The Highwayman (Victorian Rebels #1) by Kerrigan Byrne

As I mentioned before, I tend to see romance books in falling in one of two categories: light and fluffy or dark and dangerous. Light romances include a lot of humor, tend to focus on social misunderstandings, and usually don’t involve anything too unpleasant. Dark romances include violence; a seedy, criminal element; quite foul language; and very graphic sex scenes. This new series by Kerrigan Byrne falls firmly into my “dark romance” category.

The Highwayman Front Cover (St. Martin's Paperback/Macmillan)

The Highwayman Front Cover (St. Martin’s Paperback/ Macmillan)

THE PLOT: Dougan Mackenzie and Farah Townsend meet as children in an orphanage. They bond when Farah is kind to the injured Dougan, and the two become inseparable. Dougan is especially protective of the younger Farah, whom he calls his Fairy. When Dougan is 13 and Farah 10, they perform a “handfast” marriage so no one can ever separate them. But when Dougan kills a man who tries to hurt Farah, he’s sent to Newgate Prison.

Seventeen years later, Farah (using the name Mrs. Mackenzie) is working for Scotland Yard when Dorian Blackwell, king of the London criminal underworld, is brought in. Dougan died years ago in prison, and Dorian was one of his cellmates. Upon his release, Dorian kidnaps Farah and takes her to his estate, Ben More. He tells her they will be married so he can pay a debt to Dougan by protecting his “Fairy” and helping her reclaim her true identity and inheritance. As her husband, Dorian will become an earl and gain a seat in Parliament. Dorian prefers a marriage in name only; his prison experiences have left him unable to touch or be touched by another person. Farah wants children, though, So somehow, they’ll have to navigate an actual marriage.

It won’t be easy. Both have baggage; Farah still grieves for her lost Dougan, and Dorian fears his own violence and its possible effect on Farah. Has Dorian been far too emotionally damaged to ever tell Farah the truth?

MY TWO CENTS: To me, this book has a similar tone to Elizabeth Hoyt’s “Maiden Lane” series, even though they’re set in different time periods. This is the gritty, dirty underworld of Victorian London. You can just imagine the smokey effects of the Industrial Revolution, the docks crawling with pimps and prostitutes and murderers. The setting sets the tone; there are no pristine, pretty drawing rooms or Regency balls.

More the an anything, this is book about healing. Two traumatized people have a very long way to go before they will trust anyone, let alone each other. It is NOT a polite romance. Profanity is used liberally, and it seems appropriate for this story in this setting. The only thing clean and untouched in this book is Farah herself…which is exactly why Dorian wants to stay away from her. He’s afraid to contaminate Dougan’s Fairy with his filth. Farah will have quite a job convincing him that she’s a person with faults and desires, not a perfect object he’ll ruin.

The author is definitely not afraid to pull punches with this book! She jumps fearlessly into the prison element, and has the reader rooting for the criminals. That may make some readers uncomfortable. I liked it, enough to add its upcoming sequel, The Hunter, to my must-read list.

BOTTOM LINE: If you don’t like your romances to have super-alpha heroes with a tragic background; profanity; sex scenes that are more graphic than romantic; and violence, this may not be the book for you. If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Hoyt, I recommend giving this one a try.

TEACUP RATING: Four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available September 1, 2015, in paperback and eformats.

Note: Review is based on ARCs provided by the publisher via Netgalley and Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.

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The Winter Crown (Eleanor of Aquitaine #2) by Elizabeth Chadwick

This is the third Elizabeth Chadwick book I’ve read, and I just love her work. The other two I’ve read relate to this one and are well worth reading if you enjoy historical fiction. The first, Lady of the English, is the story of Henry II’s mother, the Empress Matilda, who fought all her life for the English crown. The second is the first book in this series about Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Summer Queen. This book, The Winter Crown, is book two in the “Eleanor of Aquitaine” series.

The Winter Crown Front Cover (Sourcebooks Landmark)

The Winter Crown Front Cover (Sourcebooks Landmark)

THE PLOT: This book picks up right after the end of The Summer Queen. After her horrible marriage to Louis VII of France, Eleanor (called Alienor in these books) dares to think she might be happy. She and her new husband, Henry, have been declared King and Queen of England, and their family is quickly expanding. Alienor is enjoying the power and passion she shares with Henry, but she’s concerned that he might just see her as a brood mare, the vessel by which he’ll gain plenty of heirs. After all, if he keeps her pregnant and recovering, she’ll be less able to rule her own duchy and he’ll have even more power. By the time Alienor gives birth to her last child, John, Henry is moving on from various mistresses to just one: the teenage Rosamund de Clifford.

Henry is proud of their many children, but as they grow toward adulthood, he’s reluctant to allow them any real power. He has their son Harry crowned king alongside him, but won’t give him any responsibilities. Second son Richard is the heir to Aquitaine, but with some underhanded maneuvering, Henry makes it appear that Aquitaine is a vassal of England. The daughters are sent away to other countries as alliance brides way too soon for Alienor. What once was a promising, passionate marriage falls apart, and an angry Alienor gives up calming her sons’ anger against their father. When all-out rebellion breaks out, Henry blames Alienor.

MY TWO CENTS: What I enjoy most about Chadwick’s work is how natural it feels, how you sink into this world of almost 1,000 years ago and feel as though you’re really in it. It never strikes a false note for me. I never feel as though I’m reading something modern masquerading as historical. Chadwick does a great job filling in day-to-day details of life in the 1100s and making them seem authentic.

Alienor is written as a very human character. She doesn’t adore her mother-in-law, Matilda, but she’s perfectly willing to use her as an ally. She loves her children, but mourns the lack of relationship of the abandoned daughters she had with Louis. She admits that Richard is her favorite, but she also scolds his hot-headedness and lack of self-discipline. She doesn’t love Henry, but she wants a pleasant marriage with him…right up until she’s had enough.

We also see Henry’s transition from ambitious young man to overbearing tyrant. He always wanted everything his own way, but as time goes on, he just gets more and more ruthless. If you know anything about Henry and Eleanor, you know how their relationship ends. It’s to Chadwick’s credit that the reader keeps hoping that history will somehow change and Eleanor will get a happy ending.

BOTTOM LINE: If you already enjoy Chadwick’s work, you’ll love The Winter Crown. If you’ve never tried Chadwick before but love historical fiction, I recommend starting with The Summer Queen and then going on to this. Then, while you wait for the release of Book 3, The Autumn Crown, read Lady of the English. I’m heading on to her William Marshal novels.

TEACUP RATING: Five out of five teacups. Chadwick has become an auto-buy for me and this doesn’t disappoint.

ON SALE DATE: Available in the US on September 1, 2015, in paperback and eformats. Already available in the UK.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Doctors Are In by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?

No, that’s not a typo in the title bar. One of the authors has added a question mark, legally, to his last name. Also, I love this cover. (If you want to get technical, one is missing, but I love it anyway.)

TRUE FACT: The ONLY Doctor of the modern era I have looked forward to “meeting” is Peter Capaldi. My reaction to the reboot in 2005 was: “A Doctor in a black leather jacket? NEVER. GOING. TO. WORK.” And then I loved Eccleston’s Dotor, so much that when he regenerated, I said, “New guy? I’ll hate him.” LOVE David Tennant. May be my favorite Doctor. Loved him so much that when HE regenerated, I said, “Who could ever follow him?” Enter Matt Smith, whose introduction was all but perfect. How is it that for over 50 years and 13 incarnations, each subsequent actor is able to both take on the mantle of this character AND make it his own?

The Doctors Are In Front Cover (ECW)

The Doctors Are In Front Cover (ECW Press)

THE COVERAGE: The book begins with an introduction to the show, the authors, and the format of the book. Each of the 13 Doctors gets a chapter, and each is divided into the following sections:

  • That Doctor’s first and last stories
  • The Changing Face of Doctor Who (about the switch to the new Doctor)
  • Who Is [the actor playing the Doctor in this incarnation]
  • Top Companion
  • Classic Foe
  • Who Is the Doctor? (specifics about how this Doctor is played, his characteristics, and motivations)
  • Three Great Moments
  • Two Embarrassing Moments
  • A critique of each Doctor, specially named to suit each Doctor, by one of the authors
  • Second Opinion: the other author’s take
  • Index files: the five stories the authors believe are “most essential” to that Doctor

Sometimes the authors agree with each other. Sometimes they disagree. Sometimes they call each other crazy, and then vehemently defend their position on why they are right and the other is wrong.

MY TWO CENTS: This is a pretty decent roundup of all the Doctors. If you’re unfamiliar with the earlier Doctors, you can get a snapshot of their eras. I especially enjoyed the background on each actor, and the general climate of the BBC during each tenure, and how that affected production.

Readers may take exception to the “bashing” of favorite Doctors or episodes. For example, one author despises David Tennant but adores Matt Smith. The other loves Tennant, but points out Matt Smiths’ bad moments. It’s definitely an eye-opener to different points of view.

I was just relieved that both authors felt the episode “Midnight” was worthy of mention. I probably would have stopped reading if they hadn’t.

NOTE: The authors state upfront that the book will only cover the TV series, and not other media like books, comics, or the Big Finish audio dramas. For example, although the Eighth Doctor has had a very healthy tenure in other media, the only appearances covered in this book are the TV movie and the Night of the Doctor.

BOTTOM LINE: I’m interested in checking out the authors’ other Doctor Who books, such as Who’s 50? If you’re open to hearing criticism about your favorite Doctors and episodes, and even mentally debating with the authors, give this a read.

TEACUP RATING: I give the book 3½ out of 5 teacups.

ON SALE DATE: The Doctors Are In will be on sale in paperback and ebook formats on September 1, 2015.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Anne & Henry by Dawn Ius

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I LOVE historical fiction. It’s my favorite genre. I’ve also read quite a bit of nonfiction about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. When I saw this YA book offered a modern, high school retelling of their romance, I was intrigued. Is their story so timeless that it can be dropped in any setting in any era?

Anne & Henry Front Cover (Simon Pulse)

Anne & Henry Front Cover (Simon Pulse)

THE PLOT: Henry Tudor is the Big Man On Campus at his exclusive high school, but he’s still not quite happy with his life. He lives in the shadow of his older brother Arthur, who died. He’s even inherited Arthur’s former girlfriend, Catherine. They’re expected to marry because their families believe they’re an appropriate match. Yes, their families are so snobby that Henry is criticized for being the football quarterback instead of spending all his time on the debate team. After all, debate will help prepare him for his future political career. Football is just a sport.

Then he meets new student Anne Boleyn, a dangerous rebel type. She’s got a bit of a past, and she’s very different from the in-crowd. She immediately annoys Henry’s friends when she puts them in their place for being jerks. But she captivates Henry by being wild in a way he’s never known before. They’re drawn together in a passionate romance that just might be love. But their relationship may not survive everything working against them–including Henry and Anne’s own destructive natures.

MY TWO CENTS: I tried to measure this book in two ways: as a retelling of a nonfiction historical relationship, and as entertainment provided by a YA book.

The emotionally explosive relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn literally changed the world, and people have studied the couple for hundreds of years. What about Anne Boleyn was so captivating that Henry broke away from the Catholic Church to have her? Obviously Henry wanted a legitimate son, but he risked everything for Anne, a commoner with no connections and radical ideas about religion. And once they were finally married after years of waiting, how did all that passionate love turn to passionate hatred so quickly? Was it just about her three failed attempts to bear a son? It’s likely that the conspiracy that brought about her execution was manufactured by Cromwell…on Henry’s orders. Had he just tired of her enough to have her killed? Or did he possibly come to resent how much he’d had to change for her? Had he just become crazed from his own power? Henry claimed until his death that Anne had bewitched him.

So how does this book incorporate the historical facts into modern teen life? Well, it’s got the general structure: Henry as a leader (student council president); dating Catherine, who was first his dead older brother’s girlfriend. Henry is emotionally disconnected from Catherine. He doesn’t really want his brother’s leftovers. This is sort of a pale imitation of Henry VII’s eventual divorce from first wife Catherine of Aragon, citing the Bible passage about marrying his brother’s wife as the cause for their lack of a male heir.

Anne enters the picture as someone completely different from anyone Henry has known before. She doesn’t seem to care about appearances. She doesn’t immediately suck up to him for his social position. But none of Henry’s friends likes her, partially because they wanted her as their own conquest. Aside from the main characters, there are references to friends like Charles (Brandon) and Marie (a stand in for Henry’s sister, Mary?) and Wyatt (“noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am.” If you don’t know this reference, do look it up).

Unfortunately, because it’s a novel about teens, the real story has been pretty watered down to just the essence. A teenage Henry obviously doesn’t feel the desperate drive to produce a son before it’s too late. He just wants Anne to help him act out, to break out of his structured life. All their passion seems more like teenage hormones, not a force of nature. The change of Henry’s feelings for Anne seem based mostly on jealousy as the conspiracy set up by his friends entraps her. However, the reader does see hints of his own self-involvement, self-preservation, and general douchebaggery as he contemplates “no longer being under Anne’s spell” and starts looking for the next girl…possibly the cute waitress, Jane Seymour.

How does it read purely for YA entertainment? It’s a little difficult for me to answer that question, but I think I’d be disappointed with the ending if I didn’t know the background story. The story has a strange, abrupt ending, like the real-life story did, but a lite version. Teen readers may not get Henry’s motivation, or feel satisfied with the resolution since there’s no justice for Anne and no punishment for her tormentors. Maybe that’s the whole point—art mimics life in the lack of a happy, or at least reasonable, ending, and leaves you wondering where this went so wrong. I’m hoping that readers who are unfamiliar with the history might be curious enough to go looking for details of the real story. This book could be a great way to generate interest in nonfiction for those who might otherwise dismiss history as “boring.”

NOTE: For those concerned with such things, the book is full of strong language, and there are scenes of sexual activity.

BOTTOM LINE: An interesting concept that didn’t quite make it for me. May not be satisfying to those reading for the YA story, but could be a gateway to getting younger readers interested in historical fiction or nonfiction.

TEACUP RATING: Three out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available September 1, 2015, in hardcover and eformats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

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