A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

If the Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman

CW: sizism

 

Very mixed feelings on this one. As friends-to-lovers stories go, it’s my favorite kind — we only get the heroine’s point of view, so I didn’t have to sit through a bunch of “woe is me, I can’t risk the friendship!” And the hero is adorable, as is the other man, and even the other woman isn’t half bad. I enjoyed the Phillipines setting, and since a wedding is involved, we get to see a lot of cultural family dynamics.

But beware the fatphobia! I feel for Martha, I really do — she’s trying to be positive about her size, in a culture where she’s so out of normal range, she has to have everything custom made.  “Most girls my age in this country  were beautiful, with slim, petite bodies and on the verge of the next stage of their life…I was nothing like the girls my age. I was a 200-pound blip in that statistic.” (Late in the book she visits London and is so thrilled to be able to just find clothes.) Her family doesn’t help, unsurprisingly.

But her internalized issues, or perhaps the author’s, spill out of every part of the book like sideboob. Even the sex scenes seemed to be designed to show how difficult her weight makes things, every single time. (I weigh more than Martha and I don’t have the problems she has!) Her fat comes into the simplest things — after a fight, Martha “walked towards the door to open it, making sure the only thing Max could see of me were my back rolls.” She doesn’t even just have a back.

There’s also missed potential. Early on, Martha says “I felt like I was still waiting for my life to begin, but my weight had nothing to do with that.” Then we discover that in fact, her low self-esteem has stopped her from realizing that she was loved — twice. But the story never really goes anywhere with that. It goes off on a tangent instead.

I know other fat readers have just loved this, so there may be more to it than I got out of it. But I was disappointed.

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February 2020 Reading

Recurring themes in my reading:

Tumors involving the optic nerve. Wives with seeeecrets. Families that take in lost boys. Closeted gay teachers. The scent of eucalyptus.

 

Anna and Her Daughters by D.E. Stevenson

Much more depressing than I was expecting — even the Nazi book was more lighthearted! It’s about selfish people and unrequited love, and it doesn’t help that the object of unrequited love is noble in a very annoying way. (I’m reminded of The Life and Death of Harriet Frean by May Sinclair, in which a girl nobly gives up her friend’s fiance; years later, she tells a young woman the story and the modern 1920’s girl is aghast by the stupidity of ruining three lives that way.) Also, anyone who’s selflessly noble without even thinking about how it might affect their child is beyond the pale.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

So many chills. So many tears. A gorgeous vision of the future. I love Chambers’… optimism isn’t quite the right word. Perhaps faith? She shows us a future with plenty of problems, but isms aint one.

Mail Order Prairie Bride by Julianne Maclean

Little House on the Prairie, adult style. Great heroine, who doesn’t let being a damsel in considerable distress keep her asserting herself. The hero is a jerk at least once too often, but redeems himself.

Hey Harry, Hey Matilda by Rachel Hulin.

One of the most WTF reading experiences of my adult life.

Starting: This is such a cute epistolary novel between close siblings! I have to send it to my mom, because she’s a twin.

Then: Huh. These two are both deeply horrible people.

Then: INCEST????!!!!!

I need to stop reading fiction that hasn’t been vetted for me by romance readers. Or at least have a peek at GoodReads first, where this has a 2.6 rating from readers who had exactly the same response.

Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

Several threads tell stories about a Romani girl in 1500s Strausburg, where a “dancing sickness” is killing people, and two modern day teens, one with Romani ancestry and one whose family makes shoes. It’s about the importance of identity, and choosing your power. Though a bit too repetitive, it has the most glorious ending.

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TBR Challenge: After All These Years by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

The theme: friends

Why this one: Picked for a “midwest” challenge.

CW for book: Technical adultery, angst-free all around.

 

I’m afraid I can’t do this book justice now, since I finished it over a month ago. (forgive a brief pity-party, but you would not believe how complicated things get when a disabled child turns eighteen.) But in short, I loved this down-to-earth story. It very much fits the theme because Curry, Tom and Huck were the closest of friends all their lives, with a blood pact to always be straight with one another.

Curry and Huck got married, then Huck died in Vietnam, leaving her with another Huck to raise. Tom also fought, was injured in body and mind, and has little relationship with his wife and daughter. But this isn’t the standard “his friend got there first and he’s been pining ever since” story. Part of the story’s realistic charm is that its very straightforward about teens and their hormone-driven behavior, especially when living in a very small town with little to divert them. Tom and Curry started dating first, Tom pushed way too hard, and Curry kicked him to the curb. They both moved on.

Curry is just the best. She’s very much an adult: capable, empathetic, and so honest and true to herself. Tom, though over his pushy teen self, is pretty messed up, but learns that he can be a good partner and father.

It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, and I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much in my all-romance-angst-all-the-time days, but hey, how nice is it that some old books are better now, for a change?

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January 2020 Reading Part 2

Recurring themes in my reading:

Artist heroines who are people pleasers because they hate conflict.

Unexpected artwork of fairies.

 

The Wolf and the Girl by Aster Glenn Gray

Like Briarly, this is a short fairy tale rewrite in a historical setting, this time pre-Revolution Russian. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, rich with folklore and period detail, as well as brave and kind characters. Romance is only hinted at. This could be enjoyed by children who like fairy tales. (The real thing, which is sometimes horrific and scary.)

Need You Now by Molly O’Keefe (The Debt #4)

I read this largely for completionism, since I have a hard time with dark stories right now. (I suspect that the author or romance readers in general or perhaps both feel the same, because her upcoming books are going in a very different direction and the next book in the series is no longer available for preorder.) Once past the horrific past stuff in the heroine’s hellhole of a foster home, it wasn’t so bad. There’s some hate sex, which I still enjoy, and neither hero nor heroine is a bad person, just dealing with a lot of ugly complications and emotions. She’s painfully strong, he’s disarmingly loyal, and it’s very sweet by the end. Stands alone okay but will seem a bit deus ex machina if you haven’t read the previous books. CW for white supremacist villains.

What Lies Beneath by Anne Stuart, Joanna Wayne and Caroline Burnes

It would’ve been fine with me if this anthology out-of-print anthology had stayed buried. The Stuart story is a good version of her usual mix, except for a grossly stereotypical depiction of a disabled person. The Wayne story is typical damsel in distress romantic suspense. The Burnes, about treasure hunting and sharks, is meh, ridiculous, and anti-climactic.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Still a page-turner, and eerily prescient. It seems very sad though, that Well’s efforts to show the terrifying impact of colonization were apparently so futile.

Top Secret by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Wow, I love “Shop Around the Corner” stories so much, they even work in a frat house. (Though I also read The Renegades this month, a reverse shop around the corner — and how’s that for a sexual position? — and thought it pretty meh.) Surprisingly sweet m/m romance involving a very privileged biology student and his wrong-side-of-the-tracks frat brother, whose terrible family have left him closed off and suspicious of love. Less graphic than their other stories.

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

This is written in first person, present tense — do not let that stop you from reading it! It’s a slow-burn romance with fantastic arcs for both heroine and hero and also has a great…. not meet cute. Meet significant? She’s a hand lettering artist with an unfortunate compulsion to sneak her private feelings into her work; he’s a very proper math genius who’s the first person to notice. Both are stuck and stifled in their lives, her because her parents forced her to be a peacemaker, and him because his highly intelligent weirdness as a kid made him extremely self-conscious. (You could definitely read him as autistic and masking.) If you love reading about people passionate about their work/hobbies, this is fantastic just for that. And it’s chock full of New York and Brooklyn flavor. Pretty much written for me.

Aishlin & Olivia by Aster Glenn Gray.

I’m very tired, so will just refer you to this excellent review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2847292008?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

(I didn’t love it quite as much as he did, but he’s right on the money about pretty much everything.)

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The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

CW: Nazism (not positively depicted and nothing graphic)

At first I thought this story from 1940, starring an actual Nazi, was an odd choice to digitize — but of course we have Nazis again, somehow. And it turned out to be a surprisingly, even painfully, resonant read.

Proper young German Franz is sent to visit his mother’s English cousin, Sophie, basically to feel out the mood of the country for his father. He even dreams of learning enough about England to become a German Secret Service agent someday. Serious and literal-minded, he’s at first baffled by the frivolity and ironic banter of the other young people he meets. But he comes to love England — particularly Sophie’s daughter, Wynne.

But then Hitler marches into Prague, destroying both Franz’s hopes for the future and his faith in his government.

“They trusted the Fuehrer,” he said in a strangled voice. “They trusted him. He promised that he wouldn’t interfere with them, he said it was his sacred will to respect the Czechs–his sacred will, Roy!…” “He said we wanted to live our own lives and others must have the freedom to do the same. Those were good words–why has he gone back on them?” Frank was silent for a moment and then he cried, “Oh Heavens, what is that man doing to my poor country!”

I feel you Franz, I really do.

The extreme politeness of all the English people who meet Franz is also familiar. The family puts off the visit of a refugee — “for it was obvious to the meanest intelligence that Fernacres could not harbour a German and an Austrian refugee at the same time, and Wynne could not help feeling that it was a little hard on the refugee, and wondering where he would go…” And they carefully agree to disagree on any political topics. Franz is basically the racist uncle, except that everyone likes him, and he comes to recognize the errors of his thinking. (Though we never do learn if he stops believing in the superior Aryan race. Antisemitism and Jews aren’t mentioned once.)

There’s a fair bit to eyeroll at here, most particularly Franz’s rosy conclusions about the wonderful English, which are completely drawn from one small, highly privileged section of people. He’s completely ignorant of British racism, classism and — seriously, how? — colonization. But for a good eyeroll, nothing beats his cousin Roy’s reaction to the news about Prague.

“Oh hell! exclaimed Roy at last. “This has bust up our whole trip–I wish Hitler was dead.”

I feel you Roy, I really do.

Despite its limitations, being written in the actual time it was set makes this a fascinating historical portrait. Franz’s conflict evolves in a very believable way. And it’s deeply sad to watch these kind people going through just the beginning of a horror we know is coming.

Sophie has sat down on the rug and was watching Roy and Wynne, and when Dane looked at her he saw that her eyes were full of tears.

“It’s just that they’re so young,” she explained, shaking the tears away and trying to smile at him…. “So young and so good. It isn’t fair. I feel I ought to apologize to them.”

“For the war?” asked Dane, smiling a little; “but surely the condition of Europe isn’t your fault, Sophie?”

She shook her head. “No, for having them, Dane. I wouldn’t have had them if I’d know there was going to be another war just when they were grown up.”

I feel you, Sophie. I really, really, do.

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Been cleaning out my blogroll…

… which is very depressing. Since I actually read blogs from an RSS reader, I hadn’t consciously noticed how many of them are defunct. In brighter news, quite a few I read aren’t listed, so I’ll get those added.

I deleted most blogs that haven’t been updated in years, but kept “Love in the Margins,” in memory of meoskop.

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January 2020 Reading pt. 1

I’ve decided to do my reading round-ups in sections, so they don’t get too unwieldy.

The Lost Books of Jane Austen by Janine Barchas. The primary appeal of this scholarly book is the many photographs of old, gorgeous, and sometimes hilariously inappropriate editions of Austen, but the text is interesting too, albeit weirdly repetitious. Serious romance scholars will likely find it underwhelming.

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. Marvelous collection of letters the author wrote while working as a nanny in an notably literary London household. It’s filled with descriptions of little interactions between her and her employer and the children, which are just hilarious; all are bright and eccentric and not at all leery of cursing. Almost inadvertently, it’s also a coming of age story, as Nina discovers she can participate in academic life, despite her rather ramshackle upbringing. (There’s the barest smidge of romance, but it has a delightful punch line.)

A Delicate Deception by Cat Sebastian. My least favorite of Sebastian’s books, sadly, unless DNFing the previous one in this series counts. It suffers from what I’ve starting calling the “twitterization” of romance — in which passages seem to have been literally lifted from discussions on social media. I think it’s very valid to write historical characters who care about women’s rights and consent, and who aren’t homophobes, but it has to feel like it believably grew from something.

Other problems include a plot moppet who’s dramatically introduced and then almost immediately forgotten for several chapters — except it’s not even appropriate to call her a plot muppet, since she serves very little function in the plot. And I had a lot of trouble relating to the heroine, which is really sad since she’s an introvert with anxiety and I should totally get her. Her thoughts made sense, but her dialogue didn’t feel real. The hero with self-esteem issues is sweet and likeable, but the story is completely stolen by the hero’s brother-in-law/ex-lover, a newly blind and bereaved Duke who is sardonic as all get out but competently planning a happy life for himself.

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TBR Challenge: Flirting With Ruin by Marguerite Kaye

The theme: Short shorts.

Why This One: Having realized last night that I wasn’t going to get my book read in time, I searched for a short story. This is an author I’ve enjoyed before, and one of the fews shorts I have that’s not erotica. (I should just delete all my erotica ebooks at this point — except what if I go wild in my 70s?)

Flirting With Ruin is more sedate than its title suggest. It’s designed primarily to introduce the “Castonbury” series, a Downton Abbey-inspired multi author series, most notable for including an interracial romance also written by Kaye. (Unexpected from Harlequin in 2012.)

At 47 pages on my Kindle, there’s not a lot of room here to spend on the characters. Lady Rosalind has acquired a reputation as a wanton widow, a reaction to “six years married to a puritanical man, seventeen before that raised by a puritanical father” — but she hasn’t really done much to deserve the reputation, or enjoyed the little she’s done. On a slightly scandalous evening out at a harvest celebration, she’s immediately attracted to a stranger, and vice versa. They share some passionate anonymous necking but agree to stop there.

The next day the stranger, revealed as Major Fraser Lennox, appears at Castonbury to give the family a medal earned in battle by the dead heir. This reminder of mortality spurs Fraser and Rosalind to say the hell with it and have a fling. It’s a nice enough story, with a nice ending for the heroine who’s had such a repressed, depressing life. But it didn’t leave me panting to get my hands on the rest of the books.

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2019, My Reading Year in Extremely Poorly Remembered and Reviewed Review

Amazingly, there are still some blogs out there and still some people writing year end posts, which makes me feel like I owe it to them to write one too. But though I’m still reading a fair bit of romance, I don’t seem to have much to say about it any more, and books don’t stick with me like they used to. Of the 347 book I read this year, here are the ones that popped out at me.

In YA, Eliza and Her Monsters is memorable for its authentic portrayals of online life, creativity, and the way they can interact with mental health issues. It also has a very likeable romance, though I recall the hero doing something so terrible I almost couldn’t forgive him. (Real life terrible as opposed to old-skool terrible.) I was also captivated by Brittany Cavallaro’s Holmes and Watson series, which involves a deeply troubled teenage girl Holmes and her somewhat helplessly adoring teenage boy Watson. (In this world, Holmes and Watson were real, and they are modern day descendents.) It’s not HEA romance, but really worth reading.

Amongst romances that stand out are Briarly by Aster Glenn Gray, an offbeat m/m “beauty and the beast” story. I’m glad I remembered this because I just noticed she has two new books out since then. Two excellent historical f/f stories I  enjoyed were A Lady’s Desire by Lily Maxton and cozy mystery/romance Proper English by K.J. Charles. Similarly, the Agatha Christie-inspired Hither, Page by Cat Sebastian was very fun.

A romance that I DNF’d with extreme prejudice was Overnight Sensation by Sarina Bowen. I find a lot of her books kind of iffy around sexism and this one was unbearable.

I finally read Lois Bujold’s “Five Gods” series and loved The Hallowed Hunt  Paladin of Souls , which features a mentally exhausted middle-aged woman as an epic fantasy heroine. How Long Til Black Future Month? has some incredible stories, and I’m thrilled that N.K. Jemisin is expanding my favorite one, “The City Born Great” into a series. I still have arrogant New York pride in my bones, and this story expresses it so smashingly. And Gideon the Ninth is a complicated, deeply weird, and exceptionally diverting book. Who knew necromancy could be funny?

I dipped into some old favorite from my childhood. Apples Every Day by Grace Richardson and Anna to the Infinite Power (both available at Open Library) have dated somewhat, but were still a pleasure to read. Dear Enemy by Jean Webster, sadly, has been hit badly by the ableism fairy. It’s such a lighthearted, charming book; if only it weren’t lighthearted and charming about eugenics.

Joshilyn Jackson is a fiction writer I enjoy who often includes romantic elements in her books, and The Almost Sisters is a good one. It takes place in a small, Southern town and the main character is a white woman, unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand, who is dealing with her elderly relative’s mental deterioration and trying to figure out how to raise the biracial child she’s carrying. It has a lot of fun geeky elements, and a lot of sadness as well.

And speaking of racism, I read a lot of very intense, powerful, and excruciatingly informative nonfiction, including So You Want to Talk About Race, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, The New Jim Crow, White Rage and Men We Reaped. If I had to assign one book as required reading for white people it would be White Rage, which spells it all out so well, but Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward was the most touching of the books, a devastating personal account of how literally black lives don’t matter in our society. Also in nonfiction, Megan Phelps-Roper’s Unfollow is an unexpected page-turner about growing up in a loving family that’s also a cult, and Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson a memoir about sexual abuse in resonant poetry.

I’m really happy about how much more varied my reading is now. But I do miss feeling the urge to review, and the sense that my opinion was worth recording. I am going to make a real effort to keep up with the TBR challenge this year, at least, since Wendy has been kind enough to continue hosting it. And perhaps I should try keeping a little record of at least some of the books I read per month, so it doesn’t all fade away.

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TBR Challenge: The Sugar Rose by Susan Carroll

CW: weight shaming and diet talk in book, a little repellant villain POV

The theme: Sugar or Spice (either very hot or closed door)

Why This One: Double-dipping, as usual these days of oh-so-many reading challenges, this time with the Pop Sugar Challenge.

Book Description:

“THIS IS THE OUTSIDE OF ENOUGH TO BE MAKING MISS SINCLAIR AN OFFER WITH ME SITTING HERE!”

Even Everard Ramsey’s outrage could not dampen the delight that Aurelia Sinclair felt at the prearranged proposal of her childhood sweetheart, Justin, Lord Spencer. If Justin was less than ardent, well…what could such a dowdy, plump girl as herself expect from one of the handsomest bucks in the ton?

His sympathy thoroughly engaged, the fastidious Mr. Ramsey was already forming a most famous plan. If he could but help Aurelia with her wardrobe and sweet tooth, surely his friend Justin would sit up and take notice.

But when a breathtaking Aurelia emerged from her cocoon, slender and radiant, Everard began to wish Justin far away–the better to have his creation all to himself!

I included the blurb because it’s so gaggy that it was a relief to find the book isn’t as bad as it’s painted. Admittedly, if you’re very sensitive about food and weight issues, you should stay away, but the romance is not Pygmalion-esque at all and properly satisfying.

The book does start with Justin offhandedly “proposing” to Aurelia right in front of of his friend Everard. Aurelia regards Everard as an affected dandy — he uses a quizzing glass! — but he’s disgusted by his friend’s disrespectful behavior, and more than a bit taken with Aurelia himself.  Although she has very low self-esteem, she’s witty, frank, and has more physical charms than she believes. Nor are his efforts to help her initially focused on her weight:

“I don’t mean to offer advice where it may not be wanted, but you intrigue me, Miss Sinclair. You have from the first. If you could get past the point of letting Justin treat you with less consideration than he shows his horse, I believe you are exactly the sort of woman he needs.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how much your opinion means to me, sir.” Aurelia glowered, spanning her fingers along her waistline. “Such a nice, sensible, solid sort of woman, is that your estimation?”

“No,” he retorted. “Such a lovely, intelligent woman who, for some strange reason, is at pains to hide her beauty behind a silken monstrosity that resembles a rose garden run amok.”

When Aurelia accepts Everard’s offer, of course they wind up spending a lot of time together. She discovers she’s not actually clumsy while dancing with him, and that he is a far pleasanter person than she’d thought.

When he laughed, it suddenly occurred to her how very much she liked Everard Ramsey this way, the cynical lines of his face relaxing, gentles by his smile. No bored mask of indifference, no elegant dandy hiding behind his quizzing glass. Simply a man who looked at her as if–

Aurelia’s breath caught in her throat. As if it didn’t matter whether she was beautiful. Because it was enough that he made her feel as if she were.

There’s unfortunately some terrible diet crap in this section, but there’s never a sense that Everard is unhappy with Aurelia as she is or that he only falls for her when she loses weight. And there’s psychological symmetry between them: both of them had unloving families but she eats her feelings and he gambles to ignore his.

In the manner of traditional Regencies, there’s some villainous meddling and rather ridiculous high jinks at the end, which I liked more than I expected, because they give both Aurelia and Everard a chance to symbolically move on from their coping mechanisms. It’s definitely a sweet book in more than the euphemistic way, and made me smile.

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