Bodice Ripper Romance Review: “Escape Not, My Love” by Elaine Coffman

Escape Not My LoveEscape Not My Love by Elaine Coffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elaine Coffman’s “Escape Not My Love” was not my first venture into the world of romance, but it was my first historical romance novel. And for that, I am grateful.

Superficially, ENML drew me in from the outset. It had a stunning step-back cover, designed with a pattern of a woman’s purple and white flowered gown and opened to reveal the colorful protagonists clinched in a passionate embrace. (Thank God for that step-back! I first read this as I sat in church waiting for my turn to enter the confessional and talk to the priest. He didn’t know what kind of trashy book I was reading and I wasn’t about to volunteer that tidbit. Ha!)

The book quickly drew me in and I instantly fell in love with the genre. I found in historicals a frequent theme of this thrilling battle of the sexes that was lacking from most of the tame Harlequin Romances and modern Temptations I was used to. (I had yet to discover the Presents line).

While hardcore “bodice rippers” no longer dominated the market as they had in years past, in the early 1990’s most heroes in historical romances had not yet been gelded into modern-minded *ahem* wankers that are so prevalent today. I’m being snarky, and don’t mean to offend, but that’s just my no-holds-barred opinion. If contemporary readers prefer forward-thinking, sensitive gunslingers, Vikings, warriors, noblemen, etc., in their historicals, well as they say: Chacun à ses goûts, n’est-ce pas? I prefer my historical heroes to have a rougher edge.

Jay Culhane is a bounty hunter whose job is to travel deep into Mexico where armed criminals roam and bring home the well-meaning, but naive heroine, Jennifer Baxter, who moved from TX to open a school for underprivileged children. Jennifer is the youngest of 11 girls, spoiled and used to getting her way. So you know this book will be one loooong power play between the pair.

Jay kicks down the door of her little house when he first lays eyes upon her black-haired, violet eyed (of course!), lingerie-clad body. Lust takes over reason and he immediately orders Jenny to strip naked at gunpoint and then enjoys the show (‘cuz that’s the kind of guy he is).

Jay takes Jennifer on a long, arduous trip back to Texas. Yes, he’s occasionally violent, at times even abusive to Jenny (like tying her to the back of his horse and making her walk in the scorching midday sun, while he rides comfortably wearing a protective hat). He forces her to cook meals and punishes her with kisses (to which she responds with passion, of course!). Yet he also treats her sores and wounds with gentleness, not-to-mention some ill-hidden guilt. He kills snakes for her when she cries out in terror and unflinchingly murders renegade bandidos who try to kidnap and rape Jennifer.

When I first read this novel I was twelve years old, my parents had just divorced, so I had begun to immerse myself in books for escape. It sounds a bit trite to say a romance changed my life–and I won’t be so extreme as to go that far–but this book definitely influenced me in a profound way. It gave me something to look forward to and enjoy: hope. The love story between Jay and Jennifer is phenomenal.

Elaine Coffman’s writing is so rich and lyrical; I’m still moved by it every time I read it; and yes, I cry every time I read that beautiful, sweet ending.

I will mention that if you really want to see this old-school love story portrayed at its best, read the original, not the re-issue that came out several years later. “Jay-lite” isn’t as sexy as the tortured, lone-wolf of the 1990 version. I dislike the fact that many romance writers think readers are bored or offended by the “traditionally macho” heroes of old. Tortured, abusive man-hoes are accepted in dark eroticas, most contemporary New Adults and lots of paranormals–where anything can happen–while men who lived 100, 500, or 1,000 years ago all have to be represented as ultra-sensitive proto-feminists. The fact that historicals have SNAG-(Sensitive New Age Guys) type heroes is something that makes me very wary every time I read a book published in the new millennium.

Yup, I’m an old fart, what can I say?

Nostalgia may have a bit to do with my ratings of older books; nevertheless, as I’ve read this many times over the years, for me it holds up well. However, if you don’t like cruel heroes who treat the heroine nastily from the get-go, keep in mind that Jay was tormented by a devastating past. It his love for Jennifer that teaches him to let go of the old hurts. The epilogue might have you reaching for your hankies and make you smile at the same time witnessing how tough Jay Culhane has settled down into married life with children.

I wasn’t the only reader who loved this book. “Escape Not My Love” (in its original un-PC form) won the 1990 Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Western Historical Romance.

5 stars for the major enjoyment of this, my first historical romance.

Originally posted at Goodreads.com
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Bodice Ripper Review: “Surrender to Love” by Rosemary Rogers

Surrender To LoveSurrender To Love by Rosemary Rogers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Rosemary Rogers, the Grande Dame Of Bodice Rippers wrote a few exceptional epics, but alas, this isn’t one of them. It’s my least liked of her books I’ve read so far.

Surrender to Love begins in the hot, sultry nation of Ceylon where the British heroine Alexa lives. Alexa is so spunky; she just hates convention and why-oh-why do rules have to be so strict for women and why couldn’t she have been born a man?

Look, I like feminist heroines in my bodice rippers; a meek, wishy-washy heroine in one is no fun, but Alexa…it just never ended with her. Her attitude is very draining. But worse are the random italicized words, sometimes just a couple per page, sometimes dozens. It made me crazy.

Alexa is one of those wild heroines who courts danger and is susceptible to intense mood swings. I got the suspicion it was the author’s mania slipping though. The writing was erratic, the POV changed without warning from within paragraphs…and did I mention those italics!

I definitely get a sense of Alexa’s instability with her long internal rants or when she’s scratching the hero Nicholas’s face off or sobbing hysterically in front of him.

The tempo in this book a bit more sluggish than the other Rogers books I’ve encountered, even the deeply introspective the Wildest Heart.The pacing is very slow there’s no consummation until page 337 of this 612-page brick, which ticked me off.

It turned around a bit after Part Two, but it was rough starting out a book with not much happening for the first 200 pages. Alexa gets involved in a few scandals and then marries an older husband who brings her to the “Temple of Venus” to catch a show or two.

Eventually, I saw where Rogers was going with the plot: it’s the tale of a woman who defies the stifling conventions of Victorian Era though her overt sexuality. I wondered if Rogers was ever a fan of Mexican telenovelas. The hidden family secrets, brutish hero and spunky heroine reminded me of “Alondra” about a “beautiful, rebellious girl, with very independent and progressive views for that time (i.e., she has sex with another man besides the hero)” who looks and acts just like Alexa.

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Random observations:

All the Viscounts of this and that running around did get confusing…

Nicholas was too nebulous. Despite learning the history with his first wife, I didn’t understand him.

As always, Rogers drew upon themes of women’s liberation, but this time it came on a bit thick. Yes, Alexa, being a woman in the 19th century was stifling and oppressive, but if you were part of the wealthy upper class, beautiful & widowed—like Alexa was—she had privileges that the average woman of the time did not share. Alexa’s rash impetuosity was her major flaw. She never thought her out actions first.

Nobody forced her to move to London and deal with the repressive London ton, but she had to have her “revenge” on Nicholas for ruining her in Ceylon. Sure, Alexa, it was revenge you were after.

The world was that woman’s oyster but she had a hankering for geoduck:

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The first two hundred pages could have been condensed to half that and the ending was weird–not the “trial” and whipping which was awesome–but Alexa’s engagement and glossed-over consummation with Charles and then her marriage to Nicholas.

The villains in this one weren’t very interesting, although I liked Alexa’s evil grandma, but she was like the diet coke of evil; just one calorie; not evil enough. Same opinion of the Marquess. But as long as I kept imaging Mexican actress Beatriz Sheridan as the evil dowager Marchioness, I had a good time with that villainess.

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I gave this book 2 1/2 stars, but rounded up to 3 because the pluses slightly outweighed the negatives in this one. But those italics, made it difficult!

C-

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Bodice Ripper Review: “A Lady Bought With Rifles” by Jeanne Williams

A Lady Bought With RiflesA Lady Bought With Rifles by Jeanne Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

SPOILER WARNING

A Lady Bought With Rifles is an amalgam of great writing and stupid characterization that I was extremely frustrated reading it because it could have been one of those legendary bodice rippers that old school fans would be talking about to this day.

Upon the death of her father, British raised Miranda is called back to her father’s ranch in Mexico. There she meets two strikingly different American men, Trace, a mysterious pistolero, and Court Saunders, the foreman of Miranda’s newly inherited mines and lover to her resentful half-sister, Reina. Blond, panther-like and roguish, his sensual presence is almost irresistible.

The sisters both inherit the ranch. Miranda, being a foreigner, is aghast by the circumstances of the ranch and mines, particularly how the indigenous Mexicans are treated, how the evil Reina treats her, how gorgeous hunk Court pursues her…and just about every other thing she can find to complain about, rightly or wrongly.

Both Court and Trace take an interest in Miranda, but while Trace maintains an enigmatic distance it’s the Court who vows to make her his woman. Miranda quickly decides she loves Trace, the noble yet enigmatic, gunman. Me, I’ll take wicked, sexy Court.

This was not a bad novel, however, I absolutely loathed the heroine. She ruined what could have been a fun read into painful torture at times. I have never wanted to smack a protagonist as much as I have Miranda. She is ignorant of the new lands but thinks she knows better than everyone else before even asking for advice. She is inflexible, a misguided do-gooder (the type who’s always offended on someone else’s behalf) and–the worst sin of all–she has terrible taste in men. Sure Trace is appealing, with his darkly handsome cowboy looks, but it is Court who offers her genuine help. It’s Court who sticks around, who cares for her and her lands, while it’s Trace who goes off on escapades of his own, who is not even half as charismatic as Court and who has a sexual relationship with the woman he and Miranda cared for as a child!

Court offers marriage to Miranda after Trace runs off. Miranda flees, but when Court finds her she vows to resist him at every turn and does everything to deny her attraction to his intense magnetism.

“When I heard you were almost surely dead, that’s when I knew what you were to me. My woman. You rode back to me from the dead. I’ll never let you go again.”

Weak and spent, I said desperately, as if I were shouting at him in a foreign language, “You don’t love me or you’d care what I feel!”

“I do care. In a year you’ll love me.”

Even at that moment, when I hated him, my blood quickened as he smiled. I cried defiance as much to my treacherous body as to him. “I won’t. I’ll hate you more than I do know. “

“We’ll see.” He cupped my chin and raised my face. “You’re tired daring. Sleep now. You can give me your answer in the morning.”

I couldn’t let him kill Trace. But to submit to those muscular, golden-haired arms? Let him do the things Trace had? And it wouldn’t be for one time only, I was sure of that. Court might after a season let me go, but I had a frightening dread that if he possessed me long enough, he would drain me till I became his thing, his creature—that I wouldn’t go, even if he allowed it and Trace would take me.

And this super charismatic hunk is the villain???

Several points. Most romances at this time this book was written in 1977 had heroes who acted exactly as Court did and heroines who responded to their heroes (and yes, sometimes villains) just as Miranda does: “with her treacherous body.” I’m a bit familiar with Williams’ writing style as I’ve read another of her works. If she had written romances in the current year, her values would be more in line with the genre as it is today. I’m making a guess that Williams purposely turned the tables on the way historical romance novels (i.e. the bodice ripper) were written during the 1970’s. She wanted to write a bodice ripper that subverted expectations to make it compelling, but she just “Rian Johnsoned” it instead. (Yeah, The Last Jedi fans, I went there.)

Rather than ending with wildly sexual, devoted Court, a man who would walk through the fires of hell and back to get his woman, was more “macho” than “sensitive” it’s the tough but tender guy who abandons his woman and child to fight a war that isn’t his, who gets the heroine.

The two men are not so distinctly different as perhaps the author meant for the reader to feel: Court evil and Trace good. It’s more nuanced than that and it’s a risky line for the writer to tread because then the villain becomes more intriguing than the hero.

I compare to “A Lady Bought With Rifles” to Drusilla Campbell’s “The Frost and the Flame” and Anita Mill’s “Lady of Fire” because the villains in those books were much more compelling than the heroes. ALBWR is less fun than “The Frost and the Flame” and in “Lady of Fire” I actually liked the hero.

The great difference is in those two books is that the villain was undoubtedly villainous. Here Court is the antagonist, I wouldn’t call him the villain. For example, despite major doubts that his son is actually his (he’s not, Trace is) Court treats the boy with love and care. That is until Miranda cruelly throws it into Court’s face that he is not the father, and then, for the most part, Court ignores him, simply counting the days until the boy is to be sent off to boarding school. This leaves Miranda upset and befuddled. “Why oh why has Court’s behavior changed?” Gee, what could it be, you stupid cow? Court knew the kid wasn’t really his son, as Court could do basic math. Still, he was willing to pretend that the son of another man—a man he despised—was his, so long as Miranda went along with the pretense. When she viciously admits to Court that he wasn’t the father, did she really expect Court to react with glee?

I can’t emphasize enough how just hated her stupid, self-centered, sanctimonious character. Court was way too good for her. He warranted his own story with a happy ending. But Williams didn’t want that. As the author that was her decision. As the reader, it was not one I appreciated.

Like many older romance novels, this is truly a romance in the complete meaning of the word: an epic of great scope. Ostensibly the main part should be the love story between Trace and Miranda, yet it’s actually a much smaller part of the story that makes up the book.

In summary, as I wrote in my notes:

Take one exasperating, young, self-righteous heroine. Add one hero who spends 50 pages max with the heroine, disappears halfway through and is reunited with said heroine 10 pages from the end. Add a plethora of side characters whose deaths are used to manipulate sympathy for the annoying heroine. Add one sexy-as-hell, multifaceted villain/anti-hero whose downfall brought me to tears. Mix with uneven pacing and plotting.

End result: über disappointing 3 1/2 star read. I would have rated this 2 1/2 stars, but the writing is quite exceptional, and Court…

SIGH

…Wonderfully erotic, tragically misunderstood Court deserved so much better than he got.

C+

Originally posted on Goodreads.com

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Bodice Ripper Review: “Love, Cherish Me” by Rebecca Brandewyne

Love, Cherish Me (Aguilar's Fate, #1)Love, Cherish Me by Rebecca Brandewyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Love, Cherish Me many years ago, and it’s a long-time favorite.

You have to read this book as a lover of the genre because Rebecca Brandewyne is here at her bodice-rippiest. What I loved about Rebecca Brandewyne’s old romances was that she would always pose dressed as the heroine in her picture on the back of the book. There would be a poem at the beginning, and the book would be broken up into several books or parts. The story began with a prologue with the couple together and ended with their epilogue. And let’s not forget the Elaine Duillo cover art, which was practically de rigeur for a romance diva. What can I say, I’ve always preferred intricate, elaborate heavy metal or progressive rock as opposed to streamlined, gritty punk, and my taste in romances is no different.

The heroine is southern belle Storm Aimee Lesconflair and the hero is the dark stranger called “Lobo,” or Wolf. The tale is epic, set in the epic state of Texas. Storm is abducted and almost raped by villains, saved by Wolf multiple times, separated from her beloved, accused of murder and experiences the worst pain a mother can feel and finally is reunited with her soul mate.

This is a companion piece to And Gold Was Ours, which was good but not as great as this. The only Brandewyne book I like more is her gothic romance reminiscent of Bronte’s Wuthering HeightsUpon a Moon-Dark Moor.

A

Originally posted on Goodreads

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Bodice Ripper Review: “Dangerous Obsession” by Natasha Peters

Dangerous ObsessionDangerous Obsession by Natasha Peters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“You will travel far to find love, only to find that love has traveled with you.”

Dangerous Obsession is the sequel to Natasha Peters’ first book, Savage Surrender, although the relation between the books is not revealed until midway through this 630-page epic.

Like so many great bodice rippers of epic scope, Dangerous Obsession takes us through various years and continents. It spans 12 years in the life of Rhawnie, the blonde daughter of a gypsy and a Russian noblewoman. Rhawnie is not a simpering, treacly-sweet girl or spunky, foot-stamping heroine. She lies for the hell of it: to strangers, to the people she loves, she lies to herself, she even lies on her (near) deathbed! She is an unrepentant thief. Early on Rhawnie is caught stealing from an innkeeper and Seth, the hero, is forced to remove the purloined items hidden under her petticoats: a bottle of vodka, a wheel of cheese, a large loaf of bread, several sausages, a large knife, and a whole chicken! When caught red-handed she denies ever touching the stuff and accuses the innkeeper of framing her. In this Rhawnie reminds me a bit of my daughter who lives by the motto: “Admit nothing, deny everything and make counter-accusations.”

Rhawnie is not just a mere mortal…she is beautiful, a professional thief, a fortune-teller, a gambler, a card cheat, men duel and die over her, she is mistress to a king, a threat to a nobleman’s power, a baroness, a world-famous singer, a saloon owner, savior of an orphan and a wronged woman, and the love-object of two brothers, who are as opposite as day and night.

The male protagonist, Seth Garrett, is a piece of work and it took me a long time to warm up to him. He’s no Sean Culhane from Stormfire or Domenico from The Silver Devil, but he’s both cruel and vicious and unfeeling and cold. He wins the right to Rhawnie’s virginity in a card game, but passes on the offer, as she is only 14 or 15. In angry retaliation, Rhawnie gets beaten and kicked by her lecherous older uncle and Seth just sort of stands there. Then when her uncle rapes her a few pages later, Seth is too late to save her–even though he’s in the next room and can hear what’s going on. He destroys any chance Rhawnie has for legitimacy in Paris society by publicly claiming her as his mistress. And what Seth does in Chapter 10 simply calls for a karmic justice which never occurs. But he does properly declare himself at the end and gives himself completely to Rhawnie. Seth is not perfect, but neither is Rhawnie, so together they are perfect.

Dangerous Obsession is written in 1st person POV, but as Rhawnie is a great narrator, with so many wonderful quips and observations, this did not detract. There was an appropriate blend of action and introspection, but no excessive self-absorption of feeling too often found in modern romances.

However, the action does get a bit too much at the end. The book is a hefty door-stopper and could have been 50 pages shorter. Rhawnie and Seth embark on a search for Seth’s missing sister that takes them through the American West. They get on TWO different boats that explode and sink into the river, Seth gets injured and Rhawnie nurses him back to life, Rhawnie gets cholera, so Seth has to nurse her back to life (on a regiment on camphor, cannabis, and caviar, no less). They travel for months through the mountains and have many misadventures, she survives a great fire, gets kidnapped, addicted to laudanum, gets rescued…and before you know it–whew!–it’s over.

This book was so close to perfect, but like so many bodice rippers, at the end, it falters under its own hefty weight. It’s a 4 1/2 star read, but I’m rounding it up to a 5 solely on the basis of the heroine, Rhawnie, who is all kinds of awesome.

A-

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Originally posted on Goodreads