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Grace Callaway

REVIEW: Abigail Jones by Grace Callaway

REVIEW: Abigail Jones by Grace Callaway

Dear Ms. Callaway:

I was bemused and not particularly enchanted by your gothic paranormal novel Abigail Jones. Everything about it, from the demented sex-starved demonesses to the enormity of your hero’s penis, was over the top. Very little about the heroine, her plight, the hero, his predicament, or the eye-popping plot called to me to. Ultimately, I found the story silly and, despite the many erotic scenes, unsexy and unromantic.

You open the book with a poem by the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, it is told

(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,

And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old,

And, subtly of herself contemplative,

Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,

Till heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flower; for where

Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent

And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?

Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went

Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent

And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

The poem has a literal significance to your tale: the villain of this gothic romance is the Lilith, first wife of Adam, Mother of the Demons, and Queen of the Night. As the hero, Hux, explains:

According to ancient Semitic scriptures, she was created by God as the first wife for Adam. Though her beauty was unparalleled, she was querulous and headstrong. When she refused to take a subservient role, Adam complained to God. God gave him another wife, Eve, and Adam cast Lilith aside. Enraged, Lilith set the earth aflame and fled amidst the smoke of burning poppies. She has ruled the darkness ever since.

She’s done nothing but become more evil over the centuries and now, at the height of Victoria’s rule, Hux says, the Mother of Demons has a horrific goal.

Lilith is building an army, and when her power is great enough, she plans to overtake our world. To create her own empire of everlasting hell.

Our hero, Lord Lucien Langsford, Earl Huxton (Hux to his—none of which exist in this book—friends), has been tasked with defeating Lilith. He has this burden because when Hux was young, he was blamelessly responsible for a horrible injury to his brother John who subsequently took his own life. Years later, while living in Italy, Hux met a woman. He describes the encounter to Abigail:

“Her name was Isabella Del Blanco. We met at a masquerade in Florence. She was the young widow of a wealthy merchant and the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I still remember the dress she wore that night: layers of white and gold that floated around her. I thought her an angel descended into our midst.”

He was looking at me, but his eyes had that distant focus again. I knew he was seeing his wife as he had that first time. Reliving that moment forever imprinted upon his memory.

“I had to know her. But she was surrounded by admirers, and I—so used to the attention of the fair sex—I could not get her to notice me. So I bided my time. I waited until I saw her slip out to a balcony, and I followed her there. I pressed for an introduction. But it turned out she knew me already—she had heard of my exploits from her friends, she said, and she wanted to know if the rumors were true.”

“Rumors?” I could not help but ask.

A dull flush spread over his cheekbones. “About my … stamina. ‘Twas a trifling matter grossly exaggerated.” He cleared his throat. “At any rate, she seduced me that night. Then and there, on the balcony overlooking a piazza brimming with revelers, she took me as no woman ever had. I had thought myself experienced in carnal arts, but she overwhelmed me completely—with her beauty, her lack of restraint. I had never felt this way with another woman. The next morning, I asked her to marry me. Within a week, we were wed by special license.”

Isabella turned out to actually be Lilith and, after making Hux’s life a torment and murdering their son, she abandoned him. Hux, unable to overcome his grief over his son’s death, was about to hurl himself out the nursery window when he was visited by another paranormal creature, this one on the side of good, Michael, Captain of the Army of Light. Michael told Hux that if Hux could defeat Lilith and her slutty offspring, the Lilin,

God would pardon my brother’s sin and let John be at rest at last. Michael gave me a blessed sword and knowledge of the words and ritual to cast a demonic force from its humanly shell.

Abigail jones Grace CallawayThis back-story is too bent for me. First of all, the idea that Hux is so good in bed—it’s already been established he’s hung like an elephant—that the Queen of the Night finds him just to try out his goodies, sticks around to make him miserable, gets pregnant with his son, and then suffering a post-partum depression caused by the fact she really wanted a girl, kills the kid and dumps Hux all seems beyond far-fetched to me. Add to that, a mystical messenger from a mean God—Hux, who is completely innocent in his brother’s suicide, has to take on the Biggest Bad because God is keeping John is some sort of nasty purgatory and he won’t let him out unless Hux rids the world of Evil—and a bunch of hell-bitch women who are horrifically horny and trying to destroy the world one cock at a time and you have a story so lacking in credibility, it’s ridiculous.

Abigail’s role in the novel is equally preposterous. The young, virginal, grey-eyed heroine has all her life suffered from scandalous and wicked visions. When she touches certain objects, she is transported into the experience of another. These experiences are all sexual and usually depraved. As a girl, she lived with her aunt who, aware of Abigail’s affliction, kept her away from much of the world. But, beloved Aunt Agnes passed on three months ago and Abigail threw herself on the mercy of her aunt’s oldest friend, Mrs. Beecher who is, of course, Lord Huxton’s housekeeper. Abigail, who has no experience at doing anything but reading—she’s a whiz with all things bookish—becomes a chamber maid in the Earl’s home, the dramatically named Hope End. Mrs. Beecher, from page one, warns Abigail to stay far away from the Earl, who is known for his voracious sex life and mysterious past.

Abigail tries to obey Mrs. Beecher, but, one night, when she, Abigail, can’t sleep, she sneaks off to the Earl’s library where, while she is hiding under his desk, hoping he won’t discover her, she watches him stroke his massive member. He, in the throes of passion, kicks out his foot, and knocks over Abigail’s hidden candle. He stops playing with his “truncheon”, hauls Abigail out, and, by the next day, has asked her to become his personal secretary.  Next thing you know, she’s in love and trying to get him to relieve her of her chastity and he’s in love and trying to behave like a gentleman—which for him means he can do stuff to her and, after he protests, she can do stuff to him and his truncheon, but they don’t have intercourse.

Furthermore, there’s the Lilin who keep showing up and whom Hux keeps having to seduce and kill which is no fun at all. As he reassures Abigail,

“My encounters with the Lilin have never resulted in the usual outcome.”

Not understanding, I tilted my head.

His mouth took on a wry bent. “When I say there is no pleasure in it for me, I mean it in the literal sense. I use sexual means to entice them, yes, but I do not participate for myself. To be blunt, there is no conclusion for me.”

My brow furrowed as I tried to grasp what he was telling me. “You mean you don’t—”

“I do not spend, Abigail,” he said succinctly. “It has been several years since I have experienced that particular pleasure with another person involved.

As Hux wages war on the Lilin—through a series of one-night stands—Abigail realizes that her visions are somehow connected to the Lilin. She worries she could be one of them and yet she knows she’s not an evil, humanity destroying ho. Plus, there’s this magic necklace she wears that somehow protects her from the Lilin….

It all seemed to me to be completely absurd. Neither Hux nor Abigail is remotely credible, and their deep love for each other didn’t have any basis other than lust and a desire to rid the world of evil sex-obsessed demons.  Reading this book made me long to watch Buffy and Angel kiss and kick some ass—and I wouldn’t mind it being those of Hux and Abigail.

It’s fair to infer, from the Author’s Note, this book was inspired by Jane Eyre. I like Jane Eyre (hate Wuthering Heights) and, as I read this book, I could see the effort put into replicating that sort of eerie Gothic tale. But the storyline here is so crazy, the leads so extreme, and the morality so discomfiting, I couldn’t enjoy the ambience of the book. I’d give it a D.

Sincerely,

Dabney

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REVIEW: Her Husband’s Harlot by Grace Callaway

REVIEW: Her Husband’s Harlot by Grace Callaway

Dear Ms. Callaway,

I was interested to read your debut novel for two reasons. First, I love the title. I’ve always thought being a husband’s harlot is one of the best parts of marriage. (Plus, it reminds me of a classic song, the number one single from 1973, Charlie Rich’s Behind Closed Doors. I’m humming it as I write.) Second, I think it’s impressive you’ve taken your 2010 winning manuscript, (Her Husband’s Harlot was a 2010 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Finalist) and turned it into a successfully selling novel: It’s currently the 36th most popular Regency romance at Amazon.com and has a five star reader rating.

Her Husband's Harlot by Grace CallawayI enjoyed your book. You utilize a typical regency plot—virginal girl marries sensually experienced and sexually voracious man whose heart she longs to win—and give it an innovative rendering.  I loved the opening scene in which your heroine, the well-bred Lady Helena is wandering the halls of the Nunnery, a high-end London brothel, determined to track down her husband Nicholas and beg him not to consort with whores but to consort with her instead. The two have been married just a month and, after a truly awful experience for both on their wedding night—she practiced “ladylike forbearance” until the moment she screamed in startled pain; he jumped off her, ran out of the room, horrified he’d hurt her—the two barely speak. Helena, though, longs for another chance and so, upon learning Nicholas will be at the bordello this evening, she slips on the clothes of a tart, paints her face, dons a wig and a feathered mask, and goes husband hunting.

She finds him, hidden behind a curtain, watching an exceedingly bawdy threesome. Nicholas has been in sexual hell since his wedding night. He is consumed with lust for his wife, but sees her as too genteel and pure for him. He thinks, after their wedding night, she wants nothing to do with him. But he’s a guy with big needs and even beating off three times a day, while fantasizing about fucking the hell out of Helena, is neither slaking his lust nor assuaging his loneliness. He came to the Nunnery thinking he’d find relief in another woman’s quim, but found, much to his despair, he only wants his wife.

Usually, in romance novels, the hero doesn’t ever have sex with another woman—many romance readers have zero tolerance for unfaithful husbands. In your book, you take a different path and I liked that. When Helena literally bumps into Nicholas, he doesn’t know her. The light is dim—they are swathed in heavy velvet drapes–, she’s wearing a mask and, most importantly, in Nicholas’s mind, Helena is a paragon of virtue; there’s not a chance in hell his highborn, pristine wife would ever be rubbing up against him in a den of vice.

The minute the room is emptied of the threesome, Nicholas jerks Helena into his arms, lays her flat on the nearest table, yanks down her bodice and unbuttons his trousers. He is aflame with desire for this woman who is not his wife. Helena, who got quite an education from watching the ménage a trois, is just as desirous of him. She realizes, though, he doesn’t recognize her, and, afraid he’d condemn her for her wantonness—she speaks to him in French in an altered voice. The two have explosive sex—I love the bawdy language of your sex scenes—after which Nicholas drops a fifty pound note on the table and abruptly leaves.

Nicholas, of course, feels worse than ever after this event. He’s already believes he’s not a worthy spouse for Helena and now he’s gone and fucked a whore while imagining he was defiling his wife. Helena, now that she knows how great marital bliss can be, is more determined than ever to woo her husband. Here again, you don’t take their story down the expected path.

Helena does everything right and Nicholas behaves like an ass to her. She tries to talk with him, works on de-dowding herself, and—I really liked this—gets angry at him when he doesn’t respond pleasantly to her. The nicer she is to him, the nastier he is to her. Normally this dynamic would irritate me, but you make it work. You do a wonderful job of showing why Nicholas thinks he’s so unworthy of Helena.  Nicholas is not from the privileged class. He grew up alone and wretchedly poor in the slums of St. Giles.  He was well on his way to death by noose or starvation when he was given a chance by the owner of a shipping company. Nicholas worked his way up, ethically, to managing the company and when the owner died, he left it to Nicholas to run. Nicholas now has money and a title, but he still sees himself as the abused boy he once was. He’s consumed with shame for things done to him and the things he did in his vile past.  You write Nicholas’s shame so believably—he may be crippled by it, but you give him just enough emotional flexibility for the reader to believe it’s possible for him to change.

You also do a nice job of making Helena a credible character. She may be from the ton with snotty parents, but she really doesn’t care that Nicholas isn’t from her class. She was thrilled when he courted her and has always found him incredibly attractive. She really doesn’t understand why he doesn’t seem to want her anymore—she knew nothing about sex and thought what happened on their wedding night portended permanent problems. Once she goes to the Nunnery, and experiences successful coitus, she sees sex as a way to connect with her husband. It’s not, however, the only way she tries to forge a bond between them. She asks him about his work, invites herself to meet the Fines (they are the family of the shipping company owner and are as close to family as Nicholas has), and pleads with him to socialize with her. She sees what works, what doesn’t, and adjusts her behavior accordingly. I liked that she works so hard to get her husband to be with her but she never acts in any way that is debasing or untrue to whom she is.

I appreciated the emotional relationship between Nicholas and Helena. I liked the way it evolved and how, over time, both Nicholas and Helena began to trust and rely on one another. I also really liked their sex life. Your sex scenes are incredibly graphic and your characters use fairly blunt, even brutal language, as they couple.  Nicholas is such a sexual person—the way he speaks in bed is the way he thinks out of bed. And Helena has, from the beginning of the book, wanted to become her husband’s harlot. For her, listening to Nicholas ask her if she wants his cock and being able to say yes is an affirmation that all she’s worked for is hers.

I did feel that Nicholas’s self-loathing went on longer than it needed to, but this is a small quibble. In general, I loved the romance in your romance.

I wasn’t as engaged in the suspense plot that comprises a great deal of your book. You have Nicholas being anonymously threatened by some unknown villain. Nicholas keeps getting notes that threaten to tell the truth about his past. This extra level of threat seemed overkill to me. Nicholas is already consumed with fear that if Helena knew what he’d been, she’d be disgusted and repulsed. When he uses the possible blackmail to distance himself further from Helena, it felt heavy handed to me. I also had a hard time caring who was behind the notes and, as the book progresses, the criminal activity at Nicholas’s shipping company. For me, the relationship between Nicholas and Helena was so interesting, I was somewhat resentful when you took the focus off of the two of them and put it on bad guys at the docks.

All in all, though, this is a good book. It’s the kind of debut novel that gives me faith your next book will be even better.  It seems possible the next book will be about Helena’s friend Marianne. (She helps Helena get into the Nunnery in the first place.) She was a great secondary character and I hope to read more about her.

So, again, congratulations. Her Husband’s Harlot is a pleasing, out of the ordinary read.  I give it a B. I enjoyed finding out what went on behind closed doors in your book—it was nice to watch Helena become her husband’s harlot!

Thanks,

Dabney

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