A Willful Woman…

Thoughts and reviews from a romance addict.

The Probably Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #186

 

 

 

 

Trigger warning: Extreme fat shaming.

 

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Harlequin Presents #186: A Bitter Loving by Lilian Peake

Best line: “Karen looked at Charles, who, at that moment, was contemplating the rising mound of his stomach as if it were a tumulus of great archaeological importance.”

Notes of interest: Implied unmarried sex.

***

I’m going completely out of reading order here, but I just had to reread this one when I found it. It’s one of the three HPs that I remember vividly from my adolescence — even the blurb was instantly familiar to me when I saw it. The book probably stuck with me because I was intrigued by a heroine who was fat as a child. On the other hand, it’s also a hell of a blurb:

 

Karen went toward the painting of Glenn like someone sleepwalking. Then, in a spasm of violent, uncontrollable anger, she plunged the points of the scissors into the canvas and ripped it open.

When she saw the results of her action and her brain started to spell out just what she’d done, she was appalled.

“Well,” Glenn asked, “have you got me out of your system?”

Out of her system? “Dear heaven,” Karen thought, “I’ve got you so much into my system that you’re part of the very blood running through my veins.”

 

Since I started reading Harlequin Presents again and keeping records, I’ve tried 4 Lilian Peake books. One I rated one star, two were DNFs, and one I hated so much I gave it one star even though it was also a DNF. But even without the nostalgia factor, I might have continued this one. It’s very odd, and oddly compelling.

Although the term isn’t used, Karen was — or is — clearly anorexic. She’s undergone treatment but I don’t think she could be considered cured, because her relationship with food and weight is still very fucked up. The book is filled with ugly fat shaming, and yet in a way it almost didn’t bother me, because much of it is clearly part of the heroine’s messed up psyche, and she’s aware of that herself. She also points out Glenn’s weight prejudice to him:

“I suppose,” she persisted, “you think that because Jerome’s fat, his mind is therefore stodgy and dull, which is how you described mine. But,” she pressed on in spite of the sharp gesture of annoyance which Glenn made, “he’s passionately fond of music, which means that deep down he’s sensitive and maybe even artistic.” Glenn Earl was silent, so she went on, consciously inciting him. “Which you, as his art teacher, should have discovered. And encouraged.”

It’s miles far from an enlightened book as far as body acceptance goes, so be wary, but there is a little nuance.

Glenn was Karen’s high school art teacher. (And how weird is that for a Harlequin Presents hero profession? But he’s also a very successful artist, so it’s okay.) Karen’s memories of being a fat child in high school are unsurprisingly dismal, and many of them center around Glenn, who mocked her when she was his student.

That was hard for me to get past. Blackmailing rapist heroes sure… or at least maybe. A hero who is cruel to a 13 year old child? Especially a poor child who is already the subject of persecution? Especially when the basis is his own prejudice? Yeech.

I’ve had cruel teachers and 30 years later, would still happily kick them in the giblets. Karen loves and hates Glenn, and she focuses most of her remembered misery on him. It’s not exactly clear why she’s come back to live in her old home and work at her old school — she seems to think she’s seeking revenge, but all she wants is to avoid him. She’s definitely far too depressed and aimless to have a plan.

I had trouble with numerous aspects of this story. The portrayal of the Evil Other Woman is particularly virulent, and Karen’s so-called friends laughingly betray her at every turn. Karen makes herself into a doormat for someone, threatening her health and well being. (She could be the subject of an interesting fictional “why she stayed” discussion.) The approach to an attempted rape is simply infuriating. Glenn comes off as something of an idiot as well as an unreformed asshole — his ex-wife threatens to destroy all his work if he visits Karen, and he still continues to share studio space with her?  And this is where he draws his ethical line:

“By God,” he muttered, “I can’t do it. I have some standards after all. I can’t take another man’s woman…”

Finally, after all that, the resolution is abrupt and unsatisfying. But it’s an interesting book, if you can read it with some detachment.

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TBR Challenge: Shadow Touch by Marjorie M. Liu

The theme: Romantic suspense or paranormal romance.

Why this one: It’s both! I seem to have a knack for finding those. And the second in the series I started last month, so I’m moving along. Though still not entirely sure I want to be.

I thought Shadow Touch was better than Tiger Eye. Unfortunately, it’s quite a good book of the sort I kind of hate now. Serials killers, sadists, torture out the wazoo. The villains in the story are, appropriately enough, like a Russian nesting doll — every time you think you’ve met the worst bad guy, boooing, another, even more horrific one appears.

Our hero and heroine meet while they’re both being tortured by an Evil Organization. Both are psychic — Artur sees the history of people and objects when he touches them, Elena can psychically heal. Their minds come together to help each other. The romance itself is very sweet, as uncertain as a romance between two psychics can be — Artur in particular has little experience with love or sex, because of the problem of touching people — and I liked the mutuality of it. There’s some time spent on a series arc, which is intriguing, and the suspense is effective.

I just personally don’t have much tolerance for stories about serial killers and torture these days. Life is scary enough. So I’m not going to grade this, but if you’re a tough reader who likes a soft romance, go for it.

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Alphabet Challenge Update

The very cool and hungry-making blog “Cooking Up Romance” has joined Miss Bates and me (I?) in the “Alphabet Challenge” with a review of Composing Love by Audra North.

My next read is planned to be Think of England by K.J. Charles. I read her story in Another Place in Time and just loved it.

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B is for Beguiled, G is for Gimme the Next Book!

Trigger warning for mentions of violence against women. (Not graphic.)

Book reviewed from an ARC supplied by the author. This review contains spoilers for Provoked.

****

Yeah, yeah, I know I said I was going to read a Bujold for B. I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least for now, I really just don’t want to. And the idea is to read books I want to read; I have enough reading homework. Also, October is Queer Romance Month, which is an excellent excuse.

Set in Edinburgh in 1822, Beguiled is the second in a literal trilogy — that is, you need to read all three installments to get the full book. It’s a historical love story between two men who couldn’t be less alike. A farmer’s son who’s risen in the world as a lawyer, David Lauriston is very uncomfortable with his homosexuality and tries to suppress it, yet is far too ethical to hide behind the sweet woman who loves him; the hedonistic Lord Murdo Balfour sees nothing wrong either with having male lovers or with marrying and continuing to have male lovers. (Although he has yet to take his own advice to David and get married himself.) They parted in anger at the end of the first book.

Beguiled opens with them reunited after two years and quickly discovering the main thing they have in common: neither could forget their first experience of sex that was more than merely slacking a need.

“I just–never knew it could be like that, between two men.”

“Neither did I.”

While David and Murdo are getting reacquainted, several threads from the previous book are progressing. David is very concerned about Elizabeth, his mentor’s daughter, who married in haste when David rejected her and is clearly being abused by her new husband. Hotheaded Euan MacLennan, now a radical journalist, is also very concerned, and determined to help Elizabeth escape — a challenging proposition in a time when wives were literally property, and Elizabeth is guarded like a prisoner. Of course the caring and noble David has to help, no matter how dangerous a task it might be.

But the story is more romance focused than the first book, less about David’s coming of age and more about him falling in love. Two years of separation have made a huge difference in his heart, where he’s been both tormented and comforted by his memories of Murdo and what he offered:

The possibility of tenderness and affection. The possibility of being known by another. Things he’d ruled out for himself. Things that were too painful to hope for.

David’s essential character doesn’t change, but he no longer feels damned for his desires. And Murdo too is becoming aware of David as more important than a pleasurable fling. Although David is more obviously the character being “enlightened,” there should be interesting growth coming for both of them in the third book.

The background of the story is King George’s visit to Scotland, the first visit of a British king in over two centuries. It was an opulent, ridiculous pageant organized by Sir Walter Scott, and the excitement of the Scottish people, often bordering on riotous, is palpable. The unfolding of the character driven love story against the rich, authentic-feeling historical setting — not to mention some very hot, emotional sexytimes — is just about everything I could ask for in historical romance.

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Love by the Morning Star by Laura L. Sullivan

This comedy of manners read like the author was channeling Eva Ibbotson, and Shakespeare frequently popped by to give plotting advice.  The style is slightly more modern in tone than Ibbotson — not because this is set before World War II, rather than World War I, but because the mild-mannered hero doesn’t indulge in old skool jealous rages, as virtually all Ibbotson heroes do. Other than that, the characters bear a striking similarity to those of A Countess Below Stairs (reprinted as The Secret Countess) and Magic Flutes.

It’s often funny and charming, in a deliberately mannered and utterly ridiculous way, but the mistaken identities and tangled plots lead me to an expectation of romantic angst that wasn’t fulfilled. Consequently the ending fell flat and the romance seemed ultimately disappointing. I also thought the author came across as a little self-conscious about the many silly misunderstandings, by explaining them too much. But it’s definitely worth a read if you enjoy this sort of thing.

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The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

I loved Revealed so much, and every other Noble book I’ve tried has been a sad disappointment to me. Until now.

It’s not that I think this is a great book. I’d have to read it in print to feel like I could properly evaluate it, but it definitely had its fair share of historical cliches and commonplace writing. Still, what an interesting concept and characters!  The hero Ned is challenging in an unusual way, yet one extremely suited to a Regency-set historical: he’s privileged, and selfish, and has no idea of how much of his much vaunted “luck” is due to his circumstances. That’s the premise: his former friend, now turned highly resentful secretary, bets him that Ned won’t be able to attract a woman without his rank and wealth. To test it, they switch places on a visit to relative strangers. Ned, of course, gets a thorough comeuppance as he learns how invisible (and even offensive) he is without his trappings of wealth and rank.

The audiobook was also “challenging.” Accents are very well done, always a plus, but Ned’s voice is so high-pitched and foolish sounding that I was considerably bemused as it started to become clear he was the book’s hero! After a while though, I started to approve of it — it seemed like just the sort of voice a hearty, amiable, unenlightened lord would have, and the fact that it wasn’t  at all attractive made it kind of cooler when Phoebe (a governess who’s not supposed to be outwardly attractive herself) fell in love with him. So the audiobook narrative stopped me from finding the book sexy, but in some ways made it more interesting.

And the romance did work. In Revealed, there’s a phrase — “it’s just me” — that became integral to the blossoming relationship. Here the special phrase was “your Mr. Turner.” Phoebe is flabbergasted when the servants start referring to Ned as “your Mr. Turner” as if there’s something between them, yet it starts to seem more and more appropriate. Eventually she starts to hug the phrase to herself; “my Mr. Turner.” It’s very sweet and resonant.

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When Are They Going to Start Casting Movies With White People?!

(Sarcastic title courtesy of my husband.)

naked-gun-facepalm

I recently wrote a post about romance in Cassandra Clare’s books for “Heroes and Heartbreakers.” While double-checking on the ethnicity of the character Jem, I was disgusted to find, via this passionate post, that fans have been whitewashing the character, who is half Chinese.

While searching for that post again, I learned that the casting of an Asian actor as Magnus Bane in the movie “City of Bones” was also causing controversy amongst fans. It’s Rue of “The Hunger Games” all over again. Do people even actually read their so-called favorite books? They love these books enough to be upset by the casting, but not enough to have noticed their beloved characters aren’t white.

Here’s an especially charming quote from the comments of this post:

“I have always thought of Adam Lambert as Magnus! Adam has been doing theater since he was a kid and was in the cast of Wicked and Hair. He would make a fantastic Magnus if they could make some more of his features Asian.”

Actually, that one is really just thoughtless and naive. The reactions captured by “racebending” are far worse. (Trigger warning for racism.)

Here’s an interesting post from Clare on the casting, and on readers whitewashing her characters. And an interview at racebending.com. Read the comments for criticisms on Clare’s portrayal of race.

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B is for Maya Banks, H is for Hmmm…

Trigger warning: violence and rape mentioned

This isn’t actually my next Alphabet Challenge read; the format just fit so perfectly, I couldn’t resist it.

Out of morbid curiosity, I’ve been reading parts of Maya Banks’s Taking it All, a book which upset quite a few readers. I find Banks a somewhat fascinating writer, because she’s an almost perfect chameleon: she takes a particular formula (category romance, romantic suspense, and whimsical Highland romance are the ones I’ve mostly read) and replicates it by meshing it with her own formula (group of guys who always wind up hurting their heroines, while cherishing their friends’ poor hurt heroines. I once joked that she had found a way to make even mainstream romance feel like menage.) When the starting formula is one I like, it can work really well; my favorite is the Silhouette Desire Wanted by Her Lost Love.

disguise

I don’t particularly like Bank’s style in erotic romance, which is why I haven’t read this series or the one that proceeded it. And I should make it very clear that I didn’t read this entire book and skipped over most of the sex scenes. What I was curious about what the dark moment that upset so many people, and then I got kind of sucked into the aftermath.

Basic plot: submissive Chessy is unhappy with her marriage because her dominant husband Tate has been neglecting her for work. He tries to make it up to her by staging a favorite scene — him in charge while another man dominates her. The other man goes off the rails, beats her, and begins to anally rape her; Tate is not only not paying enough attention, but actually takes a work call during the scene. Chessy is badly hurt and traumatized, and leaves Tate.

This scene was, understandably, way too much for many readers, but I thought that it’s a damn interesting as a conflict in a D/s relationship. It’s obviously a catastrophic failure of trust, one it would be very hard to come back from.

So what made me go hmmm. After the incident, when previous hero and heroine are succoring Chessy, previous hero says this about the fact that Chessy is badly bruised:

“It’s not something that should ever happen, honey. A Dominant is charged with the absolute safety and well-being of his submissive. He’s supposed to safeguard that gift and cherish it and her.”

That is classic Banks in a nutshell, but it made me very uncomfortable in this context. It leaves out so many aspects of negotiation and desire. Some people want to be bruised and marked. It’s not being a bad dominant to give your submissives what they want.

This also contributed to a sense I had throughout the book, that the dominant men give off far more of a submissive vibe. I don’t want to tell anyone how they should feel or label themselves, and it’s not like my experience is all that extensive, but the fact that they only play with other men, and the descriptions of how Tate loves to cook for Chessy and to tuck her in, “ensuring all the pillows are in the exact position she liked them” every single time she sleeps, seem more like fantasyland than a portrayal of a genuine D/s relationship.

Another big hmmmm. During the succoring, second previous heroine says this:

“We’ll do whatever you need us to. True friendship has no boundaries. No parameters. And certainly no conditions.”

She means well, but I’d put this on the top ten list of fucked up thing you could say to someone who just left her husband because he failed her.

Finally, the story ends in the most cliched, annoying, and disappointing way possible — giving a lot of credence to the theory that “50 Shades” style romances are basically a new way for people to enjoy the trappings of category romance. The conflict isn’t really resolved, just superseded. Since D/s is supposed to be a very important part of their relationship, I would really have liked to see that area addressed in a satisfying way.

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TBR Challenge: Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. Liu

The theme: A recommended read.

Why this one: Sort of a sideways recommendation. I was intrigued by AnimeJune’s review of The Wild Road — virgin bookworm hero for the win! — and didn’t want to jump into the series with book 8. Though I’ve read a review that says if you are going to jump in, The Wild Road is the place to go. If the second book doesn’t grab me, I’ll be doing that.

So I bought this years ago, but was nervous about reading it; the Liu short stories I’d read were good, but definitely challenging. This is written at a much more basic level, and I really wish I had read it right away; I think it would have worked much better for me when I was new to paranormal romance.

Basic story: Dela Reese — should’ve googled more before going with that one! — is a psychic metalworker with ties to a supernatural band of good guys. She unwittingly releases an immortal tiger-shifter slave, Hari, and after some initial mistrust they fall in love. Lots of different people trying to kill her, need to break Hari’s curse, yadda yadda yadda.

I’d say the quality of the writing is better than Christine Feehan, but otherwise this was a very conventional, samey paranormal romance. I found our heroine, Dela, rather irritating: her life is in danger, and she has several prophetic nightmares — and each time, shortly thereafter she deliberately separates herself from her lover and protective friends. She also was very slow to catch on to what was going on when she accidentally unleashed Hari, in a sort of genie-in-the-bottle situation you’d think anyone who’d had a childhood would recognize.

The plot was kind of scattered and didn’t end in a very satisfying way, although there’s certainly lots of room for series development, what with all of Dela’s male friends with psychic powers, and the sudden possibility of many similarly powerful females knocking around in the world.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the story was that it was my first introduction to the oft complained about shifter story with bestiality — that is, sex scenes in which the shifter is in animal form. I have to agree with the general opinion that this is kinda gross.

So what did I like? Well, Hari is very sweet. His tortured past is pretty convenient (he’s been ordered to do many horrible things, but managed to fight off the most egregious orders) and he’s certainty not especially original in his passionate, protective devotion to Dela, but it’s still enjoyable to read. And the book did keep my interest, and arouse curiosity about some of the recurring characters. So I will try book 2… but hope it didn’t take until book 8 for the writer to really show her considerable chops.

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“a thousand secret symmetries”

Such a beautiful post by Alexis Hall at Wonkomance today.

Here’s my soundtrack for it.

 

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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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