A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Mind Games by Carolyn Crane

The theme: a RITA nominee or winner. I’m fudging here, because I’m just too damn busy to start another book. This wasn’t a nominee, but the author did win a RITA recently, and the first for a self-published book! So we’ll just say this is in honor of that.

Why this one: I was sick of historicals and contemporaries, and this was one of my TBR books I really did want to read.

I can see why this received so much good buzz, because the premise is not only unusual and intriguingly full of moral ambiguity, but will leave many readers green with envy. A way to relieve yourself of your most debilitating neuroses while also fighting crime? Oh my God, who cares about moral ambiguity — sign me up!

The story has an amusing comic book vibe, with its “Midcity” setting, weirdly named villains, and dark heroes. And it is definitely refreshing to read about an urban fantasy heroine who suffers from major hypochondria, and whose superpower derives from that. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Justine enjoyable in many other ways. She thinks of herself as only moderately attractive, but her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. She’s also obnoxiously stubborn, and ridiculously clueless; if this were a movie, everyone would be shouting at her not to go into the damn basement. She’s clearly intended to be flawed, but it’s overkill.

On the bright side, Justine grows as a character throughout the series — though I’m not sure she ever gets all that bright — and the storyline becomes increasingly exciting and intense, as well as thoughtful. (The books are also a touch grisly, which makes me a little worried about following Crane into the romantic suspense genre.) I was impressed with how cleverly Justine’s romantic interests are depicted, since she’s so dense she’s essentially an unreliable narrator.

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Gentle on My Mind by Susan Fox

After I wrote about The Heart of Christmas, SuperWendy recommended this as a story in which pregnancy options are given serious consideration. And curse you, Wendy, for turning me on to a new author! Like I needed that!

There will be some spoilers here, but nothing that’s not pretty guessable.

For a mainstream romance, this takes a few risks. The heroine Brooke is a recovering alcoholic, has bipolar disorder, is quite a bit older than the hero, was a terrible mom(!), and — rarest of all — is a grandmother! Although she got pregnant when she was 14, so she’s only a 43 year old grandmother. And did I get tired of hearing her talk about being a grandmother as if that meant she was never allowed to have sex again.

We meet her after she’s turned her life around and reestablished a relationship with her son. (The hero of Home on the Range.) Maintaining her sobriety, her mental health, and her respectability — in a town that expects her to fall off the wagon at any moment — is all important to her. And then a guy with a bullet in him crashes his motorcycle into her fence.

I’m not going to go much into the plot, which has a suspense element but isn’t really romantic suspense. The interesting part for me was, as Wendy mentioned, the fact that Brooke accidentally gets pregnant and actually spends some time pondering her options, especially in light of her need for medication. That’s very, very rare in romance — perhaps even more than a grandmother heroine — and I appreciated seeing it.

The story did get into some personal pet peeve territory. Despite all the risks that she’s well aware of — her age, her mental illness, having to go off her medication  — Brooke never really considers how she’ll cope with being a single mother except in the most general and rosy terms. For example, her plan is to take the baby to work with her. Leaving aside the fact that she works in a beauty salon, that is something that is just not going to work with every baby, especially if that baby turns out to have special needs.

I also laughed out loud when Brooke worries that Jake will be bored with her quiet life and he replies, “I bet it’s hard to be bored when there’s a kid around.” Oh sweet naivete…

But it’s quite an enjoyable story, and definitely not cookie cutter.


TBR Challenge: Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale

The theme: an author with multiple books in the TBR.

Why this one: Kinsale is one of the great authors I would most regret leaving behind in the TBR when I die. I awaited this one so eagerly, and bought it as soon as it came out. FIVE AND A HALF YEARS AGO. WTF is wrong with me?

As it happens, though, I might have been happier choosing one of the other multiple books. It’s not that this was bad. It’s meant to be a fairly lighthearted story, and it certain succeeds with some witty banter between the leads, who grew up together and fall easily back into teasing each other when they’re reunited. But I’m guessing it’s meant to be filed under “romp” and for me it wound up under “tiresome.” I skimmed the most plot-heavy points and seriously considered DNFing. The emotion between Callie and Trev kept me reading, but I fear this is one Kinsale that isn’t winding up on my keeper shelf.


Luckily, I Did Not Have to Invent a Recipe



Elisabeth Lane of the review/recipe blog “Cooking Up Romance” is doing a series on sex in older category romances, so of course I had to put in my two cents. My thought on the intriguing (albeit problematic) Sirocco by Anne Mather.  Elisabeth is also doing a survey on category romance sex and your input is requested.

I also joined Elisabeth and author Alexis Hall at “All About Romance,” as we relived our adolescent love for boarding school fantasies while reading and discussing Lord of the White Hell by Ginn Hale.

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #17

Harlequin Presents #17: Living with Adam by Anne Mather



I’m backtracking a bit to get back into numerical order.

Best line: “I hope you’re not one of the ghastly females who support Women’s Liberation and that sort of thing!” he exclaimed. Typical HP comment, but this may be most notable because it’s spoken by someone who turns out to be a real cad.

Notes of interest: I may faint… he kisses her breast! Only after they’re married, of course. In an actual bedroom scene! I think that’s the most explicit the HPs have gotten so far.

There’s also some hero point of view — including the whole first chapter — though not in the alternating style common now. It begins with the hero in a serious relationship with another woman. There’s a non-specific mention of abortion (one the doctor hero was far too righteous to perform.) And the heroine is his stepsister. Mather is beginning her envelope pushing.


This is somewhat more down-to-earth than previous HPs, and a pretty  successful story. Adam and Maria barely know each other, so the step relationship didn’t set off my ick meter. Adam’s quite an angry boner man, but that certainly makes sense in this context. Although they fight a lot as they suppress their attraction, it never crossed the line to bickerfest, somehow.

The weirdest part of the story is Adam’s continued attempt to convince Maria that his relationship with the woman he initially called his mistress is “respectable.” I frankly couldn’t follow these parts at all; perhaps you have to have grown up in the right time period to get what all the fuss is.

The story also takes an odd turn when Adam’s mother appears. Maria’s thoughts about her stepmother are quite positive, but she turns out to be possessive and weirdly class conscious about Maria, which considering that she’s married to Maria’s father makes not one lick of sense.  Unless Adam has significantly raised the class standing of the family by becoming a doctor and she wants him to marry up?

I think there could’ve been more focus on why they fall in love, but this holds up better than many an old HP.


H is for The Heart of Christmas by Brenda Novak aka P is for Pet Peeves

I almost didn’t read this. The series has been more misses than hits for me, and in the book prior to this one, a sympathetic character did something so unconscionable, I never wanted to go near Whiskey Creek again, for fear of being a witness when that particular shit finally hits the fan. But I got sucked in by the hook of the most recent book, This Heart of Mine, and then some plot confusion led me to check this one out of the library… and then there was a bunch of other books I should have been reading instead, so there you go.

I quite like Novak’s voice, and it shows to advantage here. Her plots are generally exciting — the hero of this one is Rex, a character from one of her romantic suspense series, who’s on the run from a gang he used to run with — but the people are pretty realistic and everyday, without being dull. The heroine Eve is a pretty pragmatic person:

“And every woman needs a man.”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

She laughed. “Of course. These days most of us believe we can take care of ourselves. But your background puts that comment in perspective, so I guess I can’t hold it against you.”

“You think you could shoot a man?” he asked.

“Probably not,” she admitted. “But I don’t think most of the men I hang out with could, either.”

Eve is turning 35, almost all her friends are married and having kids, and she’s starting to feel like she’s missing out. But a drunken, unprotected one night stand with a guy who’s only passing through town wasn’t the kind of life change she was hoping for.

This is a solid read, but did get into pet peeve territory for me a number of times. One of the recurring characters in the book is the living… well, fictional… embodiment of slut-shaming: the greedy, spiteful, surgically enhanced Noelle. Her character gets a work-out here as resident Bad Girl — Eve even pimps her out to Rex at one point. Eve, of course, is a Good Girl who just made one little mistake, and she’s thoroughly ashamed of herself. She also decides what to do about the possible pregnancy — keeping it, duh — without the slightest hint of any decision making process. It’s 0-60: “Oops, we screwed up! Keeping it!”

But I do kind of like the series again and may keep up with it, especially considering certain events. IIRC, Novak had copped out excused herself from writing a story for her character Baxter, who came out as gay in the course of the series, because he’s already got a love interest. However, that relationship is on the skids in this book, and I believe ended completely by the next one. Will we get a romance for Baxter after all? Hope springs eternal.


TBR Challenge: Beyond the Sunrise by Mary Balogh

Note for sensitive readers: This isn’t a particularly graphic book, but there are some upsetting scenes involving rape and violence.

The theme: A book at least ten years old.

Why this one: I’ve owned this (previously) hard to find historical romance for some years, but was put off by it being about spies and war.  Finding it in ebook at the library was incentive to finally try it, especially since I’m trying to take advantage of having fewer reviewing responsibilities by reading longer books and venturing outside my comfort zone.

Jeanne, daughter of a titled Frenchman, and Robert, illegitimate son of a titled Englishman, fall in blissful young love when she’s fifteen and he’s seventeen. But their idyll is soon ruined by her father, who tells Jeanne that Robert had boasted to the servants that he would seduce her. In retaliation, she pretends she was just toying with him, since he’s completely ineligible. This incident embitters them both, and sets the pattern for their future relationship.

Ten years later, they meet in Lisbon during wartime. Robert is a rare English officer who’s got there by promotion rather than money and influence. And Jeanne, now going by the name Joana, is a society belle and consummate flirt… and a spy for Wellington.

This was far more engrossing than I thought it might be, though I did skim some of sections that were entirely about war strategy. Once well in, I appreciated the historical aspects more, and the setting and scenario certainly makes the stakes higher.

But I wasn’t entirely enthralled by the romance. Robert, a somewhat introverted man who feels more comfortable with his fellow soldiers than with the high society provided for officers, is a good character, and kind of unexpected. He doesn’t really hold a grudge against Joana, and his behavior towards her is far less old skool than I feared it might be. But Joanna is highly aggravating; I kept thinking of the show “Community,” and Britta’s D&D nickname, “Britta, the Needlessly Defiant.” Her pride makes her insist on being trusted and believed despite the fact that she’s always lying. Even after she realizes she’s cut off her nose to spite her face, she just carries on in the same way. And the misunderstandings go on for a ridiculous amount of time, deliberately furthered by other people for no plausible reason than to keep Joana’s games going.

I have issues with this kind of character in romance, not just because I find them irritating — which goodness knows I do — but because I find them unloveable. That is to say, the reason we’re given for men fall in love with these Scarlet O’Hara type heroines is because they’re captivating and challenging and yadda yadda yadda. And Joana is also brave, and a worthy companion on a dangerous trip, so it’s not that she has not good points. But I’m immune to her charms, and so I find it hard to understand why Robert (and every other man in the book) isn’t.

It was certainly worth reading, and I’m holding on to my copy just in case, but I don’t think this will be a treasured keeper for me.



Nurture Boy

I’m reading an ARC of Focus on Me by Megan Erickson and one of the heroes reminds me of my hub — a big guy who loves to take care of people. He falls naturally into looking after the guy he gives a lift to.

I rarely see this kind of character portrayed well. In het romance, there are guys who are protective, sure, and even nurturing, but it tends to come off as being a way to show how devoted to the heroine they are — or at its worst, feels bossy and dominating — rather than an as actual facet of their character that brings them pleasure. This may be another way in which m/m romance is more open to variety in male characters.


I Can Get Some Satisfaction

Me: “I know exactly what’s going to happen next. She’s going to be introduced to this guy that was just mentioned, and it’ll turn out to be the man she wants to kill.”

Me: “YES, it was!”

Hub: “And now they’re going to fall in love.”

Me: “God, no, she hates him because she watched him rape and murder her sister.”

Hub: “Oh. <pause> But he’s changed…”


(I love having a husband who riffs about romance with me.)

Isn’t it odd how sometimes seeing what’s coming is boring and cliched, and other times it’s completely satisfying? I guess it’s all in the skill of the writing. I think I’ve written before that all reading is, in a sense, being manipulated by the author… but when it works, you don’t feel like you were manipulated, or you recognize it and don’t care. Like when I read Glitterland, and a certain event was very obviously coming up, and it was so excruciating I could barely turn the page… but it had to happen. In this case, the suspense was built up in such a way that I really enjoyed knowing what was about to happen, and it would have felt so off if I were wrong.



An Addendum

I realized that I wasn’t clear in this short post I wrote awhile back.

I have absolutely no objection to authors commenting on my blog. I was only thinking of author comments on reviews of their own books. I have gotten some very sweet comments, but as I said, they stop discussion (of the review or the book) dead.

Anything else is fair game. I enjoy chatting with many authors because they’re passionate about the genre and have a lot of knowledge about it that’s different from mine. Also, MST3K jokes.

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