The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

If you’re an Eloisa James fangirl, walk backwards slowly with your eyes on the floor until you reach a safe zone. Then turn and run like hell, because this is going to be ugly. (See what I did there?)
The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

  • Title: The Ugly Duchess
  • Author: Eloisa James
  • Series: Fairy Tales, Book 4
  • Genre(s): Historical (Regency)
  • Publisher: Avon Books, August 2012
  • Source: Provided by the publisher via Edelweiss ($6.99 ebook)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • Trope(s): Plain Jane, Big Misunderstanding, Friends-to-Lovers, Reunited, Pirates
  • Quick blurb: “Hey, my wife of two days yelled at me because I married her for her money so I guess I’ll run away and become a pirate and shave my head and give myself a flowery facial tattoo and then show up out of the blue seven years later at the special session of Parliament called to declare me officially dead and then I’ll get all pissy when my bitter bride doesn’t immediately succumb to my piratical sexiness.”
  • Quick review: Hated it. It was awful. Dreadful. Did I mention I HATED IT?
  • Grade: F

In the weeks and years to come, when she looked back she identified that as the precise moment when her heart broke in two. The moment that separated Daisy from Theo, the time Before, from the time After.

In the time Before, she had faith. She had love.

In the time After…she had the truth.

What’s not to love about such lovely romantic angst like that, right? If only there was more of the angsty romance and a lot less piss-me-offery.

Theodora/Daisy is annoying, James/Jack is an idiot and the plot is all kinds of FUCKED UP. I don’t want to recap the whole mess of crap, so here’s what pissed me off the most:

After that the duke proceeded to demonstrate for his duchess almost all of the terms he knew for the sport of Venus. He was a pirate. He knew a lot.

THAT WAS THE HEA, FOR FUCK SAKE.

The happy ending was the “hero” showing off the boinking and boffing skillz he learned and earned while fucking prostitutes during his long absence at sea. I don’t consider that to be romantic AT ALL.

The opening scenes were promising — a plain but confident heroine and the childhood friend who realizes he loves her. But the Black Moment occurs way too early in the story, and then it was just more and more incarnations of “OH. FOR. FUCK. SAKE.”

An hour later, James had a shaved head and a small poppy tattooed beneath his right eye. He appropriated a name from Flibbery Jack, the pirate captain who would no longer be needing it, and gave it too himself.

Yes, FLIBBERY JACK. I mean, come on. Was that really necessary?

When Dread Pirate Emo Whiner made his Dramatic Reappearance precisely seven years later at the special session of Parliament just as he was about to be officially declared dead, I gave up and skimmed through to the repulsive conclusion and barf-worthy epilogue. Blech.

When her characters aren’t off randomly fucking around, Eloisa James is a really good writer. The quiet and introspective moments are lovely, her wit is wicked, and she’s brilliant at showing instead of telling.

James is not without a few quirks , though — she slathers on the similes and metaphors, but they’re just ordinary purplish prose, not full-on Simile Sex:

  • …like tradesmen’s wives seeing the queen.
  • …like a fox with a clutch of hen’s eggs.
  • …like tepid milk at bedtime.
  • …a tongue as sharp as a cracked mirror.
  • …as convincing as Marie Antoinette pretending to be a shepherdess.
  • …like a hollyhock that someone forgot to stake.
  • …as if she were a dog in a fight.
  • …like a drunken meringue.
  • …as if minutes turned into drops of honey.
  • …as tightly as puzzle pieces.
  • …as tightly pressed together as ha’pennies in the church box.
  • …like a marauding Visigoth.

And of course there’s the obligatory reference to a mythological goddess:

“Theo (the heroine) is like the huntress Diana…. Beautiful and yet slightly deadly, ready to whip out a bow and arrow, or turn a man into a squealing swine. Sensual, and yet with just a snowy touch of the virginal about her.”

I can easily ignore fluff like that, and I can even disregard the gratuitous inclusion of the Prince of Wales saying “what ho!” because no one calls him “Prinny.”

However, I most definitely cannot shrug off the casual acceptance and justification of infidelity.

I’m not new to this series – I really liked When Beauty Tamed the Beast, and I LOVED the novella Storming the Castle. In fact, I’ve read James’s entire backlist, which I attribute to Everyone Else Loves Her, I Must Be Missing Something Syndrome.

But I think I’m done with this author now. With very few exceptions, her books have left me with a vaguely squirmy feeling – a sort of lingering veneer of squickiness and disgust at her repeated reliance on no-consequences adultery as an amusing plot wrench. That’s a deal-breaker for me, and I just can’t give James another pass.

Veil of Pearls by MaryLu Tyndall

Veil of Pearls by MaryLu Tyndall

  • Title: Veil of Pearls
  • Author: MaryLu Tyndall
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Inspirational, Historical (American)
  • Publisher: Barbour Books, July 2012
  • Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley ($9.26 ebook)
  • Length: 312 pages
  • Trope(s): In Disguise, Angst, Star-Crossed Lovers, Revenge, Mistorical
  • Quick blurb: Light-skinned former slave finds love with plantation playboy in 1811 Charleston.
  • Quick review: Great title, gorgeous cover, promising setting, very disappointing story.
  • Grade: DNF

Each step she took toward freedom loosened the fetters enslaving her soul until they began to slip away, one by one.

Oh, fudge. I really really really wanted to love this – an intriguing premise, a pre-Civil War Southern setting and scads of five-star reviews. Unfortunately, I only made it about a third of the way through. The anachronisms and the logic issues and the sermonizing and the awkward mix of purple prose and clichés were just too distracting to ignore.

As usual, I feel guilty for DNFing an inspirational, because the Road to Hell is paved with Bricks of Sarcasm.

And…now I feel guilty for snarking about going to Hell. And now I’m freaking out because the irony of the guilt doubling in on itself might spawn a ginormous spiritual wormhole or something. Which I really hope doesn’t happen, because wormholes usually have some sort of space/time continuum weirdness, and time travel stuff really confuses me. I need to stop watching Doctor Who. This is the way my brain works, in case you were wondering whether I really need that Zoloft prescription.

Speaking of time travel….

The Mistoricals

Let’s get this big one out of the way first. Nearly every review of Tyndall’s 14 books mentions her attention to historical accuracy, so I wasn’t expecting to find this in Chapter 2:

Morgan circled one of the Victorian stuffed chairs in front of the hearth….

Yes, VICTORIAN. In 1811 South Carolina. I lost my trust in the author right there.  I was reading an ARC, so I downloaded the Kindle sample of the published book to double-check, but the sample wasn’t quite long enough to include this scene. I really hope that someone noticed and fixed it, but that kind of error should NEVER have even made it that far.

We later meet a minor character named Lord Demming. No, he’s not a British peer taking a vacation from the House of Lords.

“He is the speaker of the General Assembly and a descendant of the Earl of Demming.” Though Morgan had heard he was the younger son of the late earl and therefore had no right to the title “lord.” But such things were tolerated in America.”

Wait just a gosh-darn minute (please note I’m restraining myself because this is an inspirational). Fake British titles were tolerated in early American political leaders? I’m no historian, but I seriously doubt…. Oh, never mind. It’s not worth the effort because there was really no reason to include that bit of irrelevant characterization.

But maybe Charleston was the last bastion of Loyalist sympathy, because there’s this:

Had she even had a coming out? Being a commoner, most likely not.

Yes, COMMONER. In 1811 South Carolina. Again, not necessary at all.

There were several other jarring words and phrases that irked me: Don Juan, city council, landlubber, hair the color of alabaster, besotted (as a synonym for drunk), pampered urchins and coddled urchins (to describe the idle rich), witch doctor…. And that was just the first third of the book.

Authors: PLEASE remember Kelly’s Golden Rule of Writing (And Also Life In General Because It’s An All-Purpose Sort of Rule):

Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

It might be historically plausible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not awkward and distracting.

Also: Readers do not need to be reminded 27 times that your heroine has ebony curls. Disguising the luxuriant tresses as “trickles of obsidian” isn’t fooling anyone.

Leaps of Logic and Very Convenient Coincidences

We meet our enslaved heroine Althea as she escapes a brutal Barbados plantation. She walks hours – still in leg shackles – through a jungle to the nearest port. Because she’s only one-quarter Negro, she’s light-skinned enough to pass for white. She instantly finds a Charleston-bound ship, conveniently captained by an abolitionist, paying for her passage with money she somehow earned during her years of slavery.

The captain informs her he’ll waive his “women on board are bad luck” rule but he won’t feed her. We are given no indication of how she survives the week-long journey without food. We aren’t shown – or even told – how a beautiful young woman traveling alone is able to reach her destination completely unmolested.

You might think this was a Harlequin Intrigue. But you’d be wrong.

One month later, our heroine – now known as Adalia – is safely ensconced in a Catholic church in Charleston, sleeping on a spare cot in exchange for volunteering her healing skills to treat slaves. She worries that her luck is about to run out:

She’d not eaten since yesterday when the last of her money had run out. Of course, she still had her mother’s pearls, but she’d rather die than sell the last remnant of her family – a symbol of the love she’d known before slavery.

She was somehow able to hide a pearl necklace from her ABUSIVE SLAVE OWNER for SEVEN YEARS. And I still can’t figure out how she managed to save the necklace in the first place.

…the hurricane swept them out to sea, leaving Adalia and Delphia orphans. Two days later, Sir Walter visited their farm on the pretense of checking on his neighbors. With soft words and promises of care, he stole them, frightened and hungry, from their beds.

Where could she have possibly hidden the necklace as she was being stolen from her bed?

I almost quit reading right there. I probably should have.

OH! ALMOST FORGOT! The necklace is made of black pearls. I’m not kidding. Check the cover. Subtle, huh?

Where were we?

Ah yes – the starving waif clutching her pearls. But never fear! A local doctor appears at the church (it’s A Miracle because she had just prayed for it!) and offers our heroine a position as his assistant, with free room and board at his home.

Other penniless orphaned beauties might be concerned at such an offer, but our heroine is the trusting sort:

Relief loosened the tight coils in her chest. A man who read his Bible was surely a good man.

Because everyone who reads the Bible is a saint. (That was sarcasm, a literary technique used by bona fide saints. For realz. I looked it up.)

Historical world-building gone wrong

On her very first foray to a plantation, Althea/Adalia literally knocks our hero off a bridge into a creek. But first she calls him a “swaggering, vainglorious despot.”

You might be wondering how a slave acquired such erudition. You’ll recall she wasn’t born a slave; we’re told that although her parents were poor farmers, they educated their daughters in mathematics, literature, history, science, Latin, and religion. Althea/Adalia must have been a been child prodigy to learn all that by age 12.

“You do not own me, sir, as you do the poor souls who work your land. Therefore, you cannot insist I do anything.” She couldn’t believe how wonderful the defiant words felt on her lips. How glorious! How empowering!

Yes, EMPOWERING. I fully expected to see “synergy” and “leverage” and “calendarize” in the next chapter.

But wait – there’s more! A few pages later, our heroine observes our charming hero thusly:

His face no longer held that look of abject boredom so often found on the spawn of the tediously affluent.

Here’s another one:

“You overbearing, self-gratifying” – she growled, attempting to control her tongue. Her attempt failed – “presumptuous vain, pampered milksop.”

Not done yet….

“I don’t hate you sir. I merely know your kind.”

“And what kind is that?”

She stopped and eyed him. The social season had begun in Charleston, and much like the season in London, it was a time when the affluent and powerful forsook their plantations to converge on the city for balls, plays, concerts, and general frivolous amusements. That was all she was to him – an amusement.

“The kind who have more wealth than they can ever spend, who fritter away their time in idle and often immoral amusements, and who think they are better than everyone else simply by nature of their birth and fortune.”

The heroine was raised on a small farm in Barbados. She was forced into slavery at age 12.

I keep repeating these important points, but it seems like I’m the only one standing up and yelling “How in the HECK (this is an inspie, so no h-e-double-hockey-sticks allowed) would she know what the London social season is like? SHE WAS A SLAVE, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.”

But then, just a page or two later, she turns into a simpering idiot:

With wide eyes and open mouth, she was like a child seeing the world for the first time.

So is she a worldly sophisticate or is she a childlike simpleton? I cannot get invested in any character – much less the main character – whose thoughts, words and actions are so completely at odds with the given backstory. That kind of inconsistency ruins the world-building for me every time.

The heavy-handed preachifying

As a general rule, I prefer subtlety and understatement in my casual reading. I don’t need to be beaten over the head with THEMES and MESSAGES and LESSONS. For example:

Morgan glanced at the slaves, their bare backs leveled to the sun. Lud, this woman challenged him like no other! Why had he not considered the right or wrong of forcing others to work against their will, of keeping them imprisoned on the plantation like animals?

When I read passages like that, I get the feeling that the author thinks (a) readers are stupid OR (b) doesn’t trust her own writing to get the message across. Sometimes both.

Too many inspie authors fall into the trap of telling instead of showing – but pulpit-pounding is never a good storytelling technique.

Perhaps that was why God had brought them together – the most ill-suited, unlikely couple in Charleston! For Adalia to open Morgan’s eyes to the horrors of slavery and perhaps change the opinions of the next generation. Or maybe even to bring Morgan closer to God. He certainly needed a relationship with the Almighty. If she could achieve the latter, God would certainly convince him of the former.

I don’t need to be told this. I had already figured out all on my own that Adalia is the Perfect Christian who is Licensed to Judge because God Is Her BFF. I avoid people like that in real life, and I don’t find those traits are inspiring in any way.

One-Quote Review: The Harder They Fall by Trish Jensen

  • The Harder They Fall by Trish JensenTitle:  The Harder They Fall
  • Author:  Trish Jensen
  • Series/Category: Previously published in Harlequin’s Love & Laughter series
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher:  Bell Bridge Books, June 2012 (originally published June 1997 by Harlequin)
  • Source: Digital ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley ($4.99 ebook)
  • Length: 202 pages
  • Trope(s): Insta-Lust, Lust in the Workplace, I Hate You Except When We Kiss
  • Quick blurb: Klutzy MBA disguised as a waitress tries to prevent her father from selling family restaurant chain to Studly Millionaire.
  • Quick review: An un-funny rom-com that shows its 1990s origins.
  • Grade: DNF

She switched tactics. Smiling, she batted her eyelashes. “Can’t we be friends?” she asked sweetly.

Made it about 20% and didn’t see any hope of ever liking the annoying heroine.

One-Quote Review: A Secret Disgrace by Penny Jordan

  • A Secret Disgrace by Penny JordanTitle: A Secret Disgrace
  • Author: Penny Jordan
  • Series/Category: Harlequin Presents
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: Harlequin, June 2012
  • Source: Free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley ($2.99 ebook)
  • Length: 192 pages
  • Trope(s): Angst, Big Misunderstanding, Secret Baby, Alpha Male, Reunited
  • Quick blurb: Italian Duke + Big Misunderstanding = Secret Baby
  • Quick review: I tried. I really did.
  • Grade: DNF

He moved so far that she froze, like a rabbit pinned down by the swift, deathly descent of the falcon from which his family took its name.

Just couldn’t get into it – the first three chapters had only about three sentences of dialogue hidden in pages and pages and pages of repetitive backstory and repetitive angstifying.

Before the Scarlet Dawn by Rita Gerlach

  • Before the Scarlet Dawn by Rita GerlachTitle: Before the Scarlet Dawn
  • Author: Rita Gerlach
  • Series: Daughters of the Potomac, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Historical, Inspirational (this is NOT a romance!)
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press, February 2012
  • Source: Free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley ($9.99 ebook)
  • Length: 326 pages
  • Trope(s): Angst, Big Misunderstanding
  • Quick blurb: Young English couple make a home in 1770s Virginia.
  • Quick review: This didn’t work for me AT ALL.
  • Grade: D

Ugh. About halfway through, I found myself thinking “This isn’t working for me on any level.” And then it got worse. Which means that this review will be incoherent, because I don’t want to have to read the book again to find examples of everything I didn’t like.

I was so intrigued by the colonial setting promised in the blurb, but it played out like a strange conglomeration of Gone with the Wind, The Scarlet Letter and Jane Eyre.

I found the heroine to be wildly inconsistent, veering from naive preacher’s daughter to vain seductress to proto-feminist to groveling martyr. I *never* understood her motivations.

The general consensus among other reviewers is that the heroine’s husband – who is NOT a hero by any means – is a complete and utter tool. But what annoyed me even more than his despicable deceit near the end was that NO ONE ever called Hayward out for his own significant role in contributing to Eliza’s “moment of weakness.”

AND the death of a major character in the book was tossed away in a single sentence from a stock character who appeared in only that one scene.

Ugh. I struggled to finish this, and the other book I have by this author (a Kindle freebie) is going to the bottom of the TBR queue.

Tripleheader: More Harlequin Categories – Blaze, Classic and Super

I’m definitely a Blaze type – the Classic Romance and Super Romance just didn’t do it for me at all.

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Blazing Midsummer Nights by Leslie Kelly

  • Blazing Midsummer Nights by Leslie KellyTitle:  Blazing Midsummer Nights
  • Author: Leslie Kelly
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher:  Harlequin, May 2012
  • Source: Free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley ($3.82 ebook)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • Trope(s): Shakespeare, Insta-Lust, Insta-Love
  • Quick blurb: Shakespearean fluff in modern-day Atlanta.
  • Quick review: Fun and sexy, with a surprisingly complex career/family conflict – but I could have done without the dream sequences.
  • Grade: B+

He attempted to tamp down the reaction by shifting his thoughts to less appealing things – like grits, God in heaven, who had ever decided to eat what looked like little pieces of dandruff?

The happy couple….

Mimi (don’t call her Hermione) is a high-society marketing exec with a boring boyfriend hand-picked by her father (who’s also her boss). Xander (don’t call him Lysander) is a firefighter who moves to Atlanta to shake himself out of his grief after his parents died.

The setting….

Southern Gothic – complete with a plantation house with secret doors and magnolia trees in the backyard.

The storytelling….

A really creative and witty retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The hilarious meet-cute sets the tone, and all the flaky secondary characters are there, including the donkey. In between the silliness and the sex, there’s one of the most realistic depictions of office politics I’ve ever seen in a romance.

The romance….

Yes, it’s Insta-Lust and Insta-Love, but it works. However, I could have done without the cheesy dream sequences.

The recommendation….

A great summer read – definitely worth the price!

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Unraveling the Past by Beth Andrews

  • Unraveling the Past by Beth AndrewsTitle:  Unraveling the Past
  • Author: Beth Andrews
  • Series: The Truth About the Sullivans, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher: Harlequin, June 2012
  • Source: Free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley ($3.82 ebook)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • Trope(s): Lust in the Workplace, Dysfunctional Families, Instant Parenthood
  • Quick blurb: Cranky police chief and smart-ass cop clash over murder investigation.
  • Quick review: Could have been good, but turned out to be mostly sequel bait.
  • Grade: C-

“A debriefing?” Sullivan asked as if Ross had told her to bring a bikini, a case of whipped cream and her handcuffs and meet him at a motel.

The happy couple….

Layne is a small-town cop with a dysfunctional family. Ross a former big-city cop turned small-town police chief with a dysfunctional family.

The setting….

The predictable small town full of dysfunctional families and mysterious secrets.

The storytelling….

Good writing with some great snarky dialogue, but the sequel-bait family stuff pushed the hero and heroine to the sidelines and prevented this story from being a compelling read. The non-ending with an unsolved murder and rushed HEA didn’t help.

The romance….

Intermittent mental lusting and two rounds of comfort-me-with-sex, then declarations of love two pages before the end. I liked Layne and Ross, but I needed a lot more of THEM and a lot less of all the obnoxious people around them.

The recommendation….

Might be worth a read – but only if you plan on waiting for the sequels.

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The Tycoon’s Secret Daughter by Susan Meier

  • The Tycoon's Secret Daughter by Susan MeierTitle:  The Tycoon’s Secret Daughter
  • Author: Susan Meier
  • Series: First Time Dads! Book 1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher:  Harlequin, June 2012
  • Source: Free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley ($3.82 ebook)
  • Length: 185 pages
  • Trope(s): Reunited, Secret Baby, Addiction, Plot Moppet, Evil Mother-in-Law
  • Quick blurb: Recovering alcoholic learns he has a six-year-old daughter.
  • Quick review: Blech. Don’t bother.
  • Grade: C-

His attraction to her sprang up like a lion that had been lying in wait in the African bush, confusing him.

The happy couple….

Kate is a construction project manager who left her alcoholic and increasingly violent husband without telling him she was pregnant. Max is a newly-sober real estate mogul who is stunned – STUNNED, I TELL YOU – to find out he’s the father of a predictably adorable six-year-old daughter.

The setting….

The predictable small-town-with-all-the-amenities-of-a-metropolis.

The storytelling….

Bland and predictable.

The romance….

Boring and predictable.

The recommendation….

Another cookie-cutter rich-guy-with-secret-baby. Don’t bother.

One-Quote Review: Redemption of a Hollywood Starlet by Kimberly Lang

  • Redemption of a Hollywood Starlet by Kimberly LangTitle: Redemption of a Hollywood Starlet
  • Author: Kimberly Lang
  • Series: The Marshalls, Book 3
  • Genre(s): Contemporary
  • Publisher:  Harlequin (Presents Extra), June 2012
  • Source: Free from the publisher via NetGalley ($2.99 ebook, $4.99 MMPB)
  • Length: 192 pages
  • Trope(s): Movie Stars, Parental Pressure, Manwhore, Slut Shaming, Misogyny
  • Quick blurb: Slut-shamed Hollywood princess attempts a comeback in a film produced by the ex who led her down the path of wickedness.
  • Quick review: Promising premise, but the execution was a huge missed opportunity.
  • Grade: D

“I think we’ve proved that you can raise hell and people will still respect you, but I can’t. It’s a horrible double standard, so I’ve worked very, very hard to clean up my act.”

The set-up for the oh-so-promising premise was there, but the story never even came close to being the “redemption” I was looking for. The HERO was the one who needed to get his head out of his ass, not the titular Hollywood Starlet. Exalted Manwhore + Slut-Shaming = Misogyny Wins Again.