November TBR Challenge: Devil’s Bride by Stephanie Laurens

Or, THE EYES HAVE IT: A Textual Analysis

  • Devil's Bride by Stephanie LaurensTitle: Devil’s Bride
  • Series: Cynster, Book 1
  • Author: Stephanie Laurens
  • Published: Avon, March 1998
  • Source: Purchased
  • Length: 416 pages
  • Tropes: Alpha-Duke, Repetitive Repetition
  • Quick blurb: Alpha-Duke and…oh, whatever, it’s got an Alpha-Duke, what more do you need to know?
  • Quick review: Sorry, can’t hear you, MY EYE IS TWITCHING.
  • Grade: D

The theme for SuperWendy’s 2015 TBR Challenge for November was “It’s All About The Hype (a book or author that got everybody talking).”

I bought Devil’s Bride by Stephanie Laurens a few years ago because it has eight bajillion four- and five-star ratings and umpteen reviews full o’ squee. I’ve seen countless romance readers include it in their Desert Island Keepers and All-Time Favorites and First Alpha Hero and Gateway to Romland lists.

But, alas. This book wasn’t for me. In fact, I’m crossing Laurens off my list permanently because me and this book did not get along AT ALL. And not just because the cover is so boring (see alternatives below).

There was nothing inherently wrong with the characters or plot or storytelling. It was all the usual blowhard alpha-duke and the strong-yet-vulnerable orphaned heroine. A bit of suspense, some smooching, yada yada yada. Probably a Grand Epic Romance when it was first published 17 years ago, and I probably would have given it a solid C.


Like most readers, I have a few pet peeves. Sometimes it’s just a shrug-off “oh, geez, AS IF” kind of thing. Sometimes it ramps up to an “oh, hell no” internal mini-rant.

But sometimes…[you’ll have to imagine me shaking my head very sadly and dramatically]…sometimes a certain pet peeve devolves into a full-on “OH DEAR LORD MAKE IT STOP FFS HOW CAN ANYONE NOT NOTICE THIS WTF WHERE ARE MY CRANKYPANTS I NEED THEM RIGHT NOW” mess of slobbering incoherence.

The quirk that triggers such non-stop cringing is Repetitive Repetition. Authors using the same words and phrases over and over and over. I have no idea why my brain picks up on these things, but once those little seeds are planted, I CAN’T UNSEE THEM.

It’s happened before. I had to cross Grace Burrowes off my list because of her obsession with aristocratic titles and with smells. DEAR GOD, THE SCENTS AND AROMAS AND FRAGRANCES JUST KILL ME NOW.

Other NEVER AGAIN offenders offended me with hair and animal metaphors (sometimes at the same time) and apologies and grinning (sometimes at the same time).

I’m getting an eye twitch just thinking about those bullet lists. Which is ironic. Doubly ironic. Because (1) I ♥ bullet lists; and (2) Stephanie Laurens has A Thing for EYES.


You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Continue reading

Big Fat Book: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

  • Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor - 1st ed, Macmillian, 1944Title: Forever Amber
  • Author: Kathleen Winsor
  • Published: Macmillan, January 1944
  • Source: Purchased (in hardcover, paperback and digital)
  • Length: 976
  • Tropes: Everything you could possibly think of
  • Quick blurb: And you thought Scarlett O’Hara was bad….
  • Quick review: The ultimate anti-heroine in all her gaudy, garish glory.
  • Grade: A

“Madame,” he said finally, “your future is of singular interest. You were born with Venus in separating square aspect to Mars in the Fifth House.” Amber solemnly absorbed that, too impressed at first even to wonder what it meant. Then, as she was about to ask, he continued, having reached his conclusions as much by looking at her as at his charts: “Hence you are inclined, madame, to over-ardent affections and to rash impulsive attractions to the opposite sex. This can cause you serious trouble, madame. You are also too much inclined to indulge yourself in pleasure — and hence must suffer the attendant difficulties.”

Forever Amber is…”a bawdy bestseller”…”a torrid potboiler”…”a bawdy, lusty costume epic”…”a crude and superficial glorification of a courtesan”…”a big, fat tombstone of a bestseller”…”a naughty literary relic”…”a preposterously long and sumptuously naughty book”…”a love story of immense driving force and a magnificent, all-inclusive picture of an era”…”swoony with ill-defined sex”…”a glamorization of immorality and licentiousness”…”a colorful picture of Restoration England in all its immoral finery”…”Moll Flanders with, as it were, knobs on”…”a splendidly evocative guide to the events and mores of the time.”


…”the story of a slut’s progress.”

And, my favorite:

…”Opium on a gigantic scale.”

Every one of those descriptions is accurate. Set in Restoration England, Amber St. Clare’s story begins in 1660 with our 16-year-old heroine throwing herself at a Returning Cavalier, and ends (heh) 10 years later with our heroine throwing herself at the Jilting Cavalier.
In between, our heroine…

…Runs off to London with Cavalier. Gets pregnant. Gets scammed into marriage with a fortune hunter. Gets thrown into Newgate for debt. Escapes with infamous highwayman. Becomes con artist. Escapes a con-gone-wrong, winds up with impoverished second-son aristo, charms her way onto the stage. Sleeps with the king. Steals rival’s protector, then goads him into a fatal duel with the Returning Cavalier.

At this point, we’re only a third of the way through the book.

…Duel makes her more popular, sleeps with the king again, gets preggo again, gets abortion. Goes to Tunbridge Wells to recuperate and seduces filthy rich aging widower with 14 children. Resumes affair with Returning Cavalier (again), gets pregnant (again), finds out Cavalier also got 16-year-old stepdaughter pregnant. Husband dies, cavalier returns (again).

…THE PLAGUE. (this deserves a paragraph by itself)

Halfway done. Hang in there with me.

…Cavalier still refuses to marry her, she marries Evil Earl in revenge to gain title and access to Court. Evil Earl drags her off to the country, where she seduces his son in revenge. Evil Earl discovers them, poisons his own son.


We’re now at page 666. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

…Finagles a post in queen’s bedchamber, sleeps her way through the courtiers. Gets pregnant by the king; he makes her marry a nobody. Various intrigues with courtiers. King makes her a duchess. Builds ridiculous mansion. Goes ballistic when Jilting Cavalier returns with new wife. Dresses as half-naked Venus at ball for spite. Fakes duel letter from cuckolded husband. Affair with Cavalier resumes (AGAIN), more hissy fits. Confronts Cavalier’s wife; he (finally!) throws her out.

And then…


I’m not kidding.  This was a one-hit wonder of a book, and a much-discussed sequel never appeared, so poor Amber is left perpetually chasing after her One True Love.


It’s a swashbuckling melodrama stuffed with fashion and poverty porn. It’s a sex-positive feminist manifesto.  It’s a full-blown and blowsy historical soap opera that unapologetically dismantles every “heroine” trope while coating it all in the glossy-yet-sleazy veneer of Restoration England.

Scarlett O’Hara and Becky Sharp can just take a seat. The gleefully amoral Amber St. Clare is the ultimate antiheroine.

This book is EPIC…. All I will say is that after finishing this book, I called my mother in a rage, and she said, “For lord’s sake, read Kathleen Woodiwiss and call me in the morning.”

~ Maria (Maya) Rodale, “Romance Novels 101: The Infamous Book List That Changed My Life,” Huffington Post, May 27, 2015

Continue reading

September TBR Challenge: “The Cad” by Edith Layton

I cheated a bit on this one because it wasn’t really in my TBR. But I cheated for a very worthy reason, because Layton was a favorite author of an online friend.

This one is for Liz (@meoskop/#DogNamedLucky).

Wicked smart, funny as all hell, and passionate about books.

ETA: Remembering Meoskop at Love in the Margins. Thanks, Ridley.


Pass the tissues again. Goddammit.


The Cad
by Edith Layton

  • The Cad by Edith LaytonTitle: The Cad by Edith Layton
  • Author: Edith Layton
  • Series: The “C” Series, Book 1
  • Published: HarperTorch, August 1998 (rereleased 1989 by HarperCollins)
  • Source: Scribd
  • Length: 368
  • Tropes: Poor Relation, Deep Dark Secrets, Scandal & Gossip, Marriage of Convenience, Man of Mystery
  • Quick blurb: Scarred poor relation is overwhelmed by whirlwind marriage to an engimatic nobleman.
  • Quick review: Now I understand all the love for Edith Layton. I feel an author binge coming on.
  • Grade: A

“Bridget,” he said, his deep voice low and soft and slow. “Ah,  Bridget. I’m sorry, but in spite of my better judgment, I’ve decided we really must meet again.”

Her eyes flew to his. “But—why?” she asked, all thoughts of revenge swept away because of the regret in his voice, all hurt  swept away by the look in his eyes.

“Because I burn for you,” he said.

I can’t think of anything this book was missing. It’s all there, in just the right amounts and in all the right places. And you think it’s going to be about one thing, but it’s not, and it’s all just SO GOOD.

Further Deconstructing “For Such a Time,” Part 2: Allegory, Schmallegory

In case you missed it….


I believe any allegory or a re-telling or even a “reframing” promises the reader a more than superficial resemblance. As an inspie reader, my Default Reader Trust Mode tells me that the author of a fictionalized Bible story — even one described in such vague tones as a “reframing” — has taken on the greater responsibility to go beyond the surface to tell the whole story.

A biblical story calls its readers to enter its world, to be captivated by its characters, intrigued by its plot, and affectively engaged through suspense and complication till its final denouement. Biblical stories invite us into a world contoured by ancient conventions, yet pulsing with continuous relevance. …[A] story is a whole that conveys meaning through its totality, through the choice and placement of its parts, and through the sum of its parts.1


The parts of the story can be understood only as they relate to the integrity of the whole literary structure, and, conversely, the point of the story in all of its complexity can be best understood by pondering the significance of each part.3

If I’m reading a retelling a book of the Bible, I take it as a given that the author will be faithful to the meaning and intent of that story — not just the character names and superficial plot points.

In all fairness, not every character and verse needs a corollary in a fictionalized Bible story. Other Esther-inspired novels do without Queen Vashti, and the beauty contest, and the poetic justice and the glorious irony of the scriptures, and still give good story.

For Such a Time is not “good story.”

Yes, I know that “reframing” equals “jumping off point.” But when you jump off something, there’s an implication you’re reasonably assured of a safe landing without falling on your arse.

For Such a Time shows its arse on nearly every page.

Arse is not profanity because it’s British.

I’d like to say I am confounded why author Kate Breslin chose the specific elements of the Esther story that appear in For Such a Time and ignored others. However, it’s painfully obvious (I’m using that phrase repeatedly, but argh) which elements got in the way of the story she wanted to tell. Some are of the “huh?” variety, while others are downright “WTF???” egregious.

Acronyms do not count as actual profanity. I checked.

In my one week of research, I found dozens of books and articles on the story of Esther, from Christian exegetic textual analysis to Talmudic and rabbinic commentaries to YA novels to preschool coloring books.

Also, Joan Collins movies. Totally not kidding.

Esther and the King, 1960

If I was an inspie author, I would bury myself in these sources and wallow in them. I would absorb everything and pick it apart and put it back together again to figure out how best to relate God’s word to readers looking for a good story.

[NOTE: I would wallow in the Joan Collins movie, but I’d probably avoid actually absorbing anything.]

I honestly believe that Breslin — and her editors — read none of the same non-fiction titles I did. I seriously doubt the editors of the book consulted even one of the eleventy-five Bible study guides available from their own publishing house.

Eleventy-five is hyperbole, not snark. Continue reading

TBR Challenge: RITA-Nominated Inspirationals

I read three again. Because I’m an over-achiever, not because I’m obsessive-compulsive. Shut up.

I chose inspie nominees from the past three years, from three different eras.


Betrayal by Robin Lee Hatcher

  • Betrayal by Robin Lee HatcherTitle: Betrayal
  • Author: Robin Lee Hatcher
  • Series: Where the Heart Lives, Book 2
  • Published: Zondervan, November 2012
  • Source: Purchased ($1.99 promo on Amazon)
  • Length: 273
  • Tropes: Deep Dark Secrets, Widow, Drifter, Western
  • Quick blurb: A drifter helps a lonely widow in 1899 Wyoming.
  • Quick review: Quietly angsty, but a noticeable lack of tension.
  • Grade: B-

He turned his back to the wall of the barn, leaned against it, and closed his eyes. Then he waited. Waited for the last dregs of the nightmare to fade away. Waited to forget the man he used to be. Waited for the fragile peace he’d found in a Savior to sweep over him, even though he didn’t fully understand that Savior yet. Waited.

He was good at waiting. It was a trait he’d learned in prison. If he hadn’t learned it, the cramped space he’d lived in for so many years would have driven him mad.

I’ve read a few by Hatcher before, including the first book in this series, and I enjoy her understated style and the way she makes the faith messages part of the characters’ everyday lives.  This one was a little too understated — it was good, but not different enough from every other Western inspie to make it worth a re-read. There wasn’t much tension beyond the mostly unseen Evil Ex-Brother-In-Law, and the way that conflict fizzled out left me feeling cheated of a Total Drama Moment.

Betrayal was nominated for Best Inspie of 2012, but lost to one of my top favorite books of all-time DIK forever, Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden.


Promise to Return by Elizabeth Byler Younts

  • Promise to Return by Elizabeth Byler YountsTitle: Promise to Return
  • Author: Elizabeth Byler Younts
  • Series: The Promise of Sunrise, Book 1
  • Published: Howard Books, October 2013
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 320
  • Tropes: World War II, Amish
  • Quick blurb: A young Amish couple’s faith in God and each other is severely tested during World War II.
  • Quick review: Spiritual conflict and romantic angst to the NTH DEGREE.
  • Grade: C

“The way I see it is that God usually has us on this narrow path where we can only see the step right in front of us. Then sometimes,” he paused and looked away again, “sometimes I feel like He opens a huge door or a field or, I don’t know, opens something that shows me how big His plans are, and suddenly I have all this room to move around. Sometimes it’s way off the path I expect. Do you know what I mean?”

I feel ridiculous whining about being depressed by a book about World War II, but jeepers, there was nothing uplifting about this inspie. The romance is achingly lovely, the spiritual conflict is heartbreaking, and the ending made me weepy. It’s really well-written, it’s completely different from every other inspie I’ve read, and it’s fully deserving of a RITA nomination. But I did not enjoy reading it it — the angsty dreariness was relentless.

Believe it or not, this was the first traditional Amish romance I’ve ever read (not counting the m/m series by Keira Andrews, which is utterly brilliant). Of all the weird shit I read (I work for Riptide, remember), I avoid Amish stories, mostly because I feel like (a) I’m violating some unknown person/character’s much-valued privacy and (b) someone is making money off their faith without their consent. I didn’t feel quite as squicky about this one because the author grew up in an Amish family and I felt she wouldn’t be exploitative.

For whatever reason, Promise was one of only two inspies nominated last year — the winner was the contemporary Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano.


Hope at Dawn by Stacy Henrie

  • Hope at Dawn by Stacy HenrieTitle: Hope at Dawn
  • Author: Stacy Henrie
  • Series: Of Love and War, Book 1
  • Published: Forever (Grand Central), June 2014
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 384
  • Tropes: World War I, Iowa, Small Town
  • Quick blurb: A young schoolteacher finds herself facing unexpected drama when she falls in love with a German-American farmer in World War I.
  • Quick review: I just bought all the sequels. At full price.
  • Grade: B+

“Perhaps your real question is not how to stand for goodness, but when. Am I right?”

After reading Promise to Return, I was really iffy on another wartime homefront weepfest, but then I realized Hope was SET IN IOWA and I COULDN’T NOT READ IT. I only cried a little.

The basic premise is similar to Promise: the onset of war forces an insular community to interact with the outside world. In this case, the conflict is prejudice and discrimination against German-Americans during World War I — prohibitions on speaking German, “vigilance committees,” extortion to buy war bonds to prove patriotism. The pacing is much  better than Promise, with some high points to balance out the angst.

I’m giving it a B+ instead of an A because despite my love for it, I couldn’t stop thinking that whatever German-Americans were facing in 1918 Iowa, it was nothing compared to the horrors to come.

I read Henrie’s debut during the Summer of Harlequin, but didn’t realize it was the same author. Hope is the only current RITA inspie nominee I’ve read so far, but I just bought Huckleberry Summer despite the ridiculously dopey title and cover because it’s about a big slobbery dog and the hero is an environmental protester who chains himself to trees. I had to move the ARC of For Such a Time by Kate Breslin to the DNR-DNR and WTF-UGH-BLAH-ICK-STFU shelves because apparently I did not read the blurb closely before requesting.

Weekend O’ Random Lists: The Colonial/Revolutionary Binge

The party continues with a list that’s not so random – my recent reads about colonial, revolutionary and post-war/frontier America. I’d been hoarding most of these for years, but finally got inspired by — wait for it — Jude Devereux’s The Raider.

Most are from inspie publishers, who seem to be the only ones interested in non-Brit settings. Maybe someday Harlequin will discover early America. I would GLOM THAT SO HARD. That sounds vaguely dirty, but you know what I mean.

All the family pics are from a trip to Washington D.C.,  in 2008 to visit my little sis, who had an actual job actually schmoozing actual politicians. She likes that sort of thing (*~*shudder*~*).


Damn, my kids are cute.

Things 1&2 were eight and five. We spent July 4th at Mount Vernon, where it was approximately 157 degrees, with mosquitoes the size of bats and restroom lines nine miles long. It sounded like a good idea at the time.


The colonial era

The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton

The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton
The story of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallet,  a founder of Greenwich, Connecticut, and ancestor of Howard Dean,  John Kerry, Amelia Earhart, Bill Gates and Johnny Depp. No, seriously. Not quite as good as Seton’s Katherine, but definitely a must-read. There’s some info-dumping when the narrative skips ahead a few months or years, but the heroine’s struggles with her Puritan community and the harshness of the early settlements are incredibly vivid and memorable. Grade: A- (HMH, 1958; purchased (I own all of Seton in paper, ebook and audio)) Continue reading

Weekend O’ Random Lists: The Carla Kelly Backlist Binge

I expanded it from a day to weekend because I am Having Ideas.


Marrying the Royal Marine by Carla KellyWhy I Am A Carla Kelly Fangirl:

1. The historical worldbuilding. Total immersion book trance, every single time. No one does military romance better than Carla Kelly, and from what I can tell, her accuracy is nearly flawless.

2. The joining of equals. The heroines always have — or find — their agency, and their heroes are quietly heroic in the best possible way.

3. The mix of drama, high comedy, adventure, angst (and more). Nearly every heroine is a direly impoverished (see below) orphan or widow, and nearly all the heroes are stoic military men, but the width and depth of CK’s storytelling is truly impressive.

The must-reads:

Channel Fleet Series
(Marrying the Captain, Surgeon’s Lady, Marrying the Royal Marine)
My first and truest loves. Connected, but each is unique in story, tone and romance. On my DIK list. A+ for all three. (Harlequin Historical, 2008-2010)

The Wedding Journey
A marriage of convenience between an army surgeon and a dying officer’s daughter who’s threatened by a lecherous major. If you liked Marrying the Royal Marine or Balogh’s Beyond the Sunrise, you will love this one. (Signet, 2002)

With This RingWith This Ring by Carla Kelly
Plain Jane debutante volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers and finds herself in a fake engagement to a lordly major. It’s a glorious road-trip comedy with a lengthy rest stop at a friendly village where the heroine opens a barbershop (no really). (Signet, 1997)

The Lady’s Companion
A penniless companion and her employer’s cranky bailiff. Quietly funny and achingly romantic, with a great side story about the lonely aging dowager who schemes to bring them together. Added to my “Best Beta Heroes” list. (Signet, 1996)

Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind
A poor relation caring for her orphaned nephew slowly learns to appreciate the mill owner who lives nearby. A slow-building romance (on her side) and Deep Dark Secrets (on both sides) make this a really compelling and memorable read. (Signet, 1998) Continue reading