A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

After what seemed like way too deliberate a rom/com movie opening (and closing) I was surprised by how much I liked this. It intriguingly plays with several romance themes that are catnip for me; I’m not sure if that’s deliberate or not, but it really worked.

The book starts with a classic opposite twins set-up. Ami is the woman so lucky, every item in her wedding was free; her sister’s ringtone for her is the sound of a jackpot. Whereas Olive is basically a Charlie Brown who always gets a rock instead of Halloween candy. With her history, it’s no wonder that Olive is something of a cynic and pessimist — or is it, as her family often contends, the other way around?

Olive’s seafood allergy turns out to be unexpectedly lucky when she’s one of only two people who doesn’t get extremely sick at her sister’s wedding. Not so luckily, the other is her new brother-in-law, because he’s much too snooty to eat from a buffet. Olive has hated Ethan since he sneered at her, a curvy woman, for eating cheese curds, but now she’s on a honeymoon to Maui with him, and thanks to some truly cosmic bad luck, they’re forced to pretend they’re married.

It’s not a surprise to discover, in an enemies-to-lovers story, that Ethan was actually attracted to Olive from the start, and his hostility and body-shaming was pretty much all in her head, at least initially. But there’s a little more to it: Ethan was discouraged from asking Olive out by his brother, who told Ethan she was always angry. And Olive’s own behavior has been justifying that comment.

Although the plot is exceptionally full of awkward coincidence, and Olive’s antagonism towards Ethan can be a bit much, the Maui section of the book is fun. Olive and Ethan have some wonderful banter, both when they’re hating each other and then when they’re really not.

His mouth makes its way down my body; hands already familiar with my legs now explore my breasts, my stomach, the delicate skin beside my hip bones and lower. I want to take a picture of him like this: his soft hair brushing against my stomach as he makes his way down, his eyes closed in pleasure.

“I think this is the longest we’ve gone without arguing,” he murmurs.

“What if all of this was just a ruse to get a great blackmail photo?” I am breathless as he kisses a string of heat across my novel.

“I’ve always wanted someone who appreciates the long con.”

But things take a turn when they return home, finding themselves in a relationship that suddenly has some very difficult family complications.

Here’s where the twins trope goes a bit sidewise. The good sister/bad sister dichotomy is one I adore, but it’s not what happens here. Olive and Ami love and rely on each other, as they do everyone in their large Latinx family, and neither “deserves” the shit that comes their way.

And then there’s my absolute favorite romance theme: one character betraying the other and breaking their heart. And it’s done here in such a… reasonable, understandable way, that is yet still truly painful and hard to forgive. Mmmm, modern angsty goodness! And it moreover leads to Olive re-evaulating her character and her life in positive ways. Although this is most definitely a romance, it has a bit of a chick-lit element, since the focus is on Olive and her growth as a person. Perhaps that’s just another way in which this is a rom-com.

 

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TBR Challenge: The Trysting Place by Mary Balogh

Note: The surprises in this story are so obvious and mild, I’m not bothering with spoilers. 

 

The Theme: An author with more than one book in your TBR.

Why This One: In today’s world, might as well eat dessert first. Though all my saved Baloghs seem to be lesser ones.

I found the heroine of The Trysting Place challenging. She’s not obviously dislikeable in the antagonistic and self-sabotaging way of some Balogh heroines, but she really got up my nose somehow.

As the story opens, Felicity is just out of mourning for the elderly husband she had married out of duty, despite having been passionately in love with her childhood friend Tom. And a marriage of convenience — her family’s convenience, largely — has not taught her to value love and passion more. Rather, she’s eager to now enjoy herself as a wealthy widow in the ton, and grateful that she didn’t have those six children she and Tom had once planned together.

I really shouldn’t hate Felicity for this and yet I kinda do. Perhaps especially because she’s completely oblivious to the fact that her good friend Tom is still deeply in love with her, and she uses him for her own selfish ends. Which are to make a rakish lord so jealous he’ll give up his arranged engagement and marry her instead.

I’m making Felicity sound worse than she is, which might be because there really doesn’t seem to be that much to her. She’s beautiful, cultured but naive, loves her family, and does her best for them. But girls just wanna have (respectable, married) fun. The stakes just aren’t very high, or very interesting, at least for much of the book.

Tom’s point of view makes the story more compelling, because although he’ll do just about anything for Felicity, he recognizes some of the childish flaws in her way of thinking. And Felicity’s growing awareness of her own foolishness, largely through seeing the far more mature romantic choices of her much younger twin sisters, makes a nice enough redemption — except she then goes on to behave so much more foolishly, I didn’t know whether she needed a smack or an “oh, honey.”

I happened across a quote from Balogh that said writing this book was like wading through molasses. It shows.

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Our new clubhouse: no literary snobs allowed!

I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable using Twitter, given its CEO’s tendency to pal around with white supremacists. I also dislike the whole concept of social capital, and the lengths people will go to achieve it. I recognize twitter’s value to people, especially marginalized people, but it came to point where I had to draw a line in the sand.

So with the help of my far-too-generous husband, I’ve opened up a mastadon “instance” (ie server) for Romancelandia. No ads. No profits. Racists and their ilk will be booted ASAP. It has a learning curve because it’s extremely customizable, but the basic form is similar to twitter, so it’s easy to get started “tooting.”

If you want to join and can’t find it, leave a comment or use the contact me form and I’ll hook you up.

I hope to see you soon!

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TBR Challenge: When the Laird Returns by Karen Ranney

CN for book: Domestic violence.

The theme: a favorite trope. (Forced marriage.)

Why this one: I’m double-dipping with the Buzzwords Readathon.

(It’s perturbing, by the way, how many books are in my TBR that don’t have favorite tropes. Time for another sorting.)

I just spent a baffled couple of minutes trying to find my TBR Challenge review for One Man’s Love, finally remembering that I had been too rushed (and honestly, not interested enough) to actually review it. That, the first in the “Highland Lords” series, had a most favorite troupe, the lover in disguise, but it was just an average read. This one had its flaws, but interest in the characters keep me reading.

Ship designer and captain Alisdair MacRae is on his way to England to reject a title. (Hmm.) He stops in Scotland to visit the ruins of his family’s keep, only to discover that the McRae’s former enemy, Magnus Drummond, is ruining his land with sheep. Intent on regaining it, Alisdair finds himself forced to marry to Drummond’s daughter Iseabal. Since it’s not a marriage in English law, however, he expect it will be easy enough to annul it once they get to England.

Having grown up with a tyrannical and abusive father, Iseabal prays for the strength to endure marriage. But her new husband is so kind and considerate with her, she starts to think marriage is to her taste after all. And then she learns Alisdair’s plan

The plot hops around hither and yon after this, almost stopping dead at one point for multiple sex scenes. (They are tender and engaging, but space them out a bit!) It was all too episodic for my taste, and I think parts of the plot are over simplified, to say the least. (See this post on inheritance law by K.J. Charles.) But Iseabal’s arc remained intriguing. Her personality has been so stifled from living in constant fear and stoic endurance, she retreats to silent passivity whenever she feels threatened. Alisdair doesn’t have much of an journey, but is a generally charming and likeable hero who does his honorable best, and gives Iseabal a reason to find her inner bravery.

 

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TBR Challenge: Rising Moon by Lori Handeland

CN: Ableism and racism.

The theme: a series book

Why this one: I don’t think I really expected to finish it? And now I wish I hadn’t.

The first two books in this paranormal romance series weren’t great but kind of hooked me anyway — glasses-wearing hero in the first, sacrificial hero in the second. But they’ve gotten pretty samey as they go on, and with the background switched to New Orleans, the woo-woo elements have become more and more squirm-producing: I’m pretty sure I DNF’d the previous book from the synopsis about a white voodoo priestess alone.

Unfortunately, the author seems to have asked herself to hold her own beer. This was all kinds of problematic.

But before I start on that — is it at least a good story? I vote mostly no. As is typical for the series, the narrator is a tough, single-minded heroine who meets a hero with seeeeecrets. Anne’s hard-boiled narrative stretched plausibility numerous times, with her frequently not seeming to notice much that her life was in imminent danger. Add in countless explanations about the 500 different types of werewolf and how they operate and excitement never really has much chance to build. I’ll give it that it has some nice chemistry, because Handeland does give good hero. But then…

*HUGE COMPLETELY SPOILERY RANT ALA WENDY*

First off, hero John is blind. And the representation is just about as terrible as it can be, short of fetishization. We only get Anne’s point-of-view and it’s all how terrible to be stuck in darkness blah-blah-blah. So that’s bad enough, but then the big reveal — which is actually pretty obvious — John isn’t actually blind at all! He’s been faking it as… some kind of disguise? This was during one of the duller sections so I may have dozed off. And this all ties in to Anne’s feeling like John only found her attractive because he was blind, so woohoo, he really does!

So that’s terrible on top of terrible. And the terrible cherry on top of this terrible sundae is that John’s dark past is he is a freaking evil werewolf (a particular one of the 500 kinds) because when he was human he was an especially cruel and evil slave-owner. Oh, and did I mention that John’s only friend is a descendent of the slave who cursed him?

Nobody needs this particular redemption narrative! And it isn’t even done well. John’s cure at the end feels like he got over a bad case of the sniffles.

Since this is a particularly harsh review, I will add that I think the author genuinely tried to be respectful about voodoo and its practitioners. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t enough to overcome the really bad themes here.

So, that’s this series sorted, especially since the last one I own has a part-Cherokee heroine. I suspect the two currently on my keeper shelf may slink away in shame.

 

 

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TBR Challenge: The Legacy by T.J. Bennett

The theme: I’m off-theme again. Somebody stop me!

Why this one: It also fits a Geographical challenge I’m doing.

CN for the book: abuse, sexual violence, and implied rape

 

It’s nice to read a historical that’s been on my TBR for far too long and not feel regret about how much more I might once have enjoyed it. Although not as timeless as an old Carla Kelly, The Legacy is still quite my cup of tea. 

Set in Medieval Germany during the Protestant reformation, it’s a romance between Sabina, who recently escaped from a nunnery with the help of Martin Luther, and Wolf, the prosperous owner of a print shop. Both have been blackmailed into marriage by her adoptive father, Baron von Ziegler. (There’s a cross-class element here, but it’s not particularly important to the story.)

Although wanting to be cold to the wife forced on him, Wolf is aghast to realize how badly the Baron has mistreated her, and attracted in spite of himself. But two things stop him from commiting to the marriage: his guilt over having feelings for another, after the death of his beloved first wife, and his guilt over having to take Sabina’s legacy from her mother, which she dreams of using to help vulnerable children and women like herself. Sabina doesn’t know whether to be angrier about losing her dream, or about Wolf’s refusal to let her in.

The theme of legacy resounds throughout the book. At one point, Sabina tells Wolf the most traumatic secret of her past, that her older brother was murdered trying to save her from sexual assault. Their father blamed her for the death and hated her thereafter, and she’s hated herself as well.

“Your brother was a hero, Sabina, not a sacrifice. Don’t let that devil take that away from you… It was his choice, Sabina. No one forced it upon him. He did it because he thought you were worthy of being saved. That is his legacy to you. Don’t ignore it. Don’t throw it away, because  if you do, he really will have died in vain.”

The Baron’s legacy of cruelty rebounds on him, when Sabina chooses not to be forgiving. And in the end, Sabina helps Wolf with his own ugly secrets: “Neither of us is responsible for the sins of our fathers. Let the legacy of guilt and shame die with them today.”

Well researched history is nicely woven into the plot, and Wolf manages to seem true to the time while being essentially a decent man. Sabina is admirably strong, with her basically feminist views given appropriate historical roots. And… there’s just the sort of angst I like.

Sadly, Bennett seems to have either stopped writing, or perhaps is writing under a different name. Does anyone know?

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TBR Challenge: Out of the Shadows by Sandra Marton

The theme: A holiday read. Sorry, not happening this year.

Why This One: You know why — it’s a Harlequin Presents, which is to say short. December is hard. The book is kind of hard, too.

The story opens with a “grey, sunless sky” and “low clouds sweeping menacingly” over a funeral. And then it goes downhill from there. I’m mostly kidding, but not entirely; it’s not a bad book, but it’s kind of a downer.

Basically, Lauren and Matt are two perfectly nice, compatible people who fall in love. (He’s also her boss and he does use that fact some to get close to her, but not in a really icky way.) There would be nothing to put in a romance about them if they didn’t both have relatives from the Gawdawful Parents Hall of Fame.

It would make an interesting debate to try to figure out who’s worse, Lauren’s controlling mother or Matt’s entitled father. The mother makes herself unpleasantly felt all through the story, while Matt’s father is more of a behind-the-scenes player, but they both squeeze in quite a lot of terrible.

Add to that some pretty old-fashioned plot twists, and a story that ends when many would think it should begin, and it just hasn’t worn that well. It is kind of nice to read an HP hero who isn’t a jerk, though.

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Four Doors Down by Emma Doherty

Wow, this book annoyed the shit out of me. It’s theoretically YA — ie, takes places in high school and doesn’t get super explicit — but it’s got pretty much every negative aspect generally associated with the “New Adult” subgenre — like a controlling, asshole hero whose “devotion” to the heroine is supposed to give him a pass for all his terrible/creepy behavior, including trying to forget her by treating other girls as disposable. And of course terrible other romantic interests to make the main characters look good by comparison. (Doesn’t work.) And every character other than the heroine knowing that the hero is really a wonderful guy who’s just madly in love, and abetting him in his crazy-making behavior. (I read reviews of the sequel to this, which shocked many readers by being very dark NA, in exactly the most obvious, cliched way for NA to be dark. I’m not a bit shocked or surprised.)

The story: neighbors Becca and Ryan were best friends until middle school, when he got in with the popular crowd and publicly rejected and humiliated her. He then cemented their status as enemies by very nastily bad-mouthing her, which she overheard, and generally acting like a jerk every time they interact. So yes, this is a “he teases you because he REALLY LIKES YOU” story.

Pretty much everything that happens in the story is Becca describing being at school, when suddenly Ryan appears and they interact. Or sometimes she’s at a pizza place and Ryan appears. Or at a party and Ryan appears. They only thing that happens more often than Ryan appearing is someone smirking. Usually, but not always, Ryan.

I’ll give it this, it’s a pretty engaging story before the repetitiveness becomes obvious. This wasn’t just a hate read; I was interested, and stayed up late to finish it. And I liked Becca’s assertiveness. Her refusal to take any shit was great — until every other character in the book started to get pissed with her because she wouldn’t see how incredibly IN LUV with her Ryan really is. Every time her inability to cut him any slack whatsoever got annoying, he did something obnoxious to justify it.

We don’t see Ryan’s point-of-view until the end, and when we do, it doesn’t help much. He fell in love with Becca after she got hot, what a prince. He makes no real effort to mend fences with her honestly, despite creating many opportunities to do so. What a shock to know he’s going to be a huge asshole in the next book too.

And yeah… I’m gonna read it.

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TBR Challenge: Caught on Camera by Meg Maguire (Cara McKenna)

The Theme: “Cover Girl,” a great or terrible cover.

Why This One: I’m kinda cheating here: I decided I wanted to use this, so I made it fit the theme. But it is a legitimately hideous cover. I’m not quite sure how to explain its effect, so I’m going to borrow from GoodReads.

(Simple description: setting is a woods, with sun shining through the trees. A woman with shoulder-length auburn hair, holding a sophisticated camera, is being smirked at by a blonde man in khaki holding his shirt open.)

From Giedre: “That cover… is fug, but I feel like the cover designers unlocked an achievement – producing a weird mix between a clothing catalogue behind-the-scenes photo and a peeping Tom’s diary entry – so they should be applauded. That kind of level of creepiness requires effort, I imagine. A+.”

To be fair, author Penny Watson is very pro-cover: “Now, most of the time, a cheesy cover is something that would make an author cringe. Not a good thing. But in this case, the cover made me smile. First of all, there is a hilarious sub-title on the front cover that says “This show is getting x-rated”…hee hee! Then, you notice the camera strategically placed over the dude’s crotch. And finally, the hero himself…he looks so damned naughty, with his shirt hanging open and a very wicked look on his face. How I love this cover! ”

For me, perhaps the worst thing about the cover is it didn’t entice me to read the book, which I’ve owned for 7 years.(I bought all the Meg Maguire books after reading the amazing The Reluctant Nude .) As Watson says, it screams “naughty fluff,” which I guess is the Blaze visual brand, and explains why I rarely read them.

You could say Caught on Camera is on the naughty side, but it’s not fluff. Like many of the author’s best books, it’s highly concentrated — all hero and heroine, all the time. Ty and Kate are co-workers (technically he’s her boss,) extremely intimate best friends, and always just one tiny step/enormous chasm away from becoming lovers. When they’re stranded in a snowy Canadian forest while filming Ty’s thrill-seeker adventure show, their feelings for each other and their emotional baggage collide.

I never feel like I get enough romance like this, where the main characters spend glorious amounts of time together, talking wittily and meaningfully. Here, they also have to deal with freezing cold, and fire, and the fact that Ty has barely eaten in days because he keeps strictly to a live-off-the-land policy while filming. It’s a life-changing experience for them both. But it was the relationship that really got me, the feeling that these two are genuinely essential to each other.

 

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TBR Challenge: Surrender to the Devil by Lorraine Heath

CN for book: A past rape, a scene of attempted rape, and some violence.

The theme: Historical romance.

Why this one: I don’t remember.

Historicals were my first romance passion, and my TBR cupboard is full of books just like this one: mainstream historical romance by mainstream authors. And there’s nothing wrong with it (well, except the so many things that are) but it’s not much to my tastes anymore. I found this a bit of a slog, though it did get more compelling towards the end.

The first thing you should know: this is book three in a series, and it’s really a series. Characters from the previous books are all over the damn place. It makes sense, given that the link between them — four or so heroes from other books and the heroine of this one — is that they grew up together as child thieves in the “rookeries” of London. But unless you’ve read the other books, or possibly even if you have, the constant reference to backstory is tedious.

This is a tortured hero meets tortured heroine story. Frannie’s torture was being sold and raped at a young age.  She has a good life now, with the help of her childhood friends, but isn’t much inclined towards love; her passion is getting abused children off the streets.  Sterling’s torture is the slow loss of his vision, which will likely result in permanent blindness. He was dumped by the woman he courted, and despised as “flawed” by his father, because of course he was.

Sterling’s disability gives him a vulnerability that is somewhat unusual in a standard hero. He’s both beaten up by Frannie’s mistrustful friends, and loses sight of her when she’s in danger, so he doesn’t get to be bigger and badder than everyone. Other than that the book is just so samey. I don’t even read these kind of books anymore, yet I recognized virtually every part of it. An ending that includes a grand gesture and the appearance of Charles Dickens — his characters were based on the friends, ha ha ha — just made me groan. I guess it’s once again one of those “if this is the sort of thing you like, you may like this” situations.

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