A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: The Love Charm by Pamela Morsi

The theme: Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older)

Why this one: I was actually reading it for #RippedBodiceBingo (theme: hero shorter than the heroine) and decided it was worth writing about.

When picking a book for this theme, I expect to go for an obviously “old skool” element. But there are other aspects to older romances besides abductions and betrayals and rapey heroes. Perhaps it’s just the cream, or the memorable, rising to the top, but it often seems like there was more variety in the past, especially in historicals. Morsi in particular wrote unusual characters and settings, as she did in this story about a bayou community of Acadians in the 1800s.

There are three romances here, and none are standard types. Armand Sonnier loves Aida Gaudet, but because he’s short and slight from a childhood illness, he doesn’t expect her to ever look at him. Aida is a “featherbrained” beauty (easily recognized now as having ADHD) and she knows she’s not smart enough for scholarly Armand. Hoping for love eventually, she’s gotten engaged to Laron, Armand’s best friend — who’s in no hurry to marry her, because he’s in love with Helga, an older German woman with three young children and unfortunately, a still living husband.

When Armand suggests that Laron shouldn’t marry someone he doesn’t love, everything begins to unravel, leaving Armand afraid that Aida will set her sights instead on his brother, Jean Baptiste. Jean Baptiste certainly seems to admire Aida more than his wife Felicite, who’s basically been pregnant nonstop ever since they got married. Could a love charm hidden in blueberry pie possibly sort out this mess?

It sounds like a farce and certainly some of it is; there’s humor even in lovemaking here, even in a childbirth scene. But it’s also an immersive trip into a distinct community, with a very strong set of values and traditions. There’s no way these characters can get a true happy ending, unless they can find ways to reconcile their desires with their needs as members of the community.

It took me a bit to get into the prose of the story, which is very tell-y. But soon I was sucked in by the strength of the worldbuilding, and the appealing characters. It’s not a typical “id” romance — if you had to pick one that was the exact opposite of a Harlequin Present, this could be it. But it’s not purely a cerebral enjoyment either. Just warm and sweet and funny and real.

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Reading, July 2017

Recurring themes of the month: The 4th of July (coincidence.) Older women with younger men. Women attacked by groups of men in bars. (Don’t worry, they’re tough.) Macys. Mermaid decorations. Heroes with dead siblings and/or survivor’s guilt and/or seeking revenge. Professionally inappropriate/unlawful relationships. Degenerative neurological conditions. Napoleonic wars. Jane Eyre. Beowulf. Dead loves named Peter. Sex on the stairs (and I didn’t even reread Black Silk.) The cultural practice of bacha posh. Disabilities caused by accidents. Intense YA.

The Bad Assassin by S. Doyle (Contemporary. Romantic suspense. Alaska)

Fun book, if you don’t mind amoral characters and violence. Could have used more editing. Cool point: the hero mentions anal sex several times, the heroine always adamantly refuses… and there is no anal sex.

Kiss Me Deadly by Shannon Stacey. (Contemporary. Paranormal. Shifter. Novella. Heroine is an abuse survivor.)

Hero is cursed to kill randomly, but his touch doesn’t kill his target. Kind of same-old, but the characters are sweet.

Going Nowhere Fast by Kati Wilde. (Contemporary. New Adult. First person present tense. Heroine POV only. Road Trip. Enemies to Lovers. Starchy hero. Gazillionaire. A Matter of Class. Uxorious hero.)

A Pride and Prejudice-ish enemies-to-lovers story, which I inhaled. Aspen is sharp, loyal, and relatable, and the single point of view narrative is very effective: you can see how much she’s driving Bram crazy, so it works when he melts into a great dirty talker. The more Cinderella aspects of Bram being a perfect former bad boy — he can give you everything you want AND ride a motorcycle! —  didn’t mesh as well; I’m reminded of “Gilmore Girls,” when Rory starts hanging with the rich kids and everything becomes weird-as-fuck. Still, the serious character issues underneath the flying sparks and wish-fulfillment keep it somewhat grounded, and I loved Aspen’s close relationship with her mom. And there’s some great angst. The dark moment was so vicariously painful, I reread it several ties.

The Way of the Tyrant by Anne Hampson. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Heroine pov only. Masquerade. Reunited. Heroes behaving badly.)

The beginning of this book was intensely familiar, but I couldn’t find any record of having previously read it. I’ve concluded that I probably started it, decided “this is bullshit,” and tossed it. Because it pretty much is bullshit. The heroine spurns a proposal because her boyfriend isn’t man enough for her — i.e. bossy and a player — then runs into him again while pretending to be married to her own brother*. She finds him hard, cynical, and no longer remotely interested in marriage, and is all remorseful — while falling in love with his nasty new persona.

This had an issue I find common in Hampson, which is the hero being very threatening towards the heroine and then the threat just fizzling out… until it happens again. It’s frustratingly dull.

*I was thinking it was nice that this particular plotline has died out, and then ran into it in an HP from 2009.

The Hawk and the Dove by Anne Hampson. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Heroine pov only. Convenient marriage. Heroes behaving badly.)

I don’t know why I went from a crappy Anne Hampson to another Anne Hampson, but it didn’t work out too badly. My thoughts here.

The Love Charm by Pamela Morsi. Lovely book! It’s going to be an upcoming TBR challenge read, so I’ll link later. (I’ve been preparing my summer TBR challenge posts early, because of travel plans.)

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold. (Fantasy Romance. Series.)

I don’t really know what to say about this one. Cryoburn was much harder to read. After that… okay, whatever.

I did like it as a look at marriage, and how people outside of it, even the children of the marriage, can never really know what’s going on inside. And as a romance featuring older people. But it continues Cordelia as a frequently obnoxious Mary Sue character — whenever she tried to analyze other people’s sexual attraction, I want to hide my face in a pillow — and I deeply miss the Cordelia of Shards of Honor and Barrayar. I feel a reluctant agreement with the many reviewers who say this is basically Cordelia fanfic.

Bujold’s bisexual representation was gawdawful in previous books –Beta and Betans were retconned a fair bit in the series — and I’m not sure it’s all that much better here, because there’s never a clear distinction made between “bisexual” and “polyamorous.” I’ve also seen other reviewers complain of queer baiting, which makes sense.

It’s Bujold, so it was sometimes funny and sometimes thoughtful, but not her best.

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup. (Nonfiction. Science and history.)

I read this for a nonfiction challenge, the Christie tie being the draw. It discusses the history — scientific and personal — of a number of poisons Christie used in her books, and the accuracy of her depictions. The chemistry aspects were dull at times, but the historical anecdotes were often fascinating.

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. (Young Adult. Romance. Contemporary. Family.)

Not sure what to write about this, because reading it was kind of like being slapped in the face by my own past. Certain parts were simply excruciating to read. The hero is adorable,  and I related a lot to the narrator’s concerns as a fat girl wanting love.

To Steal a Heart by K.C. Bateman. (Historical romance.  Adventure. Napoleon era France. Spies. )

This was recommended as being similar to Joanna Bourne’s books, which I guess is true enough, but the romance elements were extremely old hat. I seem to be the only person who felt this way.

By Her Touch by Adriana Anders. (Contemporary romance/Romantic suspense. Second in series. Unlawful/unethical love. Violence. Doctor/patient. Cop.)

Underneath way too much mental lusting, IMO, is an interesting story about a man who is not only suffering from PTSD, but tremendous identity confusion and guilt after years deep undercover. Clay goes to Blackwood Virginia because, like Uma in the wonderful first book, he’s both in hiding and desperately needs tattoo removal done. (How George can keep her dermatology practice going in a small town, where she seems to do mainly pro-bono work, is not clear. I guess paying customers travel for her specialty.) Clay is waiting to testify against the biker gang that caught on to his deception and almost killed him, sure they’ll come after him. (He’s right.) His mental state is extremely unstable

George also has problems besides the urge to caress her patient. She’s lonely, and just about to try to get pregnant using her dead husband’s frozen sperm.

I was less bothered by the doctor/patient relationship than by the fact that Clay is clearly mentally unstable and George pushes him to have sex with her right after he had an intense flashback. And there were a lot of loose ends. I’ll still read the third book, because the first was so great.

First to Burn by Anna Richland. (Contemporary/Paranormal/Romantic Suspense. Immortals. Unlawful/unethical love. Soldiers. Doctor. Disability caused by an accident.)

Enjoyable, but on the long side.

Mother to the Millionaire by Alison Fraser. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Secret baby. Bickerfest.)

An odd book. The heroine seems to think she’s in an old skool HP and never notices that the hero is actually a decent guy. There’s no justification whatsoever for her keeping her pregnancy and child a secret — and even putting that aside, I had no idea what he saw in her.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho. (Historical. Short story. London. 1920s. Interracial romance. First person. Heroine pov only. Writer.)

An adorable story in diary format, reminiscent of Jean Webster’s books or of Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim. Jade’s voice is lively and intimate; here she describes herself at a party,

“…trying as hard as I could to look inscrutable and aloof but feeling scrutable and loof as anything.”

It doesn’t have enough hero presence to be considered a true genre romance, but there is a happy ending.

The Mathematics of Love by Hannah Fry. (Nonfiction. Mathematics. Relationships.)

A quick, fun read about applying mathematical equations to real-life situations.

Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs. (Urban fantasy. Same-couple series. First and third person pov. Alternativ pov.)

Exciting entry in the series. Repetitious at times, and a little Mary Sue-ish when other people are talking about Mercy. (Not when she’s narrating herself.)

How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford. (Young Adult. First person. Friendship. Twins. Made me cry.)

This reminded me of the movie “Radio Flyer,” in that it’s realistic yet also somewhat fantastical. It could be considered an ace love story, because it’s about a very intense love that isn’t remotely physical — though it’s equally likely that Jonah is just too traumatized/angry to be sexual towards anyone. It’s also a very unhealthy relationship, so certainly not the best representation… and the disability rep. is iffy too. I have mixed feelings overall, but the narrator’s voice is very striking, and it was deeply touching.

Dangerous Enchantment by Anne Mather. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Good girl/bad boy. Celebrity. Kisses only.)

A very dated story about a “good girl” who falls for a man who would never marry her.

I should do this as a Harlequin Read, since it’s #41, but frankly it just wasn’t interesting enough to write much about.

Echoes in the Dark by Gayle Wilson. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Intrigue. Romantic Suspense. Amnesia. Hero is blind.)

What a disappointment! Most of this book was excellent suspense, very tautly plotted, but then there were loose ends, no satisfying resolution of the suspense, and worst of all, no apology or anything from the hero after the heroine had to keep chasing after him for the whole book.

The Italian’s Deal for I Do by Jennifer Haywood. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Multi-author series. Tycoon. Model/dress designer. Fake engagement.)

This started as one of those incredibly illogical HP plots, with the hero wanting a fake engagement, to show how stable he is, with the woman he thinks was his grandfather’s gold-digging lover. Because that could never come back to bite him on the ass! But then it turns into more of a Sandra Marton kind of story, with a pleasing growth from enemies to lovers.

Heart of the Outback by Emma Darcy (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Secret Baby. Reunited. Single father. Single mother. All the disability cliches.)

It didn’t age well at all, but I still enjoyed this one. The heroine is pretty awful — yelling dark secrets to the hero’s thirteen year old daughter! — but she does realize it and works on doing better.

When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore. (Magical realism. Young adult. Romance. Interracial romance. Transgender hero.)

I’m not usually into magical realism, but this was just so gorgeous. And I loved the way it used both reality and metaphor to write about issues around identity. I was so happy when I read reviews by transgender writers who loved it, because I would have been deeply sad if it turned out the representation was shit.

Hard Knocks by Ruby Lang. (Contemporary romance. Second in series. Doctor. Hockey player. Hero is a mountain. Sexy beta.)

I had to give myself a little time after When the Moon Was Ours to read another book, but thankfully the reading hangover didn’t ruin this one for me. It’s a funny, thoughtful romance with appealing characters and a strong voice. I really liked that Adam is only an average hockey player and hasn’t built up tons of money and fame — very unusual in sport romance — so now he’s getting older, he has to figure out the rest of his life. And he’s an absolute sweetheart. Helen has a tough journey too, because she’s a neurologist with a very personal, painful interest in brain injuries. After DNFing the first book in the series, I’m so glad I gave this one a try.

DNFs.

Dirty by Kylie Scott. (Contemporary. First person. Runaway bride.)

Really not my cuppa.

Jacob’s Faith by Lora Leigh.

Trying to catch up before Cassie’s story is published, but not sure I’m going to make it through.

Beach House #9 by Christie Ridgway

Just wasn’t working for me. Too cute.

Beach House Beginnings by Christie Ridgway

I guess this series just isn’t for me.

Wicked Abyss by Kresley Cole. (Paranormal romance. Series. Inspired by fairy tales. Fated to be Mated. Betrayal.)

I seem to dislike every other IAD book these days. (Though I haven’t had a chance to read Shadow’s Seduction, which might break the trend.) This should be my catnip, with the angry, betrayed hero wanting to punish his mate, but I found the writing very prosaic and aimless.

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TBR Challenge: Married to the Viscount by Sabrina Jeffries

The theme: Series catch-up.

Why this one: I’ve owned it forever and got tired of looking at it. And it’s the last of the series, so it feels more like accomplishing something.

(Edited to add: I’ve discovered that I actually still have the previous book of the series in the TBR. How annoying is that!)

If I had to choose one phrase to sum up this book, I’d be torn between “kind of a downer” and “five pounds of plot in a ten pound sack.” The basic premise is that Abby, an American whose father recently died, arrives in London to join the charming Englishman she married by proxy. She’s horrified to realize that not only is he a pompous, controlling jerk at home, but he didn’t agree to their marriage and doesn’t want her at all. (Except for how much he wants her, of course.) But even though he’s obnoxious, he’s got that hot broody thing going on, so Abby sets out to make Spencer realize she should be his wife in truth.

There’s actually a fair bit going on in the book — de rigeur dumb mystery, Abby’s plans for her father’s medicinal business, Spencer’s tragic backstory — and yet it finds time to be dully repetitious. The interactions between Abby and Spencer never seem to get anywhere, except occasionally to making out. Which is fun to read — until Spencer uses it as a weapon. (Admittedly, Abby behaves badly too, in trying to manipulate him.) And the rest of the book is Abby being comforted and advised about Spencer by her women friends. No Bechdel test passing here.

It’s probably not as bad as I’m making it sound, for readers who enjoy wallpaper historicals. (I guess this is Georgian, but only because King George makes an appearance.) But… kind of a downer. Abby tries so hard, and continually feels so bad about herself, because Spencer refuses to tell her the real reason he won’t keep her as his wife. (He thinks he can’t have children, and his father’s refusal to have more drove his stepmother away.) The conflict is resolved rather sweetly, and though of course there’s a baby epilogue, it’s a reasonable one.

I should probably mention that Abby is half Native American. The story doesn’t do much with this, but I don’t think it’s overtly offensive either, except when Spencer makes a comment about the supposed extra sensuality of dark-skinned women.

 

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #22

CW: Rape. In an Anne Hampson book, shocking I know.

 

Harlequin Presents #22: The Hawk and the Dove by Anne Hampson

Image description: The book cover shows the head and shoulders of a young woman with long, straight blonde hair, wearing a childish wide-brimmed hat, against elaborately decorated glass doors.

Deliberate Anne of Green Gables vibe in this cover?

Most memorable line: 

“You’ve shown me by every conceivable means that you consider me far beneath you.” Janis felt she’d grown up since yesterday and a note of experience and maturity entered into her voice. “But however ill-bred I may be,” she went on, “If I despised anyone half as much as you despise me, I would at least have the good manners not to show it.”

Finally, the worm turns! Annoyingly, it turns right back again!

I was finally able to download The Hawk and the Dove from Open Library, and though the scan is utterly dreadful, I got sufficiently emotionally involved in the story to put up with it. Like many old HPs, it shows a strong Rebecca influence, though hero Perry was never married. The resemblance is mainly in their relationship: Janis is adoring, and as soppy as Con Firth’s shirt; Perry veers between scorn and indulgence. He’s deeply nasty at times; that and the huge power differential between them keep TSTL Janis from being utterly unbearable.

Janis, wrongly fired from her job, is downtroddingly trying to find shelter when Perry’s car crashes into her. He sees an opportunity to fulfil the terms of his uncle’s will, which require him to marry within a week. (His fiance had turned out to have been in cahoots with the alternate heir…  so of course he hates all women now. Except his dead mother and his former nurse and his female best friend.)

Perry intends to annul the marriage after Janis is fully healed from her injuries, but manages to make this as clear as mud to Janis, who thinks he’s waiting to consummate the marriage. By the time she realizes the truth, of course she’s fallen in love with him, and she decides not to immediately reveal that the doctor has cleared her for take off. This will later bite her on the ass, rapey hero style. (Not explicit.)

I was surprised by a subplot of the story: Perry’s friend Avril is in love with John, a married man, and they’re constantly together. This isn’t treated with any hint of scandalousness or shock — perhaps because they’re both upper class?

Although I found a lot to critique, I was absorbed. The estate setting, which Janis completely falls in love with, is well done, and the secondary characters are mostly likeable. And classic HP angst. Basically, if you enjoy this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll enjoy.

 

 

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Reading, June 2017

Sorry for the lack of info on some books this month. I’m trying to keep track of too many things right now.

CW: racism, sizism.

Recurring themes of the month: Ginormous heroes. Heroes who grew up in isolation. Tattoos (good and bad.) Metaphorical birds. Abusive fathers. 😦 Mothers who betray their abused daughters. 😦 Heroines who change hair color a lot. Canadian athlete heroes. Photographer heroines. Celebrity gossip problems. Heroines in hiding. Scheming grandmothers. Characters trying to be perfect to please a parent. Heroines who white fang their heroes. Men bonding on road trips. Celibate heroes.

We Are All Found Things by Molly O’Keefe. (Contemporary romance. Short story. Virgin hero. HFN.)

Lovely short story. Very interesting hero backstory.

Eden Burning by Elizabeth Lowell. (Contemporary. Hawaii. Scientist. Dancer.)

All the misogyny, plus all the cultural appropriation. Still manages to be fun, but got repetitious and draggy.

His to Own by Theodora Taylor. (Contemporary. Dark romance. Tattoo artist.)

Extremely fucked up book, though I suppose there are worse. There’s basically no ending, which is infuriating. But the “white supremacist literally owning a black woman” plotline was what really got to me.

The Devil’s Bride by Lucy Gordon. (Traditional Regency, but rated R. Convenient marriage. Hero is a rake. Heroine is in love with another man.)

Cons: not enough care for historical accuracy; worldbuilding is mainly down through gowns and food. Evil=fat. There’s a tedious and obvious mystery. Heroine Calvina vows to keep her love for another man true, even after he dumped her for her (evil/fat) cousin, and she married someone else. (Any Mary Balogh heroine would be ashamed of her.) And hero Rupert is rakish to the point of ewww. (In one scene Calvina is romance by the son of his former mistress, possibly the half-brother of one of his own sons!)

Pros: it’s pretty lively and emotional, unlike many a carbon copy traditional Regency. There’s some fun comic secondary characters.

The Loving Spirit by Lucy Gordon. (Historical romance. Regency. Widower. Forced marriage. Governess. Single mother. Deceit.)

The best of the digitized Gordon historicals, IMO.

His For Keeps by Theodora Taylor.

My thoughts here.

The Wall of Winnipeg and Me. (Audiobook. Contemporary romance. Heroine pov only. First person. Boss/personal assistant. Convenient marriage.)

I’ve dubbed this sort of first person narration, “Excessive Eyeroll.” Which doesn’t mean that I was rolling my eyes — though there were a few plot holes — but that the narrator sounds like she’s constantly rolling hers.  To make it even more tedious, the book could have used extensive editing and cutting. There’s a lot of repetition, grammatical errors, and silly scenes that go on for far too long.

But I wouldn’t have listened to 16 hours of audiobook if there wasn’t something there. The hero fairly obviously has Asperger Syndrome and it’s an interesting portrayal.

Poacher’s Fall by J.L. Merrow. (Historical. Post WWI. Novella. Class differences.)

The Greek’s Forced Bride by Michelle Reid. (Harlequin Presents)

The Next Competitor by Keira Andrews. (Contemporary. New Adult. M/M. Figure skaters.)

One Starry Night by Olivia Cunning. (Contemporary. Novella. Menage. HFN.)

Under Her Skin by Adriana Anders. (Contemporary. First in series. In hiding.)

Very good. Strong, appealing characters. Looking forward to the next one.

Where We Left Off by Roan Parrish. (Contemporary. New adult/coming of age. M/M. Age difference. Third in series. First person.)

Was a bit of a slog at first, but I wound up appreciating the coming of age aspects, especially considering the narrator is just starting college and the man he’s in love with is older.

Pretty Face by Lucy Parker. (Contemporary. Theatre.)

Very well done.

Little Sister by Mary Burchell.

Sad story, with the romance almost an afterthought.

Keeper’s Pledge by J.L. Merrow. (Historical. Post WWI. Novella. Couple follow up.)

Sequel to Poacher’s Fall.

Folly’s Reward by Jean R. Ewing. My TBR challenge read.

Gilded Ashes by Rosamund Hodge. (Young Adult Fantasy. Short story. Series. Inspired by a fairy tale.

An intensely creepy retelling of “Cinderella,” in which the ghost of her dead mother is basically the little boy who wishes people into the cornfield. Like Cruel Beauty, this looks at the powerful bonds of sisterhood and how love can twist us; though chilling and tragic, it does have a HEA. It’s set in the same universe as Cruel Beauty, but stands alone.

Conditional Surrender by Wendy Prentice

Dating You, Hating You by Christina Lauren. My thoughts here.

Such is Love by Mary Burchell.

Gorgeous oldie. Available at Open Library.

Married to the Viscount by Sabrina Jeffries. (Historical. Georgian? Fake marriage.)

Epic Fail by Claire LaZebnik. (Contemporary. Young Adult. Inspired by Austen.)

Decent modern humorous version of Pride and Prejudice.

Thick as Thieves (Young Adult Fantasy. Bromance — or more? Road trip.)

Wanted, A Gentleman by KJ Charles. (Historical romance. M/M. Interracial romance. Road trip. Redemption.)

Wonderful characters: a shady conniver who writes Minerve Press romances but secretly wishes he could have his villains get it on, and a former slave grappling with survivor’s guilt and fierce resentment.

Seven Minutes in Heaven by Eloisa James. (Historical. Victorian. Third in series. Spin-off series. Big Mis.)

DNFs

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig. DNF’d with extreme prejudice. Interesting story, but massive case of “autism voice” and very obviously not #ownvoices.

Burning Up by Sarah Mayberry. Boring insta-lust.

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Dating You, Hating You by Christina Lauren

I’m really squeeing about this book — not just because it’s good, though it is, and not just because the characters are very likeable, though they are. What impressed me the most is how much it just gets right. I’m a fan of the enemies-to-lovers story, but even those who aren’t might like this one.

Starting off, the trajectory is different from the usual instant lust-hate. Evie and Carter meet at a costume party where they’re the only singles — and he just happens to be Harry Potter to her Hermione. “Perfect. I ship it,” says Carter, and so do I. They’re two sweet, funny people who seem made for each other, although the fact that they’re both married-to-their-jobs Hollywood talent agents is a little concerning. But before their relationship has gotten further than dinner and making out, Carter’s company is suddenly bought by Evie’s… and the two of them are informed that there might only be one job between them.

What follows is the more typical competition story — defensiveness leading to anger leading to some nasty tricks. But though both somewhat enjoy their sparring, there’s something serious underneath the situation: Evie is being screwed over. And Carter is too good a man not to eventually realize it. So the pranks are a fairly small part of the story and never get truly nasty. And they would both much rather be lovers than fighters. There’s no hate sex, by the way, and though I love me some hate sex, I think that was a good call in this case. It’s also lighter on the steam than previous Lauren books, which I also appreciate. There’s still sex, and it’s plenty hot, but it takes up considerably fewer pages.

I was disappointed in the ending, which I felt took an easy way out rather than having to deal with the genuine difficult issue of sexism in the workplace. Also, it turned into a caper plot, which just rubs the falseness in. But the rest of the book, though often lighthearted, is pretty realistic and takes the subject matter seriously, and there was a part of me that — ever since Practice Makes Perfect —  was just crying out to see that in this kind of romance.

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TBR Challenge: Folly’s Reward by Jean R. Ewing (Julia Ross)

The theme: A favorite trope. Say it with me: Amnesia!

Why this one: I wanted to finish the series.

In the fifth of Ewing’s traditional Regencies, a young man is washed up on the Scottish shore where governess Prudence is watching over her young charge Bobby. He has no memory of who he is, other than the sense that he’s named Hal short for Henry, and no idea where he should be. But when Prudence is forced to flee to save Bobby from his evil guardian, he appoints himself their protector. Bobby, who believes Hal to be “a Selkie man,” is only too happy to have him with them, but Prudence fears the impact of his beauty and seductive nature on her peace of mind.

For the first half, this was pretty same old/same old. Despite his amnesia, Hal is a very typical Ewing/Ross hero: goodnaturedly cynical, reckless, and always ready with a suitable (or unsuitable) literary quote or bawdy rhyme. Prudence is decidedly bland, so his instant besottedness seems based only on her being the first face he sees, regaining consciousness. But when he recovers his memory in the second half, the story becomes far more intense and interesting; Hal’s memories are… very bad. There are strange but compelling subplots, and the Selkie metaphor is rather sweetly wrapped up, with Prudence showing some fire and backbone. I wound up enjoying it much more than I expected to.

Note: Most of the series is only loosely linked, but this is a direct sequel to Virtue’s Reward.

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Reading Bingo is My Catnip

If you’re on twitter, play along with #rippedbodicebingo . Or the “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” group on GoodReads.


Hero has a pet that’s not a cat or dog: Under Her Skin by Adriana Anders. Ivan takes in many strays, including a baby skunk.

Queer YA/NA: Where We Left Off by Roan Parrish.

Heroine smells like a food item: Pretty Face by Lucy Parker. Vanilla perfume.

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Reading, May 2017

I’ve been saving this, hoping to be able to bingo-fy it… but the further I get from actually having read the books, the less likely it seems to happen, so I’m just going to forget it for this month. Lots of author glomming, because I have a trial Kindle Unlimited subscription that runs out in June. You can tell that I was getting pretty punchy.

Recurring themes of the month: Football players who ignore dangerous concussions. Acquired disabilities. (The two themes are sometimes related.) Really crap treatment of disability. Heroines who inherit farms and marry their foremen. (Not always the hero.) Heroines on the run from abusive partners/gunshy heroines. Churchgoers. Being different is a sign of evil. Dandelions. Alternative versions of ancient Greece. Twins with issues. Overheard conversations. Massive student loans. Fighters. Vegans. Virginias.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah — putting this here because I apparently forgot to note it when I read it around the beginning of the year. Less funny than I expected, but a fascinating history. Noah’s mother is just amazing.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. (Young adult. Fantasy. Beginning of series.)

I reread all the “Queens Thief” series so I could write about it for Heroes and Heartbreakers.

The Broken Wing by Mary Burchell. (Harlequin romance. Second in series. Boss/secretary. Disabled heroine. Singer. Good sister/bad sister.)

Tessa works as a secretary for Quentin, who is organizing a music festival. When she agrees to help her more vivacious twin sister audition for a part, she’s horrified to not only be forced to hide her own superior voice, but to have to watch her sister go after the man she secretly loves.

I have mixed feelings about this, since it was an excruciating read. I love good sister/bad sister romance but when the bad sister seems to be getting everything the heroine wants, while she’s left out in the cold, it really cuts. Luckily this is Mary Burchell, so we barely have to wonder if the hero and sister even kissed.

The disability narrative is also very old-fashioned — the original title was actually “Damaged Angel,” after a broken figurine Tessa identifies with, and oh my God. But I liked where it wound up going:

“For the whole of her life her lameness had been a matter of anguish to herself and slightly irritated embarrassment to the people around her. The idea that one might, so to speak, deal with it and then ignore it was shattering in its revolutionary simplicity.”

Later in the book, Tess has internalized this new idea so much, she “could refer to her lameness without pain — purely as a matter of fact.” Not half bad for 1966.

As with A Song Begins, the focus on artistic dedication is very engrossing, and it’s fun to see Tessa stop being a doormat to her sister, and get over her lovesickness enough to start giving Quentin what for. And there’s quite a bit of delicious, understated sexual tension. Another really good Burchell.

Blackmailed into her Boss’s Bed by Sandra Marton (originally published as Consenting Adults.) (Contemporary romance. Category. Harlequin Presents.)

Woman forced to work for man who wants her. Old skool Marton — ie, needless bickering, dubious consent, and a heroine who rarely finishes a sentence. Good angst, though. I’d think the obvious irony of the original title prompted them to rename it, except HQ never seems to worry about unintentional irony.

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. (Young adult. Fantasy. Second in series.)

All Played Out by Cora Carmack. (Audiobook. New adult. Series. Texas. College students. Football player. He’s just not that into you. Shy/geeky.)

This wasn’t as enjoyable as the previous books, for several reasons.

  1. Overdose of cute couples from the previous books.
  2. Way too much set-up for the next book, which has yet to actually appear.
  3. The hero is initially into the heroine because she looks so much like his ex, he thinks she’ll be a good antidote. Yeech.
  4. I suspect the heroine is intended to have undiagnosed Aspergers Syndrome and it’s a pretty stereotypical portrayal, which I find annoying.

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

When Love is Blind by Mary Burchell. (Category romance. Harlequin Romance. Third in series. Secretary/boss. Musicians. Heroines behaving badly. Deceit. Stalkeriffic heroine. Stay in your own damn book.)

As soon as I saw this title on a 1960s romance, I expected the worst, but after the relative inoffensiveness of The Broken Wing, I hoped for the best. Nope. Every single ablist cliche you’d expect to find in a book with a (temporarily, of course) blind character is here, including someone saying, “In a way it would almost have been better for him if he’d been killed.”

On top of that, the heroine is a spineless worm unworthy of the title. She inadvertently causes the hero’s blindness, refuses to take any kind of responsibility, and lies through her teeth until the very end. When faced with her lies by the Evil Other Woman, she says, “I’m sorry you had to find all this out in circumstances that put me in a very bad light.” I’m failing to think of circumstances that could show her in a good light. And though she does grow a bit as a musician — through her aching pity for the tragic blind man! — she never gets a real redemption. Almost a complete stinker.

Everything I Left Unsaid by M.O’Keefe. (Erotic romance series. No HEA. Cliffhanger. Domestic violence. Abusive husband. Adultery.)

Mostly very good, with wonderful sexual tension: the hero and heroine interact primarily by phone for most of the story. But the cliffhanger is so trite, I felt I’d have been pretty happy if the previous book had just stopped before the last chapter, even without a HEA.

The Truth About Him by M. O’Keefe. (Romance Suspense. Series. Couple HEA. Domestic violence.)

I was disappointed in the suspense direction this book went in, and that a lot of it was Annie being TSTL and Dylan being “I’m not good enough.” Again, I thought I might have been happy if the first book had just ended on a note of hope. But there were issues to wind up for Dylan, so it wound up being effective. Also had some good sequel-baiting.

The Curtain Rises by Mary Burchell. (Harlequin Romance. Series. Beta. Hero falls first.)

Similar to other Burchells — opera setting, broken hearted heroine who thinks she hates the hero — but unusual in that he’s rather sweet and sensitive, a rising star rather than an established power, and very obviously head over heels for her.

The Way Home by Keira Andrews. (Contemporary romance. End of series. m/m.)

Christening by Claire Kent. (Contemporary romance. Couple follow-up. Marriage in jeopardy. Adorable kid overload.)

Short sequel to Nameless, heavy on the parenting. Dullsville.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier. (Gothic historical fiction. Cornwall.)

One of the books discussed in How to Be a Heroine. I’m sorry I went with audiobook, because the narrator made the main characters sound so unappealing, it was hard to feel the romance. But an excellent creepy gothic. Watch out for a really offensive depiction of albinism.

A Baby for Easter by Noelle Adams.

Adams insists these books aren’t inspies, but I’d argue the point.

Incarnate by Claire Kent.

Another sequel to Nameless. I related a bit more to this one, since it’s about getting older and being parents of teens. The male-relative-getting-all aggressive-over-his-female-relative-dating trope is blech, but I liked that it touched on the problems of raising children well when you weren’t loved yourself.

A Family by Christmas by Noelle Adams. (Contemporary romance. Third in series. Convenient marriage. Hero is divorced. Child is a major character.)

This didn’t work as well for me as the previous two books. Everyday realism is Adam’s thing here, which didn’t gibe with two people having a convenient marriage and agreeing on both faithfulness and no sex, without ever thinking about what that means. Or a 27 year old woman still “saving herself” for marriage without apparently ever having had any kind of issue around it. And neither paid much attention to how this marriage might affect the hero’s daughter. (Especially given that he constantly lies to his daughter about the relationship, and that his wife is planning to leave for India soon.) I did enjoy the dark moment, but the conflict is very similar to that in the previous book and resolved in much the same way.

The Elopement by Megan Chance. (Short story. No HEA.)

I have no idea how to classify this short story. It doesn’t seem detailed enough, or to have enough sense of time or place, to count as historical fiction. Two of the main characters don’t even have names. But I feel concerned for the two people on goodreads who tagged it “romance.” It’s dark and very sad.

An interesting aspect of this story I realized after the fact: the unnamed man is basically a Victorian hipster. Nothing new under the sun…

Child of Music by Mary Burchell. (Harlequin Romance. Series. Music teacher. Evil Other woman. Child is a major character. Stay in your own damn book.)

Some nice angst, but it’s too talky and the hero is such a doof over the Evil Other woman. And then the heroine does that finger to the mouth thing when he apologises. I hate that finger to the mouth thing! I’m not usually big on kids in romance, but the matter-of-fact child prodigy Janet was the best part. I wish she’d gotten a story.

The Heart of It by Molly O’Keefe.

Intriguing, but too short for its issues.

Bad Neighbor by M. O’Keefe

This had a lot in common with Everything I Left Unsaid, so I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read it later.

Reconciled by Easter by Noelle Adams. (Contemporary romance. Fourth in series. Marriage in jeopardy.)

This may be the most “inspie” of the series, since the conflict is basically handled by trust in God. It’s also one of the most interesting. Abigail, who was raised in a much stricter and unforgiving religious tradition than other characters in the series, has tried to overcome her training and became her own person. But she believes her husband only wants her as she used to be.

The Only One by Penny Jordan. (Contemporary Romance. Category. Harlequin Presents.)

Meh, with a side of rapey hero.

Home for Christmas by Noelle Adams.

Music of the Heart by Mary Burchell.

Mary Burchell was a true heroine in real life and her experiences no doubt inspired parts of this story which speak about the sorrow and strength of refugees. It’s also a return in the series to a strong emphasis on music, and the conflict has higher stakes than just love, including artistic vision, and the importance of authenticity.

Baby, Come Back by Molly O’Keefe. (Contemporary romance. Sequel. Suspense element. Heroine is the bad sister.)

Has some plotting issues, but the story really grabbed me.

Unbidden Melody by Mary Burchell. (Contemporary romance. Category. Harlequin Romance. Singer.)

(You might not want to read my thoughts if you haven’t read the book.)

I might have had a different reaction to this if I hadn’t recently read a bit of Burchell’s autobiography, which gave me a feeling that this “ordinary office girl/famous opera singer” romance might have been inspired by actual events. (Also if a tenor singer didn’t bring to mind — ugh — Dick Powell.) When I realized the heroine is named “Mary Barstow” I wondered even more. It has a touch of reality in being the first Burchell I’ve read that even approaches the concept of sex: Mary actually ponders whether, should the hero invite her for a “dirty weekend,” she should accept. And then the ending is… ambiguous. In the last line, the heroine is “nearly sure” that the hero is over the trauma of his past and things will be okay for them. Come to think of it, even the title is suggestive.

My (completely uninformed and fictional) take is that Burchell wanted to write a happy ending for a true sad story but couldn’t quite bring herself to do it completely. Or perhaps her publishers insisted on a hopeful ending, like with the end of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. In any event this is one of those sad cases where the book itself is good, but I couldn’t buy the happy ending.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge. (Young Adult Fantasy.  Audiobook. Inspired by another source. Forced marriage.)

A fascinating beauty and the beast retelling (with shades of “Cupid and Psyche” and “Tam Lin”) featuring a bitter, resentful beauty and a truly beastly beast. A much more complex look at the popular “evil hero” than we usually see in either YA or romance, though you could argue that the ending undoes it.

Finished by Claire Kent. (Contemporary. Erotic romance. Polyamory.)

A polyamorous threesome implodes, for rather more complicated reasons than usual. Interesting story, though the writing is rather prosaic.  FYI, I think the author tried very hard to be respectful of polyamory but I’m not sure she always pulled it off.

His Forbidden Bride by Theodora Taylor. (Contemporary romance. Second in series. Interracial romance. Dark romance?Amnesia. Dominant hero. Doctor heroine.)

WOOF! This book was a hell of a ride. I’m not sure how much I can say about it without spoilers, and spoilers would be a terrible shame, but warnings for some violence, depictions of racism, and vast amounts of cray-cray, some of it seriously problematic as romance. Many readers will find it too upsetting, but I loved the appealing characters and the twists. (It’s a bit like the Sookie Stackhouse book in which vampire Eric gets amnesia and becomes vulnerable and lovable instead of simply deadly.) If you have any doubts, see the GoodReads reviews which are full of spoilers and disgust.

Tangentially, I thought it very cool that in her “50 Loving States series”  — Janet Daily, but with interracial romance — Taylor touches on the fact that loving in some states can be pretty difficult. It’s set in West Virginia and the black heroine says frankly, “West Virginia and me have a complicated relationship.”

ETA: I’ve started the follow-up to this, His to Own, and it’s actually making me rethink my fairly positive feelings. The overt racism is seriously disturbing. More next month.

DNFs

Living with Regret by Riann C. Miller. (Contemporary romance. Reunited. Amnesia. Slut shaming/disposable other women.)

I find the prose too OTT, but I skimmed because I’m a sucker for amnesia plots. But it set up a great conflict — dumbass hero has dumped the heroine *twice* — and then pissed it all away. If you’re going to go OTT, at least provide some payoff!

Wildfire by Anne Stuart. (Contemporary. Romance suspense. Heroine is married.)

To quote the Simpsons, “I can think of at least three things wrong with that title.” I got through more than half of this, desperately thinking, surely something will happen now? Instead the heroine plots revenge on her evil husband and thinks about how lean the hero is, the hero wonders whether he’ll kill the heroine or not, and the evil husband is skanky with some evil skanks. Forever. Not to mention, still yet more ableism out the wazoo. Too bad, because the story idea was great.

The Bride by S. Doyle. Just didn’t grab me.

Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman. Might be more interesting in print; really dragged in audio.

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His For Keeps by Theodora Taylor

His For Keeps by Theodora Taylor.

This interracial romance is a follow-up to His One and Only, and overlaps with it a bit. It’s also the first of the “Fairgood Boys” trio, but without the controversial aspects of the other two. Country star Colin Fairgood recruits Kyra Goode (I like the parallel naming, because she gives as good as she gets) to help him make his high school crush Josie jealous. Unfortunately, Kyra has an extremely soft spot for Josie’s ex, Beau, and helps him win Josie over instead. But Kyra continues to pursue a friendship with Colin — without telling him that Josie asked her to, and is technically paying her as well. As things get intense between them, the secrets she’s keeping from him, as well as from Josie and Beau, become ever more potentially explosive.

I’d definitely call this romance rather than erotica, but it does get kinky, with domination and bondage. (Nothing really scary or painful.) It’s neither straight-out fantasy nor a realistic safe-sane-and-consensual depiction: Colin throws Kyra right into a power exchange with very little warning or preparation, which I found off-putting. But she does have the power to stop it and chooses not to, so there is consent of a sort. And I did really like their discussions about how to have a D/s relationship while also having a regular everyday life, including having children.

I’ve really been enjoying Taylor’s first person stories, and Kyra has a particularly strong voice. Her interactions with her grandmother add humor and sentiment, and songwriting gives her a life outside her romance.

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