Holy crap, I love this WordPress theme so much I’m going to keep it ALL YEAR LONG. No, I haven’t started drinking yet, it’s only 11:15 a.m. on a Tuesday.
- Title: The Prize
- Author: Julie Garwood
- Series: N/A
- Genre(s): Historical (Medieval)
- Publisher: Pocket Books, August 1991
- Format: Audio CD narrated by Anne Flosnik (Brilliance Audio, 2009)
- Source: Public library
- Length: 408 pages (10 CDs, 12.5 hours)
- Trope(s): Conquering Hero, Dimwit Heroine, Battle of the Sexes, Newlywed Woes
- Quick blurb: Saxon maiden vs. Norman warrior
- Quick review: Not a good choice for my first commute-time audiobook, or my first Garwood.
- Grade: C- for story, D- for narration
He never knew what hit him.
I’m glad that’s over with. Also, I now know who Kathryn Le Veque has been reading for inspiration.
The Prize is set in 1066 England, with William the Conqueror on the throne in London and his minions crawling the countryside to claim Saxon holdings. One of those minions, our hero Baron Royce, gets clobbered on the head with a stone flung by our slingshot-wielding heroine Nicolaa, a feisty (god help us) Saxon maiden determined to defend her family’s home.
When he regains consciousness, Royce and his men overtake the manor, mostly thanks to Nicolaa’s idiot older brother abandoning her to “go north.” Our spunky (god help us) heroine disguises herself as a nun and claims sanctuary at the nearby abbey where her other brother is recovering from a serious injury. Royce feels all tingly in his manly parts upon meeting the beautiful young nun, but he manages to get them to the convent without disturbing her maidenly essence.
Somehow, Royce manages to figure out that Nicolaa isn’t really a nun, which allows the tingling to burst forth into full-on mental lusting. Nicolaa is too busy swanning about denouncing the Normans and pronouncing things about her family’s honor to notice much about Royce. Except for the fact that he smells good.
After some unimportant secondary character nonsense, Royce forces Nicolaa out of the abbey and on the road to London, where she’ll be auctioned off as the titular “prize” to a deserving Norman lord. Nicolaa insists on bringing along her infant nephew, who she claims is hers by her deceased husband. There is no mention of a wet nurse, so I have no clue how this poor child is being fed, and we get a first glimpse of our heroine utter cluelessness as she flounders to explain the chronology of her fake husband’s death and her pretend child’s birth.
At some point early in the road trip, Nicolaa decides to escape. She does this in the dead of night, with no plan of whatsoever. No food, no weapon, leaving her infant “son” in the hands of god knows who – but she’s sure nothing will happen because she knows the territory. She then promptly falls into a ravine and twists her ankle. She starts to call for help, but – never fear – hero Royce is near. He followed her, because he’s not a clueless idiot.
- Title: Never Too Late
- Author: Amara Royce
- Genre(s): Historical
- Publisher: Kensington, May 2013
- Source: NetGalley
- Length: 226 pages
- Trope(s): Bookselling Widow, Angsty Nobleman, Age Gap, Blackmail, Deep Dark Secrets
- Quick blurb: Young viscount falls in love with the older widow he’s been blackmailed into ruining.
- Quick review: A bit uneven, but I’m really looking forward to this debut author’s next title.
- Grade: B-
“I will never be done with you,” he said, low and fierce.
While I had issues with the rather melodramatic plot and the heroine’s Deep Dark Secret, I loved Royce’s voice and storytelling. The hero and heroine were equally compelling, the relationship-building was spot-on, and the sexy times were hot.
This took me longer than I thought, because I wound up doing a full re-read of one, and I had to buy and read the newest because it finished off a series.
So… Here are the highs and lows of Harlequin Historical author Sophia James, presented in chronological order (minus the anthologies). Cover images link to Goodreads.
In summary: James is on the dark and angsty edge of Harlequin Historicals — her characters are complex and conflicted, and when she stays away from rakes and pirates, her storytelling skills are memorable. But it’s hit or miss whether all the pieces and parts coalesce enough to suck me into a full-on book trance.
For round two of our romp through Viking romance, we’ll focus on three vintage titles from the beloved old-skool era of Forced Seduction, Logic Fail and General WTFery.
I didn’t finish any of these — I dragged myself through the first half of each, but couldn’t find any reason to finish.
We’ll start with the least painful and save the vomit-worthy one for last.
We’ll subtitle this post….
The maiden voyage
As part of my Haul of Half-Off Harlequins, I wound up with two Viking romances, chosen primarily for the snark value. Unfortunately, both were actually pretty good.
But, of course, these books kicked off a Viking-theme book binge, which dredged up one ridiculously fun PNR mashup, several “meh” examples, and one so-called “classic” that left me cringing.
Before we set sail, I must admit I know fuck-all about actual Vikings or Norse mythology. I did learn that the proper homage to Thor for a successful pillage was a goat sacrifice, and you know how I feel about goats.
ANYWAY, it’s time to put on our pointy-horned hats and go raiding.
- Title: The Lady Most Willing…: A Novel in Three Parts
- Authors: Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway
- Series: Lady Most, Book 2
- Genre(s): Historical
- Publisher: Avon, December 2012
- Source: Edelweiss ($5.69 ebook)
- Length: 385 pages
- Trope(s): Insta-Love, Amusing Abuction, Impoverished Rake, Stuffy Duke/Earl (one of each), Red-Headed Smart-Mouthed Scottish Lasses, Surprise Virgin, Loud Laird
- Quick blurb: Drunken laird and his kilted kin kidnap fair maidens as potential brides for his nephews, and accidentally abduct a duke at the same time.
- Quick review: Banal and predictable.
- Grade: D+
Hell was obviously freezing, decrepit and located in the Scottish Highlands.
I loved 2010’s The Lady Most Likely — the balance of stories was great, with one insta-love, one childhood-friends-to-lovers, and one sibling’s-best-friend-from-afar. And more importantly, each couple and their courtship was unique and memorable.
The Lady Most Willing, however…. Blech. Blah. Boring. Four — count ’em FOUR (4) — insta-love quickies with only the barest hint of characterization. The only exception was foul temptress Marilla the Maneater and her Cleavage of Doom, who was so ridiculously vamped up it was almost embarrassing to read.
I considered going with a C- grade, but these are authors who have given us much, much better in the past.
The Duchess War
- Title: The Duchess War
- Author: Courtney Milan
- Series: Brothers Sinister, Book 1
- Genre(s): Historical (Victorian)
- Publisher: Self-Published, December 2012
- Source: Amazon ($3.99 ebook)
- Length: ??? pages (5068 Kindle locations)
- Trope(s): Tragic Past, Parental Issues, In Disguise, Virgin Hero, Smartass Heroine, Blundering Hero
- Quick blurb: Progressive but guilt-ridden duke brings unwanted attention to heroine who’s desperate to remain an overlooked wallflower.
- Quick review: A lot I really liked and a few things that just didn’t work.
- Grade: B-
- “I’m winning,” he announced. “You can’t bore me into a surrender.”
- “Don’t tell me to look up. Don’t ask me to want. If I do, I’ll never survive.”
- “I’ve always found that the quickest way to make someone relent in his foolish edicts is to take every command literally and to perform it with flagrant obedience.”
- “A paste emergency!” she huffed. “A paste assault, that’s what we had.”
- It wasn’t fair that he could rob her heart of anger and her lungs of air with just one word.
- “The male of the human species has a fundamental flaw. At the moment when we most want to say something clever and impressive, all the blood rushes from our brains.”
- His voice was rough when he spoke again. “So beat me to flinders,” he said. “Win. Overmatch me, Minnie. And when we’re alone…” His fingers touched her chin lightly. “When we’re alone,” he whispered, “look up.”
- She was a shard of stained glass, casting colors about the room, and yet capable of slicing everything she touched.
- “No,” Minnie said bitterly. “I earned this, fair and square.” Well, maybe it hadn’t been fair. And maybe it hadn’t been precisely square. Still, she’d earned it legally. Legally and…rectangularly. That would have to do.
- It was messy and slippery and wrong, and it felt so, so damned right.
Stuff I liked:
- Heroine named Minerva. I am a complete sucker for this.
- Hero who’s an anti-Duke.
- Heroine who isn’t a TSTL doormat.
- Victorian NON-LONDON, NON-COUNTRY-HOUSE-PARTY setting.
- Relationship between Robert and his illegitimate half-brother Oliver (“…because he chose me first”).
- Robert struggling with his loyalties between Minnie and Oliver.
- Severe anxiety issue that doesn’t evaporate with a Magical Orgasm Cure.
- Awkward wedding night with Robert shutting his eyes and thinking of England and Minnie unashamedly taking matters into her own hands (literally).
- Dowager Duchess swooping in à la Lady Catherine de Bourgh and then acknowledging the literary reference herself.
- The non-threatening reason for the “Brothers Sinister” name of the series.
Stuff that didn’t work for me:
- Repetitive angstifying (on both sides) after the meet-cute and before the Paste Incident. I really struggled with the book until I got past the halfway point.
- Needlessly blatant telegraphing of yet another upcoming round of angst (“…a blood-red portent of things to come”).
- The over-the-topness of the Dowager Duchess (except for the incident mentioned above) with a complete personality overhaul in the schmaltzy epilogue as she turns into the perfect grandparent.
- The goat rampage. Yes, I was warned, but sheesh. Was that really necessary? I think NOT.
- On the whole, I found it surprisingly earnest and heavy-handed, without Milan’s trademark dark humor that sets her writing apart.
A Kiss for Midwinter
- Title: A Kiss for Midwinter
- Author: Courtney Milan
- Series: Brothers Sinister, Book 1.5
- Genre(s): Historical (Victorian)
- Publisher: Self-Published, December 2012
- Source: Amazon (99¢ ebook)
- Length: 121 pages
- Trope(s): Ruined by a
RakePredator, Parental Issues, Blundering Hero, Non-Euphemistic References to Naughty Bits
- Quick blurb: Eleventh prettiest girl in Leicester rebuffs wooing of doctor who knows her secret.
- Quick review: I loved this one almost as much as A Governess Affair.
- Grade: A-
- “Work your way on to number twelve,” she snapped. “Number eleven wants nothing more to do with you.”
- But it was too late. Miss Lydia Charingford wasn’t just on the list. She was the list, and he hoped God would have mercy on his soul.
- She leaned in and whispered. “Let me tell you a secret. I’m not stupid.”
- “Well,” she finally said, “you’re doing it wrong.”
- Even if she swooned at whatever poetic nonsense he managed to spout, she would only be disappointed once they grew comfortable with each other and he went back to making jokes about death and gonorrhea.
- “Maybe,” he said, “I’m thinking that the days are dark and long, that midwinter is approaching. Maybe, Miss Charingford, all I really want is a kiss.”
- “I believe,” he said, “that there is a special place in hell for those who steal truth. And that man—whoever he is—I hope he is burning there.”
- “Once you speak,” he said, “you have no equal.”
- “Sometimes,” she said, “it feels like there are some hurts that can only be cured by this. By warmth. And touch.”
- “I suppose it’s too much to hope that you have a question about gonorrhea. Those questions are so much easier to answer.”
- There was the mistletoe piled on a market table, a poisonous, parasitic reminder that kisses could lie.
- Even the way he talked to her. It was outrageous. It was blunt. It was impossible. And it was…precisely what she needed, the truth boned and filleted without garnish or flourish, placed in front of her for her decision. He made her wants seem ordinary instead of dark and dangerous.
- “The truth isn’t a gift,” she told him. “It’s a terror. And every time I look at you, I feel it.
- He’d never noticed before how much a breath could say. It seemed more than the transportation of air to lungs. The act of breathing with another person—of accepting silence together, of simply living in tune with the rhythm of someone else’s existence—was deeply intimate. They said more to each other with quiet respiration than they’d managed in sixteen months of bickering. [*SWOON*]
- I only said I would stop talking to you, he’d written. I never promised to stop loving you. [O.M.G. *~*~*SWOON*~*~* <thud>]
(Yes, I know that was longer than the list for the longer novel. Just shut up and keep reading.)
Stuff I loved:
- Blundering hero who knows when to just shut up and listen.
- Troubled heroine who finally learns to start talking.
- Lydia’s quiet but loving-no-matter-what relationship with her parents, especially her father.
- Jonas struggling with love for and utter frustration with his aging father, and no Magic Grandchild Cure in the epilogue.
- Jokes about gonorrhea. This novella had all the dark humor the novel was missing.
- The sense of equality between Lydia and Jonas, as a romantic couple and as equally important characters who are never shoved to the sidelines for the sake of the plot.
- The achingly lovely intimate moments with no dialogue.
- Use of the word “ensorcellment.”
- Non-kissy references to mistletoe. Yes, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m bitter and cranky and I haven’t started drinking yet. Shut up.
- Fascinating history without gratuitous info-dumping. I love it when authors are bigger nerds than I am.
Stuff I didn’t love:
- The premise seemed a bit too similar to A Governess Affair, with a gruff but sensitive hero overcoming the fears of a ruined heroine.
- See item #1. Other than that, I got nothing.
- Title: The Spy Who Saved Christmas
- Author: Dana Marton
- Series/Category: Intrigue
- Genre(s): Contemporary, Suspense
- Publisher: Harlequin, October 2010
- Source: Amazon, $3.82
- Length: 219 pages
- Trope(s): Virgin Heroine, Angsty Spy, Plot Moppets (x2), Secret Baby (x2), AWOL Underwear, Unauthorized Use of Prep Table
- Quick blurb: Lady Butcher has Secret Babies with Fake-Dead Biker Baker Black Ops Guy. Also, it’s Christmas.
- Quick review: A quick and goofy holiday read, but not quite as much gleeful fun as Black Sheep Sheik.
- Grade: B
- Title: Hugh and Bess: A Love Story
- Author: Susan Higginbotham
- Series: N/A
- Genre(s): Historical Fiction
- Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark, August 2009
- Source: Public library ($9.99 ebook)
- Length: 273 pages
- Trope(s): Child Bride, Treason, Courtly Love, Reunited
- Quick blurb: Hugh le Despenser, the son and grandson of traitors, and his teenage bride Elizabeth Montacute face court intrigue, war and plague
- Quick review: A welcome informal tone and a great historical couple, but uneven storytelling.
- Grade: C
“Why can’t Joan marry him? Her father was beheaded too. They would have had much more to talk about.”
Higginbotham is a new-to-me author, but I’ve had her on my wishlist for while. She chooses some really fascinating lesser-known historical figures and settings, so I was really looking forward to this. But Higginbotham was doomed to a comparison to my other favorite historical fiction authors, particularly Philippa Gregory and Elizabeth Chadwick (reviews for both coming soon!).
Hugh and Bess was an easy read with enjoyable dialogue and some good historical detail, but it was very superficial — the storytelling was noticeably episodic, with some backstory filler between major life events.
My biggest disappointment was the lack of emotional depth and character development. Other than dealing with their significant age difference, neither Hugh nor Bess change or grow at all throughout the story — Hugh especially is presented as a saintly warrior who can do no wrong. I think that’s partly because Hugh and Bess are separated for much of the story, and it would be difficult for any author to sustain the romance throughout wars, executions, epidemics and god knows what else these two had to overcome.
I have two more by Higginbotham in my TBR and a few others are available at my library, so it’ll be interesting to see how her Margaret of Anjou, Katharine Woodville and Frances Grey measure up.
Status Updates: Read With Me Vicariously
- 17%: This has a much lighter tone than I was expecting, and I’m enjoying the author’s “voice” as a 13-year-old bride-to-be. The minor characters are a little hard to keep track of, especially considering the similarity of their names. If I wasn’t already a little familiar with the historical figures and chain of events, I’d probably find it really confusing.
- 30%: The time-jumping is starting to annoy me – the dual storylines aren’t parallel chronologically, and there have been several flashbacks within flashbacks. But I am loving the unusual “voice” — informal, smarmy and often sarcastic. Definitely not the usual medieval-speak.
- 80% : Now that the info-dumping backstory is out of the way, the pace has picked up – but there still isn’t much emotional involvement.