day, she and her crew captures Logan Hagerty’s merchant ship, and Red Robert decides to hold Logan for ransom. As they engage, Logan learns that Robert is a lady pirate and they come to an accord. But then they get shipwrecked on a deserted island and that’s where their romance truly blooms. Until the pirate Bobbie had been searching for all her life shows up with his crew, and Logan decides he’s going to kill him for Bobbie but Bobbie still wants to kill him herself —

I’m sorry. I feel like I’m doing a disservice to you, my readers, because I do not recall the details of the book. I just read through my dog-eared pages and I cannot remember why I dog-eared any of them. (Well, except one – someone reels off at the beginning of a chapter, “Outgunned, outsailed, outmanned, out … blasted!” and in my head I heard George Washington talk about the British taking Brooklyn and needing a right hand man.)

All in all, it’s a very formulaic historical romance – boy meets girl, girl is a pirate, boy admires girl’s chutzpah, boy and girl get shipwrecked, boy and girl fall in love, boy vows to kill girl’s enemy for her, girl gets mad, bad guy dies in the end anyway, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Eventually, I’ll read it again. I do remember that I read nearly half the book before the train stopped in Trenton, and I found the characters charming enough to keep me awake.

And I am never taking an Amtrak past Boston ever again.

Grade for The Pirate Bride: 2 stars

Fiction: “Wicked Intentions” by Elizabeth Hoyt

wicked-intentionsI would rather get a three-hour Pap smear with an Ebola-infected cotton swab and a rusty speculum than listen to the address to the Joint Session of Congress, so in keeping with the theme, let’s talk about a book with mild sado-masochistic tendencies!

Wicked Intentions is the first book in the Maiden Lane series of romance novels, centered around a section of London known as Maiden Lane. I originally got turned to this series because I read a synopsis of one of the books a few years ago where it sounded like the main character became the Batman of Maiden Lane, and if there’s one thing I like, it’s Batmans in different fictional interpretations. Unfortunately, Georgian!Batman is about six books away, and y’all know how I am with series: I have to start at the beginning, regardless of continuity. It’s a Thing.

So the main character of this book is Temperance Dews, a meek widower who helps her brother, Winter, run a foundling home. Her other siblings are named Verity, Silence, Concord, and Asa. Yeah … the Dews family is kind of puritan-y. And in case you don’t get that from the family names, all the orphans in the foundling home are named Mary or Joseph, with different last names to tell them apart (see, Joseph Tinbox; Mary Whitsun; Joseph Candlestick; Mary Hope).

The foundling home is appropriately, almost Dickensian-ly poor, and in danger of shutting down without a rich sponsor. With Winter spending his time teaching school, that leaves Temperance at the home raising the children and running the home – which she does, admirably. But it makes it difficult for funds to come in.

Enter, stage left: the most ridiculously-named hero in the history of silly little romance novels I’ve ever read. Yes, even worse than the ones that add extra “Y”s instead of “I”s. I give you: Lazarus Huntington, Lord Caire. Yes, his name is actually “Lazarus.” Yes, people do call him “Caire.” No, I do not understand how the whole naming thing works. Also, I do not give a shit. You might say I don’t … Caire.

I’ll see myself out.

Now, I don’t normally concern myself with how the dudes and ladies look in romance novels: they’re all Barbie and Ken dolls, after all. But this guy – y’all have to see about this guy.

There, sprawled in her chair like a conjured demon, sat Lord Caire. His silver hair spilled over the shoulders of his black cape, a cocked hat lay on one knee, and his right hand caressed the end of his long ebony walking stick. [p. 15]

OH GEE, WHO COULD THAT BE

lucius-cs

YEAH, THIS MOTHERFUCKER

So, good news, Harry Potter Aficionados That Grew Up Having a Thing for Lucius Malfoy! This is the book for you!

Why is Lazarus Huntington, Lord Malfoy waiting for Temperance to sit down? Well, he saw her helping a baby in the Maiden Lane one night and decided he needs her help in tracking down the murderer of his mistress. Yeah, I’m really not making that up. See, his mistress was brutally murdered, and that made Caire mad, so now he needs to find the murderer to exact revenge. But because he’s a member of the hoit, he doesn’t know where to go to find lowlife scum, so … needs the help of a meek widower?

But Temperance is a lot smarter than she appears. In exchange for her help, she gets Caire to agree to help her find a sponsor for the foundling home. This involves Caire dressing her up and taking her to fancy dress parties, where she (naturally) awes the crowd with her beauty while being completely self-deprecating and awkward.

When Temperance’s acquaintances and family learn of her working relationship with Caire, they all warn her away, because he apparently has what’s known as “unhealthy appetites.” Essentially, rumors of his deviant behavior have run rampant throughout Maiden Lane, and back in the early 1700s, “deviance” is equivalent to “enjoying a bit o’ rough sex.” And it’s not even rough – he just likes being tied up.

Meanwhile, Temperance has her own shit to deal with – namely, she likes having sex, which is just as stigmatized then as it is now. Her husband would make her feel terrible for enjoying sex, because sex should only be enjoyed by the male, and only because he knows he’s making babies for women to carry. (I swear, I only followed the damn speech on Twitter, I have no idea if New Gilead is even happening yet.) As penance, she’s shoved her desires down, deep down, into herself so she can focus on caring for the orphans and showing her purity or whatever.

But as they work together, Caire and Temperance come to realize they have feelings for each other. These feelings are complicated by the fact that Caire also hates to be touched – he claims he feels actual pain when people touch him, but it’s been so long since I read the book that I am not going to bother looking for a quote to prove it.

There are also a lot – a. lot. – of subplots in this book that are apparently jumping-off points for future books in the series. There’s Temperance’s sister, Silence, and the misunderstanding between Silence and her husband. There’s Caire’s best friend, who’s dealing with his wife’s decline due to a mysterious illness. Sometimes the subplots are very distracting.

Overall, it took me entirely too long to finish this book – which has felt like a theme of 2016, to be honest. If my paltry review has made you curious about it, I highly recommend you check out the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review of Wicked Intentions – and I would like to point out that if you do, I came to the Lucius Malfoy conclusion on my own, but was very gratified when I realized I wasn’t the only one who got there. Having said that, I never had a thing for Lucius Malfoy, so imagining him for the hero did absolutely nothing for me while reading the book.

And even though I did not like the book overall, and will most likely never read it again, I really want to find out if Georgian!Batman is a thing, so – you’ll see this series again. Not soon, but … later.

Grade for Wicked Intentions: No stars

Fiction: “The Rogue Not Taken” by Sarah MacLean

rogue-not-takenI had every intention of getting back into this a couple of weeks ago. But a couple of weeks ago the entire world turned upside down, and I kind of feel like the British troops did when they were run out of Yorktown – stunned, disheartened, and slightly confused as to how this all even fucking happened.

However, fear not: this is not a politics blog – even though I have had the occasional tangent down that dark alley. But my promise to you, my dear reader(s), is to maintain this blog in the same way I always have: poorly, with non-sequiturs and tangents, and only rarely discussing the actual plot of the books I read. And that’s a promise I won’t break.

So this is the third out of currently six “silly little romance novels” I’ve read thus far in 2016. Fun Fact!: I both began and finished reading this book while in the middle of reading The Witches. Y’ALL FORGOT THE WITCHES WAS GONNA BE A THING, didn’t you?! Don’t worry – it’s still coming up. Next, in fact. It’s, uh … it’s a Thing on its own.

I’d read a lot of good press about Sarah MacLean’s romances – that the heroines she wrote about were intelligent women with their own agency and a generous dash of snark, and that the romancing itself was very hot. I have to say, the press was actually correct in that respect. Now, pardon me while I quickly skim through the book to remind myself about the plot, because I read it in July.

(Another Fun Fact!: I was going to review this a couple of days ago, while I was puppysitting Hamilton Tickets for my parents [[oh my god i don’t think i’ve talked about Hamilton Tickets on here GIVE ME A MINUTE THIS WILL BE A TREAT]], but the book fell out of my laundry basket on my way downstairs and it was left on my deck outside for 24 hours [I live on the second floor and my entrance is through an open-air deck], wherein the book got rained on. But let’s take a moment to thank Avon Publishing for their stellar choice of cover material. The cover is only slightly warped, but the pages inside are STILL DRY.)

[[After My Sister’s Wedding, Mom and Dad got a puppy. Her real name is Ginger, but Hamilton Tickets is shaping up to be an excellent nickname (Thanks, Alaina’s Dear Friend Sarah!). Also, my goal in mentioning Hamilton Tickets is to get this picture to come up when people google “Hamilton Tickets”:

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LOOK AT THAT FAAAAAAACE SHE’S SO PRECIOUS]]

Okay, Alaina – the book. Talk about the book.

The Rogue Not Taken is the first book in the series “Scandal and Scoundrel”: each book in the series deals with gossip rags published and read among the ton, and while I think each subsequent book deals with a tertiary character from the last book in the series, I don’t think it will be like other romance series where each book deals with another member of the same family. I’m not sure, to be honest; the second book in the series was only recently released, so I’m not 100% sure what the pattern will be.

So in The Rogue Not Taken, we are introduced to the Talbot sisters: a family of five girls who rose to prominence when their parents purchased a title. The ton gets all mad because they don’t like upstarts who purchase titles; they only approve homegrown blue-bloods. Sophie, the youngest Talbot, keeps to herself and stays out of the gossip rags – unlike her sisters. And the story starts when her temper gets the better of her, and she pushes her brother-in-law into a goldfish pond after discovering him boinking someone else at a party.

In a spontaneous moment, she decides to leave London and return to her childhood home in Cumbria. But because this is 1833 and not 2013, she can’t exactly take an Uber there. So with the last of her pocket money, she hires a footman away from a carriage and disguises herself as said footman and hitches a ride on said carriage and rolls right into trouble.

Because she’s an unchaperoned young woman not fooling anyone in her footman’s clothes. And the carriage happens to belong to a dude whose name is, hand to God, “Kingscote.” He goes by “King.” Alaina is Never Making It Up. He is a bit of an asshole, at first – he’s heading back to his hometown (which is just outside of Sophie’s hometown, because coincidence is prevalent in silly little romance novels) because his dying father wants King to come back home and accept his responsibilities as duke. Or marquess. Whatever title King doesn’t want to do. I know he’s not an actual king.

See, King and his dad had a falling out, because years ago, King loved a commoner, and King’s Dad disapproved of the match, and when King’s Dad ran the girl off of the estate, the coach she was in careened her to her death, and King blames King’s Dad for it and that’s why he’s returning home reluctantly. Also, he’s vowed to never marry and the line ends with me and all that jazz.

(This is the second book I can recall where this is a major plot line. Spoiler alert!: they always change their mind.)

When he finds out that Sophie’s going in the same direction he is, his first assumption is that she’s trying to trap him into marriage – much like her sisters did with their husbands. But all Sophie wants to do is return to Cumbria, open a bookshop, and meet up with her childhood sweetheart Robbie and hope he’s still unattached. (Spoiler alert!: he’s not.)

King attempts to leave Sophie to her own devices, but she sells his fancy curricle wheels behind his back to get some money for a ticket on the mail coach. When King finds out, he goes after her (for the wheels, definitely not because he thinks he likes her, we’re only 100 pages in at this point, he hasn’t recognized what that feeling is yet). But when he gets to the mail coach, the passengers are being robbed at gunpoint, and Sophie actually gets hit. It’s a non-critical hit, but a hit nonetheless.

Can I just take a minute and praise this plot? First, let me point out to you the pun in the title: The Rogue Not Taken = “the road not taken.” This is a book full of road trip hijinks! Where the heroine takes a bullet! Unfortunately, the road trip aspect involves a lot more romance and no Hamilton karaoke, so it’s not exactly like an Alaina Patterson Road Trip™, but it’s still pretty hijink-ey. (The other part of the title that makes it almost a pun is that King is a rogue who is unattached – i.e., not taken. Geddit?)

I’m sorry. I don’t know why I didn’t trust you guys (are there more than one of you? Sometimes I wonder…) to get the pun in the title. I’m a bad person.

King takes Sophie to the nearest village and the doctor saves her, and then King feels responsible so he agrees to take her back to Cumbria. To keep an eye on her. Definitely not because he thinks he’s falling in love with her, dudes don’t do that.

Also, if you like heroines who don’t believe they’re pretty and heroes determined to prove them otherwise (see The Deception of the Emerald Ring), it becomes a theme between Sophie and King.

King eventually brings Sophie to his childhood home and introduces her to his father. We learn that the grudge King bears his father isn’t fully deserved, and Sophie and King work towards declaring their love, when Sophie’s family barges in and comes up with a cockamamie plot to trap King into marrying her, against Sophie’s will. She loves him for him and not his title or fortune, but her family doesn’t see it the same way.

There’s an obstacle in – not even the third act, it’s practically the denouement – but it’s overcome quickly. Again, the obstacle arrives in the last fifty pages, so it’s a quick descent to the happily-ever-after.

The banter between King and Sophie is great throughout the book, and the romance is quite steamy, and practically modern compared to some other novels I’ve read. (Stephanie Laurens’ next book in the Cynster series, A Rake’s Vow, I’m giving you this face right now:)

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So I’m definitely adding Sarah MacLean to my list of authors where I must read every thing she’s ever done, because I really liked it. Even if “King” is a really stupid name for a dude.

Grade for The Rogue Not Taken4 stars

Fiction: “What a Pirate Desires” by Michelle Beattie

pirate-desiresLet me paint a picture for you for the next few books I have to review:

As attempted over the past few years, once April came around I found myself drifting towards an American History book. Conveniently, I had received Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton for my birthday. So I dug into that 900-page monstrosity. And as interesting as the story of the ten-dollar founding father is, that book is not very portable. I mean, if I had the hardcover edition, I could use it as a doorstop.

Neither is it easy to read in bed. A habit I cannot break is reading in bed. And when reading in bed, book weight is important to keep in mind. Because let’s say I had fallen asleep while attempting to read Alexander Hamilton: there’s a good chance the book could have fallen right on my face. And my sister was getting married at the end of May – I’m pretty sure she would have killed me if I had to have pictures taken with my nose in a sling.

So while I read Alexander Hamilton at work (and at the gym – which led to a lot of funny looks), I turned to silly little romance novels to fall asleep to, because they don’t weigh enough to possibly deviate my septum should I pass out and drop my book on my face.

(I also turned to a more portable book to read while on the Escape To DC, i.e. Operation: Pick Up My Dear Friend Sarah In D.C. So She Could Photograph My Sister’s Wedding, a.k.a., Hashtag Adventure. But that was a fun read too.)

Well – What a Pirate Desires was a three-dollar find at Bull Moose. Normally, my romance novel preferences lean towards Regency society; looking back, I really don’t think I’ve veered from that theme in almost seven years of blogging about this genre. So “pirate” is actually quite a different step out of my wheelhouse. Look, Dad, I’m still broadening my horizons! (Even though I’m pretty sure that isn’t what he meant by that.)

So – why pirates? Uh, guys? I love pirates. I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was my favorite movie for quite a few years. I celebrated International Talk Like a Pirate Day for many years running. I brought an actual jar of dirt to work on Halloween one year to ward off rogue kraaken.

Once Upon a Time was an okay show; then they added Captain Hook to the cast, and it became a fantastic show. Hoo boy, did he immediately jump up the list of Alaina’s Pretend Boyfriends. For an entire season and a half, he usurped Daniel Craig/James Bond from the list! I know! That’s horrible!

Don’t worry, guys: Daniel Craig’s back on top. (giggity) And while Captain Hook is still extremely easy on the eyes, his character has been completely assassinated, I think. I mean, look: one of my bulletproof kinks – a surefire storytelling trope that will get all of my emotions firing on all cylinders – is the idea of a bad guy reformed for the love of a girl. And I’m not talking about any Manic Pixie Dream Girl shit; I’m talking about He Was the Villain Or At Least Misguided But This Woman Makes Him Feel Things And Now He Wants to Be A Better Dude. Damon Salvatore on The Vampire Diaries is one of the best examples of this – until those writers RUINED IT by making Damon Elena’s sire so when they finally consummated their relationship there was this aura of “she’s only doing it because he’s her sire and it’s what he wants so now she has to want it too” – it took all of her agency out of the equation.

And Captain Hook was on his way to being the next example of the Love Redeems trope, but they completely took away his struggle – after the Neverland arc, the entire rest of his narrative has been to act as the catalyst for Emma’s growth. And while that’s not unimportant, it effectively revoked Hook’s piratical nature. WHY WOULD YOU REMOVE HOOK’S PIRATE SHIT (that is not a typo)

Uh, okay. I … I apologize. I did not realize I had so many unresolved ~feelings about Once Upon A Time‘s narrative choices. Huh.

SO ANYWAY, since I wasn’t getting swashbuckling in visual forms of media, how about a book?

What a Pirate Desires tells the story of Sam Steele, formerly Samantha Fine, until an evil pirate named Dervish destroyed the ship she and her family were on; her family were unable to escape with her. After a horrible time being enslaved by a racist rapist on a Caribbean plantation, she escaped with one of the asshat’s ships and became a pirate, masquerading as a male captain, on the lookout for revenge against Dervish.

Sam Steele crosses steel with another pirate captain, Luke Bradley. He also seeks revenge against Dervish, and he doesn’t really want to join forces with Sam, but as usually happens in romance novels, her “fiery spirit” or whatever “entrances him” and he slowly comes to realize that he lurrves her.

There really wasn’t anything more than that. I really liked that the lead female character was the pirate, and of her own free will, not that she was Stockholm Syndrome’d into becoming a pirate, or that she was a normal maiden who happened to be kidnapped by the pirates and then falls in love with the pirate captain. In her piracy, she was very successful and had the utmost loyalty from her all-male crew.

OH SHIT WAIT I ALMOST FORGOT SOMETHING

TRIGGER WARNING: past rape
When Sam escaped from Dervish’s attack only to land at that horrible plantation, the plantation owner did rape her. It happened in the past so we the reader do not get the chance to relive it (thank goodness), but it happened and it was a formative influence for Sam. Wanted to put that out there in case anyone else might want to read this.

Oh, and after all that blathering up there about the “Love Redeems” trope, that wasn’t really present in this story – Luke never felt that he needed to become a more worthy man in order to win Sam’s love. They were just two pirates with an accord. So I shall continue to explore literature and other TV to find this trope again, because it is one of my favorites and I needs it like cake.

Grade for What a Pirate Desires: 2 stars

Fiction: “Just Like Heaven” by Julia Quinn

Just Like HeavenJust a heads-up: this is the first “silly little romance novel” out of four I’ve read so far this year. My average for the past couple of years has been two, max. I do not have an explanation as to why I’m suddenly picking up these things left and right; something to do with escapism, maybe? I mean, in the past six months, I have helped my family with my sister’s bridal shower, bachelorette party, and wedding, and after each event I have found myself withdrawing from social interactions. After the wedding, I didn’t really talk to any of my friends or make plans to do anything for about two weeks after? Maybe three? I spent time in my apartment watching Netflix and taking naps. And this isn’t the first time I’ve done this – after the Christmas Party last year, I started looking at Caribbean vacation deals that were cheap for one person (spoiler alert!: there were none. Goddamn double occupancy!), because all I wanted to do was escape.

And for the first time in a very long time, I found myself escaping in the books I was reading. Some of the “silly little romance novels” are quite silly – wait till you hear the one about the Lucius Malfoy-look-alike who enjoys light bondage! – but ever since March, I have been reading two books at a time: one of these historical romances at home, and then a Lunch Break Book I could bring to work to read on my lunch break without getting weird looks from the woman who always asks what I’m reading now.

(Not that I think she’d judge me; I just don’t feel comfortable reading romance novels in public. Don’t therapy me.)

So sometime in late March I felt the need to pick up a romance novel, and my choice came down to two things: 1) the way the back cover described the plot (which I’ll get to in a minute), and 2) the fact that Goodreads told me it was the first in a series.

And look, I know that while 99.9% of all “silly little romance novels” belong to a series of some sort – whether a trio or a quartet, or even, in the case of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series or Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster series (hey guys, remember that shit show?! I sure don’t!), more than 10 titles to its grouping – you usually never have to read them in order. I get that; I do. Does it make me feel weird to know that I’m reading a series out of order? Hell yes! Do I do everything I can to avoid that feeling and just start with the first book in a series as much as possible? Hell yes!

Here’s how the book cover is written:

Honoria Smythe-Smith is:
A) a really bad violinist
B) still miffed at being nicknamed “Bug” as a child
C) NOT in love with her older brother’s best friend
D) all of the above

Marcus Holroyd is:
A) the Earl of Chatteris
B) regrettably prone to sprained ankles
C) NOT in love with his best friend’s younger sister
D) all of the above

Together they:
A) eat quite a bit of chocolate cake
B) survive a deadly fever AND the world’s worst musical performance
C) fall desperately in love

It’s Julia Quinn at her best, so you KNOW the answer is …
D) all of the above

Being unfamiliar with Julia Quinn’s writings, I couldn’t really attest to that last D), but I was willing to give it a shot. I mean – the girl’s name is Smythe-Smith, and the dude’s last name is Holroyd, so clearly Ms. Quinn is aware of my Rule of Y (“never use an ‘I’ when you could use a ‘Y’ instead). Also, the world’s worst musical performance? I don’t think so, unless Honoria and Marcus also attended that Third Eye Blind show at Merrill Auditorium back in 2010 with the WORST opening band I have ever had to sit through – actually, I didn’t sit through it, I went out into the lobby and ordered a second tequila. Straight. They were that bad. They were so bad, I couldn’t tell you who it was; I tried so hard to block it from memory. They were even worse than Longwave, the middle band that opened for O.K. Go back in 2009 (p.s., shout out to Google for telling me when these shows were because my memory is terrible with dates).

But also, there’s cake?! Sign me UP!

Marcus was indeed best friends with Daniel Smythe-Smith when they were lads, and Honoria tended to trail after them like a mosquito – hence, the nickname “Bug.” When they were older, Daniel got into some trouble that I can’t quite recall and he had to shove off to France – but not before getting Marcus’s promise that he (Marcus) would look after Honoria in Daniel’s absence.

Flash-forward to the beginning of the story, and Honoria runs into Marcus unexpectedly. She is shopping with her friends and gets caught in a downpour, and Marcus offers her temporary shelter in his carriage. Also, he has cake. And it’s not like Marcus is a stranger offering cake; she knows him, so it’s safe to get into his vehicle!

Honoria is on the hunt for a husband – not because she feels the need to succumb to matrimony, but because she’s currently in the Smythe-Smith Quartet, and every year they put on a musicale. I don’t know why there’s an extra ‘e’ on the end of that word. But also, apparently this musicale is mentioned in Ms. Quinn’s other series, related to the Bridgertons. Anyway, once one of the female cousins gets married, she doesn’t have to perform in the musicale anymore. So, in an effort to get herself noticed by Gregory Bridgerton, Honoria steals a small shovel from the house where she’s staying and digs a mole hole in the hopes of making it look like she twisted her ankle in it and needs his assistance. This would have worked splendidly, if it wasn’t right next to Marcus’s property, and he comes upon her just as she practices her fainting. And then he steps into the mole hole, spraining his ankle.

Honoria walks him back to his manse, at which point he has to cut his boot off of his foot because his ankle has swollen so much. He accidentally slices his leg, which then gets infected – because remember, y’all, this is a historical romance; it takes place in 1824. When Honoria learns that Marcus has locked himself in his mansion by himself (he’s an orphaned Earl and doesn’t really have a lot of friends now that Daniel has absconded to France), Honoria grabs her mother and the two of them go and save Marcus, including cutting out the infected tissue of the wound.

Now, I’ve read a few historical romance novels, but I’ve never seen one where a woman is able to pretty much do surgery on the hero. So I really appreciated the novelty of this.

During his recuperation, Honoria steals him a treacle tart so the cake theme continues. Honoria’s mother tells Marcus that they wouldn’t have come if Honoria hadn’t insisted, because they’re not really related and it’s improper for an unmarried woman to be in the same house as an unmarried man. And Honoria learns that Marcus interpreted Daniel’s plea to keep an eye on his sister as “interfering with the dudes who tried to court Honoria.” Marcus’s reasons were always that he didn’t think those dudes deserved Honoria; never did it cross Marcus’s mind that he wanted Honoria for himself. Honoria also comes to realize that her feelings for Marcus are more than brotherly love. Their declaration of love comes after a veritable comedy of errors.

I can’t tell you how much I liked this book. In fact, it’s probably going to be the first “silly little romance novel” I’ve read here that I’m going to rate 4 stars. For one thing, I really appreciated that Marcus was not a rake. Not that I have anything against rakes, but it was very refreshing to have the male character not be in need of reform in any way. He’s a respectable member of society; in fact, great mention is made of his being quiet and solitary. He hasn’t had a lot of affairs, he’s not trying to marry for money, he’s not a spy, he’s not a secret twin. He’s just Marcus.

Same with Honoria – she has a loving family and while she’s looking for a husband at the beginning of the book, it’s not because she’s trying to escape from something or move up in society – she’s just trying to get out of her family’s musical quartet, and also, it’s a thing women had to do back then.

I also appreciated that the relationship between Marcus and Honoria was built out of a long history together. There were no obstacles of personality to overcome, no secrets that needed to be got over – and no, I’m not counting the whole “Marcus keeps an eye on Honoria by intimidating her potential suitors” as a “secret.” They just know each other so well, that it paves the way to a romance between them quite nicely:

“I like the rehearsals. Especially now that all of my siblings are gone, and my house is nothing but ticking clocks and means on trays. It’s lovely to gather together and have someone to talk to.” She looked over at him with a sheepish expression. “We talk at least as much as we rehearse.”

“This does not surprise me,” Marcus muttered.

She gave him a look that said she had not missed his little dig. But she did not take offense; he had known she would not.

And then he realized: he rather liked that he had known she would not take offense. There was something wonderful about knowing another person so well. [p. 242]

Their banter together was adorable; and if there’s one thing that gets me every time, it’s banter.

“You will have a terrible scar.”

He smiled wryly. “I shall wear it with pride and mendacity.”

“Mendacity?” she echoed, unable to contain her amusement.

He cocked his head to the side as he regarded the huge wound on his leg. “I was thinking I might set it about that I’d wrestled with a tiger.”

“A tiger. In Cambridgeshire.”

He shrugged. “It’s more likely than a shark.”

“Wild boar,” she decided.

“Now that’s just undignified.” [p. 206]

And finally, and probably the most important part – they all value dessert above all other foods.

But just before he turned to greet her, she turned in the opposite direction, and he could have sworn he heard her mutter, “Blast it all, I’m getting an éclair.”

She drifted off, weaving her way through the crowds. Marcus watched her with interest; she seemed to know exactly where she was going. Which meant that if he’d heard her correctly …

She knew where one could get an éclair. [p. 276]

I don’t know – I found this book so refreshing. It’s the first book I’ve read in this genre in at least a few years where the drama originated from internal forces rather than external, and there was no deception in any measure happening between the two main characters. It was just … cute? and happy? and escapist? But I enjoyed every word of it?

PS guess what I found in my bookcase: the second book in this series. boo. yah.

Grade for Just Like Heaven: 4 stars