A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #65: White Rose of Winter by Anne Mather

Harlequin Presents #65

(Image: Book cover is a portrait of a white woman with wavy blonde hair. Inset of a man in a white leisure suit — suede, no doubt — and a little girl, walking together in the sunset, on her neck.)

Best line: 

“In the lounge, Robert put several long-playing records on the hi-fi equipment, and presently the room was filled with the fourth dimensional quality of Burt Bacharach’s music.”

(Would that indicate the lack of timelessness?)

This is not the only sign that we’re in the seventies: the sideburned hero wears suede constantly. I’ll bet he has suede boxers. And it’s not the only oddity of word choice.

Another indication… I guess: the plot hinges on heroine Julie’s dead husband having left guardianship of their daughter Emma to his brother Robert. It’s bizarre to me that that could have been possible in a time I was alive, but I know nothing about British law in the 1970s.

If you enjoy classic Harlequin Present, this is a real page-turner. Lots of misery, punishing kisses, and feelings of betrayal on both sides. The downside is that almost all the female characters are intensely unpleasant, including the heroine. I can cut her some slack for her immaturity in the past, when she was quite young and had all her insecurities played on by her future mother-in-law, but when she doesn’t even think to have an adult conversation with Robert about her daughter’s horrible new governess, I wanted to smack her one.  For that matter, she never tries to have an adult conversation with him about anything — it’s all reaction. I guess he’s not much better.

Also, I really hated how the daughter was badly injured as a plot point, and especially when Robert thanked God it happened, because of the happy results. No! No no no!

So not a great read for the parents out there, but pretty fun otherwise.

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Reading, October 2017

Recurring themes of the month: Neck obsessions. The phrase “just like a man/woman.” The word “articulation.” Being bitten by animal corpses. (Weird month, am I right?) Author’s notes I liked more than the books. Thanksgiving. Desperately self-sufficient people. Titled characters who made secret misalliances. Parental misalliances. Late night library visits. Characters whose siblings want to be in society when they don’t. Genderfluid characters. (I’m really realizing the limitations of the usual hero/heroine terminology.) Hirsute heroes. Artists.

The Secret Wife by Lynne Graham.

Hero is forced to marry the woman he thinks was his adopted father’s mistress, but who was really his illegitimate daughter. One of those tempestuous relationships Graham loves, sometimes veering into a bickerfest.

Riveted by Meljean Brook

Really sweet love story mixed with awesome steampunk adventure. I would love to see a movie of this, because the visuals would be amazing.

The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb

I was searching for Hunting Eichmann and only found the ebook of this version, edited for younger readers. (I’ve since compared it to the original and it’s not rewritten or dumbed down, just shortened.) Very powerful read.

Tempted All Night by Liz Carlyle

Hero is uncomfortably rakish.

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields

Eye-opening and powerful, but a very dense academic read. There were whole chapters I think you’d need a Ph.D to understand. At any rate, I didn’t understand them.

Ruthless Contract by Kathryn Ross

The Markonos Bride by Michelle Reid

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

A little too much of the “heroine who knows she’s not beautiful yet nonetheless desired by simply everyone” trope, but an interesting premise and possible relationship set-up.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R. A. Dick aka Josephine Leslie, and that pseudonym just kills me.

A book after my own heart. Witty and sweet and old-fashioned in the best way. Widowed Mrs. Muir escapes from her stifling Victorian in-laws, and makes a happy life for herself with some help from the ghost of a crusty old sea captain. It’s very like the movie, if memory serves, but worth reading for the prose.

Wicked All Day by Liz Carlyle

Despite the historical basis for the premise — being “compromised” leads to a forced, highly unwanted engagement —  this had the feel of an angsty teen drama for me. It was like watching “The Fosters”: I felt so bad for all the characters and their immature mistakes that get them in such deep trouble and misery. Perhaps the involvement of several motherly characters (heroines of previous books in the series) helped activate my own motherly impulses, making me more sad than aggravated at them.

Bountiful by Sarina Bowen.

Read for a Heroes and Heartbreakers First Look.

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass.

I read this middle-grade story because my son read it in his book club and wanted to share it. It’s kind of odd. The first half is like an old-fashioned YA problem novel, in which Mia fears that she’s crazy but then gets a diagnosis of synesthesia. Then it turns into a completely different old-fashioned YA problem novel, as Mia starts ignoring friends and schoolwork to concentrate on learning about synesthesia, even deliberately using it like a drug. (She fakes needing acupuncture because it makes her see bright lights and auras/pheremones.) She’s frankly pretty awful, and then get punished in an old-fashioned literary way. (The author hangs a lampshade on this, but it didn’t work for me.) So… not the fan my son is.

The Italian’s Convenient Wife by Catherine Spencer

I hate when books kill off adoptive parents in order to reunite the child/ren with biological parents. As such plots go, this one wasn’t too bad… they were great parents and the children deeply miss them, and aren’t eager to accept their “aunt.”  But it never really lived up to its angst potential otherwise.

Love With a Chance of Zombies by Del Dryden.

Cute post-apocalyptic short, not too scary.

A Dream of Stone and Shadow by Marjorie M. Liu

Despite gruesome elements and a horrific plotline (children trapped by a pornography ring) I enjoyed this novella very much. (Being short probably saved it from too much grisly detail.) The gargoyle hero is sweet, protective, and essentially a ghost for much of the story, with the best kind of non-corporeal presence. (Siiiiigh….) There’s a redemption arc for him and a more complicated one for his emotionally isolated heroine. It’s part for the “Dirk and Steele” series but works fine as a standalone.

Hamilton’s Battalion by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan and Alyssa Cole.

Reviewed at GoodReads. From an ARC. I didn’t really do the Rose Lerner story justice in my review, because I read it too long ago and didn’t make notes. 😦

The Wild Road by Marjorie M. Liu.

My TBR Challenge read.

An Unseen Attraction by KJ Charles.

Gorgeous period atmosphere and two lovely heroes — one of whom is autistic — made this really work for me, despite some weaknesses.

An Unnatural Vice by KJ Charles.

The strongest book of the trilogy, IMO. Enemies-to-lovers with a powerful attraction/repulsion, and an emotional redemption arc for the seemingly amoral hero.

The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

If “Matilda” had not had psychic powers or Miss Honey… she might have wound up like Dee Moreno. Who makes a deal with a demon, because it seems to be the only way she can stay in boarding school and have a chance of escaping her ghastly, alcoholic parents.

Excellent writing and self-contained but hurting heroine. I was a little disappointed that it went in a romantic direction, which was pretty samey. (Be warned, not genre romance.) I think it could have been even better if it were just a story about friends. But very good in any case.

An Unsuitable Heir by KJ Charles.

I don’t think Charles can write a bad book, but this one missed the mark for me. It was a strong plot and ended well — except that I expected the mystery arc to follow the mystery “rules,” and it didn’t, so I found that part anti-climactic. But primarily, the romance never really spoke to me. Love that Mark has a congenital disability rather than an acquired one, though, which is really rare in romance.

Is That What People Do? by Robert Sheckley

A collection of some of Sheckley’s best collected science fiction stories and some uncollected ones — which to be frank, might as well have stayed uncollected. (Even, sadly, the Arnold and Gregor story. They’re a hapless duo of planet decontaminators and always run into ridiculous situations.) Sheckley is hard to read these days, and not just because of  casual classic SF misogyny and racism… he was way too prophetic. I only wish that the election of a reality star show had been peak Sheckley. And I think almost anyone, anywhere could relate to “the Store of the Worlds.”

Tempt Me Not by Susan Napier

Ugh. I was just wishing they’d digitize more old Napier, but this one can stay forgotten. All of the characters are dumbshits.

The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Gurhke

A light Victorian historical — seeming especially so after KJ Charles’s foggy Dickensian gloom — but not as painfully floofy as I feared from the “Dear Lady Truelove” series title. I wouldn’t call it better than readable, though. The “battle of the sexes” trope in which the arrogant hero just annoys the heck out of the feminist heroine is one I find irritating and it almost always winds up seeming actually anti-feminist. At least Irene has some good arguments to make, since they argue all the damn time.

Wife to Christopher by Mary Burchell

Burchell’s first book is less original than her later work, but shows her interesting way with characters. A major tearjerker. Sensitive readers should watch out for content warnings. (Note to self: find a way to do spoilers here!)

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

An utterly devastating book, especially since it needed updating practically the day it came out in 2016.

Baking With Kafka by Tom Gauld.

Very funny cartoons about reading, writing and literature, previously published in “The Guardian.”

Magic Burns by Ilona Andrews.

Considerably better than the first in the series, although a bit repetitious. I appreciated seeing Kate’s strong moral center and capacity for caring, and am excited about the series now.

A Midnight Feast by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

(Read from an ARC.) A touching marriage-in-jeopardy story, with two vivid, strong-willed characters.

That Summer by Lauren Willig.

(Spoilers)

This was recommended by someone as a comfort read, and I can see that… it’s rather old-fashioned in tone, not unlike The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in some ways. But it’s also desperately sad — perhaps especially so in the context of TGaMR, in which the main character actually got to escape from her stifling life. Like other Willig books, it has both a modern times and a historical plotline; I was most caught up in the past story, and desperately hoping it would somehow get to a HEA. The parts about art and art history are interesting, and the two storylines nicely juxtaposed. Overall I did really enjoy it, but I wish it had had two happy endings.

Divine Intervention by Robert Sheckley.

Another collection of previously uncollected works, and again not great — except the Arnold and Gregor story is hilarious.

DNFs

At The Dark End of the Street by Danielle M. McGuire

No doubt a very valuable book, but just too painful to read right now.

Beautiful Stranger by Christina Lauren

Not my cuppa. I probably should just forget about this particular series, since it’s so sex-focused.

The Flower and the Sword by Jacqueline Navin.

I might have enjoyed this one years ago but then again, I did own it for seven years and it was picked up and put back down again several times. I like the old skool vengeful husband plot, but the prose and the characters were just meh.

Labyrinth by Alex Beecroft.

Too hard for me to follow.

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TBR Challenge: The Wild Road by Marjorie Liu.

The theme: Paranormal or Romantic Suspense. As usual, I combined the two. Or maybe there are very few paranormals that aren’t also suspenseful? This is a genuine on the run from baddies suspense story, however.

Why this one: I bought it after AnimeJune wrote a rave review; I generally found her a reliable recommender. Since I’m a completionist, I decided to start the series from the beginning, quite a while ago, but I didn’t really feel it was for me. Seeing this in the TBR reminded me that I still wanted to read it, and luckily it is quite a good series entry. (Though I took a little time to read the related novella, A Dream of Stone and Shadow, and did not regret it.)

My main complaint about Tiger’s Eye was its “sameyness”; with Shadow Touch, it was its gruesomeness. Neither is an issue here. There is horror, but on a smaller scale, and the most of the villains are pathetic as well as hateful. There are also some familiar tropes, but the imaginativeness of the plot and depth of the characters kept them from seeming tired.

Lannes is a particularly darling hero, a lonely, isolated gargoyle suffering from PTSD. (From the events in the novella.) He’s probably a virgin; at the very least he’s never known a true relationship with either another gargoyle or a human woman. When not with his one lifelong friend (whom he’s almost outlived) or mending ancient books, he’s trapped inside an illusion of humanity that can only work if he isn’t touched, because he’s enormous and winged. But like all good literary gargoyles, he’s protective… and when he sees a bloodied, barefoot woman trying to break into his car, his urge is to help her.

This is a favorite Lanness moments, just one in which he breaks away from the paranormal hero mold:

“If we do this,” he whispered. “You’re mine. And I mean that, Lethe.”

“Promise?” she breathed, beginning to tremble.

Lannes inhaled sharply. “Just like I’ll be yours.”

Lethe leaned in, pressing her lips to his ear. “Is this a gargoyle thing.”

“No,” he murmured. “I just love you, that’s all.”

Lannes is undoubtedly the best part of the book, but the woman he finds, and later names Lethe, is compelling in her own way. She knows nothing about who she is, or why she woke up next to several dead men in a hotel on fire… and the more she finds out about her past and present, the more frightened she is. But she faces a number of unpleasant truths and refuses to let them destroy her, or Lannes. And she loves him just as he is.

I’m so glad I got to this one… and perhaps will go back and try some of the earlier books now. (Lethe apparently also appears in Soul Song, under her original name.) Paranormal romance so often aims for toughness and cynicism — I loved finding one that is poignant and life-affirming.

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TBR Challenge: Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale

The theme: Historical romance.

Why this one: Someone mentioned a great desert island scene on Twitter.

(Semi-spoilers ahead.)

Years ago, in a burst of supportive enthusiasm, I bought several big fat Kinsale books. And… I have DNF’d almost all of them — yes, including Flowers from the Storm, though I certainly plan to get back to it. (In ebook, because I’m smarter now.) It looked for a while like this would be another DNF, which is why my post is late.

This is one seriously challenging book. Sheridan is a fraud, a con-man, a liar, and a deserter. Olympia is cowardly, naive to the point of being deadly to others, and doesn’t get jokes or sarcasm. (She may be intended to be coded as autistic, though I’ve personally never met an autistic person without a sense of humor.) And that’s putting aside the racism in the depiction of Sheridan’s servant Mustafa (and every other non-white person) and the classism. (Sheridan quite bravely saves Olympia from being raped, but is not a whit concerned about her maid.) And the ickiness of Sheridan having sex with his late father’s mistress. And him mocking Olympia for the plumpness he supposedly admires.

No doubt because of my own internalized sexism, Olympia was the hardest pill to swallow. She is just so wet.

Nevertheless, I persisted. And despite the uncomfortable aspects, and the episodic adventures, and generally uneven plotting, it was a powerful story overall. And still rather unusual in the romance world, I think, because it leaves the main characters at an exceptionally low ebb, with very little left except each other. Although Olympia does become highly competent while they’re stranded on the desert island, she is psychologically wrecked by her complicity in their adventures. And Sheridan has been wrecked for a very long time by his horrible experiences at war.

The ending reminded me a bit of The Portrait by Megan Chance. In that, there can’t be a typical HEA, because the hero has bipolar disorder and there is no understanding or help in his time. Yet Chance did pull off a happy ending. Here it’s somewhat more ambiguous… there is no help or understanding for Sheridan and Olympia’s guilt and PTSD — except in each other.

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JackJackJackJackJackJackJack

I wrote about my dreams for the upcoming Miss Fisher movie over at “Heroes and Heartbreakers.” I’m sure you can’t imagine what they are.

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Reading, September 2017

Recurring themes of the month: Girls who like to go barefoot. Strawberry jam. Characters who think becoming disabled or visibly injured means no one could love them. (Sigh.) Castles. Pots and kettles. Complicated birth parent relationships. Snake phobias. Hitting lovers below the belt. (Metaphorically.) Best friends who are angry that their best friends waited to tell them huge secrets. (This one was particularly funny, because my husband found the first one so implausible — and then I ran into a second one right after.) Teens in love with their best friend from childhood. Living in warehouses. Animals named after personal idols. Ginormous heroes. (Happy sigh.) Characters who must find important items without knowing what they are. The egg scene from “Cool Hand Luke.” Eating geese. Mothers who died from breast cancer. The smell of ozone. Heroines with fathers in professional sports. Trying to fulfill the wishes of a dying mother. Characters with slavic origins. Heroines forced to shoot people.

Sweet Spot by Amy Ettinger.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Castle of the Wolf by Sandra Schwab.

Blind Obsession by Lee Wilkinson.

So old skool, I was shocked when someone used a microwave. ALL the problematic elements y ou’d expect, especially with that title. A GoodReads friend of mine tagged this “why-do-I-like-this” and I’m right there with her.

Wake Up Call by J.L. Merrow

Engaging characters and setting kept me reading this, but by the end I was fed up with how much it meanders. I had a few issues with the disability rep too, though it’s probably spot on in many ways for a newly diagnosed person. (Narcolepsy/Cataplexy.) Dev’s acceptance of Kyle’s needs is nicely done: he doesn’t feel either saintly or bothered about it, it’s just part of being with Kyle. Which perhaps made it sting more when he hurls “go take a nap” at him in anger.

Set the Stars on Fire by Sally Wentworth.

Okay, I was wrong about Blind Obsession having all the problematic elements, because this one added some I hadn’t thought of.  Astonishingly douchy hero. Compelling, but the ending is a classic letdown.

Dawn of a New Day by Claudia Jameson.

A Touch of Frost by Jo Goodman.

Lovely intimate scenes between the main characters. Otherwise a lot of ado about nothing.

A Gentleman’s Guide To Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee.

Super fun young adult Regency romance/adventure, with a touch of steampunk. Wonderful voice.

Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers.

The everyday notes between a busy doctor and her teenage daughter take on new meaning when the mother is diagnosed with breast cancer. This is a short, easy to read novella, but has some meat on its bones; through the largely prosaic notes, we see the mother’s increasing despair about survival and her daughter’s growing maturity as she discovers that “broccoli and exercise” don’t cure everything.

Ryan’s Revenge by Lee Wilkinson.

Similar to Blind Obsession but not as well written or nearly as exciting. The hero is considerably less douchy though, for those who need that. 😉

I Could Pee on This and Other Poems by Cats by Francesco Marciuliano.

Pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the title.

A Chance Encounter by Mary Balogh.

Although this is a touch implausible and derivative, I can never resist the prideful bitterness of Balogh’s lovers turned enemies.

Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews.
A private investigator on the trail of a magic-using psychopath starts to fall for another magic-using psychopath. I really enjoyed this smart, courageous narrator who loves her family, takes no shit, knows that a being with a magic-using psychopath is a seriously bad idea, and takes steps to protect herself. Although the basic situation of a caring heroine being a hero’s path to humanity is a familiar one, it’s not same old, same old; if you’re bothered by the power imbalance and amorality of many paranormal romance tropes, this might be for you. My only complaint is it’s a bit heavy on the mental lusting — though not at all on actual sex. No happy ending, but there are two more books.
Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley.
Gorgeous young adult story about grief and books, with bonus romance. Includes the most wonderful bookstore in the world: you will want to to leap right into the pages. Crowley’s prose is full of wonderful imagery, but also very immediate and real, and I love that her book loving teens are as fond of John Green as they are of Pablo Neruda.
Friday Night Mistress by Jan Colley.
Adult kids from feuding rich families are getting it on in secret and the hero decides quite cold-bloodedly to make it more to suit his own purposes. He was OTT jealous too, and not in a fun way.
Non-Stop Till Tokyo by KJ Charles.
Here we have it folks… the romance that actually made me wish for MOAR SEX. The hero is a 300+ Samoan-American former Sumo wrestler, and we get closed door? That’s just cold.
Good characters and a fantastic sense of place. (Content warnings for tons of violence, racial slurs, and body-shaming.)
White Hot by Ilona Andrews.
In the second book of the series, Nevada discovers that Rogan isn’t as unprincipled as she thought… and that her own principles are stretched by the powerful and dangerous she’s now up against. Another excellent read, though I thought Rogan was retconned a touch.
My Cousin Rachel by Dapne DuMaurier.
*semi spoilers ahead*
For my third or fourth reread, I listened to the excellent audiobook. It made the tenseness of the story, even knowing what was coming, almost unbearable.
This stands out for me as the best example of what a reader brings to a book at different times. When I first read it when I was young, I accepted Phillip’s narrative at face value, and saw Rachel as an enigma, just as he did. Rereading it some years later, I realized that despite how utterly honest he is about his thoughts, feelings and experiences, his point of view is so narrow that he’s essentially an unreliable narrator. And Rachel had become completely explicable to me.
On this reading, I was struck by how much this story, published in 1951, describes the classic “nice guy,” who’s utterly adoring — until he doesn’t get what he wants and turns violent. And then can’t remotely understand how his violence has frightened and alienated the object of his obsession. Du Maurier was brilliant at charecterizations, as well as suspense.
Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber.
A Private Miscellany by KJ Charles
Wildfire by Ilona Andrews.
Great wrap-up to a great trilogy — though there are are a few loose ends, so there might be more books coming. Fast-paced and exciting, but also funny and grounded in humanity.
The Friend Zone by Kirsten Callihan.
I simultaneously thought this had a lot of issues and really enjoyed it. It felt… unformed to me. The focus on the friendship/romance is all encompassing, which means that by the end, when other elements of the characters’ lives come into play, they almost came out of nowhere. And there wasn’t enough grounding of the characters in any particular time or place. For example, we learn at the beginning that Gray is a double major in some heavy duty subjects, as well as a football player, but he never seems to lack time, or need to study. (Or worry about traumatic brain injury.)
I would love to see this book gone over by a really great editor — not for grammatical/typographical mistakes, although there are some, but for plotting and continuity. Because the emotional core is really strong. Gray is one of the best ass-over-teakettle-in-love heroes I’ve ever read.
An Heir to Make a Marriage by Abby Green.
Green’s usual formula of angry tycoon and misunderstood innocent isn’t helped by continuity errors and a lot of plot twisting to make the heroine innocent enough. (Perhaps the reason for the continuity errors?)
A Gathering Storm by Joanna Chambers.
I almost DNF’d this because the plot of a man trying trying to scientifically prove you can reach the spirit world through hypnosis and electricity turned me completely off. I’m glad I didn’t because it went in a very interesting direction. Ward is kind of an A. Conan Doyle type — highly intelligent, but made gullible to fakery because of his grief over losing his twin. There are also serious class issues between him and his lover Nicholas. The setting and emotional aspects of the story are very well drawn.
Pipe Dreams by Sarina Bowen.
I tried this on audio a few months back, and really didn’t enjoy the narration. I also got an “he’s just not that into you” vibe, which is pretty much the kiss of death for me in romance.
This time I read it in print and sadly, that vibe was still there. I generally appreciate some realism in romance, and it’s realistic that a man dealing with his wife’s fatal illness and his grieving child would be too preoccupied to think about his ex… but dammit, this is romance, and he should think about her anyway! His turnaround, from hoping she’d moved on to instant recommittal, just didn’t work for me. The story is also low on conflict. It was still well told and kept my interest, but not a fav.
Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale.
Woof. I will hopefully finish my write-up for this as my extremely late September TBR read.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
Woof again, for some of the same reasons even.
In the Dark by Pamela Burford.
If you enjoy reformed rake stories and heroes who get excessively solicitious when the heroine is pregnant, this is decently written and has funny moments. It seems far more dated than its 18 years, however.
Tanner by Sarah Mayberry.
Likeable, fast-paced romance featuring a veterinary student from Australia and an American bull rider.
DNFs
Cold Fusion by Harper Fox
The autism rep in this book is simply ghastly. Vivian, the autistic character, gets no point of view, always seen through the eyes of the narrator who thinks he’s abnormal — but hot! — and treats him like a child. I didn’t want to get to sex scenes between these two, it would just be gross.
The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick.
I was afraid the plot was going in a certain offensive direction and when I found out I was right, I DNFd.
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Reading, August 2017

Recurring themes of the month: Abusive exes in jail. Refugees. Animal loving boys. Feeding motherless lambs. Twisted stepmother/stepson relationships. Characters who grew up without unconditional love. *sniff* Heroes with a strong sense of responsibility. Imaginary kingdoms. Nice guys who are the heroine’s brother’s bff. Chronic health issues. Stranded on islands. Useful bad weather. Characters who were blackmailed into giving up their lovers. Neighbors. Helpful aunts. Hotel sex. Runaway carriages. Emancipated slaves.

The Family Next Door by Janice Kay Johnson. (Contemporary. Category. SuperRomance. Suspense Element. Cop. Teacher. Single mother.)

This had a very challenging hero, and I’m not sure if I’d had found his redemption more acceptable if I’d liked the book more, or perhaps the other way around. He had to be a father to his younger siblings while their mother worked two jobs, and his resentment has made him so anti-children that he reacted very badly when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant, and has never seen his child. When a single mother with two children moves next door, he’s attracted to her and finds himself getting reluctantly involved with her kids.

She, meanwhile, has only just gotten her young daughter back after a non-custodial parent kidnapping, and she’s in constant fear that her ex will grab the children again. So she’s happy to be living next to the Chief of Police, but his mixed signals are very aggravating.

Summer Stock by Vanessa North. (Contemporary. m/m. Bisexual hero. Hero with abusive ex. Movie star. Theatre.)

A low-conflict romance with sweet, goodhearted characters, though they tend to fly off the handle rather quickly.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (Children’s fiction. Reread.)

A childhood favorite that I still love, though it certainly has uncomfortable aspects. And I hate how the story discards Mary for Colin at the end. But the disagreeable Mary is one of the most memorable characters in children’s fiction. It was fun to read it now as someone who enjoys gardening; I never had any place I could garden until the 90s.

Safe Passage by Ida Cook. (Nonfiction — memoir. World War II. Opera.)

Mary Burchell’s autobiography — published, appropriately enough, by Harlequin. She doesn’t write that much about her work. Parts of the book are dull unless you’re very into old opera, but there’s a spirit of everyday goodness that shines through it which is very moving.

Mommy Said Goodbye by Janice Kay Johnson. (Contemporary. Category. SuperRomance. Police procedural. Single father. Single mother. Slow burn. Kisses only. Pilot. Teacher.)

The teacher of a trouble boy starts to fall for his father, who’s believed to have killed his wife and gotten away with it. An unusual romance, partially because almost half the narrative attention is on someone other than the couple — a police officer investigating the hero — and partially because there’s not even a kiss until almost the last page.  (The hero, very honorably, is trying not to start anything while there’s a cloud over his head and he might still have a wife.) It could have used a little more to the end — one of the cases in which an epilogue would have actually been helpful.  But the psychological aspects of the situation are well drawn.

Without You There is No Us by Suki Kim. (Nonfiction. Memoir. Journalism. North Korea.)

Super sad, scary, and sadly, scarily, relevant.

The Outsider by Penelope Williamson. (Historical romance. Americana. Montana.)

I remember loving Williamson’s epic Heart of the West; I don’t know if it’s me or the book or the zeitgeist, but this one felt like more of a chore. The central romance between a Plain woman and a gunslinger is strong, but the multiple side stories made me feel beaten down with their pain and violence. Virtually all the side characters lose something to violence — an eye, an arm, a pregnancy.

Revelations by Janice Kay Johnson. (Contemporary romance. Suspense element. Sequel. Cop. Colleagues.)

Rats, I didn’t make any notes on this one. It’s the story of the police officer from Mommy Said Goodbye (see above,) who discovered in that book that the father she tried so hard to please and emulate had feet of clay. Those revelations continue in this story. The discussion of misogyny in the police force is undercut by the “evil other women” treatment of the hero’s ex-wife.

Infamous Bargain by Daphne Clair. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Blackmailed into marriage. Heroine pov only.)

One of the earlier heroine-must-marry-hero-to-save-family story, and a particularly good one.

The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian. (Historical. Regency. m/m. Bisexual hero. Rake. Social climber.)

This started out seeming like an exciting match-up between two of my favorite types of historical hero: the seemingly languid, effortlessly cool kind and the starchy kind who badly needs to be unstarched. It actually went in a different direction, but I wasn’t disappointed.

Lovers’ Lies by Daphne Clair. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Reunited.)

The heroine meets up with the man she thinks drove her sister to suicide. Good angsty story.

One Night in the Ice Storm by Noelle Adams. (Contemporary. Short story. Reunited. Other side of the tracks. Beta hero. Christmas. Heroine pov only. Bickerfest.)

Ms. Marvel volumes 6 & 7

Strong story around superhero ethics in vol. 6 but vol. 7 was meh. And I was disappointed that after Bruno moved on so nicely, with the adorable and fat Mike, he then proceeded to apparently forget all about his new girlfriend and just dream about Kamala. Yeech.

Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis. (Fantasy. Contemporary.)

I’m glad I reread this before reading up on the Civil War recently,  because… well, it’s an old favorite and I’ll likely never be able to read it again. It very much buys into the heroic confederacy myth. Still, a gorgeous book.

Clean Breaks by Ruby Lang. (Contemporary. Third in series. Asian hero and heroine. Have history. Heroine is a cancer survivor. Beta hero.)

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Hard Knocks. The hero is lovely, but I felt like much of the relationship between them happened where I couldn’t see it.

Capelli’s Captive Virgin by Sarah Morgan. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Reunited.)

A two person story, with him pursuing, her resisting, and nothing much else happening. The hero gets some good lines but it’s otherwise pretty dull.

Sorceror to the Crown by Zen Cho. (Fantasy historical, Regency. Romantic element. Magic. No sex. Black hero. Biracial heroine.)

You could say that I enjoyed this more after I finished it than while I was reading it, because I found it a bit of a slog, but then wanted to reread it in light of all the interesting new information that comes out towards the end. It’s a very Heyer inspired fantasy — with some influence from the author’s Malaysian culture — and lightly romantic, with a particularly charming hero. Sharon Shinn’s Angelica gave me a taste for reserved, responsible heroes who put everyone else’s needs before their own, and Zacharias is another such quietly tormented man. I was less fond of the ruthlessly competent heroine Prunella, though she is certainly a character. At least she devotes some of her ruthlessness towards taking care of Zacharias.

A Taste of Honey by Rose Lerner. (Historical. Novella. Series. Historical 99%. Virgin hero.)

Review at GoodReads.

My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick. (Young Adult. Coming of Age/Romance. Audiobook. Boy next door. Sexy beta. Heroine pov only. Politics.)

A high school student with a seemingly perfect life falls in love and is then faced with some difficult ethical decisions. An interesting story and a very sweet romance, capturing the feeling of first love and first sex. (On page, but not explicit.) The large cast of characters, including several children, is performed very well by the audiobook narrator. It was a particularly interesting book in light of recent events, because Samantha’s mother is a state senator who has gone from conservative to right wing.

Wait for It by M. O’Keefe. (Contemporary. Fourth in series. Domestic violence. Single mother. Brother’s wife.)

Best response to a shovel talk ever:

“‘I don’t intend to hurt Tiffany.’

‘That’s good. Because I’ll slice you open if you do.’

I lifted my eyebrows. ‘And yet, Phil still breathes. You’ll excuse me if I doubt your fierceness on your sister’s behalf.'”

Nice mix of old skool elements and modern style.

The Nobody by Diane Farr. (Historical. Regency. Kisses only. Suspense element.)

A young woman from the country falls in love with a lord who not only has a ghastly fiance, but is being targeted by a murderer. The star-crossed romance is quite sweet, but the echoes of Heyer in language and characters was too strong for me to enjoy most of it. I found it odd that the heroine is completely absent from the escapade-filled ending.

Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai. (Contemporary. Family feud. Reunited. Childhood sweethearts. Tattoo artist.)

(I received this from an RWA giveaway.)

A “Romeo and Juliet” story in which the two characters got to live, but suffer a lot from being apart. A well-written and deliciously angsty page-turner. Lots of smouldering. Can’t wait for the next one.

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. (Historical. Civil War. Interracial romance. Black heroine/white hero. Power imbalance.)

And speaking of the heroic confederacy myth… I don’t think I’ve ever read a Civil War romance before which was firmly and completely pro-Union, and how disgusting is that? Usually the main characters are on opposite sides. Or both rebels. :-\ In this book, they’re both Union spies, so the main conflict is the extreme power imbalance between them. The fact that the hero is an excellent actor and a smooth talker doesn’t help the heroine trust him, but he manages to prove his worth and love. The story is both intelligent and exciting, one of the most compelling historicals I’ve read in awhile.

DNFs

Naked in His Arms by Sandra Marton. I vaguely remembered not liking a previous book in this series, but I’d forgotten how offensive I found it. Unfortunate, because this is more of the same.

Burning Down the Night by M. O’Keefe. (Romantic suspense. Third in series. Gang member. Prisoner of love.)

For some reason, I just had no interest in this couple. I made myself read it because I was really eager to get to the next book, but about a quarter through I gave up. (And the last one stands alone pretty well anyway.)

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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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