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REVIEW: An Outlaw in Wonderland by Lori Austin

Dear Ms. Austin,

When I first read the description of Outlaw in Wonderland, I believe I may have said “gimme gimme gimme” out loud. But I deny actually making the ~grabbyhands~ gesture.

Outlaw in Wonderland by Lori Austin

Saving soldiers’ lives at the Confederate army hospital Chimborazo, Annabeth Phelan is no ordinary Southern belle. She’s never known work more exhausting or rewarding. And she’s never known a man like Dr. Ethan Walsh, with his disarming gray eyes and peculiar ways. But now the Confederacy is charging her with another service: find the Union spy at Chimborazo.

Ethan’s one passion is saving lives, and if he can do that by helping to end the war, he will — even if it means spying for the North. He’s gotten used to fooling Confederates, but he can’t bear lying to Annabeth. And together, they are about to discover a new passion—one that could even transcend the chaos of war.

Then I saw the cover, and nearly changed my mind. But we’ll save that discussion for later.

I was expecting the kickass heroine, the noble hero, the wartime intrigue and the ugliness of 19th-century battlefield medicine. I wasn’t expecting all that to be only the first third of the book — but by that point, I was along for the ride. And what an angsty, adventurous, brooding, emotional, angsty, humorous, tense, DID I MENTION ANGSTY?, and romantic ride it was.

From the Confederate war hospital mentioned in the blurb, the plot takes us to the notorious Castle Thunder prison in Richmond to a Kansas cow town. In addition to amputations and espionage, we get amnesia, baby loss, infidelity, abduction, murder, a tornado, prison sex, opium addiction with forced detox in a tepee, and a lot of flying bullets.

Life had been a little chaotic since she’d gotten back to Freedom. It wasn’t every day that a sheriff fell out a window, a federal marshal arrived asking questions, Annabeth returned from the dead and the local doctor was shot in the head.

Amongst all that fabulous craziness, we’re treated to vivid secondary characters like a one-eyed retired schoolmarm, a reclusive smallpox-scarred lawyer, a fainting ex-mistress, a long-suffering federal marshal, and a former childhood friend/spymonger/Pinkerton agent who mysteriously appears at the absolute worst possible times. And, of course, the batshit-insane thug bandit obsessed with Alice in Wonderland.

But none of that overwhelms the angsty, messy romance. Ethan and Annabeth are drawn to each other out of mutual respect, loneliness and adrenaline in the chaos of the hospital. As their relationship evolves, we learn how ill-prepared they for mundane real life, struggling with the consequences of their wartime decisions and actions.

The main source of angst in Outlaw is a miscarriage — a trope that can be disastrous in the wrong author’s hands. But not in this book.

“Beth?” Ethan stepped into the room. Hands open to show he held nothing in them, he stared at her as if she were a wild thing. “What are you doing?”

“What you should have done.” She tightened her grip. “Long ago.”

“Honey,” he began.

“Shut. Up.” Annabeth swung the ax.

The crib shattered into several large chunks. She continued to hack away at it until the thing lay in several dozen small ones. When she finished, she tossed the blade in the center of the room and peered out the window. She needed to leave — this room, this house, this town, this life — but right now it was all she could do to stay on her feet.

“Why did you keep it?” she whispered.

“I…” he began, then sighed. “I don’t know.”

And later….

Hope fluttered — or at least he thought it might be hope. He couldn’t quite recall what hope felt like.

The last thing Ethan remembered clearly was standing in the spare bedroom as his wife took an ax to their child’s crib. He’d been amazed, frightened, a little aroused. Which was pretty much the effect his wife always had on him. She was an amazing, frightening, arousing woman.

Am I wrong to find that romantic? But whatever — DAMN, that’s good writing.

I did have a few minor annoyances that disrupted my book trance. Ethan is the usual historical-romance-novel-doctor who is way ahead of his time in insisting on antiseptic surgery, a fact we’re reminded of several times. And to mark off a box on the Required Elements in a Western checklist, we have the noble Native American who silently communicates life- and soul-saving advice.

Speaking of annoyances…. The cover. Uff da, that cover. In addition to the huge disconnect between the cover and the blurb, we get a skeletal cover model in glaringly modern clothing — complete with zippered skinny jeans. And the western portion of the story is set in Kansas. I haven’t traveled the entire state of Kansas, but I’m pretty sure none it looks like Utah.

Now that the whining is out of the way, it’s true confession time — by the end of chapter six of Outlaw, I had to buy the previous book in the series (Beauty and the Bounty Hunter) and it’s even better. I’ll be waiting impatiently for the next one.

Grade: B+

~ Kelly



I lost my romance-reading virginity with my older sister’s Danielle Steel collection, and Judith Krantz broadened my teenage horizons in ways I’m still recovering from. My bookshelves are overflowing with history and historical fiction, my Kindle is home to everything from preachy inspirationals to extreme kink, and my wishlist is out of control. Thanks to my old-school, cigar-smoking journalism professors, I have a passion for good storytelling and zero tolerance for lazy writing. I’ll forgive nearly anything for a sappy, happy ending – but I'm not afraid to unleash the snark. [And FYI, I work part-time for a GLBTQ publisher, so I do not review any GLBTQ titles to avoid any conflict of interest.]


  1. Lil
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 08:41:19

    I haven’t read this, but your review makes me want to.
    I do have a question to go with your comments on the cover. Why on earth does an angsty story have a silly, cutesy title? If publishers choose a title to attract readers, don’t they realize that they are attracting the wrong readers and turning off the ones who would like the book? If I had not seen this review, it would never occur to me to pick up the book. I would have assumed it was frivolous nonsense.

  2. Jill Sorenson
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 08:41:58

    I love that cover. A heroine standing by herself in clothes that aren’t falling off! It strikes me as whimsical, like the title. But I’m really confused by…everything.

    1. Titles usually refer to a main character. The heroine, I’d assume from the cover. But it sounds like the villain is the outlaw?

    2. Agree that the cover has a contemporary look. Does the heroine wear pants and a gun belt in the story?

    3. Do the hero and heroine have a past relationship or does the story follow them from courtship into marriage (and a miscarriage)? The blurb says he’s “like no man she’s ever known.”

    4. I’d have thought the story was about two spies from opposing sides at an army hospital. The cover and review seem to suggest a whole lot of other stuff. Is she looking for the spy in the prison and cow town?

    With so many seemingly mismatched elements, I’m less inclined to try this.

  3. Meg
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 09:10:12

    I’m confused and not sure what to make of this book…The cover definitely has a more contemporary feel to it, but I love that the story itself is set during the Civil War. Then, on the other hand, it bothers me that the dialogue (at least just based on the excerpt provided here) seems to have a very contemporary or modern feel too (“Shut. Up.” and “which was pretty much…”). I’m really not sure what to make of it.

    You mention that along with amnesia, the loss of a baby, opium addiction, etc., there’s also infidelity. Infidelity between the main couple, or is that a secondary storyline?

    Also, “second chances” is included as a tag for the review…does that mean there’s a long separation between the couple?

  4. Kelly
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 09:45:15

    The answer to all questions is “it’s complicated.” I gave up doing a longer plot recap because my attempts at summarizing didn’t make any sense – but somehow the author makes it work.

    – The heroine is actually the outlaw. But not really – she becomes a Pinkerton agent undercover in the wacko villain’s lair.

    – Annabeth wears men’s clothing (she borrows Ethan’s) in the western part of the book – her only two dresses get destroyed in various bloody ways and the local seamstress doesn’t have anything that fits because she’s so tall. She winds up wearing the same pants and shirt for weeks straight – which makes makes me roll my eyes at the cover even more.

    – No past relationship – the meet-cute (heh) and “courtship” is all in the Confederate hospital and prison.

    – The opposing spy stuff is key to the opening section of the book, but it comes back to haunt them after the war because of Big Secrets.

    – The more modern bits of the dialogue and narrative didn’t jump out at me until I did the excerpts for the review. There is some anachronistic language, but the rest of the writing was so compelling I gave it a pass.

    – Infidelity for both hero and heroine during their five-year separation (nothing on-page thank god). I *detest* infidelity and long separations in romances, and yet I can’t think of any other way this book would work. Both tropes are integral to the plot AND the character development.

    I can do a longer plot recap/timeline if anyone is interested – it’s an ugly road to the HEA, but getting there is ridiculously satisfying.

  5. Dabney
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 10:26:10

    Sold. I love historicals with doctors as the hero!

  6. MaryK
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 13:36:22

    That cover is ridiculous. Readers who know nothing about the book are going to assume it’s contemporary. Readers looking for a historical aren’t even going to read the blurb. There seems to be a contemporary cowboy trend lately. They must be trying to hook onto that.

    It sounds like it could be a fun book. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the cover in my feed reader and totally ignored it.

  7. MaryK
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 13:42:53

    @MaryK: * The only reason I even read this review was because “Confederate army hospital” in the first paragraph caught my eye while I was skimming DA’s homepage and I clicked through out of bewilderment.

  8. LG
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 14:55:04

    @MaryK: Ha, me too! The cover plus the snippet of the first paragraph made me think it might be either a time travel romance or a romance featuring Civil War reenactors. It doesn’t really matter how nice a cover is on its own if it doesn’t convey a message that will draw in the audience the book was written for.

  9. Jenny
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 15:43:55

    I really enjoyed this book as well. The first book was even better than this one. I do think the cover is awful. I have no clue what they were thinking with it. I don’t think it does the book any favors. I also think it implies that the story is going to be lighter and fluffier than it actually is.

  10. etv13
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 19:53:04

    But seriously, we’re supposed to sympathize with a heroine who isn’t just southern but actively working for the Confederacy? Not sure I can go there.

  11. Susan
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 23:04:07

    @MaryK: Ditto! Very misleading cover. I’m way more interested in reading a Civil War historical than a contemp Western and that cover alone wouldn’t have sold me.

    And, btw Kelly, I love your avatar.

  12. Kaetrin
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 02:53:04

    Kelly, is the long separation on page? Or, does the plot skip forward 5 years?

  13. Kelly
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 16:42:31

    @Kaetrin: It skips ahead five years – no flashbacks when they’re reunited, the missing bits are revealed through dialogue and some internal monologuing.

  14. Kaetrin
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 20:10:24

    @Kelly: Good to know – thx :)

  15. Jill Sorenson
    Jun 23, 2013 @ 19:01:56

    Just came across this review for Austin’s previous book: Maybe that cover captures the tone of the story better than this one. I seem to be on a Western kick lately (I’m reading Jae’s Backwards to Oregon and just bought an Ellen O’Connell) so I’ll keep this author in mind.

    thanks Kelly

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