A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

P.S.

I just discovered that TBR Challenge: Ghost of the Past by Sally Wentworth was the second half of a two-parter! So all the whackadoodle from the past has its own book, Twin Torment, if anyone cares. (Does not raise hand.)

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TBR Challenge: Ghost of the Past by Sally Wentworth

CW: slut-shaming, violence against women

The theme: A comfort read

Why this one: What, you’re not comforted by bananapants drama about nasty men and the women who love them anyway? How about very short books?

Ghost of the Past may be the winner of the Wackiest Sentence Ever Uttered in a Romance award. We’re only a few pages in and our hero Alex has just slapped our heroine Ginny:

Then he stood back, his body shaking, his hands clenched tightly, fighting for control. ‘Dear God! The first time I’ve ever hit a woman and it has to be a little slut like you.’

All I can think is, “what nice, pure woman were you saving it for, then?”

Alex is a typical sexist, unreasonably jealous HP hero but interestingly enough, if this story was an “Am I the Asshole Post” it would probably be voted ESH — everybody sucks here. The ways in which the two primary women in his life messed with him and each other is laughably awful. Yet oddly enough, the actual story is fairly down-to-earth — the wackery is largely in the past.

Summing up, both Ginny and her identical twin sister Venetia fell in love with Alex, and literally tossed a coin to see who could have him. Ginny lost, and left to become a well known model. When the story begins, Venetia has died and left her home to Ginny, which brings her back into Alex’s sphere. She still loves him, and he has feelings for her as well… but how can you manage a relationship with someone who was in love with someone exactly like you?

This is not a good twin//bad twin story, which was a little disappointing at first. Ginny and Venetia were very close and had that mystical “twin bond” writers adore. A man came between them, but never destroyed that bond. I wound up liking that choice, despite my love of a juicy good sister/bad sister story. Ginny isn’t going to win Alex’s love just because Venetia was really a bad person.

But Wentworth set herself quite a challenge here, and I’m not sure she met it. The fact that Ginny and Venetia were constantly Patty Duke-ing Alex in the past makes his claim that he always loved Ginny too seem pretty weak. How do Alex and Ginny get past their issues? By literally duking it out. They have a drag out fight, which of course turns into sex, and… that’s it. Problems solved.

And there’s very little compensation for all Alex put Ginny through, and how much she had to be the one in pursuit, dealing with his ever-mixing emotions. Overall, a letdown in the catharsis department.

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TBR Challenge: Christmas Belles by Susan Carroll

The theme: festive!

Why this one: I confess, I just scanned my books for “Christmas” in the title. I think I’ve tried to read this one one or two times before, and since I’m enjoying quieter stories now, it seemed time. Also nothing says “festive” like a Christmas-set Traditional Regency.

The story opens with hints of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice : four sisters, an entailed estate, and a father who can’t provide for their futures. Eldest Emma is domestic, and quietly in love with the impoverished local vicar; Lucy loves society and fashion; Abigail is a bookworm. Our primary heroine is Chloe, who’s warm-hearted and imaginative. But as we will discover, she also has chin! (ping Miss Bates!)

When their father is killed trying to earn dowries for his daughters, his heir feels responsible for the girls and proposes to Emma via letter; she accepts. When he arrives, Captain Will Trent is relieved to find Emma is pretty and pleasant, but her sister Chloe is so stubborn and complicated, seeming to hate him on sight.

Will is no awful Mr. Collins — he’s closer to Mr. Darcy. Responsible, repressed, and absolutely in need of someone to show him how to enjoy himself.

This could be one of those irritating “why don’t you just SAY something!” stories, except that Will is quite believably clueless. Almost from first meeting her, his thoughts are on Chloe, but he’s completely out of touch with his own feelings. The first part of the book is charmingly silly, as they butt heads while constantly thinking about each other, and then become friends as Chloe coaxes Will into enjoying the season. Then the story falls into lot of drama all at once, but it mostly works, thematically.

I’m reading Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh for a book club this month, and it’s interesting to compare this with Balogh’s family-filled, spiritually uplifting Christmas. Carroll’s is almost pagan in contrast, with much more emphasis on legends and luck than “the meaning of Christmas.” If the usual sentimentality of Christmas stories is overdone for you, give this one a try.

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Move Along, Nothing to See Here

This post is entirely a little joke for https://habitrpgbooklists.wordpress.com/author/faranae/ as a comment on their post, https://habitrpgbooklists.wordpress.com/2020/11/02/a-book-involving-an-unpopular-profession/.

(And how delightful that with this forced block editing, I don’t know how to do a proper link anymore! But at least I somehow managed to insert the media.)

The cover of the board book Can't Sleep, showing a painting of a sleeping full moon.

A picture book I adore.

The same cover, with red sticker dots over the eyes.

Our copy of the book, with surgery by my child that she was extremely proud of.

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TBR Challenge: Sweet Treason by Patricia Gaffney

CW for book: Pretty much all of them, sans overt racism. To its credit, it calls rape rape.

The theme: Danger Will Robinson!

Why this one: Oh my goodness, what old skool danger doesn’t happen to this pair of obsessed numbskulls? There’s barely a peaceful moment.

Kate and Burke: they’re always either doing each other wrong, or just doing each other. She’s a Scottish spy for Bonnie Prince Charlie — primarily seeking revenge because of the English soldiers who assaulted her and killed her family. He’s in charge of delivering her to be tried. They spend the first part of the book at each other’s throat and the second half saving each other’s life, between bouts of sex and mutual torture.

It’s not a form of romance I’m especially fond of, though some of the wilder ones, like Gaffney’s Lily and Brenda Joyce’s The Conqueror, are so out there I can’t help but love them. But while Lily elicits cries of “Oh no he didn’t!” Sweet Treason is more like “oh, of course he did.” There’s endless drama but nothing really surprising. Kate is irritatingly stubborn and pettish and they’re both irritatingly obtuse. And it’s episodic in a way that often comes with lack of pay-off. A villain leaves with a sneer of “I’ll get you yet, my pretty!” and then is replaced with a different villain and never seen again. The ending leaves so many unanswered questions.

I enjoyed it more than it sounds. The prose and characterizations aren’t memorable in the way of later Gaffney, but she’s a good story-teller, and it’s not dull. And an old skool hero who’s also ridonkulously besotted is a fun combo. Put this one most definitely in the “to each their own, or if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you might like” pile.

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Element of Risk by Robyn Donald

When it comes to Robyn Donald, my motto is always “go old skool or go home.” She overdoes the alphole sometimes, sure, but her books with kinder, gentler heroes are so boring. This one hit the sweet spot nicely, as well as being an amazing trainwreck of a story.

Perdita, a stunning model on the verge of retirement, gets a call she’s been waiting for for a very long time — the twin girls she gave up at birth eleven years ago have finally been located. But that’s not all… to her shock, Perdita discovers they were adopted by her beloved cousin Natalie and Natalie’s husband Luke… who is, in fact, their biological father.

I’m not sure I want to say much more about the plot, which only gets wilder from there. Perdita has to square off with Luke to get a chance to see the children (Natalie has conveniently died) and she’s just about perfect at it — intelligent, committed, truly wanting what’s best for them. Meanwhile, Luke is bitter and accusatory and just a step away from serious violence. He might be unbearable if she wasn’t so capable of holding her own.

(One not-so old skool element about this book I really liked, is that Natalie is treated respectfully as the girls’s mother. There’s none of the “now they have their REAL family” crap I’ve seen in other books. It might even be a little too good to be true, but I don’t care.)

The classic bleak moment, when it comes, is rather unusual — though precipitated by an event so over-the-top that I imagined Charlotte Lamb calling to tell Donald to tone it down a bit.  There’s a lot about the past that Perdita has to sort through and understand, before she can have a happy ending.

I don’t always enjoy Harlequin Presents like I used to, these hard days, but this was a fun trip back to when I loved them, the wackier the better.

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TBR Challenge: One to Watch

CW for book: hate speech against fat women. Note also that this isn’t a genre romance and doesn’t follow their conventions.

The theme: Dress for Success

Why this one: It’s so perfect for the theme, I’m going to ignore my usual rule and count a library book. It was on my tbr for several months!

One to Watch initially delighted me. Told partially in the form of blog posts, tweets, and online chats, it’s got a relatable feel for modern life and gives us a winning heroine in Bea, a fat woman who loves fashion. Bea has carved out a space for herself in a very sizest field as the blogger @OMBea.

When a blog post about the sizeism and lack of diversity on her favorite show “Main Squeeze” (ala “the Bachelorette”) goes viral, Bea is asked to be the first contestant on the show who isn’t model-sized. She’s very dubious about romance, but producer Lauren convinces her that she doesn’t have to take the show seriously in order to “show America that plus-size women deserve to be the leads in their own stories.” And it doesn’t hurt that Bea will have something to take her mind off her heartbreak over her old friend and crush Ray, who slept with her and then went back to his fiance and completely ghosted her.

The book started to pall a bit for me when we get to the show. (Perhaps I would’ve liked it more if I watched those kinds of shows?) It becomes clear that despite her internet honesty, Bea is actually very insecure about her size, and finds it truly difficult to believe a man would want to be with her — which impacts the men contestants who notice her lack of sincerity. And there are constant reality show “surprises” that humiliate and freak her out, not to mention several disgusting contestants who mock and belittle her.

Not all of them, though. As Bea starts to make real connections with some of her dates, Lauren tells her she can’t make her feelings about any one man too clear, otherwise the audience will lose interest. It seems the author felt the same way, because Bea is truly undecided for quite a long way into the book. There’s nothing wrong with that… except that Bea seems to make promises to at least one bachelor that she might not actually decide to keep, and she has no compunction about it. (Meeting someone’s motherless kids in this context? On television? Seriously?! ) It felt very off-putting. 

I also got fed to the teeth with Bea’s insecurity; any time a bachelor made a move she didn’t like, she believed it was designed to humiliate her. I expected better from a book about a woman who dares to be openly fat on the Internet.

There are some nice surprises in the plot, including some interesting queer representation, and some much deserved and funny comeuppances. (There are not so nice surprises, too.) There are cute running jokes about celebrity tweeters, and I enjoyed Bea’s parents, who are basically Britta’s adoring and adorable parents from “Community.” (Bea’s father is technically her stepfather, and the theme of choosing love is important.) And the ending comes together nicely, a happy one especially for any fat girl readers. But because of my issues with what came before, I couldn’t embrace it as much as I’d like.

Still, as I looked over my bookmarks while writing this, and was reminded of aspects of the book I’d loved — perhaps my favorite is a suitor who punctuates an apology to Bea with endless profanity, so the show won’t be able to air it — my appreciation for it increased again. I think on the whole I’d recommend it.

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The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams

Gavin, a successful but somewhat insecure baseball player, is devastated when his wife asks him for a divorce. That’s when his fellow players introduce him to their book club and “the manuals” — romance novels which help them understand what women need from relationships. With the help of a Regency called Courting the Countess, Gavin sets out to woo his wife. But he forgets the most important lesson: backstory is everything. Unless Thea deals with the pain in her history, they don’t stand a chance.

I had some issues with this story and it might have been the audiobook.The second narrator, who reads the “book within a book” sections, has a die-away upper-crust English accent which is very much not to my taste. But the main narration, while in a perfectly pleasant voice, may have done more harm. All of the women characters sound very bitchy, and the way the voices emphasize the “inherent” humor of manly men athletes seriously discussing romance novel tropes really put me off.

Still, there was a lot to enjoy. Unlike most athlete heroes in romance, Gavin has tremendous sweetness and vulnerability, and Thea loves him for it. At one point she overhears a spiteful member of the “wives and girlfriends” club mock Gavin by wondering if he even stutters in bed and she retorts, “yes he does stutter in bed, and it’s beautiful!” Thea’s continual rejection and mistrust of Gavin’s efforts make her seem unpleasant for much of the story, but it all comes together by the end.

 

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TBR Challenge: The Passionate One by Connie Brockway

CW for book: a near rape, and maybe a whiff of homophobia.

 

The theme: Family Ties

Why this one: It’s the start of a family series, and coincidentally, turned out to have some deeply messed up family dynamics.

This had its share of problems, but still hit the spot. It’s kind of old skool, with a tortured hero and a brave heroine to rescue him with love, and it does those well-worn roles very nicely.

Ash Merrick is the oldest son of a despicable English lord, who won a Scottish castle by betraying his wife’s people. Ash loathes dear old dad, but is forced to participate in his father’s nasty schemes, while trying to earn enough to ransom his younger brother from a French prison. The current scheme is to bring home his father’s ward, Rhiannon Russell.

After the trauma of losing all her relatives at Culloden, and being homeless for a time, Rhiannon has been living very comfortably with English relatives who adore her, and is happily engaged. The one tiny flaw in her cozy life is the constant need she feels to be grateful for everything she’s been given, and not to make waves. She was even chosen by her fiance, Phillip, for these exact attributes. But the arrival of the powerfully attractive Ash throws her for a loop.

Ash is also drawn to Rhiannon, and her engagement is the least of his worries. He can’t possibly marry, he’s a total mess of a human being, he’s pretty sure his father plans to make Rhiannon his fourth wife — and he’s also increasingly sure that someone is trying to murder her.

The story kind of goes off the rails here. Ash convinces himself that Phillip is gay — whether this is true or not is never stated, though you could make a case that Phillip is enamoured of Ash himself — and is the person trying to kill Rhiannon, so she can’t expose him after they’re married. So he carries her off to his father’s castle against her will, while caught between trying to make her think the worst of him, for her own sake, and being devastated when she does.

Despite the vagaries of the plot, the mystery element is well done, and there’s some very effective sequel baiting for the rest of the series. But the romance is the best part. Ash is a mix of two favorite hero archetypes, the utterly competent and the savagely besotted. He can half-kill himself with drink while still being entirely effective at espionage or combat, but here he is after their first kiss:

She turned away, gathering her skirts and bolting into the too bright light. And so she did not see Ash Merrick’s gaze follow her, or see him take his hands from behind his back and turn them over. And she did not see the bloody hands that had been torn strangling the thorny vines behind her so he could keep from crushing her to him.

Siiiiiiiigh…

Rhiannon isn’t quite as compelling, but she has a decent arc of reclaiming boldness and forthrightness along with her Scottish heritage. And Brockway writes lovely sex scenes of the all-too-rare “manages not to be very graphic while also avoiding gawdawful old skool words like ‘manroot'” variety.

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Reading June 2020

CW: Many sober themes this month, including suicide.

 

Recurring themes: Apartments with views of Central Park. Magnolia as a name. Holding on and not letting go. The Boston Marathon. Hell’s Kitchen. Dead moms, so many dead moms. Suicide and assisted death. Narrating ghosts. Psychometry.

 

Spellbound by Allie Therin. A very enjoyable 1920s paranormal romance, somewhat along the lines of K.J. Charles. Hurt/comfort, with a young hero who’s had a terrible time because of his psychic gift, and a nice rich, tall, handsome hero who wants nothing more than to take care of him.

A Woman Like Her by Marc Levy. An easy, feel-good kind of story, which isn’t a bad thing right now. (But warning that a very traumatic event is referenced.) Seemed to have pretty decent disability rep other than a dubious ending; not so sure on racial issues. (Several main characters are Indian/Indian-American.)

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth. Kind of a great-grandma of the modern romance, with vast numbers of Big Misunderstandings and quite a few Evil Other Men and Women performing machinations. Also coincidences up the wazoo. The hero and heroine aren’t nearly as interesting as the heroine’s friend Lady Delacour, who is spirited and contrary and never loses her verve, even when “tamed.” Not as good as Austen, IMO, but entertaining.

The Phoenix Codex by Bryn Donovan. I’m really impressed that Donovan wrote a kick-ass warrior/demon hunter who’s also the beta to end all betas. Deadly and protective, but also openhearted, vulnerable, and a total marshmallow for love. Intriguing worldbuilding, but it doesn’t take away from the romance.

I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi. A ghost tries to help her grieving husband and daughter find happiness. I liked it and found it moving, but also a tad manipulative — or perhaps I just prefer my own theory, that the mom killed herself because he husband’s a Republican. 😉

The Secret Loves of Geeks by various. Geeky people writing and drawing about love. Very queer!

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