Classic Book Review: “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy

© Sourced from the British Newspaper Archive

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When it comes to media consumption, my tastes are hardly that of a cultural elitist. As far as novels go, I am more likely to favor lurid-covered pulp-fiction rather than the socially approved literature that marks one a reader of serious status. All the same, I am not a complete hairy-knuckled Philistine. There are classic works that have touched me intensely so that I rejoice in their splendid perfection.

“Meanwhile, the trees were just as green as before; the birds sang, and the sun shone as clearly now as ever. The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain.

She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly—the thought of the world’s concern at her situation—was found on an illusion. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself.”


Thomas Hardy was a maestro of prose, not overly purple, using his descriptors with care, each clause an effective addition to what words had come before. Like most Victorian authors, he is moralistic, but his morals differed quite a bit from the accepted norms. His themes were not as simplistic as “Be kind to the poor lest ye suffer for all eternity,” but much deeper ideas. What is love? What is marriage? What defines an honorable man or a virtuous woman? Has man set up impossible ideals that can never be obtained? Is the guiding hand of social norms more like a chokehold upon the innocent? And so much more.

To a people in an era defined by a rigid structure, Hardy’s works were blasphemous.

“Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” tells the doomed tale of Teresa Durbeyfield, a possible descendant of the Norman raiders of old. But Tess is no noble lady, just a poor girl from an ignoble family, her father a drunkard, her siblings numerous. There is nothing particularly special about Tess, except for a rough, sensual type of beauty. Indeed, the “hero” of the story overlooks her the first time he sees her.

From Angel Clare’s decision to ask the wrong girl to dance with him, to Alec d’Urberville’s pursuit of Tess as she walked past his carriage in the dimming light, to the scene where Tess, all alone, baptizes her dying child, to humble domesticity with Angel and Tess, to the blood dripping from the ceiling in the hotel, to Tess’s fated, tragic end, all these visions together create a mesmerizing, yet, quite frankly, depressing, saga.

Why did this book stick with me? I’ve seen it in several forms, movies, miniseries, etc., so it must resonate with a lot of others. It is a heartrending book about a nobody who was never meant for anything more than a meager existence and yet her heart ached for so much more. It’s a story filled with “If onlys.”

As Tess says before her doom: “This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much.”

5 Stars

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Bodice Ripper Romance Review: “Edin’s Embrace” by Nadine Crenshaw

Edin’s Embrace by Nadine Crenshaw, pub. 1989 Zebra, Cover Artist Pino

Edin’s Embrace by Nadine Crenshaw

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow…what an experience! “Edin’s Embrace” by Nadine Crenshaw is a Zebra Lovegram romance published way back in 1989. With a shimmering Pino Daeni cover featuring a muscled guy who looks a lot like Fabio, embracing a blonde on a Viking ship (spot the horse on the cover!) this could just have been another ho-hum romance.

But it’s not.

This is how the tale begins:

“The world was a colder, darker place then. It was an axe age, a wind age, a time when men didn’t dare give mercy, and a time when the powerful exacted what they could and the weak granted what they must.”

Ok, that definitely piqued my interest.

The ominous effect is spoiled a bit in the next paragraph with a glaring misspelling, thanks to the ever so diligent Zebra editors who were so lackadaisical that even I could’ve easily found work there ;-). The word hardier is used instead of heartier. There are a lot of typos in this book, which is a shame, as such a good book deserved more cautious editing.

Crenshaw diligently tries to portray the authenticity of the Viking era and sticks to lots of historical facts. This book also borrows heavily from the Icelandic sagas… setting the stage for Vikings as pitiless warriors. The heroine is a lady, not the clichéd young girl trained by her father as a boy in the arts of war. I’ve never read a Viking book with such authenticity, making sure that it was noted which helmets were worn when, the importance of bathing, the treatment of slaves. Slaves are to have their hair shorn, and they are to be killed if they try to escape. When Thoryn has neither of these things done to Edin, it is a cause of strife amongst his peoples.

Despite its authentic, violent, stark Viking feel, I do have to admit that there were a few anachronisms. The mentions of potatoes and squash threw me out of the authenticity for a moment. When a Muslim trader mentions that Constantinople was founded in the year 300 AD (Anno Domino, In the Year of our Lord Jesus Christ), I wondered why he just didn’t say it was founded about 600 years ago, instead. And as I said, there were so many typos for a book printed and edited in 1988. These are minor gripes, and I fault the editor in this. Crenshaw did try her damned best to make this as accurate as possible.

While the genuine Viking atmosphere is a major plus here, the real draw is the love story. Edin is Thoryn’s thrall, but he in turn is enslaved by her. What I really appreciate is that there is no other woman for Thoryn (except for a brief encounter with a prostitute), no other great love of his. He is a primal force of a man and love is not part of his mentality. “What is love?” is a phrase often queried here. Sometimes this book gets quite philosophical about the nature of man and woman and their bonds together. Women are a biological need for Thoryn, but before Edin came along, they offered little in terms of mental stimulation and affection. With her he becomes a better man and a better lover.

There is a scene where Thoryn approaches a Viking friend and asks him if women enjoy sex, and if they do, how can men go about pleasing them? Despite’s his friend’s poor advice, Thoryn learns how to please Edin and he she in turn pleases him. Their passion however soon turns into what could be a doomed love.

There’s a lot of introspection than action here, far more than I usually enjoy, but somehow in Edin’s Embrace, it works. Edin and Thoryn are two very deep individuals whose lives and souls are drawn together.

One thing I wasn’t crazy about was ***SPOILER***Edin’s failure to accept her place in the violent Viking world. In the end, Edin convinces Thoryn to basically say, “Hey, let’s eff this Viking pillaging stuff, and move to Constantinople to become merchants.” That might seem a bit odd, as I have no qualms when a gunslinger hangs up his guns and becomes a rancher or a pirate stops raiding and becomes a plantation owner. But when one of the most hardcore Viking heroes I‘ve ever read about hangs up his sword, it made me a bit sad. I knew it would ensure for Edin the stability she required, but it made the ending less perfect for me.

As a reader of historical romance, I have always been searching for that great Viking romance. I still rate Johanna Lindsey’s “Fires of Winter” a 5 star read because, for that 13-year-old girl who read it, that was a 5 star read. I’m not the kind of reader who looks back at books she enjoyed and said well, I don’t like them now. However, 23 years later, I’ve changed as a person and a reader. I need something different. Something more hardcore. “Edin’s Embrace” comes close, but it’s not perfect. Nevertheless, I loved it.

This is the scene that won me over in this book, and made me realize I was not reading another tame, ho-hum Viking book:

There he held her. She felt the sword point keenly. She became aware of her ribs beneath it, how delicate the bones were how easily they could be pierced.

“I’m waiting thrall! What say you know?”

She whispered, “I-I am free, a nobleman’s daughter.”

Why was she doing this? He had no scruples against murder—he’d already murdered Cedric before her very eyes!

“You suffer from unnatural belief in your own immortality,” he answered softly…Quickly another sword appeared. She looked from Thoryn to the sword Rolf held out to her.

“Take it!” The jarl stepped back half a pace, removing his sword point from her breast, yet not removing it.…She took the sword from Rolf with both hands. Even so, as soon as he released it, its point fell almost to the floor. She struggled to bring it up again, but couldn’t raise it even to the height of her waist…
“Lift it!” he said. He waved his own weapon as if it were a twig. “All it takes is a good arm.” She saw the sinews in his forearm, the muscles rippling. “It’s Rolf’s own sword, a good killing blade…If you aren’t my thrall you’ll lift it and defend your claim. I say you’re mine, my property to dispose of as I see fit. Prove to me I’m wrong!” She stood as she was, her arms and shoulders and back trembling in effort of keeping the heavy sword point from falling to the floor completely.

“Well?” He was like a dragon in his fury, rending and unreasonable. Those who resisted, he would always mercilessly overcome, if not with his muscles then with the tremendous strength of his mind and purpose. ¨

“You know I can’t fight you.”

“Come,” the jarl said dryly, lowering his sword. “Take it; charge me with it. I know you can kill if you want to.”

“I can’t!”

“You killed Ragnarr.”

“I can’t!” ¨

He made a sound of contempt. “You are a race of slaves, you Saxons.”

Her gaze dropped to somewhere near his feet. She wanted to cry, but somehow kept the sobs held in.

“I’m challenging you—fight me, my lady!”¨

“I can’t fight you, Viking, as well you know.”

Aye,” he said slowly, lowering his weapon at last, “as well I know.”

Her gaze lifted again, all the way to his face. “But I will never be your slave,” she said stubbornly.

This time he reacted with immediate anger, the most parlous kind of anger, the kind born of frustration. The jerk of his head told her of his ire, and her breath froze at the cold flare of temper in his eyes. In an instant, he became fearsome, furious mad. His mighty sword swung again, and he closed in. There was an ice storm rampaging in his eyes. The flat of his sword lifted her chin, until she was looking at him down its long gilt and silver length. All he said now was, “Slave or sword point?”

The flames snapped in the fire pit behind her. The cold, steel point pricking her throat never moved the slightest. For an immeasurable extent of time she stood perfectly still, living in a state of strain. She searched for an answer. And impaled on his gaze, feeling all those wild and hungry eyes on her, something of her pride broke inside her. In the end she could only whisper: “Slave”

What a great Viking romance, a rarity for me!

4 1/2 stars rounded up to 5

Originally posted on Goodreads.com

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Bodice Ripper Romance Review: “Stormfire” by Christine Monson

Stormfire by Christine Monson,
Cover Art Pino Daeni

Cover Art Pina Daeni

Stormfire by Christine Monson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, after a couple of decades of reading romance, I finally got around to “Stormfire.” Whew! They do not write them like this anymore. The ultimate in bodice-ripping, “Stormfire” is a tale of two mentally unstable people and their violent, intense love. And it’s great!

The main attraction of “Stormfire” is its writing. If it was a poorly written book no one would still be talking about it 20-plus years after it was published. The chapters each have their own titles such as “Silken Irons,” “Into Eden,” or “The Nadir.” When the heroine meets the hero her first thoughts are of Milton’s poetry: “His form had not yet lost/All his original brightness, nor appeared/Less than Archangel ruined…” The prose is evocative and compelling, but not purple. We agonize with Catherine’s enslavement, we feel the angry passion between the lovers, we grieve with Catherine’s loss, and suffer from Sean’s torture…how much misery can two people take? Then there is that intense love/hate. I wish writers of historical romances today wrote like this, deeply and intensely, if not necessarily the same plot.

But then, maybe I’m a sicko, but I like the plot. Yes, it’s epic and melodramatic: everything but the kitchen sink is in the plot including SPOILERS***: kidnapping, rape, starvation, forced slavery, multiple marriages, miscarriage, insanity, beatings, brothers fighting for the same woman, incest, castration, forcible sodomy, murder… To be honest, I wasn’t comfortable with a lot of things in the book. Even so, Stormfire is enthralling. Even those who hate this book can’t say it’s boring.

There are a lot of detractors of Stormfire, so in its defense, I’ll say this: this isn’t a sweet romance; it’s a historical romance novel, a bodice ripper, and I use the term with great affection. It’s a fantasy. A dark one, definitely, but then some might say so are the vampire, werewolf, bestiality, BDSM, menage fantasies of today. This is a different kind of fantasy, where the greatest hate in the world can be turned into love. Would this relationship work in real life? Probably not. That’s why it’s a fantasy. Stormfire is very entertaining, emotional, and unforgettable. It falters a bit towards the end, so it’s not perfect. It’s not the best romance novel ever written, but for me, it’s up there.

I’d give it 5 stars or an A- rating.

Originally posted on Goodreads.com


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Bodice Ripper Romance Review: “Skye O’Malley” by Bertrice Small

The legendary bodice ripper, “Skye O’Malley,” is a rip-roaring blast of an historical romance, full of passion, drama and OTT purple prose love scenes.

Skye O’Malley by Bertrice Small

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

SPOILERS AHEAD:

Oh, never, ever was there a lass as lovely as Skye O’Malley. With raven locks, eyes as blue-green as the Kerry sea, tiny waist, impossibly long legs for such a wee girl, perfectly pert boobies, and a fantastically elastic vagina that bounces back to its teen glory no matter how many kids she births (she must’ve done her Kegels), Skye is the most beautiful, most desirable, most enchanting, the bestest evar! Any man who looks upon her nubile beauty will be inflicted with priapism, and the sole cure is a ticket of the old in and out of Skye’s mossy cavern of passion. Her weeping honey-oven. Her juicy love-grotto, as it were. Yup, only the most cringey, the purplest of euphemisms are here as the vintage Queen of Erotic romance, Bertrice Small, takes us across the seas and nations to experience the highs and lows, but mostly orgasmic highs, of Skye’s life. Women, be it the female pirate Grace O’Malley or the Queen of England herself, Queen Bee, are intimidated by her beauty and her fiery, passionate nature! And men… well, they all want to delve their pulsing lances into her dewy-petaled moist sheath.

Not one hero will do for our eponymous goddess of a heroine, Skye. She’s too hot and needs a lot of thick hose to put out her fires! The daughter of an Irish laird/pirate named Dubhdara, Skye is secretly in love with Niall, a powerful lord’s son. Alas, she is too saucy a wench and will never due for Niall. His parents connive to wed Skye to dumb Dom. Then our hero does something shocks everyone. On Skye’s wedding night, Niall stuns the revelers when he interrupts the festivities, points his finger at Skye, and says “I claim droit de seigneur of this woman!” Which is so goofy, and like the film “Braveheart,” ahistorical, but just go with it.

Afterward, Skye is left to live with Dom, who’s got a giant wang, but only teases Skye with it, as he never lasts long, and besides, it’s incestuous hook-ups with his sister, Claire, he prefers. Occasionally, Dom brings Skye into their little dalliances, although Skye is unwilling. She bares Dom’s 2 sons before he’s paralyzed and then eventually dies.

Niall, in the meantime, was married off to frigid, crazed Darragh, whom he eventually casts aside. She enters a nunnery, and now he and Skye are free to marry. Uh-uh-uh, not so fast. Our independent Skye demands to expand her father’s shipping business, and wouldn’t you know it, she gets shipwrecked and loses her memory. Skye ends up in Algiers to have yet another true love affair, this time with the Grand Whoremaster of Algiers, Khaled-El-Bey, because, for some reason, in Small’s corner of Romancelandia, Irish-Welsh-Scottish-English women from the Middle Ages to post-Enlightenment were drawn to harems like rusty nails to magnets (ouch, bad metaphor). Skye becomes one of his earthly houris, but strictly for his personal use, and not only that but his top bitch, her poon so fine, even the biggest pimp in all of pimpdom has to put a ring on it.

Niall is this time married off to a Spanish girl. The sweet, innocent virgin Niall seduces and then marries turns out to be the opposite of wife #1; she’s an insatiable nympho who becomes a secret whore because even with Niall giving it to her three times a night, it’s still not enough.

Yada, yada yada, Skye gives Khaled El-Bey a daughter, but he croaks due to harem machinations and jealousy. Skye, who’s so awesome she can always depend on the kindness of strangers to help her out, leaves for England, even though she still has amnesia.

There she is pursued by yet another true love, Geoffrey. The blond, green-eyed arrogant Lord Southwood bets that he can seduce the mysterious Skye, who spurns him, entices him, makes him fall for her until… she’s his! Oh, and he’s married. Skye doesn’t care. His wife dies, and eventually, Skye marries Geoffrey and is blissfully happy. Until that is, her memory returns when she sees Niall almost killed and screams out his name. But again, they’re married to different people, so they can’t be together.

I hated Geoffrey and was glad when he kicked the bucket. He blamed his first wife for being unable to bear sons and threw it in her face that’s why he abandoned her. His perfect Skye would have no trouble giving him sons, though. Her vagina is pH balanced to accept only the most macho of y-alleles (and only a rare x-swimmer). She bears Geoffrey two boys, one who dies with his father during the pox.

After Geoffrey dies, Skye is left unprotected, as the wicked Queen Bess forces Skye to be her beloved Earl of Lessessester, er, anywho, Lord Robert Dudley’s plaything. A little bestiality is hinted at as the awful Robert uses his servants as sex slaves to be used by his friends. But not Skye. Skye, he will abuse for his own purposes and not in a fun way. Dudley rapes Skye until he’s had his use of her, and she’s left traumatized.

After her awful arrangement with Dudley, Skye shies away from men—no, not really. She gets involved in some smuggling and shipping with another Lord, Adam De Marisco, an Englishman. For some reason, my favorite of Skye’s men was Adam, who was a nice, laughing guy with a beard who made sex pleasurable for Skye again (which to be fair, wasn’t that difficult of a task). He was like a big teddy bear, no arrogance, no baggage, just pure fun. Adam soothes Skye’s hurts and gives her passion without entanglements. Why she didn’t end up with him in this book is beyond me. But he’ll make a return in the series, and I like what happened with him in All the Sweet Tomorrows.

But remember that lusty wife Niall had? Well, now, she’s near-death because she’s suffering from the pox. Not Niall, though. He’s STD-free because that lucky guy gets to be this book’s hero, so having sex with a woman who had sex with hundreds of men doesn’t even make it hurt when he pees. Not even a weird itching!

All things fall into place, so Niall and Skye find their way back into each other’s arms. The dull, boring hero, Niall, gets his beautiful, perfect, sexual, rich, fecund, brilliant (yeah, that last one was a stretch) Skye O’Malley.

After bearing her assorted lovers and husbands (6 if you’re counting; it seems like more only because, to be fair, Skye does engage in a lot of sex) 5 children (and she’ll have more kids to come), her figure, and her moist cavern of love, remain tiny and petite, unchanging despite age, births or time. This book is a romp. Not meant to be taken deeply because if you do, you might experience heartbreak. Especially ***SPOILER ALERT***in book #2, where Niall passes away, Skye ends up with Adam. Not me; I hated Niall. He was dull as Q tip. Adam was definitely a better choice.

I am so glad I read this book when I was well into my twenties because if I had read this as a teen, my poor little heart wouldn’t have been able to take it. One woman having that many men she all truly loved and in such a short amount of time (relatively), in a romance novel! Thankfully, with maturity comes the ability to relax and not take everything so seriously, and “Skye O’Malley” is not a book to be taken seriously. It’s so bad, yet so good, yet so bad… which is the best of qualities in an old bodice ripper. I didn’t love this book, but I had a ball reading it, and that’s all that matters.

4 stars for the WTFery

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Originally reviewed at Goodreads.com

Bodice Ripper Romance Review: “Lady of Fire” by Anita Mills

Lady Of Fire by Anita Mills

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Lady of Fire” is one of my favorite historical romance novels. I fully admit that it has its flaws, especially toward the end, but even so, I love it. It takes place in Normandy, not long after William the Bastard has conquered England. Eleonor of Nantes is a renowned beauty, hungered by many and bartered as a political pawn. William’s son Henry desires her as his wife, but it’s the man she believes to be her half-brother, Roger Fitz Hugh, for whom she’s destined.

Roger knows Eleonor is not his sister and has always loved her. Eleonor doesn’t know, yet she desires Roger. This fact may be off-putting to some. But knowing they’re not siblings, it was easy for me to overlook this semi-incest.

For complete disclosure, let it be known that I love blond heroes. I married one in real life and adore them in fiction. Roger is one of the sweetest, kindest, most loving heroes I’ve ever read. His devotion to Eleonor is undeniable and he and Eleonor are meant to be. However… he is not the reason that I’m crazy about this book.

The villain Robert Talvas, Count of Belesme, with his black hair, green eyes, and evil, evil disposition positively steals the show. He is so hot that every scene with him singes the pages of this book. Robert is absolutely malevolent and beyond redemption. He coolly lies to priests and nuns, sleeps with his mother, rapes without remorse, and murders innocents. In the sequel Fire and Steel Robert is so evil he tears a baby out of his mother’s womb killing them both! Robert is the devil incarnate in this story and is based on a Medieval legend.

But there is more to Robert, whose obsession for the lady Eleonor drives the plot. His unwavering love and reverence for her are spell-binding and captivating. In a bodice ripper written ten years earlier, Robert might have even been the hero. Disturbingly, despite the fact that he kidnaps and ravishes Eleonor, I found myself hoping, “I know you love Roger, but Eleonor, just once submit to Robert!” That’s a little sick, but that what’s Belesme character made me feel. She never does give in and I think that is one of the reasons that the dark Lord Robert adores Eleonor so much: for her purity and her goodness. I am so glad Anita Mills never redeemed him nor gave him a sequel to find love with another woman. In his heart, Robert was eternally faithful to Eleonor.

Robert does find a salvation of sorts in the sequel, which is an entertaining, if not as enjoyable, read.

For a writer to allow the villain to overshadow the protagonists may be a source of frustration to some readers, but Anita Mills does it so skillfully that I fell for it from beginning to end. To Robert’s great unfortunate downfall, Eleonor and Roger are destined for each other and that’s the way it should be.


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Originally published at Goodreads.com

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