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second chances

REVIEW: An Outlaw in Wonderland by Lori Austin

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

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REVIEW:  A Dance with Indecency by Linda Skye

REVIEW: A Dance with Indecency by Linda Skye

New York City, 1920s

Bootleggers are breathing down hotelier Harry McMahon’s neck. So when a beautiful, young, and very wealthy widow from Paris turns up at the Cotton Club, Henry sees it as the perfect opportunity to combine business and pleasure. First he will take her body, then her heart, and finally, her money…

Elise Rousseau may not be the mousey innocent she once was, but she can’t believe Harry doesn’t recognize her–and she intends to punish him in the most wicked way. She will make him want her body, make him give her his heart. And then she will break it, just as he broke hers four years ago…

Dear Ms. Skye,

I noticed this Harlequin Historical Undone novella right as we at Dear Author started talking about wanting to read books with more unusual settings and time periods. “A Dance with Indecency” certainly fit the bill with a 1920s time frame plus the title gave me the impression that it wasn’t going to feature that character who only appears in Romancelandia – the dreaded Virgin Widow.

Harry and Eloise meet at a speakeasy in NYC – or should I say they meet again as they already have a history. Four years ago they graduated from the same college and mousy Eloise’s heart was broken when Harry rejected her declaration of love. Eloise has fixed herself up in Paris and is now radiant and sophisticated. Though Harry has already determined he’s going to scam her for as much money as he can get in order to pay off the bootleggers supplying his hotel before he’s even met her, thankfully Eloise avoids a plotline I dislike – the spurned heroine who is so fixated on a man that she’ll spend years planning ways to bring him low. Eloise does decide to get a bit of her own back but it’s only after Harry fails to recognize the new her.

Dance-with-IndecencyThe description of how Eloise married an older Frenchman might have led me to the erroneous belief that it’ll be Harry who initiates her into the delights of sex. Not so as someone has done a first rate job of seeing to Eloise’s intercourse instruction. She’s an enthusiastic pro who dazzles Harry after heating his blood with her penchant for going knickerless.

Harry shows signs of not being the cad he’s first portrayed as. After listening to what she tells him, he takes an enormous amount of time to bring to life a bit of Eloise’s favorite spot in Paris. He’s not all bad at all. Plus he’s a considerate lover and wants her to meet the folks. And that is the point when things head downhill.

There are two points of conflict in the story. When will Eloise’s true identity be revealed to – an almost unbelievably unseeing – Harry and then how will he react? And at what point will Eloise realize that Harry’s initial intentions were to take her for all the money he can get and how will she react? Neither denouement worked for me.

Eloise is humiliated enough when Harry – finally! – cottons on to who she really is that she flees the scene in tears. Harry chases after her and then they – I was hoping for talk things out but instead another sex scene appears with Eloise acting the flirtatious sex kitten. “The hell?” I thought. They do spend a few days getting to know each other again after that but this is like Prince Charming waving her glass slipper in hand chasing a coy Cinderella before catching up to her and doing her against the wall of the palace. I was sort of looking for “let’s talk” before “let’s fuck.”

Harry’s true purpose for chasing Eloise becomes clear and she decides – after saving his ass – that she isn’t sure she can trust him again. After all, he’s broken her heart twice now. Bully for Eloise in standing up for herself. That is until Harry tracks her down months later and promises to woo her with sex. Immediately she’s all coy and flirty. Really Eloise? That’s all it takes? No discussions of what went wrong in the past? Just plow straight on into a future? At this point not only do I doubt a HEA for these two, I’m not even convinced of a HFN. The setting is the cat’s pajamas but the romance is malarkey. C-

~Jayne

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