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review 2015-04-24 22:18
Deliciously Detailed, Plot-Driven Adventure
The Rebel Pirate - Donna Thorland

This series was recommended to me by a friend, and I picked up this book because the description was pure catnip for me--a historical romance set in Salem and Boston during the American Revolution, involving pirates (I'm a sucker for tall ships) and conflicted political loyalties, written by a Yale-educated New Englander--even though it was significantly spendier ($9.99 at Amazon today) than I usually tolerate for e-books. I did very much enjoy the story, and I'll definitely check out the rest of the series, but I think the price needs to come down considerably before I can feel good about recommending it to friends and followers who need to watch their budget. 


Set in Colonial Massachusetts in 1775, on the eve of the Revolutionary War, The Rebel Pirate is an well-written, plot-driven adventure with rich historical detail and riveting suspense, and I found it a refreshing change of pace from everything else I've been reading lately. Sarah Ward's family is on the brink of penury, their fortunes riding on a dangerous mission to smuggle contraband and Spanish gold to a band of rebel patriots led by Sarah's ex-fiance, who jilted her when he discovered the Wards' financial straits. When Sarah's father's ship is caught and boarded by Captain Sparhawk of the British Navy, and her little brother on the verge of being pressed into service on Sparhawk's ship, desperation drives Sarah to takes Sparhawk hostage, but not before the cargo and the gold are lost. Having lost command of his ship, Sparhawk now faces court-marshall and worse if he returns to his commanding officer, Admiral Graves, in Boston; having lost the smuggled cargo, Sarah faces familial ruin and personal humiliation if she returns to Salem without the gold. Layers and layers of political intrigue, betrayal, and mounting suspense kept the story rocketing along, and I'd have gladly devoured the whole book in one sitting if the demands of work and kids and spouse and sleep had not intervened. 


My only complaint is that the romance, being action rather than character driven, fell a little flat for me. Sarah and Sparhawk were brought together by lust and circumstance, not emotion, and the subplot involving Sparhawk's father--

Sarah becomes engaged to an English Baron who turns out to be Sparhawk's long lost daddy

(spoiler show)

--I found kind of squicky. This is more an adventure story than a romance, though, and there's much to enjoy.  




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text 2015-04-23 19:55
Reading progress update: I've read 154 out of 416 pages.
The Rebel Pirate - Donna Thorland

I am loving this so far. I want to hide from my job and my kids and my life and just read, read, read!

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review 2015-03-19 16:14
Cheesy, Campy Catnip!!!
The Pirate's Secret Baby - Darlene Marshall

This is the second time one of Darlene Marshall's pirate-themed historicals have languished in my TBR, untouched, for such a long time, and when I finally get around to reading it, I've thought, "This is awesome! Why did I wait so long?!" Don't be fooled by the campy titles and cheezy covers: these books are really good. Yes, they're campy -- by design. Darlene Marshall knows and exploits all of the tropes of her genre -- this story has a secret baby (now a winsome eight-year-old plot moppet), a straight-laced plain jane governess, a cocksure pirate captain who is secretly an English lord -- but while you've probably read all this before, you've never read it the way Marshall does it: frothy and fun, yes, but also smart and surprising and very, very well-written.


If, like me, you have one or two of these books buried in your TBR, languishing because you can't remember what you were thinking when you added something so cheesy to your cart, do yourself a favor and give it a try. You won't be sorry.

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review 2014-09-17 15:50
Chock Full of Crazy
The Hawk - Monica McCarty

I've had Monica McCarty's "Special Ops in kilts" Highland Guard series in my TBR for a long time, and moved it to the top of the list in the days leading up to Scotland's September 18, 2014 vote on whether or not to remain part of the United Kingdom, because what's more appropriate on the verge of a vote for Scottish Independence than to read about Robert the Bruce's 1306-07 struggle for Scottish Independence?


The Hawk is the second book in the series, and holy moly, it is Chock Full of Crazy. If you are a stickler for historical accuracy or have a low tolerance for plot ridiculousness, this is not the book for you. There is a scene in which the hero and heroine sail across the Irish Sea in a fierce storm in the middle of the night in the dead of winter in a ten foot skiff cobbled together with scrap wood and seal grease and sailed with a freaking bedsheet, and when the mast breaks, they're all, "Oooh, this is sexy!" and they lay down in the bottom of the boat and get it on. Some people would be annoyed by this kind of thing: I just laughed and rolled my eyes so hard I nearly strained a muscle.


If you have a high tolerance for ridiculousness, though, this book can give you a heck of a ride: there are kidnappings, chase scenes, narrow escapes, hand-to-hand combat, dangerous missions, spies, and lots and lots of boats (I'm a sucker for boats). Erik "Hawk" MacSorley can sail anything and swim like a fish. He's also gorgeous and charming and basically sex-on-a-stick. He gets around, and makes no bones about it. He is trying to gather Irish soldiers to assist in Robert the Bruce's uprising against England's Edward I, and is having a secret rendezvous with Irish militants when Ellie accidentally swims into the cave where they're hatching their plans. (Yes, she's swimming. At night. In January. Chock Full of Crazy, I tell you.) Hawk can't let her go because he doesn't know what she's heard, and he can't leave her to be raped and killed by the Irish (who are great when you need a hand in a fight, but you can't trust 'em around the ladies), so he takes her with him as a captive.


Ellie mistakenly believes Hawk is a pirate, and that he'd take advantage if he knew she was the wealthy daughter of an earl aligned with the English, so she tells him she's a lowly nursemaid. This mutual mistake of identity persists throughout much of the novel.

Ellie is also (as the story keeps telling us over and over and over again) painfully plain and not at all Hawk's usual type. I know that it's supposed to be romantic when Adonis falls for Plain Jane despite her lack of looks, but whatever: all of that handwringing about how-can-anyone-so-perfect-possibly-look-twice-at-me? (on Ellie's part) and I-can't-believe-my-staff-is-rising-for-this-chick-who-barely-has-any-boobs (on Hawk's part) really doesn't reflect well on either of them.


That said, Ellie is really smart and has plenty of starch in her collar, and Hawk is funny and charming and noble, so their romance mostly worked for me even despite the annoying Plain Jane trope and their inexplicable tendency to get hot and bothered in circumstances which seem cold, wet, and uncomfortable to me. (See the infamous Boat Scene, referenced above.) 


I liked the first three quarters of the book much better than the end, where the lovers were separated and the plot bogged down in the skirmishes between Robert's and Edward's battalions, but on the whole, this was a fun (albeit completely absurd) read.

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review 2014-07-17 14:02
The Windflower: Challenging Old Skool Romance Conventions Since 1984
The Windflower - Laura London

Wow. It's hard to even know where to begin to review The Windflower. Written in 1984 by husband-and-wife team Tom and Sharon Curtis, Windflower is one of the most famous books in the romance canon. It's gone in and out of print several times, and in between releases, it wasn't unusual for used copies to sell for hundreds of dollars, since demand for the book remained sky high even in times of scarcity. Rereleased (for the first time in ebook form) this spring in honor of its 30th anniversary, Windflower faces a new generation of romance readers (like me) who tend to be skeptical, even contemptuous, of the rape-y conventions of old skool bodice rippers of the 1970s and '80s. I approached this read with trepidation, doubtful that it would live up to the hype, because virtually every attempt I'd ever made in the past to read "vintage" romance ended with disappointment at best and mad feminist fury at worst.


Hoo-boy, but Windflower was a revelation. Yes, it is a product of its time. The prose is unabashedly florid, even tending toward purple, especially in the love scenes:

Under the press of his body, Merry ached in colors... she tingled every hue in the prism. The world was a collection of sweet and vivid light beams, and she was one of them, and mindless, a spinning miscellany of liquid cells.

(p. 155 -- Huh?) The heroine, Merry, is such a perkily innocent Mary Sue that when Alexis Hall reviewed Windflower for Dear Author, he changed her name to Rainbow Sparkles. The plot is full of over-the-top WTFery: spies, kidnapping, pirates, man-eating crocodiles, betrayal. 


In other critical respects, though, Windflower subverts the old skool conventions, most notably with respect to sexual consent. On the surface, Windflower follows the old skool trope of the kidnapped virgin at the mercy of pirates, her virtue ever in jeopardy. The hero does threaten to rape her, and worse, to throw her to the crew to be gang raped by the lot of them. But it doesn't take very long before the reader realizes that these threats are all talk, and neither Devon (the hero) nor the crew would ever follow through. Even at his angriest, most alph-holey moments, Devon's threats are belied by descriptions of his character and his demeanor--he is constantly described as 'kind', 'gentle', 'compassionate,' "infinite in [his] ability to warm and reassure"--so the reader gets the sense that whatever he may say, Merry's virtue isn't in any real danger. Likewise, while we're told, along with Merry, that the pirate captain and crew are rough, dangerous men, fond of raping and pillaging and drinking and mayhem, what we actually see is a remarkably clean and organized crew that functions as a democracy, indeed, almost as a family, and to a man the pirates protect, support, and educate Merry at every turn. (And, boy howdy, is Merry sadly in need of educating!)


The second, less obvious but to me more fascinating, way that Windflower subverts old skool convention is in the character of the pirate captain, Rand Morgan. Readers of vintage romance will probably recognize that, in that era, a character revealed to be bisexual was invariably also a villain, as if bisexuality somehow functioned as code for "Unspeakably Evil." Windflower's plot unfolds very methodically, and the reader learns that Captain Morgan is bisexual (indeed, that he bought a traumatized teenaged boy from a brothel to serve as his lover, so he's not only bisexual but a pedophile), and that he is secretly orchestrating much of the drama befalling the other characters (including Devon and Merry). In the absence of information about his motives (which comes only much later), Morgan initially appears to fit within this bisexual-man-as-shadowy-villain trope. However, as the plot unfolds, the reader begins to question these assumptions, and even to question whether Morgan and Cat (the aforementioned traumatized teen) actually have a sexual relationship at all. (I vote yes.) In the end, one questions the methods of Morgan's Machiavellian manipulations, but at least his motives appear (mostly) benevolent.


Indeed, Morgan, Cat, and some of the other secondary characters (ahem, Raven) made The Windflower the compelling, timeless story it is, much more so than the romance between Merry and Devon. One tires of Merry's perpetual naiveté, the pirates making ribald jokes that fly right over her pretty little head, her repeated, fumbling escape attempts that inevitably end in ignominious failure. Devon isn't tiresome, but neither is he particularly interesting, either as compared to the other leading men in The Windflower or to other heroes in the Romance Canon: he's a privileged English peer (a duke, no less) whose power and influence is never questioned, and who has faced no real adversity. While both Merry and Devon grow as characters and the bond between them is convincing, it isn't particularly satisfying, and it definitely isn't what has driven the Windflower's enduring success over the past three decades.


No, instead, most readers (including me) are entranced by Cat, who is probably the most interesting and compelling character I've encountered in the entire romance genre, charmed by the winsome young Raven (conscripted into the pirate crew from a captured whaling ship when he was only 12), and intrigued (and at turns repulsed) by the manipulative Captain Rand Morgan. There is so much to this book, and these characters, that I don't think it's possible to absorb it all in a single reading: no wonder so many fans put The Windflower on their "keepers" shelf and read it again and again.

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