Taken By Surprise
by Susan Johnson, Thea Devine, and Katherine O'Neal; historical (2003)
Brava, $15.00, ISBN 1-57566-816-5


Another month, another anthology from Brava. On the bright side, unlike its contemporary anthologies which have Harlequin Blaze authors trying to do sexy but generally failing miserably (why try so hard, ladies?), Thea Devine, Susan Johnson, and Katherine O'Neal have a track record of doing sexy. So it's the real stuff. Only this time around, Susan Johnson is sleepwalking through her anthology, Thea Devine is writing what seems like a 19th century version of The Bachelor, and only Katherine O'Neal delivers something readable.

Susan Johnson, the main billing here, kicks off the show with From Russia With Love. If you've read anything from Sweet Love, Survive to Brazen to any others of her "badly abused wife heroine having lots of healing sex with some oversexed nobleman" stories, you'll know the drill here. Russian Princess Tatiana is married to an abusive scum, but thankfully her husband carouses in Moscow, leaving her to her own devices in the countryside. Then comes her new neighbor, Stavr Biron, who also happens to her husband's enemy. No matter. After some token resistance from her part, the clothes fall off and... well, let's just say Christmas came early for these two people. And Stavr's soldiers listen and pat each other knowingly. I'm not kidding about the last sentence.

Then he leaves for - well, he has to do something far away, leaving Tatiana to the mercy of her husband who rides back, furious, once he hears that she is pregnant. Yup, those two idiots have lots of fun and merriment, but they can't spell birth control even when we fit an IUD up Stavr's bum.

Everything gets resolved in one chapter, and it's the end.

A very familiar, halfbaked tale starring characters that seem be recycled from Susan Johnson's better stories. Stavr may be the only hero in existance who can maintain an erection despite being wounded, but this story is as exciting as watching grass grow.

Then comes Thea Devine's Her Lord And Master, a bizarre tale of catfighting between three virgins, "Innocenta", "Virtuosa", and "Chaste" for the sexual attention of our disgusting hero the Earl of Wick. Wick - I know, I know - anyway, Wick here has apparently slept with every non-virginal woman in England and now his mother - whom I really hope he hasn't slept with - is pressuring him to marry into money.

"Chaste" is our heroine Jenise. I'm not too sure what happened between her sister and Wick, but Jenise decide to teach Wick a lesson by becoming his sex slave. No, I don't get it either. So Wick gets his two friends to enlist potential virgins among the Marriage Mart debutantes, and apparently every girl there is so desperate and horny to be chosen as a finalist in Wick's Joe Millionaire show that they are willing to be pawed by these two friends so that they will offer these girls to Wick for the final selection.

So the final selection sees Jenise and two other debutantes in Wick's place, upon which they are forced to orally service our hero. At this point, I put the book down, take a deep breath, throw this book to the floor, and jump on it up and down while practising my cusswords in Swahili. What really annoys me is that the other two ladies are discarded unceremoniously after their humiliation because they are too "educated" if you know what I mean.

This novella insults me. It's insulting enough to have the women in this story scratching each other's eyes out and literally fighting each other just to get her mouth on our indiscriminate male slut's Mr Winkie, but even more insulting is the underlying premise that our heroine is chosen just because she's not experienced enough.

I would find this story more palatable if the hero ends up keeping a harem of three instead of discarding two for all the most insulting reasons after he has made them do degrading things for his pleasure. As it is, this novella is as ridiculous and insulting as all those catfight reality TV shows. Needless to say, this novella may just be as big a hit as those shows. The world can be so screwy sometimes.

But one thing though - the sex is really really hot even if the word "cream" is used to the point of overkill. I'm tempted to Xerox this novella and then black out everything but the sex scenes with a marker pen.

Oh, and Wick asking his male friend to "suck his own cream"? Best. Line. Ever.

Katherine O'Neal's Erotic Déja Vu is the best of the three, if only because the hero and the heroine enters a relationship that makes more sense than any of the two novellas in this book.

Celia Wybourne is a widow who makes a career writing scandalous stories of sex and romance. It's the late 19th century, and our heroine is on a cruise to visit Gibraltar. She encounters a man, Royce, who claims to be her soul-mate and that they have been lovers in several lifetimes in the past. It turns out that her stories are actually "memories" of her past life. Ooh! So they spend a lot of time putting the cabin bed to good use, reenacting scenes from their past lives/her books and all.

A discardable conflict towards the end offers this story some semblance of plot, although if you ask me, there's really no need for it. One thing this story has over the other two is that the relationship between Celia and Royce has elements of tenderness instead of just being sex. The author also succeeds in showing some emotional bond between those two characters. And oh yeah, her plot - or what little of it - makes the most sense of the two. When I consider that this plot has some vague reincarnation thing in it to muddy up things, that's saying really a lot about how bad the other novellas are.

One unintentional funny thing though - why do romance authors always portray heroines who write romances as sexually frustrated women who are living vicariously through their stories? On one hand, they decry the stereotype of a romance heroine as a grotesque Barbara Cartland parody, but they seem happy enough to enforce the stereotype in their stories. In this case, Celia actually admits to writing the same heroes again and again in her stories just to live out her sexual fantasies. Gee, I don't know. The same heroes thing sounds like a few romance authors out there, but I sincerely hope the author isn't basing Celia on these authors. I hate to think that these authors are recycling the same heroes in their stories because they are actually sexually frustrated. If we readers send Vibrator Parcels to these authors, will they start putting in more variation in their novels?

An average and forgettable novella (Susan Johnson), a distasteful one (Thea Devine), and an average and enjoyable novella (Katherine O'Neal) all make Taken By Surprise more of a forgettable quickie than a steamy affair to remember.

Rating: 48


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