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REVIEW:  Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

REVIEW: Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

For generations, the Kents have served proudly with the British Royal Navy. So when her younger brother refuses to report for duty, Sally Kent slips into a uniform and takes his place—at least until he comes to his senses. Boldly climbing aboard the Audacious, Sally is as able-bodied as any sailor there. But one man is making her feel tantalizingly aware of the full-bodied woman beneath her navy blues…

Dedicated to his ship, sworn to his duty—and distractingly gorgeous—Lieutenant David Colyear sees through Sally’s charade, and he’s furious. But he must admit she’s the best midshipman on board—and a woman who tempts him like no other. With his own secrets to hide and his career at stake, Col agrees to keep her on. But can the passion they hide survive the perils of a battle at sea? Soon, their love and devotion will be put to the test.

Dear Ms. Essex,

I’ve read and enjoyed your first three books: Georgian histories steeped in naval history. Your writing style is distinctive and seductive—you have a gift for dreamy description and passionately portrayed love scenes. I looked forward to losing myself in this book, Almost a Scandal, and was startled when, half-way through, I realized I wasn’t especially enchanted by your plot or your protagonists.

Almost a Scandal Elizabeth EssexIn Almost a Scandal, nineteen year old Sally Kent hates the dull land-locked life she has as a young, unmarried woman in Falmouth. All the men in her family—brothers, cousins, and her famous captain father—serve in the British Royal Navy under Admiral Nelson. The Kents, with the exception of the youngest son Richard, adore the sea and Sally is no exception. Thus, when Richard acts on his threat to run away from his sea-faring destiny—he wants to be a minister—and doesn’t show up to report for his assigned duty on His Majesty’s Ship Audacious, Sally dons his uniform and takes his place.

It wasn’t the first time Sally Kent had donned a worn, hand me-down uniform from one of her brothers’ sea chests, but it was the first time it had felt so completely, perfectly right. She had always been tall and spare, strong for a girl, but dressed in the uniform of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, she felt more than strong. She felt powerful.

(I had a hard time believing any woman could pull off such a deception. How would she pee, hide having periods, or constantly keep a bunch of randy sailors at bay? But, I did some research and it turns out there were several women who did indeed serve as men in Nelson’s Navy and managed to remain undetected for years. The most famous was a woman named Hannah Snell who served for over five years on the HMS Swallow from 1745-1750.)

At the dock in Portsmouth, Sally is picked up and rowed out to the Audacious by driven, darkly handsome First Lieutenant David St. Vincent Colyear. “Col” is no stranger to Sally. He’s a close friend of her older brothers and, the summer she was thirteen and he nineteen, he spent six weeks living with her family while he studied for his lieutenancy exams. Sally is panicked he’ll recognize her but he does not. She’s easily brought onboard and presented to Captain Hugh McAlden (the hero of your last book, The Danger of Desire, reviewed here by Janine) and the other men aboard the ship. Everyone accepts her as a young man—she’s pretending to be Richard’s age of fifteen—and Sally is elated to finally be a midshipman. She loves the work and is a gifted sailor—flying up the rigging, full of knowledge about the sea and ships, deftly offering leadership to her peers on ship.

But, from the moment Sally steps on board, Col is strongly drawn to, as he calls her, Kent. And when, soon after she joins the crew, he hears her singing an old ditty he’d heard her sing years ago, Col suddenly realizes Kent is Sally rather than Richard. He confronts her with the truth and she begs him to let her stay onboard. Astonishingly, he does. I say astonishingly because for him to do so requires him to both break the law and risk all he’s worked for. Why does he do this? In large part because he’s desired Sally since he met her—when she was thirteen (a little icky for me)—and he’s compelled now to keep her near him.

Their romance—for Sally desires Col as well—must be kept literally under wraps (Sally binds herself) in order to protect them both. The semi-villain of the piece, a bitter older midshipman named Gamage, senses the attraction between Col and Kent and threatens to have Col unmasked as one who “likes pretty soft boys.” This need for Kent and Col to hide their waxing want for one another makes for lots of lusting and not a lot of actual romance. Plus, there’s something off about the Kent/Sally persona. When they first kiss, finally alone on a dangerous mission in France, the way they refer to each other is flat-out odd.

It seemed the most natural thing in the world to kiss her again. To taste her again. To let his mouth drift down until her lips were there, beneath his. And she was soft and warm and yielding, and he kissed her slowly, breathing into her, filling her with his resolution.

“Mr. Colyear,” she whispered.

He laid his finger across her lips—plush and taut, and sweet, like ripe fruit. “Col,” he murmured, as he lowered his head to her lips. “For God’s sake, Kent, call me Col when I’m kissing you.”

Their love affair doesn’t have enough context—there’s next to no information about Col and his past other than how strongly he remembers the weeks he spent in Falmouth—nor did it spark for me. Their passion for one another, in the brief times it’s allowed free rein, bewildered me. They seemed more suited as friends than libidinous lovers.

Far more viable than the courtship between Col and Kent is the story of Nelson’s war against Napoleon. You have a degree in Nautical Archeology and your knowledge of ships and naval warfare prevails in this book. I found it interesting and, at the same time, distracting. Rather like the pairing of Col and Kent, the melding of so much fact with so little romance didn’t work for me.

I realize this has been a rather negative review. And I’ve meant every word. But….

Compared to much of what’s published today in historical romance, your work, even this book, shines. I didn’t love this book—and I had every expectation of doing so given how much I’ve liked your earlier books—but I didn’t hate it either. Your prose is gorgeous and your depth of knowledge compelling. The world of the Audacious is meticulously and engrossingly presented and your secondary characters are terrific. Almost a Scandal is a book I found hard to grade. I’ve read it twice and have decided, with reservation, to give it a C+.

I do look forward to your next book.

Dabney

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REVIEW: Still Hot For You by Diane Escalera

REVIEW: Still Hot For You by Diane Escalera

Dear Ms. Escalera,

In the teaser for your book, Still Hot for You, your publisher Lyrical Press, describes it thusly:

Want to get your man talking?  Give him booty!

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And Shay LaCosta is pretty desperate. She’s wrecked her blissful marriage of five years by demanding she and her husband Dylan have a baby. What the hell was she thinking? She knows she was wrong and she’s ready to set things right, if only Dylan will let her. Bet he can’t shun her Booty Camp offer: delicious, white-hot sex in exchange for what’s going on inside his brain.

Still Hot For You by Diane EscaleraMy curiosity was peaked. I wondered if perhaps you’d offer up an interesting tale of a couple dealing with the stress of trying to have a baby or with the stress that comes when, in a committed relationship, one person’s vision for a shared future isn’t the same as the other’s. I should have paid more attention to the fact that your blurb used the word “booty” twice in less than two paragraphs. Your book is mostly about the varied ways Shay and Dylan have sex in their upscale house. It wasn’t very interesting or, to me, erotic.

I, like you (according to your biography), am married with kids. Like your heroine, Shay, I was once twenty-nine and hell-bent on having a baby. I mention my own experience because I found Shay’s desire to have a baby pretty normal. I think many couples, after several years together, do begin to think about having kids. (About 75% of American women have had at least one child.)  And let’s be honest, the older a woman is, the less easy it is for her to conceive. (Fertility starts to decline for women from about the age of 30, dropping down more steeply from the age of 35.)  So, to me, Shay’s desire seemed pretty sane.

That’s not to say I didn’t empathize with Dylan’s lack of interest in a baby. He’s dug himself out of poverty, works really hard, and isn’t sure he’s financially ready to take on the responsibility of a child. Kids are expensive—in 2011, the average cost for raising a kid in the USA from birth to 18 (this excludes college) was just under $200,000. Having a baby is a life changer.

Dylan’s and Shay’s predicament is one that many couples (of all stripes) face. I wish you’d written more about it. Frankly, I couldn’t understand why Shay suddenly decides she’s crazy to want to get pregnant. When your book begins, Shay and Dylan are almost completely estranged. They don’t talk, haven’t had sex in five months, and each thinks the other may be ready to call it quits. Apparently, Shay had gotten angry at Dylan because he wouldn’t back her baby plans and told him to stay the hell away from her. OK. That’s a fight I can see—I couldn’t, however, see why he’d actually done it for five months or why she’d let him. The two love each other, are super hot for each other, and yet somehow, none of that is in play when the novel begins.

Then, Shay, after an erotic dream about her first kiss with Dylan, decides Booty Camp—a planned week of seduction—is just the thing her marriage needs to get the, um, channels open again in her marriage. She starts by wearing a see through tank top and cutoffs to greet Dylan when he comes home that night, serves him a home-cooked meal on their nice china, and after “slicking her tongue across that full bottom lip, she tormented him with the sexiest I-want-you eyes he’d ever seen,” and asks him to jump her bones. Which he is beyond thrilled to do.

You don’t describe their make-up sex or the conversation they had after it.  Had they talked about all the sex and conversation they haven’t been having? Or did they just shag in silence? I was again lost.

Over the next week, Shay keeps up her seduction campaign; the two have sex in the shower, hot tub, in bed, and on the kitchen counter. It’s clear they live in a very nice home—Shay’s got a good job with a banking company; Dylan’s construction business is going well—and, I have to say, all the descriptions of their home’s accoutrements distracted me from their mildly-hot sex. It’s hard to take seriously a sex scene set in “Their deluxe kitchen” which “flickered with amber candlelight that danced off the stainless steel appliances.”

By the end of your brief novel (my pdf was 78 pages long), Shay and Dylan have had a few short talks about the baby thing. Dylan has acknowledged he’s kinda crazy about money (he hates that Shay’s wealthy dad has always made him feel professionally and financially inadequate) and that, at some point, a baby or few would be fine. Shay has decided she’s unwilling to give up working yet and, given that she wants to be a stay-at-home mom for at the least her children’s early years, she’s not interested getting pregnant at this point in her life. The two now have the same vague family plan and, thanks to all that booty and those few chats, are again wonderfully connected emotionally and sexually.

If there’s a lesson in your book, it certainly isn’t that solving tough issues in a marriage takes work. What I got out of your book was that hot sex can help couples come together (in more ways than one.) And that’s totally true. But more booty isn’t, even with a man as well-built as Dylan, a magic wand. Figuring out how to balance work and family and struggling with the issues around fertility are challenges that need more than coitus, cunnilingus, and a few chats. It irked me you raised such serious issues and then dismissed them so casually.

Your book is not all bad, however. There are elements that are well-done. You do a great job of making your characters distinctive—I really liked Dylan’s brother, cousin and aunt and could visualize the three of them, as well as Dylan and Shay clearly. You made Dylan’s love for Shay very believable—almost more so than hers which seemed to be substantially fueled by how sexy she finds him. You write cogently and clearly about Dylan’s and Shay’s jobs—I could see how they spent their time at work and why they loved what they did. Lastly, I enjoyed your enthusiasm for Shay’s and Dylan’s sexy marriage. So often romance novels have all the hotness happening before a couple weds—it was nice to see matrimony as a venue for spicy sex.

I would suggest, however, that next time you pen a tale of true love, you pay a bit more attention to the details of your prose. I’d have liked your writing more had you expanded your vocabulary—you use the same words over and over—and had you paid more attention to consistency. (Characters’ placements, dress, and moods were often discontinuous.)

You write, in a blurb at the end of your book, you hope readers will go to your website and find more “Stories that will hopefully touch your emotions, ignite your passion, infuse you with the belief that true love conquers all.”  Still Hot for You did none of those things for me. It was a standard C read.  It did however remind me that steamy sex in marriage is a damn good thing.

Sincerely,

Dabney

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