Before Fifty Shades of Grey careened its way onto the literary scene with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, there was Mills and Boon.
For those unfamiliar, Mills and Boon at the original bodice-ripper short stories about swooning damsels, handsome heroes, and quivering members. I remain convinced that Alison Janney‘s Ms Perky in 10 Things I Hate About You was halfway through her Mills and Boon side hustle.
Recently, Mills and Boon sent me the four books in its new DARE series – with strong, independent woman who apparently don’t need saving – and I did the only sensible thing possible: force* three of my colleagues to read them and report back.
*They were champing at the bit. Free Mills and Boon books is apparently catnip for writers.
So with me (Alex Bruce-Smith, associate news editor) are Melissa Mason, senior style editor; Courtney Fry, news writer; and Elise Stitt, digital marketing executive.
ALEX: First things first: give me a one sentence summary of your book.
MELISSA (Ruled, by Anne Marsh): Kids party performer falls for VP of a biker gang and is horny 24/7. I LIVED for my book.
COURTNEY (A Week To Be Wild, by JC Harroway): Headstrong American woman meets Handsome Rich Brit, passes him off as a playboy, they broker a sexy deal and destroys several pairs of knickers.
ALEX (Off Limits, by Clare Connelly): Assistant falls for her sex god billionaire boss who’s damaged after losing his wife to cancer.
ELISE (Legal Seduction, by Lisa Childs): Sexy Assistant only becomes sexy once she quits and they have sex for two weeks, but they accidentally fall in love.
ELISE: Where is the sex?
MELISSA: Yours didn’t have sex?
ELISE: Actually, no. They bang within the first three chapters.
MELISSA: Mine had anal. Descriptive anal.
COURTNEY: Mine was full of professional-space sexual tension. Like he bored a hole thought her body with his eyes alone. Her knees buckled so much I was worried she’d done her ACL.
MELISSA: My first impression was definitely “no one is this horny”. Princess – the nickname given to my protagonist by Rev, her love interest, meets him for the first time when he accosts her outside a kids party to get info on her biker brother who has done a shady deal. He sort of pins her against the wall of her van, and she – no joke – describes the moment as “like he was inside me”. I’m sorry, this is not a thing anyone thinks.
ELISE: Mine was, she quit, he decides he wants to bang her cos it’s not a moral/legal issue now, PLUS he’s trying to find the mole who is selling company secrets, and then they bang for her whole 2 weeks notice. Fall in love, get in a fight and make up for it.
There was a lot of descriptions of underwear with bows, because *shocker* the protagonist is a lingerie designer on the side whose lingerie hook is that to take all the underwear off, you undo a bow. and it’s called Bettes Bows, because her name is Bette Monroe, WHICH IS NOT A REAL NAME.
ALEX: Mine LITERALLY began with her waking him up after a one-night stand (’cause she’s his assistant and that’s part of her job description, apparently). He’s naked. A few chapters later when they finally bang, she keeps making comments like, “I’d seen his dick before, but now it was naked for me.” What?
COURTNEY: Did everyone’s story have the whole “they only had a whirlwind week/fortnight” together? Because mine was the whole thing of “they only had one week together”, in which he wined and dined her, and hired her for his disability charity/NFP.
MELISSA: Absolutely Courto. Mine was over like a month I think.
COURTNEY: Also he takes her in a helicopter for lunch????? And then a hot air balloon and a jet boat????
MELISSA: Courtney, of course he does. Romance knows no price tag.
ALEX: Can confirm: mine was also over a month. A month is clearly years in Mills and Boon land.
Okay, tell me about your protagonists.
COURTNEY: Mine were Olivia (Libby) Noble and Alex Lancaster.
MELISSA: I had “Red” and “Rocker”. And Evie. But Rev and Rocker – amazing biker names.
ALEX: My protagonist was called Jack Grant, like someone spun the wheel on macho names and landed on ‘Jack’ and ‘Grant’.
MELISSA: JACK GRANT. Outstanding soft porn names.
ELISE: All the names are ridiculous in mine.
MELISSA: So Evie was pretty badass for a swooning protagonist. She ran her own business, survived shitty parents, and looked after her younger brother. PLUS she blew Rev’s mind sex-wise which I enjoyed. Like he taught her jack shit, she definitely took the lead.
He spent the entire time being like coooorrr, Evie is a GOOD ROOT she’s amazing.
ALEX: Jack Grant’s assistant (or legal counsel, as they eventually confirmed) is Gemma somebody. Insanely driven, very cold, obviously beautiful, and as it turns out, part of the British aristocracy? Her attempts at having a personality were rejecting the idea of finding a society husband and pissing her parents off by getting a double first at Oxford. TBH, her parents’ high society anniversary party was the most interesting thing about the book. Tell me about the badly behaved society people. Tell me about Harper’s Bazaar and Tatler.
COURTNEY: Libby seemed to be a reserved and dominant woman who had put up walls after her fiancé died a week out from their wedding in a motorbike accident. She dismissed Alex Lancaster at first because she didn’t want anything to do with someone who was too much of a risk, though her whole body seemed to vibrate when they were in the same room and he was not subtle in absolutely decimating her with his laser-beam eyes. When they hooked up finally she was the dominant/controlling one, which infuriated and exhilarated Alex, and they always began with “what do you want?” before initiating anything physical.
ALEX: Okay, tell me about the horniness. Was it sexy / awkward / cringy / insanely hot?
MELISSA: Rev had some amazingly terrible lines in this book. I actually loaned Ruled to a guy I’m dating (I know, I’m insane, it seemed like a good idea at the time) and his take of “this reads like the musings of a porn bot that’s become self-aware” really sum it up. Think lines like “Gonna hit her ass now”, “can’t wait to get inside” and “The dress dips all the way to her ass, the straight line of her spine a lick-me-here-big-boy invitation I’d like to take her up on”.
ALEX: You know what isn’t sexy? Talking about how much you love Harry Potter. I’m not joking. At one point she describes her fantasies as playing out between us “like a kinky Pensieve” a.k.a. the memory pool from Dumbledore’s office. WHAT THE FUCK.
MELISSA: Hahahaha what! That’s amazing.
ALEX: A few chapters later, she’s thinking about Jane Austen before giving him a blowjob.
MELISSA: That is decidedly unsexy. The sex scenes in mine were hot as hell, though. I was reading on the bus and felt extremely aware of how descriptive Rev was regarding Evie’s nipples. There was no holding back.
ELISE: The horniness in mine was probably about a 7, maybe an 8. It was weird because theres all this sexual tension, and cos she quits and then they fuck, theres a fair amount of chat about how the company will get sued, and how he will make her not quit through his sexing.
Theres all this talk about how she’s a successful business woman whose just got her lingerie line in a big department store so can’t do it as her side hustle anymore, but then nothing delves into that, whereas there is a significant amount of time spent on his achievements in his career.
COURTNEY: I found myself laughing at the descriptors of them together; her vagina was described as ‘her sex’ multiple times, and there’s one moment where he’s apparently so good at hand jobs that he was “homing in on her clit with pinpoint accuracy and the perfect amount of pressure” sorry but in all my experience that does not happen ever at all.
ELISE: Also, I really didn’t like how they referred to the collective of her clit, vagina and orgasm as “her core”.
ALEX: HER CORE.
MELISSA: HOMING IN ON HER CLIT.
COURTNEY: With PINPOINT ACCURACY, Mel.
ELISE: How big is this lady’s clit? It sounds really small and she should maybe go see a doctor about that.
ALEX: TBH mine also gave me high-key sexual harassment vibes. She physically and verbally is telling him “no” at a work function, and he continues to go after her. Like, I don’t care that ~internally~ she wanted to fuck him, externally she didn’t and he blatantly pursued her anyway.
MELISSA: Easily the hottest scene in my book was when Evie runs into Rev at a State Fair or something, and because she is PERMANENTLY HORNY, they end up doing some intense foreplay and almost boning in a diner booth or something. Her actual date then arrives and catches them mid hook-up.
ALEX: Oh yeah, my characters fuck everywhere, including the private home office of a new employee.
ELISE: WHAT? Shit, I would not want random people sexing in my house. I found out two of my friends hooked up in my boyfriend’s old car once and I didn’t get into it for weeks.
ALEX: Alright, moving very slightly on from the sex – what did you think of it as a book? Did you want to keep reading or was it just a change from porn?
MELISSA: It was wild. I fucking loved my book. I’ll absolutely say it is trash as trash can be. But I’ve always had a soft spot for a book where the characters have great chemistry and the plot is simple but engaging. Sometimes it’s like fuck high-brow literature, I want the satisfaction of two cliche characters falling in cliche love and also fucking a lot, OK?
I devoured it.
COURTNEY: I mean I kinda wanted to know more about both of their backgrounds; Libby lost her fiancee, and Alex’s sister died young to epilepsy which he blames himself for, and his mother is an alcoholic. But apart from that, it’s pure, unadulterated trash.
ELISE: I was grumpy that it fell into the trope of “they fall in love and live happily ever after” and I’m not sure if i would use it as any sort of sexy time stimulant – though i did feel slightly awkward reading it on the train, so there is something in there.
I wanted it to be straight out sex and fucking, none of the feelings. I guess I wanted to read a porn script….
MELISSA: I think thats’ the thing with Mills and Boon though. They’re actually not women’s sexy-time stories, they’re fantasies. So the sex is a part of it but the bigger part is this whirlwind love story with a satisfying ending that you can read with a cuppa and your cat on your lap in one sitting.
ALEX: Book-wise, I got suuuuuper bored. At least Fifty Shades had some element of plot – like I hated myself for it but I kept reading those books anyway. But if it wasn’t for this article I wouldn’t have kept going with mine. It picked up mid-way through with the introduction of her backstory (super smart, aristocracy, uncomfortable with her family) but I could see the ending coming a MILE off.
Also, it’s like the ultimate fantasy for someone in a manipulative, damaging relationship. He tries to bury his grief in sex by sleeping with different, beautiful women every night, and she keeps talking about how she doesn’t want to be ‘one of the other girls’. In the end (surprise) she ‘saves’ him and they live happily ever after. I kept thinking about this emotionally manipulative dude I once dated and how he would act EXACTLY like Jack. The only sane thing to do with people like that is run.
Okay, FINALY THOUGHTS. Gimme. Would you read Mills and Boon again / recommend your book to a friend?
COURTNEY: I mean I’d probably read another for a laugh.
MELISSA: I absolutely would.
ELISE: If I had nothing else to read and my phone had died and that’s all that was left, yes.
ALEX: I would need someone to tell me that the plot is good enough for me to bother. I feel like I can get my erotica / porn from so many places, at least make me care about whether or not my two main characters get together. Also, less sexual harassment.
COURTNEY: Yes, absolutely.
ELISE: I would prefer a meatier (lol) novel, like a Jilly Cooper-sized sex book. Her books are HUGE! and usually filled with the same amount of sexual tension that my book had, but with a much larger and more interesting plot.
COURTNEY: I wish someone had told me, “Ok Court you’re going to have to wait through 100 pages before there’s any penetrative sex”.
MELSSA: I personally don’t find them problematic. They have always been blatantly about the fantasy. In the same way that you might watch porn that you wouldn’t replicate in real life, I think you read these with the full acknowledgement that they are just a fantasy and don’t decide the behaviour is anything you should aspire to in real life.
ALEX: Oh yeah, on a general level I agree they’re not problematic. But mine was high-key sexual harassment in places, and definitely reminded me way way too much of literally being sexually harassed at work.
COURTNEY: Does Mills & Boon only do hetero stories? I can’t help but notice that everything is very cis-het and damn queer people deserve some tacky smut novels as well.
ALEX: I don’t think so but look how many categories they have.
MELISSA: Mmmm gimme that medical fucc.
COURTNEY: Sign me up for some historical bangin’. I wanna fucc Abe Lincoln. With his hat on.
ALEX: This chat has clearly devolved and I’ll be ending it right here. Thank you for lending your horny minds.
If you wanna get around the new books, check out the Mills and Boon here (just scroll down to the DARE selection.)Image: Mills and Boon