Fiction: “Otherwise Engaged” by Amanda Quick

otherwise engagedIn January, I went to the Library and left with about six books – three of which were hardcover romance novels by authors I’ve either read before, or seen my mother read, so I figured they were pretty good. Also, since they were hardcover, their covers weren’t as racy as what I usually get from the Wal-Mart Book Aisle, and therefore, appropriate to read at work on my lunch break.

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I mean, look at that cover – it’s so demure, compared to other things I could be reading. I mean, could you imagine Janice From Accounting’s face when she sees me reading, oh, I don’t know – how about Getting Off, a pulp novel by Lawrence Block? Something tells me that that cover will actually make her give a fuuuck.

So this was my first Amanda Quick novel. Amanda Quick is one of the pen names of Jayne Ann Krentz, and so this was also my first Jayne Ann Krentz novel. And I … I was sorely disappointed. And I’m not sure how that’s possible, considering my only expectation for the book was that the plotline and characters would keep me interested in reading towards its conclusion.

Eight-ish months later, and I know that I didn’t really like it. Sadly, I never took down any notes (and I could swear that I had at least taken some pictures of quotes, but apparently not), so I’m gonna crib from GoodReads a lot.

The star of this novel is Miss Amity Doncaster, a single lady who writes about travel for a London newspaper. At the beginning of the novel, she is somewhere in the West Indies, and comes across Benedict Stanbridge in a darkened alley. But don’t worry, he’d just been shot, so he’s not a threat. She manages to get him back on board their cruise ship (I guess they had those in the 1890s?) and nurses him back to health. Except a good portion of that nursing occurs in Benedict’s stateroom, and though no hanky-panky occurs, Amity’s reputation does suffer slightly on her return to London.

Benedict disembarks in New York and then travels to California, where he’s researching … something. I think this MacGuffin may be an automatic rifle of some sort? I remember it’s some form of advanced weaponry. But whatever – he doesn’t write to her, so she starts pouting and then moves on with her life.

… Right into a carriage that is then hijacked by a serial killer known as The Bridegroom! Look, I can’t remember the motivation behind why he attacked Amity – I think it was something about how it looked like she rejected Benedict and he was avenging the rights of Man or whatever – it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is a) she defended herself adequately, because the fan that she always carries around is actually a tessen, which is a Japanese war fan, and b) Benedict ends up hearing about her abduction and races to her aid.

And his aid is: let’s pretend to be engaged! That will save your reputation and I’ll be able to protect you from any other strangers who may want to attack you!

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But her sister, Penny, convinces her that it’s a necessary step, so she goes along with it.

And of course, all the parties involved want to figure out who the Bridegroom is, and also, Benedict is a spy for the War Office or something and he’s trying to figure out who may have stolen a notebook or whatever, and so he and Amity and this police detective whose name escapes me and Amity’s sister Penny all become detectives and it’s all whatever and also boring and repetitive.

Because when someone comes up with a great idea, everyone else has to comment on its brilliance. “Oh, brilliant Penny!” “Yes indeed, Miss Doncaster, very brilliant indeed!” and so you have to listen to each character go in a Round Robin until the compliments are over, and then they begin again with the next brilliant idea another character has.

I’m not sure what else I can say about this book at this point. I mean, the characters were all fairly bland? When an author gives every character the same verbal tic, no character sounds distinct enough to stand out. It’s a romance novel – of course the “fake engaged” trope is going to work out in the hero/heroine’s favor! (And in this instance, you end up with a double happy ending, because Penny and the detective also fall in love and get together before the end of the novel.)

It was very … blah. Nondescript. There was never any urgency to the plot, or any weight given to the characters and their wants. Overall, I am very glad I did not pay for this book, as I would definitely be asking for a refund.

The one star grade is for the use of a Japanese war fan as a weapon – that was a new thing for me.

Grade for Otherwise Engaged: 1 star

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Fiction: “The Heiress Effect” by Courtney Milan

heiress effectSpoiler Alert!: I only read romance novels this past winter. No, I’m not kidding. (And yes, I am including A Murder in Time in that description.) So if romance novels aren’t your jam, tune in sometime near December when I finally get around to reviewing the books I read in March.

Come on. You know I’m right.

So The Heiress Effect is the second book in Courtney Milan’s “Brothers Sinister” series, following The Duchess War. The “brother” in this story is Oliver Marshall, the bastard son of a duke who was raised by his mother and her husband (not his real father) in humble circumstances. He has used his circumstances to be a member of the House of Lords (I think – it may be the House of Commons, but I’m also not going to search through the book to find out which one it is. Not just because I’m incredibly lazy, but mostly because I read this on my Kindle app) and now Oliver wants to pass a voting reform bill (or something – it’s a MacGuffin, y’all, it doesn’t matter) and his mentor, the Marquess of Bradenton, is determined to undermine him at every turn.

Enter Jane Fairfield.

Jane is the titular Heiress, sitting on a fortune of over 100,000 pounds. Her uncle is pushing her to marry because that’s not a thing that has ever changed in over four hundred years of human civilization. Jane doesn’t really want to marry – or, at least, not until her younger sister, Emily, reaches her majority.

See, Emily has epilepsy. Except in the context of the story – and again, I can’t remember what year this is supposed to take place – there hasn’t been a medication program discovered for epilepsy, so Emily and Jane’s uncle keeps bringing all these quack doctors to the house, hoping to cure Emily so she also can be marketable as a future wife.

“So let me understand. You are proposing to deliver as many electric shocks as you like to my sister, for an indeterminate amount of time, on a theory for which you have no evidence other than a wild guess.”

“That hardly seems fair!” he squawked. “I haven’t even had a chance –”

“Oh, no,” Emily said, speaking up at last. “He’s demonstrated that he can cause a convulsion in me with his current. I told him that it wasn’t the same kind of fit that I have. It doesn’t feel the same at all. But it is, after all, only my body. What do I know?”

Jane couldn’t speak for the black rage that filled her. She’d wanted to protect Emily. Why did her uncle have to bring in these fools?

“Exactly,” the charlatan said. “I am the expert on galvanics. What would she know?” [Chapter 6, p. 65]

Ha ha ha nothing has changed when it comes to women’s health care and also women’s autonomy over their own bodies!

If Jane gets married, she’ll go to live with her husband, leaving Emily at the mercy of her uncle and his quacks. But if she can remain single until Emily reaches her majority, then she can accept responsibility for her sister, and they can move into a house together, where Jane can take care of Emily. So how does Jane keep from being proposed to?

She becomes the worst type of person.

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Okay, not quite Mona-Lisa Saperstein, but only because that level of vapidity hadn’t been invented yet.

She purchases the worst dresses – at one point, she’s wearing a dress with bananas garishly printed on it. She insults everyone, but in the nicest way possible with a smile plastered on her face. She’s loud, she laughs annoyingly, and everyone hates her.

It’s just the way she likes it. Because if everyone hates her, then no one will propose, and her plan will work exactly as she hoped.

Here’s an example of how Jane plays dumb in talking to men who hate her, and it’s brilliant:

Young virgins simply did not engage in frank conversations about the government’s policy of locking up prostitutes. The disgruntled mutters about Miss Fairfield would turn into outrage.

“It’s simple,” Jane insisted. “I know just how to do it. Instead of just locking up the women who are suspected of being ill, we should lock up all the women. That way, the ones who are well can never get sick.”

At the foot of the table, Whitting scratched his head. “But … how would men use their services?”

“What do men have to do with it?” Jane asked.

“Um.” Lord James looked down. “I take your point, Bradenton. This is … perhaps not the best conversation to be having at the moment.”

“After all,” Jane continued, “if men were capable of infecting women, our government in its infinite wisdom would never choose to lock up only the women. That would be pointless, since without any constraint on men, the spread of contagion would never stop. It would also be unjust to confine women for the sin of being infected by men.” She smiled triumphantly. “And since our very good Marquess of Bradenton supports the Act, that could never be the case. He would never sign on to such manifest injustice.”

There was a longer pause at that. [Chapter 13, p. 141]

“What do men have to do with prostitution?” she asks. Dear god, I love this person so much.

Jane frequents a lot of the same parties that Oliver and Bradenton attend. And Bradenton haaaaaaaaates Jane. And so, he makes Oliver an offer: if Oliver can remove Jane from their social circle, then Bradenton will vote for Oliver’s voter reform act. Oliver, desperate for votes for his bill, agrees – but he’s not too happy about it.

However, the closer he gets to Jane, the more Oliver realizes that she’s pretending. And the more he sees her pretending, the more he likes her.

MEANWHILE, there’s a whole subplot about Emily! She sneaks out of her uncle’s house for a walk, and one day, she meets a law student named Anjan Bhattacharya. She realized she needed to take a break from her walk because she could feel one of her fits coming on, so she goes into a pub near Cambridge (the whole series takes place in Cambridge/Oxford instead of London) to hide and work through the fit and sits next to the law student from India. Anjan is the only Indian attending in his class, and has become the Token Diverse “Friend” of all the other white boys in his class.

Anjan was Batty because Bhattacharya had too many syllables. He’d told one man his first name; the fellow had blinked, and then had immediately dubbed him John. That’s who they thought he was: John Batty. These well-meaning English boys had taken his name as easily, and with as much jovial friendship, as their fathers had taken his country. [Chapter 16, p. 160]

But Emily wants to know his real name, and about his family, and about him. It’s not just because she’s starved for company – she takes a liking to Anjan. And he does to her as well.

And Emily had called him Bhattacharya. He’d fallen a little bit in love with her the moment she’d said his name as if it had value. [Chapter 16, p. 160]

They keep meeting on her afternoon walks, until her uncle realizes she’s been sneaking out. Then he practically locks her up in his house and forces Jane into a proposal.

There’s ALSO a subplot involving Oliver’s younger sister Free (possibly short for something, but again, not looking it up). Free wants to be the first woman to attend Cambridge (or maybe Oxford), and it’s for her that he’s promoting his voting reform act. There’s also his aunt, Aunt Freddy, an agoraphobic woman who lives by herself and desperately wants to see the world, and let me tell you, the resolution of that subplot and how it tied back to Jane and Emily was NOT something I saw coming and it was BEAUTIFUL AND WONDERFUL AND YES, I CRIED ON THE ELLIPTICAL.

But Free is awesome. She would fit right in on today’s Women’s Marches around the world.

“I worry about you,” he finally said to Free. “I’m afraid that you’re going to break your heart, going up against the world.”

“No.” The wind caught her hair and sent it swirling behind her. “I’m going to break the world.” [Chapter 8, p. 99]

And when Oliver learns that she is attending a women’s rally and he races to her because he fears for her safety:

Free refused to be ruffled. “You appear to believe it’s acceptable to risk that danger to come and, uh … rescue me.” She rolled her eyes. “I believe it’s acceptable to risk that danger to come and say that women deserve the vote. Why is your risk gallant and mine foolish?” [Chapter 17, p. 168]

I mean, she makes an excellent point, dude.

Oliver is, overall, a weak person. He capitulates to Bradenton for a good portion of the book, and in spite of what he wants. Even when he and Jane finally sleep together, he can’t even admit to himself that Jane is exactly what he wants:

He didn’t think she would expect anything of him. And he’d been careful. Yet part of him – some horrible, treacherous part – wished that he had taken less care. That he’d done everything he could to get her with child. That he’d have her forced upon him so that he could take the thing he wanted so badly without having to decide to do it. [Chapter 23, p. 208]

Take the thing(*) he wanted so badly without having to decide to do it. That’s what Oliver wants – to not have to decide, and yet get what he wants. (* I know in my heart of hearts that he/Ms. Milan didn’t mean to refer to Jane, a woman and a real, whole person, as a “thing”.) That’s what trips Oliver up – the deciding of things.

In the end, Oliver does decide – he asks Jane to be with him exactly as she is, to continue to talk too much, and speak her mind, and be her loud, flamboyant, amazing self. And she agrees – not as a prize, or as a gift, but as a woman, with her own agency.

And Anjon asks the uncle for Emily’s hand in marriage! And the uncle’s reaction is just about as horrible as you might expect, despite it not being violent or even that awful:

Mr. Fairfield didn’t say anything for a long while. His lips moved, as if he was arguing with himself … but at least he appeared to be arguing back. Finally, he straightened. “You’re Indian,” he finally said. “Doesn’t that mean that you have … special healing abilities? I think I remember hearing about them. Special …” He made a gesture. “Things. With stuff.”

[…] “Yes,” [Anjon] finally said. “I do things with stuff. How ever did you know?” [Chapter 27, p. 239]

Casual Racism! A Thing Then; A Thing Now!

But I’m going to leave you with the sentence that made me stop my elliptical because I was too busy crying to continue:

“The name,” [Emily] said primly, “is Bhattacharya. And since it’s going to be mine, you had best learn to pronounce it properly.” [Chapter 25, p. 230]

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Grade for The Heiress Effect: 5 stars

Fiction: “A Dangerous Love” by Sabrina Jeffries

dangerous lovePicture it: Halloween 2017. I had just gotten back from a whirlwind weekend trip to Montreal with an old friend and was pretty exhausted. My friend and her friend left for California on the last Sunday in October, and I didn’t have to go back to work until November. So after sleeping pretty much all day Monday, I felt like I had to accomplish something, and I wasn’t in the middle of binging anything on TV, and I didn’t have any Halloween plans. So I decided to sit on my ass the entire day on Tuesday, with the goal of reading an entire book in a single day.

Aside from a few Sidney Sheldon thrillers I read in high school, I’ve never been able to do that. I get distracted, or, lately, I fall asleep. But if I pick the right book – which would be around 300 pages with a good-sized print and an interesting plot – and if I pace myself, I could probably do it. I mean, books are, on average, 200 to 300 pages long. I tend to read (depending on print size) a page a minute. So even if I’m reading something that’s 360 pages long, theoretically, I should be able to finish a book in six hours – and that’s without stopping for food, bathroom breaks, or the inevitable naptime.

And to give myself a handicap, I picked a “silly little romance novel,” because c’mon, if I’m going to be in my jam-jams all day (“pajamas”), I’m not going to be reading anything heavier plot-wise than that.

I perused my romance bookcase and took out A Dangerous Love. This is the first book in Ms. Jeffries’ Swanlea Spinsters series, and I had previously read After the Abduction, the third book, so now I could have the added bonus of getting caught up in a series! And y’all know how I am with a series.

The good news is that I was able to read the book in a single day.

archer wooooo

The bad news is that I just grabbed the book off of my “to review” shelf and realized a) I did not dogear any pages, so there weren’t any quotes that really struck me, and b) I do not remember anything about the plot.

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Here’s what the back of the book says:

The ailing Earl of Swanlea is determined to see his daughters provided for before he dies …

But Lady Rosalind, the earl’s headstrong middle child, wants no part of her father’s scheme to marry her off to Griff Knighton. She is, in fact, far more intrigued by the unwanted visitor’s man of affairs – a devilish rogue, more arrogantly self-assured than the average valet, who has an air of danger about him that is tempting Rosalind to venture onto forbidden ground.

It is Griff himself, however, who has enflamed her desires – having mischievously swapped places with his own manservant to avoid unwanted romantic entanglements. And though he never dreamed he could want any woman so passionately, how can he reveal the truth to the proud, exquisite Rosalind without destroying their blossoming –

— and that’s where the back of the book is cut off by a sticker that I cannot remove. Blossoming love, maybe? Who knows. It’s a mystery.

From what I can remember (and read off of other Goodreads reviews, and by skimming the first couple of chapters), Griff is made to believe he’s a bastard. Like, an actual, born-out-of-wedlock bastard, not just an asshole. In spite of his bastard state, he has managed to build a massive trading firm from the ground up, and it rivals the East India Company. (Sure; sure.) The Earl of Swanlea is a distant cousin of Griff (so marrying one of the Earl’s daughters wouldn’t be completely icky – thanks, Regency England!), and Griff isn’t interested in marriage – but he is interested in searching the Swanlea estate to try and find proof of his legitimacy, which will then allow him to join a trade delegation to China.

So his brilliant idea is to bring his business partner Daniel along, and while Daniel-slash-Griff is “wooing” Swanlea’s daughter, Daniel-slash-Griff’s valet “Griff” can search the estate for Griff’s parents’ marriage certificate, which will prove he was legitimate.

Meanwhile, Rosalind is dead set against marrying out of her impending poverty. Her elder sister, Helena, is also not interested in marriage. But their youngest sister, Juliet, is ready to be married and thus set the plan in motion.

Mentioned quite frequently on Goodreads is the boorish qualities of Griff. I believe them, because I have no memory of the plot. However, I just skimmed the rest of the book – speed-reading for the win! – and while Griff isn’t a bastard, he is most definitely a dick.

He cajoles Rosalind into making out with him and then going to third base. She drops her resistance, but in the light of #MeToo, this whole scenario is very icky. Meanwhile, Rosalind is extremely stubborn when it comes to believing people – her father, Griff after he tells the truth – but on the other hand it’s very understandable, seeing as how practically every man in this novel is lying to her.

That’s what I’ve got for this one. I’m very proud that I was able to read an entire book in a single day, but I wish the book was more memorable so I could talk about it more.

Oh well.

Grade for A Dangerous Love: 1 star

Fiction: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderAbout a year ago, Starz premiered American Gods, which was showrun by Bryan Fuller — the same Bryan Fuller who was responsible for a little show called Hannibal. And because I would follow Bryan Fuller to the ends of the earth, I added Starz to my Amazon Prime so I could watch the show.

I don’t know what happened, because I could not get into the show. But it had everything – Bryan Fuller! Ian McShane, formerly Al Swearengen on DeadwoodGillian fucking Anderson! Whatever the reason, it must be the same reason why I can’t get through the book. And I’ve tried to read that THREE TIMES.

When I can finally get through that book I’m sure I’ll rant more about American Gods. Meanwhile, Starz is also the home of Outlander, and I didn’t let my Starz subscription go to waste – over the summer, I rewatched the first season and half of the second season, and also read the first book, Outlander.

I’m not going to get into too much of the plot (she says, hopeful), because I can tell you that the first season does an excellent job of following the book. There are a couple of deviations made for artistic license, but overall I thought the series did a great job telling the story. So if you don’t want to read an 850-page book, you can just watch about 16 hours of television instead.

Outlander is a novel of many genres: it’s got time-travel (sci-fi); it’s got romance; it’s got history; it’s got actual science. It begins in post-WWII Scotland, with Claire and her husband, Frank Randall, enjoying a second honeymoon. Frank is researching his ancestry, and is very interested to learn more about Black Jack Randall, a captain with the English Dragoons. Claire is broadening her nursing education through botany, learning about flowers and plants that have healing capabilities.

One day, Claire goes to visit Craigh na dun – a stone circle similar to Stonehenge, but smaller in scale – and has a weird experience: she hears one of the stones screaming. Her vision begins to blur, she feels faint, and when she wakes up, she is no longer in 1945, but 1742.

Of course, it takes Claire a while to figure that out. Or, rather, it takes her a while to believe it. She is nearly captured by Frank’s ancestor, Black Jack Randall himself, but is rescued of a sort by Jamie Fraser and his clan. And so begins what can only be described as a very well-written soap opera.

(Trust me – I loved it.)

Claire tries to avoid arousing suspicion – which is hard to do, considering her English accent. Using her knowledge of modern medicine combined with her botany learnings, she becomes the new “nurse” (I can’t remember what they actually called her and no, I’m not going to look it up) for the castle. Then Jamie’s cousin, Dougal (Dougal might be Jamie’s uncle, I DON’T CARE) wants to bring Claire along when they collect the rents, which suits Claire fine – she just wants to escape back to Craigh na Dun and try to get back to Frank.

IT’S SO SOAPY, you guys! Because Claire gets captured by Black Jack Randall again! And the only way to save her is to become part of the clan, so she has to marry Jamie Fraser! And that’s hard for Claire, because she still loves her husband Frank! But obviously no one knows about Frank, so bigamy it is! And then she falls in love with Jamie anyway! And there’s —

Okay, but for real, no exclamation points, CONTENT WARNING, there is also rape. Claire is violated by an English Dragoon – who gets killed immediately by Jamie -, but there are further rape threats to her and also to Jamie (by Black Jack Randall). It’s … it’s not pretty, at times.

And sure, it’s supposed to be “a description of the times”, and sure, the 1700s were not great for women and women’s rights, and the book does show … or attempt to show the struggle that Claire has as a “modern” woman, trying to fit in during this backwards time period. For instance, after Claire is rescued from Black Jack Randall the first time, though Jamie is relieved to learn she’s okay, he does feel the need to punish her, corporally:

“I’ve said I’m sorry!” I  burst out. “And I am. I’ll never do such a thing again!”

“Well, that’s the point,” he said slowly. “Ye might. And it’s because ye dinna take things as serious as they are. Ye come from a place where things are easier, I think. […] I know ye would never endanger me or anyone else on purpose. But ye might easily do so without meanin’ it, like ye did today, because ye do not really believe me yet when I tel ye that some things are dangerous. You’re accustomed to thin for yourself, and I know,” he glanced sideways at me, “that you’re not accustomed to lettin’ a man tell ye what to do. But you must learn to do so, for all our sakes.” [p. 391]

And beat her ass he does. Yay feminism! :/

As much as I liked it – and the TV series – there are some problematic themes. Caveat lector.

I like Claire. She’s smart, yet not a Strong Female Character™ – she has flaws, and moments of panic. She does her best to adapt to her new world, and eventually comes to accept the fact that she’s probably not going to be able to return to her normal time. At the end of the book, she and Jamie are sailing off to France, escaping the Dragoons, and trying to figure out how to change history so the Scottish clans aren’t eradicated in the Battle of Culloden.

Eventually – maybe after I get caught up with Better Call Saul – I’ll power through the next couple of seasons of Outlander on my Starz subscription. And I have the next book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber, waiting for me to pick up as well. We’ll see how it goes.

Grade for Outlander: 4 stars

Fiction: “A Scot in the Dark” by Sarah MacLean

Scot in the DarkFirst: this is not a remake of the classic Peter Sellers – Inspector Clouseau romp, A Shot in the Dark. But if you haven’t watched that movie, you should. (It stars George Sanders! He’s fantastic in everything!) This is the next book in Ms. MacLean’s Scandal & Scoundrel series, the first of which was The Rogue Not Taken. The link between the two books is Alec Stuart, Duke of Warnick. Alec was the Scottish rogue who would race King and I think may be the one who performed the ceremony where King married Sophie? He wasn’t in Rogue much, but he’s the main character here.

Alec is actually like, the 17th Duke of Warnick, the previous line of Warnick Dukes expiring in quick succession. As part of his inheritance, Alec learns he is the guardian of a maid who is living in one of the ducal apartments in London. And she’s just gotten herself into a spot of trouble.

(Not an unwanted pregnancy; Ms. MacLean doesn’t truck with that type of historical romance — at least, not that I’ve read.)

Lillian Hargrove had an affair with an artist, Derek Hawkins, who is, to put it bluntly and in terms that both of my Dear Friends Emily and Sarah will immediately recognize and laugh about: a dipshit. (shit, what the fuck was Derek’s last name …. oh thank god it wasn’t Hawkins)

(for a second I thought College!Derek’s last name may have been the same as the character in the book, but it wasn’t! Hooray, I’m not telling tales on the internet!)

Anyways. Derek Hawkins asked Lillian (Lily, to her friends, of which there are few) to pose nude for a painting that would only be displayed for Derek’s eyes. And, because Lily thought they were in love, she disrobed. And then he told her that not only was it going to be displayed in a museum, but also, it was going to be the Primary Work at the London Art Exhibition (or whatever, the book is literally by my side on the couch, but I’m not going to bother looking up the proper terms for both of those things; you get the jist).

Now, in 1834, Proper Ladies did not Pose Nude for Artists. It was Simply Not Done. And especially not single, unwed Ladies. If the painting is displayed, Lily will be ruined, because no eligible man would dare marry a maid who had all her bits* displayed in a painting.

*I don’t think it’s all the bits. If I remember the description correctly, she was laying on a couch with her backside to the artist. I think.

So Alec has to come to London to get Lily married off before the painting is displayed. Well, first he tries to get Derek to marry Lily, and because Derek is a dipshit, he absolutely refuses. Then Alec pulls rank and says that Lily can only receive her funds or dowry or whatever if she finds someone willing to marry her before she turns 24, which is in nine days, and also the day the painting is displayed. Lily hoped to run out the clock, earn her pension, and move to the Continent and escape London completely.

Alec and Lily are now in a race against time, and also a battle of wits. Lily wishes to remain independent, as she’s still raw after learning how badly Derek treated her. Alec just wants to be rid of his problem so he can return to Scotland. But, as typically happens in these types of novels, they develop an attraction to each other.

I like Sarah MacLean’s novels because her characters have personality. Lily is a MASTER at passive-aggression. To wit, her choice of dress to wear when Alec tells her she needs to make a good impression at this fancy ball where there will be tons of eligible dudes:

He was not a man who noticed fashion, but this particular dress would not be unnoticed. It was a gold and bronze monstrosity, with skirts that filled the staircase and sleeves that dwarfed her. […] As though that weren’t enough, gold and bronze seed pearls were sewn into the skirts, arranged in little echoes of the canine form, and the bodice — impressively fitted despite Lily having had mere hours to adjust it to her form — was covered in ornate gold fastenings, each a different dog — spaniels and terriers and bulldogs and dachshunds. [p. 110]

And Alec’s equally canny, because he forces her to go to the ball like that. Ha!

Lily is also a very lonely person, in that she didn’t have many friends growing up. Even during this crazy time, she doesn’t have anyone to turn to. In the house where she was living when Alec first came to London, she had her room put closer to the servant’s quarters so she could hear other people in the house have conversations. So when she meets Seleste, one of the Soiled S’s (and Sophie’s sister) at the ball she’s almost surprised that Seleste wants to be her friend. But as the novel continues, Seleste becomes someone Lily can rely on, and it’s great! Women being friends!

Having said that, I doubt their friendship passes the Bechdel test, but you know what, I don’t care. I’m going to imagine all of the conversations they have after the book ends and just be happy about it.

The romance between Alec and Lily is contentious and bantery – just the way I like it. He keeps trying to convince her (and himself) that London sucks and Scotland rules. He even attempts to convince her that Burns is a better poet than Shakespeare – which, whatever dude, Burns has his place, but it’s behind Shakespeare.

This leads to a scene that has been popping up in a surprising number of romance novels I’ve been reading lately – the Oral Sex In A Carriage Scene.

… there has got to be a better euphemism for that. Please hold.

Road Canoeing. Giving The Driver a Tongue-Wagging. Buttering an English Muffin. Taking the Crumpet For a Drive.

… … … I am so sorry.

ANYWAY. That happens, but leading up to it, this exchange occurs:

He stroked her hand, his palm running over hers, his fingers tracing the dips and valleys of her fingers, until only their fingertips touched, before he once again took her hand, lacing their fingers together tightly.

“Palm to palm,” she whispered, and he heard the barely-there teasing in her words. The reference to their earlier discussion of Romeo and Juliet.

He should let her go. He meant to.

He didn’t mean to say, “The only part of the play that’s worth anything.”

He didn’t mean to look at her, to find her too close and still infernally far away. He willed himself to move. To sit back. To release her.

And then she whispered, “Let lips do as hands do.

“Fucking Shakespeare,” he cursed. [p. 172-173]

Firstly: the meeting between Romeo and Juliet is not the only part of the play that’s worth anything. Mercutio is the best character and his Queen Mab and death speeches are quite good and excellent vehicles for acting. Secondly, Romeo and Juliet is only “romantic” until, like, Act III.

And thirdly, that’s pretty hot, using Shakespeare to flirt. And so we come to another #ProTipForDudes:

If you’re in a relationship with someone who loves Shakespeare, and your normal, everyday conversation tends towards the bantery, pop-culture reference-ey type, and one day your girl is talking a lot and while she’s cute about it, you need her to shut up for a second, all you need to do is say, “Peace! I will stop your mouth!” and then kiss her. I can’t speak from personal experience, but I do know it works for Benedick and Beatrice, and they have one of the greatest relationships of all time, so …

Anyway. I liked the book, and will continue to read pretty much everything Sarah MacLean puts out. If you like romance novels that take place in the 1800s with women with agency and personalities, please give Ms. MacLean a try.

Grade for A Scot in the Dark: 3.5 stars

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

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