A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

D is for Driftwood and Disappointed

(Miss Bates’s D read: Checkmate, My Lord by Tracey Devlyn.)

Driftwood by Harper Fox

I feel like a very reactive reader lately. A couple of times recently, one aspect of a book has put me off so much that it colored my entire response to it. In this case, it was the most blatantly reckless episode of unsafe sex I’ve ever encountered. It’s supposed to be important in terms of character development, but I couldn’t get past it.

In general, this had many excellent elements which somehow did not coalesce. The main characters, both of whom are suffering psychologically from wartime experiences, are sympathetic. The Cornwall setting is beautifully depicted. The romance happens very fast, but that’s not usually something that bothers me.

I think the problem is that this is a book very much about character — who these men are, what life has done to them — and then the plot throws all kinds of external conflicts at them. The end of the book feels like I was watching… oh say, “A Room with a View,” and then suddenly the Terminator shows up. It’s not quite that out of the blue, but it feels equally misplaced.

I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Fox, so hopefully this was just the wrong book at the wrong time and I’ll enjoy her again.

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mm, mf, and me

You know that theory about m/m romance not having gender bullshit, that always pisses everyone off? At the risk of pissing everyone off… I kinda see it. Of course, it’s not true that m/m romance doesn’t have gender bullshit… but when you read a lot of m/f romance and get so much repetition of certain scenarios, m/m can really feel like a relief.

I’m on D for the alphabet challenge, and tried to read Dangerous Lover by Lisa Marie Rice. I don’t think the book ever had a chance, to be honest — who wants to read violent romantic suspense when you have to fear sending your child to school? But I was also extremely underwhelmed by the standard Rice relationship dynamic: her the seemingly unattainable feminine ideal, who makes everything smell nice, him the rough, underclass guy who worships her.

You can have the class issues in m/m, certainly, and wealth disparity. One aspect of Strawberries for Dessert that I didn’t go into was Cole offering to support Jonathan so they could travel together — Jonathan’s outrage in turn outrages his friend, a stay-at-home mom. So the gender issues around working and not working were discussed, though a major factor — the basic insecurity of such a situation — was never mentioned. (Too unromantic?) In the end, another solution was found, letting Jonathan keep his pride. (I was kind of impressed when Ava March wrote a story in which one man did agree to be supported by his lover.)

I doubt there are many romance tropes that can’t exists in m/m as well as m/f, with the exception of the secret baby. (The m/m D book I’m currently reading appears to have an abusive lover scenario, with perhaps a rescue element.) You could certainly have an m/m story in which one partner is better at making a home nice and the other is a rough type. But it wouldn’t feel gendered — or rather, it would feel gendered in a different way.

Maybe it just comes down to the fact that I’m a woman, and so while I may care greatly about the characters in the m/m stories I read, what goes on doesn’t feel so much right in my face.

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TBR Challenge: Swept Away by Candace Camp

The theme: An historical. Nothing could be easier, I still have a massive backlog.

Why this one: I was browsing in my TBR for a new C for the alphabet challenge and this caught my eye.

 

Camp has written some lovely books, but she’s derivative at times and this was one of the times. There are many Heyer echoes here, primarily from Faro’s Daughter.

Julia wants revenge on the man who drove her brother Selby to suicide, and when her attempts to abduct him fail, she decides to impersonate a woman of the night and seduce him into confessing. This is not quite as dumb a plan as it sounds, since it turns out that Deverel, Lord Stonehaven is composed mainly of honor and libido. But Julia finds him as hard to resist as he finds her, so she changes her game back to abduction, with complicated consequences.

Julia is more likable than you’d think, mitigating the usual stubborn, impetuous redheaded heroine cliches with her intelligence and self-insight. Unfortunately, she got all the personality the book had to spare, and every other character is pretty thin, including Deverel. He’s obviously a decent chap, but virtually all we see from his point of view is his lusting after Julia; all other interesting qualities are imposed upon him, as if they automatically go with the trendy/sexy hero name. I didn’t find the attempts to insert Heyer-style farce very successful, either.

It’s not terrible though, for historical reading of the easy, comfortable sort.

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Falling for Max by Shannon Stacey

What tickled my fancy: Sweet beta hero.

What ticked me off: STAY IN YOUR OWN DAMN BOOK!

Who might like it: fans of beta heroes and/or matchmaker stories.

 

“I’m not hooking up with Max. I like him too much for that.”

“That makes no sense to me.”

“When it comes to fairy-tale romances, he’s Disney and I’m Grimm.”

This is the 267th 9th book in the Kowalski series, and there’s a heavy weight of history to it. I got a little bored five books back, to be honest, and having frequent reminiscences about every single previous character’s love life got so dull I was tempted to quit the book. I kept reading for Max.

I started out by armchair diagnosing Max with a mild case of RHA — Romance Hero’s Aspergers. (Not to be confused with Romance Hero’s Alcoholism.) It’s a spot on the autism spectrum where there are many common symptoms of Aspergers syndrome, yet oddly enough, none of the associated issues that might make a person seem less sexy.

As I read on though, I decided that Max is definitely within the realm of believable for someone on the spectrum. He’s blessed with a lot of self-awareness and has worked out many coping mechanisms, so problems like anxiety don’t get beyond his ability to deal with. It’s a thoughtful and appealing characterization. Max is generally accepting of himself, and a reasonably content guy: he’s got a job that makes use of his particular talents, and he’s found a social in by making his home the local gathering place to watch sports events. But he wants a wife and a family.

“I don’t have a preference as far as hair and eye color. Or height or weight.” He paused, and gave a little shrug. “I’m just looking for a woman who’ll love me enough to marry me and risk having little odd duck kids. That’s pretty much my list.”

I hate portrayals of unfeeling, robotic aspies with the fire of a thousand suns, so I appreciated Max’s warmth and kindness. He may not be very socially adept, but it’s not for lacking of trying, or lack of caring. And he’s got a good sense of humor!

Unlike many reviewers, I also like Tori. Her aversion to relationships because of her toxic parents is plausible to me, and I appreciated that she gets proactive about dealing with them, with a little nudging from a friend.  And it’s refreshing that some of the drawbacks of small town life are realistically depicted.

He really wished Whitford had a movie theater, though. Or a bowling alley or even a mini-golf course. Sitting across from a woman with nothing to do but hold a conversation was a lot of pressure.

A small town romance in which small town life isn’t perfect — now there’s a romance unicorn.

Final thoughts: There are way too many people in this book for someone like Max. But I fell for his romance anyway.

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C is for the Coda Series, D is for Damn it, Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me It’s a Series

Strawberries for Dessert by Marie Sexton.

This was recently warmly recommended by someone, and I started it without noticing that it’s book 4 of a series. That proved to be a slightly irritating mistake, because previous characters are frequently mentioned, and I found the past relationships confusing. It wasn’t irritating enough to stop me from reading such an interesting book, though.

The story is narrated by Jonathan, an accountant with a high-pressure job that requires a lot of travel. There’s some matchmaking by his ex or a friend — this is the part I found confusing — but in any event, he’s set up with Cole, who’s independently wealthy and also travels a lot. Although Cole is too flamboyant and affected to be Jonathan’s type, and Jonathan too much of a stuffy workaholic for Cole, they’re both lonely and horny enough to give it a try — no strings, sex only. Cole rarely talks about himself and doesn’t even like to kiss.

But Jonathan discovers that the private Cole is quite different from the persona he puts on, and he is more and more drawn to him. And his affection, and willingness to work past Cole’s boundaries, start to erode Cole’s resistance to any form of intimacy.

Cole is a wonderfully challenging character. I didn’t always like him, and was sometimes annoyed that Jonathan doesn’t notice when he’s being hypocritical — he’s adamant about not changing himself, but wants Jon to loosen up — or manipulative. (Actually, Jon does notice the manipulation some of the times, but it more amused by it than bothered.) I would think I have a special in for understanding Cole, because I was once close to someone very like him, but since the book is extremely popular, I guess he works for most people.

I loved the way sex is treated in this story. The first few encounters are barely described — a bit unusual for m/m, but I liked it. To my surprise, the steam level rises seriously later. This is perfect — not only is the sex integral to their relationship development at this point, but it doesn’t happen until I’m already invested in the relationship. What does it say about the state of the romance genre, that I’m surprised to see an author use such a sensitive, appropriate technique?

I also liked that we’re never given a specific reason for Cole’s closed-off personality. He’s obviously vulnerable and defensive, and has never really felt loved for himself, but it isn’t tidily chalked up to anything in particular. We learn a little about his past through his emails to the friend who set them up, but he remains complex and somewhat mysterious, but very lovable in his way.

The feeling between them builds powerfully, leading to some serious heartbreak. The way the conflict is resolved seemed a little labored, but I was still left with that great romance happy glow.

Final thoughts: I liked dessert so much, I’m definitely going to go back and have the full meal.

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The Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen

What tickled my fancy: Sensible heroine who doesn’t lose herself in unrequited love.

What ticked me off: E.L. James has much to answer for, and not just crappy BDSM scenes.

Who might like it: Someone looking for a friends-to-lovers story or more realistic, less overwrought NA.

 

It’s very easy for a certain kind of romance to go wrong for me.  Ones in which, say, the fat girl with low self-esteem gets the conventionally gorgeous guy who suddenly discovers he adore curves, despite having only dated rail-thin women in the past… and it’s so obvious that it’s being written as a fantasy, not as something that could reasonably happen.

This manages to escape being one of those books. It is a story about an underdog heroine who gets the gorgeous guy, but it’s a relationship that happens organically, as two friends come to care about each other.

Corey and Hartley get to be friends because they’re both athletes who are sharing the “gimp” floor at college. The difference is, Hartley’s only a temporary gimp, while Corey will never walk unassisted again. But they share a lot of experiences, and are very comfortable with each other. Corey is still physically and psychologically settling into how different her new life is, so having someone to be easy with means a lot. But his gorgeous, perfect, trophy girlfriend makes everything else hard.

I would’ve liked the book so much more if it weren’t for the incessant references to Corey’s imaginary “hope fairy,” which is straight out of Ana Steele’s repertoire. I wish that instead of imagining putting duct tape over the fairy’s mouth, Corey had had a giant foot step on her the first time she appeared. But I appreciated that Corey realizes she needs to take care of herself, get over Hartley, and work on new ways to make herself happy.

Hartley’s feelings towards his girlfriend are interestingly complex — she really is a trophy for him — but I would’ve liked to see his revelation that it was time to end it and follow his heart. And maybe just a teeny bit of suffering for him would’ve been nice… he gets to decide what he wants, and there it is, waiting for him. Though perhaps it’s unfair to complain of that when I’m praising the book’s realism. In any event, the story is very sweet, with just a little bit of touching heartbreak instead of the usual NA hog wallow of angst.

Final thoughts:  Although I didn’t love it, I guess I won’t ask Jane for my money back.

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Looks a Little Different Around Here

I’ve removed the grade categories from this blog. I may also remove the “reviews” category, though I’m still pondering. Perhaps I’ll rename it… suggestions?

This is a move several of my blogging friends have made, and it resonates with me. It’s a way of moving past formats and expectations that came from outside forces — Amazon, GoodReads, NetGalley — and focusing on what we really want to say.

RRR Jessica wrote a piece some time ago about how blogging had changed in recent years, and one of the things she pointed out was the uniformity of review format. At the time, I didn’t really grasp what was wrong with this, but I think now that it’s an expression of review bloggers becoming cogs in the industry. Nothing intentional or sinister about it… but I know that when I receive an ARC, it makes me feel like I need to take a more “professional” approach to the review. And that inevitably changes my voice.

I’m not entirely giving up ARCs or professional reviews, because I get a lot out of it. I appreciate the people I get to work with, the opportunity to reach a wider audience, and that I earn a little money, even if it’s more symbolic than anything else. (I bought my husband’s birthday present with money I earned! It’s really from me!) But I’m cutting way, way back on ARCs. There’s nothing like realizing that a book you really wanted to read has become homework to make you see the downside of them. And as I think someone else pointed out — Sirius? — that defeats the purpose of getting them early, because the anticipation is gone. I can totally see getting a book read and reviewed sooner than I otherwise would have because I waited for it to be released. And even if I don’t, it will be done with much more enjoyment.

And that is, after all, what this is supposed to be about. Our love for books and reading and the fun of sharing our opinions.

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This Post was Supposed to Be…

… C is for K.J. Charles aka H is for Heyer

BUT — I found that no one had reviewed Think of England at Dear Author, and it needs to be reviewed if it’s going to go on my Top Ten of the Year list. Though I’m only 22% in, so it still might go South.

Now I need to find a new C.

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So Sick of This in Romance

“Marriage comes before babies in my family,’ he enlightened. [Why yes, this is Michelle Reid — why do you ask?]

Marriage–? “Oh for goodness’ sake.” It made her feel sick to her stomach to say it, but — “I’ll take one of those m-morning after pills that–”

“No, you will not,” he cut in.

She stood up. “That is not your decision.”

His silver eyes speared her. “So you are happy to see off a fragile life before it has been given the chance to exist?”

“God, not,” She even shuddered. “But I think it would be–”

“Well, don’t think,” he said coldly.

Yes, God forbid you should think, or get information, so you can make an informed decision about one of the most life-changing situations you could be in.

 

ETA: OMG, now there’s this:

She felt the muscles of her womb clench tightly as if it was acknowledging that it already belonged to him.

No. NO. Turns out I do have a line and THAT CROSSES IT.

 

 

 

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It’s the Little Things

I’m reading Half a Crown by Jo Walton, which is dystopian alternate reality rather than romance, but does feature a queer relationship. (At least one. I have some suspicions about a second.) In the chapter I just read, the main character Carmichael has taken his “manservant” to what we would now call a gay bar – the only place they can be reasonably safe in public. It’s really not Carmichael’s scene, but he puts up with it to make his lover happy. At the end of the evening, we discover that it’s their anniversary.

Such a sad chapter. The series is a chilling one, but nothing terrible happens here; for Carmichael it’s just boring. As a high ranking member of what’s basically the English Gestapo — working with an underground to rescue Jews when he can — his life is filled with excruciating compromises. Not being able to take his lover out for a nice dinner is probably one of the smallest. But it’s not unimportant.

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Blue Moon

Audiobook reviews and book reviews. Occasional opining.

Miss Bates Reads Romance

Miss Bates is the loquacious spinster from Austen's Emma. No doubt she read romances ... here's what she would have thought of them.

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