A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Beyond the Sunrise by Mary Balogh

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

The theme: A book at least ten years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Nurture Boy

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

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

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I Can Get Some Satisfaction

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

Me: “YES, it was!”

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

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

Hub: “Oh. <pause> But he’s changed…”

 

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

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

 

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An Addendum

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

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

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

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Sue-y!

I’m reading the follow-up to Song of a Wren — it’s not even a direct sequel, new main characters — and this one is all about how awesome Mary Sue Jenny is too!

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To Mary Sue or Not to Mary Sue

I’m reading Song of a Wren by Emma Darcy, and trying to decide whether the main character counts as a Mary Sue or not. I think my problem is that it’s such a pejorative term and I’m not sure it’s one the character really deserves, in that sense. She’s not bland, she’s just drawn that way. Or more specifically… I don’t think she’s a bad or dislikable character, in herself. It’s the combination of her thinking herself very ordinary and everyone around her lauding her to the skies that turns me off.

Perhaps I especially dislike it because it’s just the sort of fantasy I would’ve gone for when I was an adolescent. Which really gives me a much better understanding of the whole “Twilight” phenomenon.

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Working With Heat by Anne Calhoun

(reviewed from an e-arc provided by NetGalley)

Short, hot contemporary read, bad dates, no-strings fling with a friend… to be honest, this had “not really my thing” written all over it. But I thought this author might make it work for me, and I was right.

It’s not that the story doesn’t fulfill what it promises in the blurb, but it doesn’t feel the need to do it stereotypically. Milla, a travel blogger and youtube personality currently stationed in England, has a refreshing attitude towards her bad dates — she cuts her losses and moves on. They might be funny, but they don’t make her ridiculous. Her absorption in blogging, selfies, etc. isn’t played for laughs, either.

And being with Milla is a genuine risk for Charlie: he’s been badly burned by a (literal) East End Boy and West End girl marriage, and by social media. His trust in her as a friend and lover, nonetheless, is adorable. Of course there’s a conflict, but part of what I most liked about this story is that the characters change, but not through any kind of coercion. It’s always their decision.

If you like blokes with beards, this is the book for you. Many of the sexiest moments in the book involves Milla’s fascination with Charlie’s beard:

“The sharp edge of his scruff scratched deliciously at her lips as she brushed them back and forth across his mouth, tempting him to open them.”

“His beard, she discovered, had reached the soft, curling stage. She stroked it with her palms as his mouth coaxed hers open, savoring the sensation of smooth, hot tongue contrasted with the denser, soft hair around his lips.”

And then there’s a shaving scene…

Charlie’s art is also used for sexy metaphor. He “had learned patience handling sand heated until it became liquid, pliable. He’d learned how to seduce a woman by working with heat.” But it’s not just that, but an integral part of his personality. His commitment to his art, and what it says about him, gives substance to the story.

My only complaint is that the short format leads to a few initial short-cuts of telling rather than showing. I pretty much forgot about that as I read on. This isn’t a heartbreaker like Breath on Embers, but confirms my opinion that Calhoun is one of the authors who really makes short form romance worth reading.

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TBR Challenge: To Each His Own by Kathleen Eagle

The theme: A contemporary romance. This turned out to be kind of an interesting choice, because it seems so old-timey. But looking back, fears of satanic cults were very real in the 90s.

Why this one: The sad usual, I needed something short. (Not that it helped in this case.) And I’m a bit burned out on Harlequin Presents at the moment, and my print contemporary TBR is actually pretty small now! But I swear, now that I have less pressure on me, I will plan a little better and pick some of my door-stoppers this year.

There’s a secondary romance in this story, and both romances involve white women with Indian men. (A very liberal interpretation of “women” and ” men”, because the secondary couple is teen-aged.) I don’t think I was aware enough to notice this when reading Eagle before, but this time I was struck by the lack of emphasis on differences. When Teri thinks about John, for example, it’s his shyness and his sweet smile that come to mind. No exoticizing, not othering, unless you count Wyatt’s view of Lavender.

Racism is an issue in the story — inevitably, since Wyatt and John are two of very few Indians in a very white, conservative small town — but part of what makes it interesting is that it’s an outsider story, and the outsider is the white woman. Lavender is the town kook, and Wyatt, who had a long range plan to “find a woman who blended in with the mainstream, marry her and slip into Middle America beside her” is the one who has to change his ideas about how the rest of his life will go in order to be with her.

I appreciated the portrayal of Lavender, an intelligent, mature, giving woman who’s made peace with a lot that’s in her life. You rarely see a portrayal of a hippie in romance that isn’t mocking. Lavender may be a little idealistically drawn, but there’s enough pain and mistakes in her background to make her believable.

 

 

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Update

I fell behind in my TBR challenge reading — rough month, won’t go into it — but I am reading something and will post late.

I’ve decided to ignore the plagiarists and just keep going… too many assholes have already ruined my fun. Though it makes me glad I gave up standard review formats.

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And The Hits Just Keep On Coming

My reviews are being stolen, posted under other people’s names, and used to sell books.

I give up.

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