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: “Publish and Perish” by James Hynes

Publish PerishI first read this book years ago – like, I was still living with my parents, “years ago”. I found it at the library, and I think the only reason I picked it up was because I had heard good reviews of Mr. Hynes’s next book, Kings of Infinite Space (which I still have yet to read – that’s been on my bookshelf for decades now). The subtitle of this book is “Three Tales of Tenure and Terror”, and y’all should know by now that I have a … different relationship with the horror genre.

Look, I like vampires. Buffy, The Vampire Diaries, Dracula – hell,

OKAY, SO, as I was writing that paragraph, a FUCKING HUGE SPIDER just FUCKING DROPPED from the ceiling. Like, “hey, y’all, I see you’re writing about horror, GET A LOAD OF ME” and I may have flipped out a wee little bit. BECAUSE I DON’T REALLY LIKE SCARY THINGS.

Here are the aspects of horror I enjoy: Vampire-related, to a point. Buffy and Dracula will always remain top spots in my heart, even if upon a second read I found Dracula to be boring. I … no longer know how I feel about the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. I remember enjoying them at some point, but I haven’t enjoyed one since … ever, according to my blog history. I liked the Sookie Stackhouse series – until I stopped reading it. Although I am in the middle of getting caught up with True Blood right now. (What? Seasons 1-6 are included with Amazon Prime, so why the hell not? If Lifetime’s UnReal isn’t coming back until 2018, what other options for summer cheese do I have? TNT’s Will? Oh dudes – that’s a story for another time.)

Are vampires even considered “horror” anymore? If someone said, “Hey, there’s a new horror movie playing,” my first thought is, “how many people get slashed by things hiding under beds and shit?” Because that’s the thing I hate. I don’t like the idea of people walking into rooms and having blood dripping down the walls. I don’t like slasher films. You will never, ever, get me to watch Saw or Paranormal Activity.

Now, psychological horror – like Hannibal / Silence of the Lambs, or Psycho – those I’ll watch. And if people go back to making goofy horror movies (like The Grudge, or Final Destination II), I may watch one. On Redbox.

I’m also a terrible Mainer, in that I’ve only read one Stephen King novel. It was The Dead Zone, and the only reason I even read it way back when was because Sean Patrick Flanery was playing the bad guy in the USA series way back when, and Sean Patrick Flanery played my favorite Boondock Saint. (I’m going to try The Dark Tower – soon. Maybe.)

So it’s really against my nature to pick up a book in the horror genre. It’s also against my nature – at least, I think – to enjoy it. And it’s really against my nature to enjoy it so much to want to read it again. I think it helps that the three stories in this book aren’t gory or slasher-ey, but more along the lines of WTF.

First up is “Queen of the Jungle”, which stars Paul and Elizabeth, two professors attempting to get tenure, and their cat, Charlotte. Paul and Elizabeth live in Bluff City, Iowa, and Elizabeth lives during the week in Chicago where she’s on a tenure track. When Elizabeth’s away, Paul definitely plays with his mistress, Kym, one of his students. Paul’s a stereotypical adulterous douche: he’s careful enough to make sure Elizabeth doesn’t find out, but he doesn’t care about her feelings enough to stop. He’s also fairly jealous of Elizabeth’s tenure track, as he’s been struggling to get his first thesis published. When Elizabeth tells him that her boss is interested in reading Paul’s research, which could lead to his own tenure-track position at the University of Chicago, Paul is ecstatic, and spends the week frantically fucking Kym and writing down whatever he could.

Meanwhile, Charlotte may or may not be attempting to sabotage Paul. She starts by peeing in Kym’s shoes every time she visits. Or taking Kym’s panties and hiding them, then dragging them out just before Elizabeth gets home. Paul even accuses Charlotte – a cat, remember – of unplugging his computer while he and Kym were out of the room, causing all of his day’s work to be erased.

I should warn cat lovers: Paul is progressively meaner and abusive to Charlotte. And there’s a moment before the climax of the story where it looks as if he kills the cat. (Note, I said looks – the horrific element comes in and allows you, the reader, to determine that for yourself.) And if reading my blurb about it causes you to not pick up the book, well, I can’t say as I blame you. But I’d also like to point out that the next two stories (which I’ll also briefly recap) do not have any harm come to any other animals, so you may want to consider giving the other two stories a chance.

“99” is the middle story, which has as its focus Gregory, a disgraced American anthropology professor vacationing-slash-forced-sabbatical-ing in southern England. The title of the story is taken from the following joke Gregory’s friend Martin tells him:

“A man is jumping up and down on a manhole cover. As he jumps, he’s shouting, ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-eight, ninety-eight…’ Now, another chap comes along and says, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ The first man keeps jumping up and down on the manhole cover, and he says, ‘Ninety-eight … it’s wonderful fun … ninety-eight … you really should try it … ninety-eight…’

“So the second man says, ‘Really? What’s fun about it?’

“And the first man says, ‘Ninety-eight … try it and see … ninety-eight …’

“’All right then,’ says the second man, ‘step aside.’

“So the first man jumps aside, and the second chap steps onto the manhole cover and starts jumping up and down, shouting out, ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-eight, ninety-eight …’”

“I get the picture,” Gregory said. Martin had little sense of pacing, an unfortunate lack in a documentary producer.

“Of course you do.” Martin smiled. “So the first man says, ‘Jump higher.’

“’Like this?’ says the second man, crying, ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-eight, ninety-eight,’ and jumping as high as he can. And as he jumps higher, the first man reaches under him, pulls away the manhole cover, and down falls the second chap into the hole. Then the first fellow puts the manhole cover back over the hole, and starts jumping up and down saying, ‘Ninety-nine, ninety-nine …’” [p. 101-102]

Gregory extends his sabbatical to a small town near Stonehenge named Silbury, which is known for crop circles and other strange phenomena. When he visits the local pub, there’s a wall of photographs of painted people surrounded by local villagers, dating back to the late 1800s. It’s attributed to a local festival, the Seven Sisters – a tradition. Without divulging spoilers, the joke and the festival are connected.

The last story, “Casting the Runes,” stars Virginia, an adjunct professor at a Texas university one paper away from being granted tenure. Unfortunately, her advisor, Victor Karswell, has other ideas – he wants to take her paper and publish it under his own name. And it’s not the first time he’s done this with other students. Virginia refuses and grabs her paper from his hands. When she gets home, she finds small runes written on the side of the last page. And then weird stuff happens.

What I like about this genre of horror is that the horrific aspects could be explained by coincidence or human nature; or, there actually could be a supernatural element behind them. We the reader are allowed to make that decision for ourselves, based on what we believe. If you don’t believe in any supernatural stuff at all, then these tales would fall squarely in the center of psychological terror. If you think maybe there’s something to pagan beliefs, you’ll probably come to a different conclusion.

I like these stories. They’re well-written, and allow the reader to come to their own conclusions. I’ve read a few books lately (to-be-reviewed) where the author tells you exactly what happens and there’s no doubt allowed, and I don’t enjoy those as much. If this type of genre intrigues you, I’d say go ahead and pick up the book. And feel free to skip the first story.

Grade for Publish and Perish: 4 stars