A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

J is for Through the Storm by Beverly Jenkins or H is for History

I actually started this because I hear Jenkin’s latest, Forbidden, is really good, and its hero Rhine is introduced here. Word is it’s fine to read Forbidden as a stand alone, but there is some interesting background on Rhine, a former slave who is passing for white. He falls out of the story early on, but lingers poignantly in his sister’s memory:

“Rhine crossed her thoughts often. Had he found peace? If she passed him on the street, would he acknowledge her or walk past her with the nonseeing eyes of a White stranger?”

This is also a sequel to one of Jenkin’s most beloved books, Indigo, and the start of a series about the hero’s brothers.

Through the Storm is a Civil War/Reconstruction era romance about a biracial woman named Sable, who escapes slavery and joins a camp of “contraband” slaves which is run by the Union army. The commander of the camp is one of a very few black officers, the charming, wealthy, rakish Raimond LeVeq. Despite some obstacles, they find happiness together while both fighting tirelessly for the rights of “the race.”

I’m not usually a big fan of historical fiction (as opposed to historical romance) which seems to generally focus on long ago and far away politics, war, and royalty. Although this is definitely a romance, it also includes a great deal of history — history which is much closer to our time, and also about ordinary people. I was fascinated by some of the small details that so tellingly show the realities of slavery: for example, the mansion Sable originally lives in was built by slaves to have numerous hidden passageways for eavesdropping, a vital source of information for people who had no voice in their own lives. Sable’s connection to her roots is also a small but intriguing part of the story, as she is not only the granddaughter of one of the Firsts (the people originally captured and sold, rather than born in slavery) but has royal blood. There’s a touch of mysticism to the story that springs from the spiritual beliefs of the Firsts.

As a romance, this is a touch old skool at times — Raimond “charmingly” manhandles Sable at one point — but their relationship is almost entirely consensual and tender. There is a betrayal/Big Misunderstanding but even at his most angry, Raimond never goes beyond sharp words and trying desperately to ignore Sable. The hardest parts to read, aside from descriptions of gruesome wartime medical practices, are the ugly racist attitudes of the book’s villains.

I didn’t love the prose, which is in a very plain, declarative style without much in the way of description. I found it flat and thin at times, and some of my romantic expectations were thwarted. (When Raimond discovers he had misjudged Sable, he doesn’t say a word about it!) The beginning and end are nail-bitingly suspenseful, however, and I enjoyed the cozy in-jokes that develop between the couple, around their sensual “discussions.”

“Looking down, he kissed her sweetly and said, ‘Being parents has cut deeply into our discussion times.’

‘I know. We haven’t lectured each other in over a week.'”

This isn’t my first Beverly book, and even though I preferred Destiny’s Surrender, I have a new appreciation for the way she brings lesser-known history — and happy endings — to light. On to Forbidden!

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I is for In Hope’s Shadow aka S is for Shafted

In Hope’s Shadow by Janice Kay Johnson

(Minor spoilers)

This is a sequel to Yesterday’s Gone, an excellent book about an abducted, abused child who is finally found as an adult. Johnson is very good at taking “shocker” plotlines and making them into thoughtful stories that plausibly delve into the emotions of the situation. (Whose Baby, about a mother discovering her daughter was switched at birth, is also very good.)

The follow-up concerns Eve, a foster child who was adopted after Hope’s abduction, and who has always felt like a poor replacement, never truly secure in her parents love. (They aren’t entirely without blame for this, but they do love her.) Her “sister’s” return brought up a lot of jealousy, and it didn’t help that she was found by, and immediately adored by, the cop Eve had been dating. (There are hints of “Laura” — Seth fell for Hope’s age-progressed photo.) As this book opens, Eve has established a friendship with her new sibling, and her remnants of jealousy over Seth don’t survive her blossoming relationship with his gorgeous coworker, Ben.

This was a very engrossing read, and as thoughtful, in its way, as the first book. But I found it a real letdown because I felt that Eve continued to be shortchanged in her own story. Her mother never really acknowledges some of ways her grief impacted on Eve — it’s up to Eve to realize she’s been foolish and unfair.

But it’s her relationship with Ben that is really the carcinogenic cherry on top of the diet sundae. Their first dates make me think of the horrible ones a heroine might go on before meeting Mr. Right. He is constantly hurting her, in a “nice guy” way. And he is ambivalent towards her, and yearning for his e-wife, almost to the very end of the story. 

“And yeah, he felt nothing but relaxed acceptance and even anticipation about where they were heading. He’d succumbed without much of a fight, he realized, in part because he hadn’t liked the bachelor lifestyle. He had no hankering to sample a different woman a week.

Gaze resting on Eve, he smiled. He couldn’t get enough of her, in bed or out.

Only the memory of the expression on Nicole’s face shadowed his mood.”

So… he finally, more than 90% into the book, is willing to consider a future with Eve. Because being a bachelor isn’t that great. And even then, he’s still thinking about his ex.

(SPOILERS) When his wife asks if they can try again, he does reject her, but without saying a word about Eve. Instead, Eve has to say it for him:

“‘Then what did I tell Nic?’

Old fears and new collided with the sense of self-worth she had been accepting — a confidence Ben had something to do with. [How, I can’t imagine.] And… was that a smile in his voice?

‘I think — ‘ her voice cracked, but she managed to steady it ‘– you told her you were sorry, that you’re actually madly in love with this spitfire of a woman who keeps you looking beyond the obvious.’

Ben laughed, the skin crinkling beside his very blue eyes, the creases in his cheeks deepening. ‘You’re right.'”

No, actually, you’re completely wrong, because he didn’t say one word about you.  And after mooning over his ex for the whole book, he really, really needed to.

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H is for The Heart of Christmas by Brenda Novak aka P is for Pet Peeves

I almost didn’t read this. The series has been more misses than hits for me, and in the book prior to this one, a sympathetic character did something so unconscionable, I never wanted to go near Whiskey Creek again, for fear of being a witness when that particular shit finally hits the fan. But I got sucked in by the hook of the most recent book, This Heart of Mine, and then some plot confusion led me to check this one out of the library… and then there was a bunch of other books I should have been reading instead, so there you go.

I quite like Novak’s voice, and it shows to advantage here. Her plots are generally exciting — the hero of this one is Rex, a character from one of her romantic suspense series, who’s on the run from a gang he used to run with — but the people are pretty realistic and everyday, without being dull. The heroine Eve is a pretty pragmatic person:

“And every woman needs a man.”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

She laughed. “Of course. These days most of us believe we can take care of ourselves. But your background puts that comment in perspective, so I guess I can’t hold it against you.”

“You think you could shoot a man?” he asked.

“Probably not,” she admitted. “But I don’t think most of the men I hang out with could, either.”

Eve is turning 35, almost all her friends are married and having kids, and she’s starting to feel like she’s missing out. But a drunken, unprotected one night stand with a guy who’s only passing through town wasn’t the kind of life change she was hoping for.

This is a solid read, but did get into pet peeve territory for me a number of times. One of the recurring characters in the book is the living… well, fictional… embodiment of slut-shaming: the greedy, spiteful, surgically enhanced Noelle. Her character gets a work-out here as resident Bad Girl — Eve even pimps her out to Rex at one point. Eve, of course, is a Good Girl who just made one little mistake, and she’s thoroughly ashamed of herself. She also decides what to do about the possible pregnancy — keeping it, duh — without the slightest hint of any decision making process. It’s 0-60: “Oops, we screwed up! Keeping it!”

But I do kind of like the series again and may keep up with it, especially considering certain events. IIRC, Novak had copped out excused herself from writing a story for her character Baxter, who came out as gay in the course of the series, because he’s already got a love interest. However, that relationship is on the skids in this book, and I believe ended completely by the next one. Will we get a romance for Baxter after all? Hope springs eternal.

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G is for Cecilia Grant aka CG is for Consistently Good

Note: This is currently free on Kobo, and it’s DRM-free, so can be converted to read on any ereader. Oh, also now free on Amazon.

With A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, Cecilia Grant maintains her place on my very short “authors whose books have yet to disappoint me” list. This could be attributable to the fact that she’s only published four books, including this longish novella. But I suspect it may have more to do with the fact that she’s only published four books in four years. Authors are pushed to have new stuff coming out constantly, and not only can’t I keep up with them, but the quality almost invariably suffers.

This is a novella that happens over the course of three days, and I’d still say it’s a book that takes its time. Time to get into the characters, time to use elegant language, time to make classic tropes like the starchy hero into people that modern readers can relate to, without making them seem anachronistic.

I feel like I should write more, but I’m kind of in a reviewing slump right now, so I’m just going to post this while the book is still free. It was really good, go get it!

 

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F is for Finishing Up or F is for F*ck It

endless

I recently realized that my ereaders are overflowing with partially finished books; they’ve become the place that dreams go to die. There are a few on my bookshelves, too. Since I’m kind of at a loose end with my reading right now, I decided to tidy up. Let’s see how many books I can pare down.

(It is perhaps not coincidence that many of these books are by authors I sometimes engage with on twitter. You kind of hate to start a book by someone you sorta know a little, and find you’re not all that into it.)

The Dones

Doubled by Charlotte Stein.

Short menage story about an insecure college student seduced by her twin best friends. It’s pretty hot, though not Stein’s best writing; the narration is a little self-conscious. I’m not really into menage stories involving twins (or any relatives, for that matter) so I’m not really the right audience.

Hell and Hellion by Olivia Waite.

Novella with a really interesting premise and backstory. Virginia traveled to hell to rescue the man she loved in a previous book (which I haven’t read) only to find he’d fallen in love with a demon. Now she can see demons everywhere, which makes her life in Regency England really uncomfortable. The hero is an incubus, who discovers himself changing through his relationship with Virginia. This could have been great, but I found several sections really abrupt and jarring. Everything happens very fast.

Hero of My Heart by Teresa Hill.

Trigger warning: mentions of rape and violence

Navy SEAL rescues a much younger schoolteacher who was held hostage by terrorists, raped and beaten. I’ve reviewed all the previous books in this series on the blog. It’s a family series about an infertile couple who adopt three abused children, and part of their story is that they had previously tried to adopt a foster child, but he was returned to his drug-addicted mother, making them scared to try again. I was thrilled to see that Hill had written a story for the grown-up boy, but less thrilled that it’s a trope I’m not that fond of: adoring protective hero/fragile, traumatized heroine. So I got bogged down.

When I picked up the book again, there was some shift of focus to Will and how emotionally unavailable he is because of his past, and that made the book more interesting to me. Will doesn’t realize that people can really care about him; he’s uncomfortable that his former foster parents try to make him part of the family, thinking they’re only doing it because they’re such good people, trying to “make things up” to him. I also thought the parts with Will helping Amanda get over her sexual trauma are very well done. It’s not quick and it’s not easy and it’s not all about him. So I wound up liking this quite a lot, after all.

Be warned that it’s a rough read: Amanda has a severe PTSD attack, set off by media coverage of Sandy Hook, which has some similarities to what happened to her. It really captures the stress and horror of the event in general, as well.

Tousle Me by Lucy V. Morgan.

I’ve been reading this New Adult parody forever, and finally forced myself to finish, with a fair bit of skimming. It was certainly funny, albeit often gross, but I find it really hard to sustain interest in a novel length parody; I have to actually have some investment in the characters. (Much as my favorite MST3K shows are always the one in which I can actually have some interest in the movie.) I’m not really surprised that the sequel to this, which was supposed to appear last Spring, shows no sign of ever being published.

Satisfaction by Sarah Mayberry.

This is another one where I was put off by the premise/trope and then found that the author did surprisingly well by it. Not my favorite by her, but I’m glad I finished it after all.

Traitor in the Sheikh’s Bed by Ros Clarke. (Review copy from the author.)

I read most of this short novella quite a while ago, so I’m not longer sure what I think about it. It’s sort of a kindler, gentler Harlequin Present sheikh story and I’m not sure the combo really gels. It’s another one with a heroine who was raped and has difficulty being sexual; the treatment is honest, but it’s a lot to stick into a short book that also has a lot of other stuff going on. The heroine is very brave and there’s a nice dramatic ending.

The DNFs

Private Politics by Emma Barry.

Read almost half. So disappointing that I didn’t like this. Shlubby hero! How often do I get a shlubby hero? But I found the intrigue plot really tiresome and felt exasperated with the characters — nerds adoring princesses is so not my thing. I wasn’t enjoying it any more when I restarted, so I’m calling it a day.

The Complete Ivory by Doris Egan.

Got not quite halfway through the first book. Again, I’m really disappointed not to like this one. Though I guess not liking a book is always disappointing? But so many of my reading friends loved it and it sounded right up my alley. I would’ve loved it as a teen, I bet, but now it seems like an episodic, pointless slog.

Stuff by Josephine Myles.

Interesting characters, interesting setting… totally meh conflict.

Sadly, this is not even everything! But most of the remaining unfinished books are ARCs that I still have hopes of finishing and reviewing, so I’ll leave them for now.

 

 

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E is for Ethan in Gold and End of The Line?

We’re up to E! Miss Bates’s E is an intriguingly different old SuperRomance, Mr. Family by Margot Early

Ethan in Gold by Amy Lane

This is a very apt choice for the alphabet challenge, because the main character was named alphabetically, after his four sisters Allegra, Belladonna and so on. His birth name is actually Evan, but when he starts working for the porn site “Johnnies,” he immediately assimilates his stage name, enjoying the chance to distance himself from his parents.

Ethan is a very interesting character, and I was absorbed in the first section of the book, which is about his fucked up childhood. I don’t think he’s autistic, but Sensory Processing Disorder comes to mind: he’s clearly a sensory-seeker, desperate for touch, and he stims a lot on textures. His need for human touch was complicated by the fact that he was molested at a young age, and his mother blames everything about him — including his sexuality — on that one incident. She also cut him off from her affection, because he’d been “defiled.”

Geeky virgin Jonah — who Ethan calls kid even though he’s two years older than Ethan’s twenty– is mostly interesting for his family situation. His teenage sister Amelia is an unusually long-lived survivor of Cystic Fibrosis, and her portrayal is as far from “inspiration porn” as you can get: she’s resistant to treatment, disobeys doctor’s orders, and generally drives her family crazy. Her dad is so upset by it all that he actually moves out, though continues to be supportive. I really appreciated this sympathetic portrayal of a caregiver who loves his family but has just reached his limits, and who acknowledges this in a sane way. Amelia is also very human and sympathetic, and Jonah recognizes that her contrary behavior is partially her way of insisting that her family accept her as who she is, rather than as a poster child for disability or survival. And despite her frailty and highly unglamorous illness, she gets to have a boyfriend and have sex.

The conflict between Ethan and Jonah is firstly Ethan’s feeling not good enough for him, and secondly his attachment to his porn career. Since all his coworkers are friends, it means lots and lots of good touch for him.

I loved the first book in this series, Chase in Shadow, and in my memory it was a tight, compelling read. But the second book and this one are so… chatty and gossipy. All three are set in roughly the same time period, and so we see a lot about the events of the previous books — this can be very interesting if done well, but here it just felt flabby to me.  As did pointless paragraphs like this one:

Donnie came up on Ethan’s left, his bright-blond hair so distracting that the girl actually looked up to see him. He was drinking a coffee, and Ethan looked over to the attached Starbucks and thought that was maybe where Donnie had been hanging, waiting for them.

Why is that even there?

The constant emphasis on the other characters made me feel as if the author wants readers to be madly in love with all of her characters, all the time.

So while there was a lot I liked, I’m not sure this author’s style is really for me. Maybe I’ll read the next book from the library.

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D is for Driftwood and Disappointed

(Miss Bates’s D read: Checkmate, My Lord by Tracey Devlyn.)

Driftwood by Harper Fox

I feel like a very reactive reader lately. A couple of times recently, one aspect of a book has put me off so much that it colored my entire response to it. In this case, it was the most blatantly reckless episode of unsafe sex I’ve ever encountered. It’s supposed to be important in terms of character development, but I couldn’t get past it.

In general, this had many excellent elements which somehow did not coalesce. The main characters, both of whom are suffering psychologically from wartime experiences, are sympathetic. The Cornwall setting is beautifully depicted. The romance happens very fast, but that’s not usually something that bothers me.

I think the problem is that this is a book very much about character — who these men are, what life has done to them — and then the plot throws all kinds of external conflicts at them. The end of the book feels like I was watching… oh say, “A Room with a View,” and then suddenly the Terminator shows up. It’s not quite that out of the blue, but it feels equally misplaced.

I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Fox, so hopefully this was just the wrong book at the wrong time and I’ll enjoy her again.

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C is for the Coda Series, D is for Damn it, Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me It’s a Series

Strawberries for Dessert by Marie Sexton.

This was recently warmly recommended by someone, and I started it without noticing that it’s book 4 of a series. That proved to be a slightly irritating mistake, because previous characters are frequently mentioned, and I found the past relationships confusing. It wasn’t irritating enough to stop me from reading such an interesting book, though.

The story is narrated by Jonathan, an accountant with a high-pressure job that requires a lot of travel. There’s some matchmaking by his ex or a friend — this is the part I found confusing — but in any event, he’s set up with Cole, who’s independently wealthy and also travels a lot. Although Cole is too flamboyant and affected to be Jonathan’s type, and Jonathan too much of a stuffy workaholic for Cole, they’re both lonely and horny enough to give it a try — no strings, sex only. Cole rarely talks about himself and doesn’t even like to kiss.

But Jonathan discovers that the private Cole is quite different from the persona he puts on, and he is more and more drawn to him. And his affection, and willingness to work past Cole’s boundaries, start to erode Cole’s resistance to any form of intimacy.

Cole is a wonderfully challenging character. I didn’t always like him, and was sometimes annoyed that Jonathan doesn’t notice when he’s being hypocritical — he’s adamant about not changing himself, but wants Jon to loosen up — or manipulative. (Actually, Jon does notice the manipulation some of the times, but it more amused by it than bothered.) I would think I have a special in for understanding Cole, because I was once close to someone very like him, but since the book is extremely popular, I guess he works for most people.

I loved the way sex is treated in this story. The first few encounters are barely described — a bit unusual for m/m, but I liked it. To my surprise, the steam level rises seriously later. This is perfect — not only is the sex integral to their relationship development at this point, but it doesn’t happen until I’m already invested in the relationship. What does it say about the state of the romance genre, that I’m surprised to see an author use such a sensitive, appropriate technique?

I also liked that we’re never given a specific reason for Cole’s closed-off personality. He’s obviously vulnerable and defensive, and has never really felt loved for himself, but it isn’t tidily chalked up to anything in particular. We learn a little about his past through his emails to the friend who set them up, but he remains complex and somewhat mysterious, but very lovable in his way.

The feeling between them builds powerfully, leading to some serious heartbreak. The way the conflict is resolved seemed a little labored, but I was still left with that great romance happy glow.

Final thoughts: I liked dessert so much, I’m definitely going to go back and have the full meal.

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This Post was Supposed to Be…

… C is for K.J. Charles aka H is for Heyer

BUT — I found that no one had reviewed Think of England at Dear Author, and it needs to be reviewed if it’s going to go on my Top Ten of the Year list. Though I’m only 22% in, so it still might go South.

Now I need to find a new C.

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Alphabet Challenge Update

The very cool and hungry-making blog “Cooking Up Romance” has joined Miss Bates and me (I?) in the “Alphabet Challenge” with a review of Composing Love by Audra North.

My next read is planned to be Think of England by K.J. Charles. I read her story in Another Place in Time and just loved it.

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