A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Fortune’s Lady by Patricia Gaffney

The theme: Kicking it Old School

Why this one: Gaffney was one of the very best historical writers, but I still have a few of hers unread.

Fortune’s Lady seems likely to have been inspired by the Ingrid Bergman/Cary Grant film “Notorious,” and the first half is somewhat uncomfortable to read in the same way the movie is somewhat uncomfortable to watch. The  basic plot is very similar: a beautiful young woman with a party girl reputation, left alone in the world because of a treasonous father, is convinced to spy on her father’s former comrades by getting “close” to one of them. She and her handler fall for each other, but he’s so jealous that he constantly berates her for doing exactly what he’s telling her to do.

The she here is frivilous 19 year old Cassie Merlin, the he is Phillip Riordan, a British MP and reluctant Scarlet Pimpernel, and the time and place are London, 1792, where a revolution threatens the monarchy. (This is less inherently sympathetic for an American reader than Bergman overthrowing Nazis, but old historicals are like that.) Cassie has a bad reputation (mostly unfounded — because old historicals are like that) so seems like the perfect person to seduce her father’s probable accomplice.

The book doesn’t achieve the excellent characterizations of Gaffney’s later romances, but if it had just told this one story, it could have been a decent read. Cass, it turns out, is farsighted and needs glasses: when she’s able to read without pain, she discovers a real interest in political thought. Phillip expects to marry a cool, elegant lady who seems perfect for the life he wants, but his relationship with Cass grows from lust to genuine partnership, as she helps him keep up his drunken oaf deception and studies with him.

Unfortunately, this was the time of the doorstopper historical, and so the story has to be spun out. And it spins with ridiculous Big Mis after Big Mis. Phillip stops being a complete assclown, and Cass takes over the role for him, with extra TSTL. And then we get the …. wait for it… sadistic, kinky, gay villain!

I love Gaffney’s sprawling, OTT old skool Lily, but this just alternated sex scenes and stupidity in a way that never built up the good angst rush that makes old school so fun.

 

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Introduced by a Bellwether: Romance in the Novels of Connie Willis

(This may be my favorite piece from “Heroes and Heartbreakers,” though Willis herself might not appreciate it.)

“I think that it’s a good sign that we not only want happy endings for ourselves, but for the people we love, both real and fictional: for Connor and Abby on Primeval, and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, and Kate and Petrucio, and Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane,” Connie Willis wrote in an undelivered speech printed in The Best of Connie Willis.

Willis is a speculative fiction writer who, like Lois McMaster Bujold, loves story in all genres; within the basic science fiction framework, her work encompass westerns, young adult, detective stories, Christmas stories, absurdist humor and perhaps most of all, romance.  You won’t find steamy scenes in her books, and you can’t always rely on happy ever afters—one of her most heartbreaking recurring themes is of women fulfilling an important dream or destiny, leaving behind grieving men who love them. But Willis is also a fan of romantic comedy, and those just have to end well.

Romances generally happen in a low-key fashion in Willis stories, in the background of other events, most often while the main character and a likable member of the opposite sex are trying to solve some kind of puzzle. The usual signifiers of romance like obvious physical attraction tend to get short shrift, because they’re too busy working together—while battling bureaucracy and red tape and obnoxious authority figures—yet the bits of their more tender emotions that sneak through are perfectly satisfying in context. Here’s a scene from the end of “All Seated on the Ground,” in which a journalist who’s inadvertently wound up in charge of a group of recalcitrant space aliens gets help from a choir director:


I picked up Calvin’s baton and handed it to him. “What do you think we should sing first?” he asked me.

“All I want for Christmas is you,” I said.

“Really? I was thinking maybe we should start with ‘Angels We have Heard on High,’ or —”

“That wasn’t a song title,” I said.


For Willis, that’s positively straightforward. Subtext is often key to the formation of a Willis romance and perhaps never more than in the clever short story “Miracle,” which is pretty much all subtext. Lauren is simply trying to get her Christmas chores dealt with so she can focus on getting the attention of the cute guy she works with, when a “Spirit of Christmas Present” shows up, magically changing all the gifts she bought into exactly the wrong things, making a tree grow out of her kitchen floor, and generally spreading chaos.

Lauren seeks help from a less conventionally attractive coworker — generally known as Fat Fred—with no idea that he has a Christmas wish of his own, one he never expects to receive. Amid trying to repair the damage done by the spirit and discussing the relative merits of It’s a Wonderful Lifevs. Miracle on 34th Street” with Fred, Lauren makes discoveries about the meaning of Christmas, the nature of attraction, and what her heart truly desires.

There are no obviously romantic declarations in this story; everything that happens builds on all the previous events and conversations, framed by the plots of the movies. Even Lauren and Fred’s most intimate moment happens via one of the movies, our pretty much dependable familiarity with it bringing intensity to a simple scene:


“Can you help me with this ribbon?” Fred said.

“Sure,” Lauren said. She scooted close to him and put her finger on the crossed ribbon to hold it taut.

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed were standing very close together, listening to the telephone. The voice on the phone was saying something about soybeans.

Fred still hadn’t tied the knot. Lauren glanced up at him. He was looking at the TV too.

Jimmy Stewart was looking at Donna Reed, his face nearly touching her hair. Donna Reed looked at him and then away. The voice from the phone was saying something about the chance of a lifetime, but it was obvious neither of them was hearing a word. Donna Reed looked up at him. His lips almost touched her forehead. They didn’t seem to be breathing.

Lauren realized she wasn’t either. She looked at Fred. He was holding the two ends of ribbon, one in each hand, and looking down at her.

“The knot,” she said. “You haven’t tied it.”

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”

Jimmy Stewart dropped the phone with a clatter and grabbed Donna Reed by both arms. He began shaking her, yelling at her, and then suddenly she was wrapped in his arms, and he was smothering her with kisses.

“The knot,” Fred said. “You have to pull your finger out.”

She looked uncomprehendingly at him and then down at the package. He had tied the knot over her finger, which was still pressing against the wrapping paper.

“Oh. Sorry,” she said, and pulled her finger free. “You were right. It does have its moments.”


Willis uses literary allusions rather then movies in the hilarious time travel adventure To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which she brings the romance with the science fiction equivalent of a drunk scene. The normally cool and collected Verity’s defenses are down because of too many time travel trips in a short time:

“How does oo stan’ your mistwess talking ootsy-cutesy baby talk to o?”

Verity said. “Oo ought to swat her when her does it.”

“Verity,” I said. “Are you all right?”

“I’m perfectly all right,” she said, still playing with the cat’s paws. “Where’s Terence?” she said, starting toward the lawn. “I need to tell him he can’t be in love with Tossie because the fate of the free world is at stake. Also,” her voice dropped to a stage whisper, “she cheats at croquet.”

“How many drops have you had?” I demanded.

She frowned. “Sixteen. No, eight. Twelve.” She peered at me. “It isn’t fair, you know.”

“What isn’t?” I said warily.

“Your boater. It makes you look just like Lord Peter Wimsey, especially when you tilt it forward like that.” She started for the lawn.

I took Princess Arjumand away from Verity, dumped her on the ground, and grabbed Verity’s arm.

“I need to find Tossie,” she said. “I have a thing or two to tell her.”

“Not a good idea,” I said. “Let’s sit down a minute. In the gazebo.” I led her toward it.

She came docilely. “The first time I ever saw you, I thought, he looks just like Lord Peter Wimsey. You were wearing that boater and—no, that wasn’t the first time,” she said accusingly. “The first time was in Mr. Dunworthy’s office, and you were all covered in soot. You were still adorable, though, even if your mouth was hanging open.” She looked at me quizzically. “Did you have a mustache?”

“No,” I said, leading her up the gazebo steps.

[some text deleted]

“Verity,” I said firmly and took the ribbon away from her. “I want you to lie down and rest now.”

“I can’t,” she said. “I have to go steal Tossie’s diary and find out who Mr. C is and then I have to go tell Mr. Dunworthy. I have to repair the incongruity.”

“There’s plenty of time for that,” I said. “First you need to sleep.” I pulled a slightly mildewed cushion out from under the prow and placed it on the seat.
“You lie down right here.”

She lay down obediently and put her head on the pillow. “Lord Peter took a nap,” she said. “Harriet watched him sleep, and that’s when she knew she was in love with him.”

She sat up again. “Of course I knew it from the second page of Strong Poison, but it took two more books for Harriet to figure it out. She kept telling herself it was all just detecting and deciphering codes and solving mysteries together, but I knew she was in love with him. He proposed in Latin. Under a bridge. After they solved the mystery. You can’t propose till after you’ve solved the mystery. That’s a law in detective novels.”

[some text deleted]

I watched Verity sleep.

It was almost as restful as sleeping myself. The boat rocked gently, and the sun through the leaves flickered softly in patterns of light and shade. She slept peacefully, quietly, her face still and untroubled in repose.

And I was going to have to face it. No matter how much sleep I got or she didn’t, she was always going to look like a naiad to me. Even lying there with her greenish-brown eyes closed and her mouth half-open, drooling gently onto a mildewed boat cushion, she was still the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.

The partners in detection pattern breaks in the more serious duology Blackout and All Clear, set in the same world as To Say Nothing of the Dog, which has an exceptionally quiet (even for Willis) portrait of unswerving devotion — a promise kept by a sleeping beauty’s prince who “fought battles and spells and brambles and time.” (The last in more ways than one.)

Willis gets closer to genre romance than usual with the very funny and delightful look at individuality and inspiration, Bellwether. (Although there is also Promised Land, in which an alien planet’s inheritance law means a woman winds up being married without even knowing it…) Sandra Foster is a social scientist who studies fads for the corporation to end all corporations, the ultimate home for buzzwords, team-building exercises, and promoted incompetence; her bête noire is Flip, an office assistant who invariably leaves utter confusion in her wake. (Another common Willis theme.) A wrongly delivered package takes Sandra to the lab of chaos theorist Bennet O’Reilly, where she’s fascinated to meet someone who’s seemingly immune to fads:

When you spend as much time as I do analyzing fads and fashions, you get so you can spot them at first sight: eco-hippie, jogger, Wall Street M.B.A., urban terrorist. Dr. O’Reilly wasn’t any of them. He was about my age and about my height. He was wearing a lab coat and corduroy pants that had been washed so often the wale was completely worn off on the knees. They’d shrunk, too, halfway up his ankles, and there was a pale line where they’d been let down.

The effect, especially with the Coke-bottle glasses, should have been science geek, but it wasn’t… And there was something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on, that made it impossible for me to categorize him.


Like many other Willis couples, Sandra and Ben bond over being the seemingly only sane people in a world gone mad, as well as over their struggles with their current projects; finding some overlap in their research allows Sandra to help him when Flip screws up his funding—and to keep trying to investigate his immunity to fads. Then Sandra realizes that she’s interested in far more than Ben’s research and unusual clothing choices:


“Secondly,” Management said, “I’ve some excellent news to share with you regarding the Neibnitz Grant. Dr. Alicia Turnbll has been working with us on a game plan that we’re going to implement today. But first I want all of you to choose a partner —”

Ben grabbed my hand.

“—and stand facing each other.”

We stood and I put my hands up, palms facing out. ”If we have to say three things we like about sheep, I’m quitting.”

“All right, HiTekkers,” Management said, “now I want you to give your partners a big hug.”

“The next big trend at HiTek will be sexual harassment,” I said lightly, and Ben took me in his arms.

“Come on now,” Management said. “Not everybody’s participating. Big hug.”
Ben’s arms in the faded plaid sleeves pulled me close, enfolded me. My hands, caught up in that palms out silliness, went around his neck. My heart began to pound.

“A hug says, ‘Thank you for working with me,’” Management said. “A hug says, ‘I appreciate your personness.’”

My cheek was against Ben’s ear. He smelled faintly of sheep. I could feel his heart pounding, the warmth of his breath on my neck. My breath caught, like a hiccuping engine, and stalled.


There is much to love about Willis’s work—the ingenuity, the surprises, the tenderness and humanity, the humor, the way she points out nonsense we’ve been buying without even realizing it. (See the biting commentary on prejudice against smokers as a fad in Bellwether.) How wonderful to have all those things, and romance too.

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Be True to Yourself: Ten Life Lessons from Mary Balogh

(Because Heroes and Heartbreakers has closed, I’m reprinting some of my favorite pieces. By popular demand, this one is first.)

CW: Sexual abuse

In a career spanning almost 30 years to date, Mary Balogh has broken numerous boundaries in romance. Sex in traditional Regencies. A courtesan heroine. An adulterous sex addict hero. A heroine who molested her stepson. An ordinary shlub hero! Amidst her many rule-breaking stories and unusual characterizations, certain themes regularly recur, together creating the sense of a strong moral compass and philosophy of life.

1) Do the right thing, and “fake it til you make it.”

In the historical periods Balogh covers, societal constraints were extremely strong and her characters often find themselves forced to agree to unwanted marriages. Sometimes there is bitterness to work through, and they can be cruel to one another in the grip of despair. But that’s no excuse for Eleanor in A Christmas Promise to break her sacred vows, as she tells her former lover point blank: “My feelings for him have nothing to say to anything… The point is that I consented to marry him and did marry him and can no longer indulge my love for you.”

In Dark Angel, Gabriel speaks for many Balogh heroes and heroines when he tells his new bride, “It is a damnable mess I have got you into, but there is only one way out. We can go forward and try to make something workable out of what seems impossible tonight.” And he doesn’t intend for them to simply tolerate each other: “We are going to fall in love, Jennifer. We are going to be happy despite the seemingly insuperable odds, I promise you.”

2) Acceptance does not mean settling. Do not compromise your values or sense of self worth.

Personhood and valuing oneself are central themes in Balogh’s books, especially for heroines. Jane refuses a man she’s loved for years in An Unacceptable Offer, because he wants her primarily to take care of his children: “There is only one of me, I am unique… I am a person, not  a commodity, not a footstool.”

Harriet, a secondary character in Dancing With Clara, steadfastly refuses to become the mistress of the man she loves, choosing respectable marriage instead. When she finally gives in in Tempting Harriet, she regrets it:

“I thought that because I was a widow and you were still unmarried, I would have you and no one would be harmed. I was mistaken. I was harmed. It was wrong. That room. What we did there. It was devoid of everything but—itself.”

3) Physical attraction is not always trustworthy.

It’s quite possible to be strongly attracted to someone unprincipled and unworthy, as Samantha discovers after the Earl of Rushford basely uses her in his schemes. She initially turns to the less obviously attractive Hartly for safety in Lord Carew’s Bride, but discovers true love can grow from tenderness and friendship.

4) Similarly, lack of immediate attraction is not always a barrier to love.

Edmund and Alexandra, in The Gilded Web, have a singularly unpromising beginning: “He did not find her in any way attractive… She was totally untouchable. He tried to picture himself tasting her lips with his mouth and tongue. He could not imagine it… Yet she was to be his wife!” Only when he really gets to know her does Alexandra’s true appeal come to light.

5) Your first love may not be your last love.

It’s not unusual for a Balogh hero or heroine to have had a previous love—sometimes someone who turned out to be undeserving, sometimes someone whom circumstances took away—and affection and loyalty can lead to a conflicted heart. In Slightly Married, both main characters had dreams for a future with other mates, dreams ruined by their necessary marriage; there is some struggle before they accept that it’s not wrong to let go of those feelings, finally creating “something better than a dream” … “a dynamic, exciting, happy reality that they would work on together every day for as long as they both lived.”

6) People are only human, and can’t always live up to our ideals.

It’s not that a Balogh hero or heroine has to be perfect: sometimes they’re vindictive or scheming or simply make terrible mistakes. But expecting too much of someone is also a fault, and one that can damage a relationship. In The Plumed Bonnet, Stephanie idolizes Alastair and feels unworthy of him, not realizing that she completely misinterpreted his motives in helping her. “I tried so very hard to please you, because I thought you were like a god” she tells him. “I might have better spent the time pleasing myself.” Arabella’s disillusionment with her husband in The Obedient Bride, after she discovers he had no respect for his marriage vows, makes it hard for them to try again.

7) Because people aren’t perfect, forgiveness is essential.

Forgiveness comes in many forms in Balogh’s books. In A Christmas Bride, Gerald’s wife urges him to forgive his stepmother for trying to seduce him:

“Here is your chance for final peace. If you forgive her, you may finally forget… For our own sakes we must forgive as much as for the sake of the person we forgive.”

Helena has been suffering for her sin for years: “I would have begged your pardon… if I had felt the offense pardonable. But I did not feel it was… I will take the offense to the grave with me.” Seeing that Gerald is whole and at peace lets Helena finally forgive herself and allow herself some happiness.

In Dancing With Clara, Clara offers her tormented adulterous husband unconditional forgiveness:

“Yes, you have wronged me. But I forgive you. And I will keep on forgiving you as many times as you wrong me. For I love you and I know you will always be sorry if you stray. Don’t punish yourself any longer. By punishing yourself you will be punishing me.”

“Can it be done, then,” he asked, “by just trying and trying and trying? Failing and trying again? And so on?”

“I don’t think there is any easier way, Freddie,“ she said. ”Just a day-to-day effort.”

8) If forgiveness heals, revenge always hurts.

In Christmas Beau, Max achieves the perfect revenge and discovers he’s hurt himself far more than the woman who betrayed him:

“And this was what sweet revenge felt like. He had waited eight years for this. This was what it felt like. So empty, so very very empty that there was pain… She was going away in the morning. He would be as greedy for news of her as he had ever been.”

9) The sexual double standard is wrong.

This is a complicated idea for a historical writer to express, particularly a writer like Balogh, who works hard to maintain an authentic tone. Generally it arises from her characters’ strong sense of fairness and justice. In Secrets of the Heart, Sarah asserts her right to make love with her divorced husband: “don’t ask me to feel ashamed… I have done with shame.” Later, he apologizes for judging her for her lack of virginity, though still expressing it in the sexist language of the times: “I love you Sarah. It does not matter who possessed you before me.”

Although Harriet has her own personal shame about having an affair, she refuses to be looked down upon for it: “If I am a whore, then so are you. Why should women be considered to have fallen when they give themselves outside marriage, but not men?”

10) A true lover will always want you to be true to yourself.

Just as personhood is a central theme in Balogh, so is acceptance of ones lover’s true self and desires. This is particularly well expressed in her ”opposites attract“ romances. The lively Christine initially refuses a very correct and intimidating duke in Slightly Dangerous, telling him, ”I would be consumed by you. You would sap the energy and all the joy from me. You would put out all the fire of my vitality.“ He proves her wrong, so we can believe him when he tells her, ”If you were to agree to be my wife. I would not expect you to shape yourself into your image of what a duchess would be—or into anyone else’s image either. If anyone does not like your style of duchess, then to hell with that person.“ And Christine accept him as he is as well:

“I will always be the stern, aloof, rather cold aristocrat you so despise,“ he said. ”I have to be. I—”

“I know,“ she said, looking up quickly. ”I would neither expect nor want you to change. I love the Duke of Bewcastle as he is.”

Alistair redeems himself in The Plumed Bonnet by giving Stephanie back all the freedom she lost through marriage to him:

“I will not hold you against your will,” he said.

“Why not?” Her eyes were closed very tightly.

“Because I would rather live without a dream than with a spoiled one,” he said. And more softly, “Because I love you.”

“Alistair…” she looked up at him, all teary-eyed and wobbly-voiced. “It does not need to be a spoiled dream. I will live in it with you. You will never understand, perhaps, how wonderful it is to know that one may say no. How wonderful it is for a woman. For now I know beyond any doubt that I may say no to you, then I know too that I am free to say yes with all my heart.”

Perhaps the most powerful part of this acceptance is that it allows characters to become their very best selves. Angeline, the heroine of The Secret Mistress has always felt like a “great dark beanpole of a girl.” Looking through her lover’s eyes, “suddenly and gloriously she knew that she was beautiful, that she had grown into the tall, dark bloom that was herself, and that she was perfect. Perfectly who she was and who she was meant to be.”

Romances are often criticized, sometimes fairly, for being filled with negative messages about women, men, and relationships. Mary Balogh’s work shows that that doesn’t have to be true.


My thanks to Janet Webb for her invaluable suggestions and insights.

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Still a Friend of Narnia

I recently read Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Books as an Adult by Bruce Handy, which is a book right up my alley. (Not that it mentions Magic in the Alley by Mary Calhoun, since the poor book never got the love it deserves.) Although even reading about books I don’t have strong feelings about was interesting, I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled “God and Man in Narnia,” which is the first one that touched on books I deeply cared about, and it really struck a chord in me.

First, there was this quote in the footnotes: “The kids enjoyed the live-action Narnia films that began coming out a few years later, but though they sound like perfectly reasonable adaptation, I have strenuously avoided them, not wanting to literalize such a core part of my childhood imagination.”

Yes, yes, yes! I’ve never known how to put this: usually when I have to defend my desire not to see movies based on beloved books, I say “I already know what they look like,” but this really captures the true sentiment. They’re exactly as real in my head as they should ever be.

Hardy goes on to discuss some of the issues with the Narnia books, which is always uncomfortable reading. I’m not a Christian, which no doubt made it easier to for me to overlook spects that make others squirm. (Coincidentally, I literally only realized last night, when my husband mentioned the breaking of the tombs, that there was allegorical significance to the breaking of the stone table.) But when the book discussed the intentionality of it — Narnia as deliberate propaganda —  I started to feel like that was really the last straw and I would never be able to read them again.

And then I got to a quote from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, describing the magnificence of Aslan and the children’s instinctual, awed reaction to him. And Hardy’s commentary:

“I’m no expert [the author has previously stated he’s an atheist], but Lewis’s ostensible fantasy strikes me as an unusually sophisticated, not to mention graceful and humane, portrayal of belief, no matter the age of the intended audience. Or perhaps I should just say that the Narnia books allow me to ‘get it’ in a way that most religious expression, whether art or testament, does not.”

And again, this. I felt it. My older sister and her friends felt it. Even my mother , who raised us without any religious influences at all, felt it. (I remember discussing with her whether the poor stone picnickers would be brought back to life, and her assuring me that Aslan would find them.) Even knowing very little about Christian imagery and theology, I felt the pull of Aslan. It didn’t convert me, but it gave me something important. A sense of grace?

~~~

The book does also talk about racism and sexism in Narnia, and makes a sincere attempt to address the racism problems in much of classic children’s literature, including offering The Birchbark House  and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as counterpoints to the “Little House” books. But I felt the author didn’t give enough account to his own internal blinkers about “girl books.” He describes Dorothy, Lucy and Susan Pevensie, and Alice as “blank slates,” and thinks Anne is too soppy to even read. He skimmed Little Men, thereby missing out on some fantastic fun. I was thinking as I read, a little wistfully, that this is the book I myself once wanted to write. Maybe I still need to.

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Roomies by Christina Lauren

I have such mixed feelings about this, I feel like I should write a pro/con list instead of a review. Many of the aspects I disliked eventually grew into something better, and overall I read the book with interest and enjoyment — yet it’s hard to feel completely positive about a book when I spent so much of it wincing.

The book is narrated — first person present tense, sorry! It was mostly unobtrusive though — by Holland Bakker, a young woman who’s very halfheartedly trying to make in in New York. Her efforts are supported by her loving uncle Jeff and his husband Robert, who emotionally adopted her when she was born the last child in a large family. Working in a grunt job at Robert’s Broadway theater, with them paying most of her rent, Holland feels aimless and useless.

Holland was my first hurdle. She’s often such a typical contemporary romance/women’s fiction stereotype:

“While I’m not completely unfortunate-looking, I know everyone is half wondering how I ended up with someone like him. I’m that girl with the freckles, the one with snagged tights who spills her coffee awkwardly on her boobs, the one who knocks into everyone with my camera.”

I’m so not the reader for that girl’s adventures. But — first but — Holland has an interesting arc. Part of the story is about her finding herself and her passions… her passions other than Calvin. And her very stereotypical friendship with Lulu, the brash and bold girl who’s always pushing her to take risks, also goes in an unexpected, emotionally resonant direction

Calvin is an Irish musician that Holland semi-stalks when he busks in the subway. Although there is much panting by Holland over how gorgeously Irish he is, she is largely attracted by how intensely and lovingly he plays his guitar. And when an important musician storms out of her uncle Robert’s production, she has the brilliant idea of bringing Calvin into the show. There’s just one enormous problem: Calvin’s student visa expired and he’s in the country illegally. But Holland might be able to help with that too…

Okay, this was another big grimace, though perhaps an unfair one to criticize the book upon. It just made me so uncomfortable that the book focused on the needs of a white immigrant who’s in the country for music, in a time when there are so many immigrants in the US facing racism and deportation back to horrific circumstances. It felt intensely tone deaf.

That aside, Calvin is an extremely appealing hero — funny, and affectionate, and passionate about his art, always a huge draw for me. There are some niggles with him too, though I suppose they keep him from being ridiculously perfect. I did really enjoy the growth of their relationship… buuuut…. they have sex for the first time, a huge deal, when they’re too drunk to even remember it. What the what? This is not what I read romance for!

(Incidentally, in keeping with Lauren’s last several books, this one is quite steamy, but with less volume of sex scenes. I have no complaints whatsoever about this.)

The romance continues on in a very episodic way, which is really not my cuppa. Holland’s insecurity stretches out long past the point where it’s even narratively useful or sensible. A lot of the conflict felt manufactured.

Overall, I felt like the book wanted to be a rom com with both awkward hilarious moments and emotionally deep moments, and the combo didn’t perfectly gell for me. A lot of my complaints are specifically personal and might not bother any other reader at all. So I would recommend it to readers who enjoy contemporary romance; I think most everyone will adore Calvin.

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TBR Challenge: With This Ring by Carla Kelly

The theme: an author with multiple books on your TBR

Why this one: Despite frequently reading Kelly for the challenge, I still have plenty left. And unlike many other authors on my TBR, I still like her. :-\

I read a few more recent Kelly titles last year and found them sadly meh.  I was intrigued by how similar this older book was to those, in terms of plotlines, yet how infinitely superior it was. (Now even more, I think Coming Home For Christmas would have more aptly been titled Phoning It In For Christmas.)

With This Ring is a little unusual for Kelly in being almost entirely from Lydia’s point of view. And it’s very much her emotional journey. When the book starts she’s Cinderella, basically a downtrodden servant to her self-centered mother and sister. She flabbergasted by her own life — often thinking thoughts like, “I do not understand these people I am related to” —  but has no concept of escaping it. But when she has to accompany her sister on a “fashionable” excursion to visit — ie, gawk at — wounded soldiers, she takes the first steps in fighting for what she knows is decent and humane behavior, by insisting on actually tending the wounded.

She also meets Sam, an Earl who’s far more concerned with taking care of his men than his title or his own severe wound. Though he does occasionally ponder on how to find the wife he’s already told his family he married (and had a child with!)

Lydia’s new independence leads to a serious rift with her family, and desperate straits that make her finally take Sam’s whimsical proposal seriously. This is where Lydia and “Cinderella” really part ways. Because rather than rescuing her from hardship, becoming Sam’s wife will force her to face incredible challenges, and show her how strong and capable she really is.

The romance-while-nursing theme works really well here. Much of the time Lydia’s taking care of Sam, which doesn’t make for much standard courtship. (Except when he gives her a hat.) But his down to earth conversation, which makes no concessions to her ladylike status, is rather adorable. We can feel them becoming a team, with similar goals because they’re both caring people. Sam lets us down a bit in the end though, putting other priorities ahead of Lydia; he’s punished for it, but doesn’t really repent or redeem himself, which is disappointing. He’s still sweet enough to be worthy of her, and and least can appreciate the amazing woman she becomes.

 

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TBR Challenge 1/18: Street Song by Ann Charlton

The theme: We like short shorts.

Why this one: Harlequin Presents are my go-to short reads, but I’m finding many of them too rough these days. This one looked likely to have less female intimidation and sex trafficking (!) than others I attempted. And in fact, it confirms my belief that the 1980s produced some of the most thoughtful and satisfying HPs.

Just for fun, here’s a song the Australian music teacher heroine and her busking partner play:

 

We know Cara isn’t the typical HP heroine right away: “She wore flat sandals and a full, calf-length skirt of Indian cotton, and a long, long sleeveless top with a fringed sash wound around her hips.” She’s also traveled around the world, and shares a flat with two men. Although she’s attracted to the suited-up man she sees going in the opposite direction on an escalator, she’s pretty philosophical when he doesn’t smile back at her. “Could there be two more complete opposites?”

Mitchell seems a more familiar type at first, sneering at Cara’s lifestyle and jumping to conclusions, but he does have “rather frivolous” green eyes, and she yearns to make him break into a smile. And to muss up his impossibly immaculate grooming. She gets her chance when it turns out he’s the father of a girl she’s teaching, and their heads start to butt.

Charlton writes some lovely scenes for the two that would be perfect in a RomCom, as aggression and attraction mingle:

“Look–why don’t we move out of the rain?” He pulled her, and she dug in her heels and resisted.

“I don’t want to move out of the rain. I like the rain–but then I’m not sensible! … Look at you!” She curled her lip at his damp but ultra-neat clothes. “Practically a store dummy.” She flicked his tie. “Don’t you ever loosen up a bit?” Before she could stop herself she was at the knot of the tie, tugging it loose from her collar. Mitchell Kirby looked down in astonishment at her hands on his clothes. The tie hung askew and she fumbled with the top button of his shirt.

“I must be crazy!”  he said. “Asking you to go anywhere with me. Look at you — sandals from Ancient Rome and — peepholes in your clothes —-” He plucked at her sleeves and some ties came undone on the split shoulders; his fingers slid through the openings just as Cara pushed open his shirt collar.

“There!” she said, looking up into his face. She was suddenly still. So was he. Everything stopped, or so it seemed… Rain  slanted down, gurgled into drains, dripped from shining leaves and shadowed eaves. The incomparable smell of warm, wet streets and earth was in the air, and the warm, masculine scent of the man holding her. Cara felt the rain cold and spiky on her cheek. Mitch’s skin warm beneath her hands — his hands warm on her shoulders.

Charlton brings atmosphere, emotion and humor to the story, as well as sexual tension, as Cara and Mitch get to know and love each other. Even a scene fairly typical in category romance — he wants to buy her a fancy diamond ring and she prefers a simple sapphire — ends on a sweet and funny note:

“We’ll take the sapphire,” Mitch told [the jeweler]. “It’s sincere. That one is just an exhibitionist.”

Her innate sincerity is probably what Mitch loves most in Cara, as well as her optimism and ability to take life and people as they come. And a relaxed Mitch is funny and warm and irresistibly devoted. But they’re spent their lives going to in different directions. Can they ever find a way to meet in the middle?

I enjoyed almost everything about this (there are a few standard old romance annoyances) including the author’s evident love for the Australian wilderness. And although the book often feels like it would make a great movie, it doesn’t feel any lacking as a book. The prose isn’t flowery or ornate, but willing to take its time to describe settings, and feelings, and moments.

~~~

For the curious, my first attempts:

Dance for a Stranger by Susanne McCarthy. I was attracted by the title and vaguely Latin dance look of the cover, but this was the sex trafficking book. Even when my stomach was stronger, that would have been a bridge too far. I did skim some, and was amused by the ending, which is almost point-for-point the same ending as Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter — to the point that both characters completely forgot that the heroine is pregnant.

Night Train by Anne Weale. Gave me flashback whiplash.

The Price of Freedom by Anne Fraser. I may wind up finishing this one, but I couldn’t summon up any enthusiasm for writing about it. The hero manhandles the heroine a lot and it’s also quite a bickerfest.

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TBR Challenge: several holiday-ish reads

I’ve thinned out the few holiday romance I had in print in previous TBR challenges, so this year I turned to my ebook TBR. And then I had to keep reading, because none of them inspired me to write a full post.

Nine Lights Over Edinburgh by Harper Fox.

This is a bit of an odd duck, probably because it was originally written for a holiday anthology. It’s very dark, but in a kind of “Frosty the Snowman” way. Did you weep copious tears over Frosty’s death when  you were a kid? And then he came back? This is kind of like that, minus the Christian symbolism — a lot of bad stuff goes down but then in a Chanukah miracle it’s all okay in the end.

Coming Home for Christmas by Carla Kelly

These are three linked stories about three generations of doctors/nurses in a family. The first two are stuck away from home in wartime, the third encounters some complicated adventures on the way back. The details about doctoring during wartime are vivid, as was a subplot about a woman who grew up with a Native American tribe and is forcibly torn away from her children and returned to her original family. (I think a whole book about her might have been more interesting.) Nice enough holiday reading, but not particularly memorable.

Snowbound by Janice Kay Johnson

A teacher and her eight teenage charges get snowbound with a hermit innkeeper. She and he fall in love, but his inability to acknowledge and deal with his PSTD causes a rift between them. Once I got past the idea of all those kids, I really enjoyed this.

The Admiral’s Penniless Bride by Carla Kelly

(This has an extremely tenuous connection to Christmas. Eh, so do I.)

Kelly’s books generally tend towards the sweetly warmhearted, but for me, she crossed the line into saccharine here. A middle-aged admiral at loose ends impulsively marries a younger, destitute widow and everything in the garden is simply too lovely for words, until he finds out she lied to him. I was uncomfortable with how everything in the story was designed to show how compassionate and wonderful they both are — charitable, free from prejudice, etc. — and then abruptly shifted into melodrama. By the time something exciting happened, the balance of the story felt way off.

On the plus side is a very matter-of-fact depiction of a disabled hero; his arm was amputated many years ago and he’s perfectly comfortable with his new normal. And there are some fun and wryly witty moments.

 

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We Interrupt Your Irregularly Scheduled Romance Posts

for some lists of Christmas songs from my husband’s mixes.

Christmas:
“carol of the bells”, windham hill
“welcome christmas”, how the grinch stole christmas soundtrack
“the christians and the pagans”, dar williams
l”ittle drummer boy/peace on earth”, bing crosby & david bowie
“a christmas wish”, kermit the frog
“first christmas away from home”, the black family
“star of wonder”, the roches
“christmastime is here”, vince guaraldi
“happy christmas (war is over)”, john lennon & yoko ono
“trim up the tree”, how the grinch stole christmas soundtrack
“dona nobis pacem”, windham hill
“god rest ye merry, gentlemen”, bruce cockburn
“the holly and the ivy”, george winston
“we three kings”, the roches
“a baby just like you”, john denver

XMAS:
“suddenly it’s christmas”, loudon wainwright iii
“you’re a mean one, mr. grinch”, how the grinch stole christmas soundtrack
“green chri$tma$”, stan freberg
“please daddy, don’t get drunk this christmas”, john denver
“the day after christmas”, martin azevedo
“father christmas”, the kinks
“christmas is pain”, roy zimmerman
“the lonely jew on christmas”, south park
“stand up for judas”, leon rosselson
“mr. snow miser”, the year without a santa claus
“a christmas wish”, steve martin
“fairytale of new york”, the pogues
“buy war toys for christmas”, the foremen
“a christmas carol”, tom lehrer
“you’re a mean one, mr. grinch” (a capella), metropolis barbershop quartet

Winter Howdies:
“Ring Out Solstice Bells”, Jethro Tull
“Calling on Mary”, Aimee Mann
“Christ the Messiah”, Evan and the Chipmunks
“The Island of Misfit Toys”, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Soundtrack
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, Death Cab For Cutie
“Christmas Carol”, The Neilds
“Chiron Beta Prime”, Jonathan Coulton
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, Pete Nelson
“Christmas Bells”, John Gorka
“Deck the Halls”, Klezmonauts
“I Believe in Father Christmas”, U2
“Elf’s Lament”, Barenaked Ladies
“Shepherds”, Bruce Cockburn
“Welcome Christmas”, Sean Harkness
“ChristmaHanuRamaKaDonaKwanzaa”, Roy Zimmerman
“Christmas Song”, Dave Matthews
“Greensleeved”, Jethro Tull
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, Barenaked Ladies
“When a Child is Born”, Roy Zimmerman

HO:
“your holiday song”, indigo girls
“all that I want”, the weepies
“have yourself a merry little christmas”, daphne loves darby
“the lord’s bright blessing”, mr. magoo’s christmas carol
“family”, dar williams
“santa santa”, david sederis
“away in a manger”, kevin olusola
“christmas song”, bruce cockburn
“prayer of st. francis”, sarah mclachlan
“twelve days of christmas”, garrison keillor
“silent night”, cynthia bredfeldt
“the winter song”, eisley
“christmas eve (sarajevo 12/24)”, savatage
“the rebel jesus”, jackson browne
“glorious”, melissa etheridge
“rudolph (you don’t have to put on the red nose)”, mojochronic
“if it be your will”, leonard cohen
“first snow on brooklyn”, jethro tull
“bright morning star”, oysterband (with june tabor & chumbawamba)

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So, This Happened

https://wendythesuperlibrarian.blogspot.com/2017/11/decktheharlequin-all-december-long.html

Excited-Baby-Opening-Present

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