A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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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TBR Challenge: The Demon Count’s Daughter by Anne Stuart

The theme: Getaway

Why this one: I’m trying to catch up with my favorite authors. Also, it’s nice and thin.

I expected this to be more of a traditional gothic — and perhaps it is; I don’t really know all that much about them. Certainly the heroine is young and innocent, and going to a decaying, mysterious sorta-castle, but she’s by no means destitute or friendless. She is, as the title suggests, the daughter of the hero of a previous book, and has grown up with plenty of love, wealth and freedom. Her visit to her father’s estate in Austrian-controlled Italy (1864) is supposed to be simple tourism, but actually she’s on a lookout for hidden papers that must be destroyed.

The other way in which this differs from the gothic of my imagination — there’s sex! Not a tremendous amount but you can see the Stuart that would later appear.

It’s very much a sequel and I haven’t read the first book, so that was a bit of a drawback. But the plot is extremely thin anyway, so it doesn’t matter all that much. Luciana goes to Italy in search of a mcguffin important papers, instantly falls in love with a much older and quite bitter divorced man, and spends the rest of the book being rescued from danger by him or trying to get him to love her. She narrates, which is kind of a drawback, because we don’t really get input into Evan’s feelings, or why he acts the way he does. At one point he says, “Lucy, I am too old for these romantic misunderstandings.” Well, why can’t you be forthright then? Why make it so very easy to be misunderstood?

There’s good dialogue, and some fun interactions with Lucy’s maid/companion, an unabashedly lusty wench with an eye for anything in trousers, and her male counterpart, “Venice’s very finest gigolo.” The main drawback, other than the almost pointless plot, is some bare bones, almost unfinished-feeling prose. Action scenes are awkward, and there often seems to be a connecting sentence or two missing. I didn’t always have a good sense of where Lucy was or how she got there.

But honestly, I’m not all that fussy these days. it was an entertaining enough, quick read, and if you like this sort of thing or like Stuart, it’s worth a try.

 

CW for book: violence and attempted assault (not by the hero), and some ick factor involving the hero’s child.

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TBR Challenge: Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly

The theme: Old School (book ten+ years old. That no longer feels very old…)

Why this one: I usually prefer going really Old Skool for Old School month, but this book was being discussed on Twitter and I felt like reading it. It actually has quite an old skool blurb and starts off with a divorced hero who’s very cynical about women, but that doesn’t last past his first laying eyes on the heroine.

(Incidentally, there’s a nasty flu epidemic in this story, so it was not great timing.)

 

Six months after burying the husband she nursed for years, Roxanna Drew is starting to feel ready to live again. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law’s idea of taking care of her and her two young daughters is to insist that they live with him, where he can offer her “the comfort of a husband” she’s been missing. Desperate to escape a pressure she might be tempted to give in to, Roxanna impulsively rents the dilapidated dower house of a titled neighbor she’s never met.

Fletcher Rand, Lord Winn, wouldn’t seem to be a great knight errant for this damsel in distress. Not only did he shoot a friend he found in bed with his wife — apparently getting him in a very sensitive spot — and feel no remorse about it, but he also divorced his wife in extremely ungentlemanly fashion, calling on all her lovers to testify. I’m not sure how to feel about this, to be honest. On the one hand, it’s cruel; on the other hand, she was pretty terrible. By the lights of the book, we’re not supposed to think particularly badly of him.

In any event, this hardened cynical lord is soon turned into a bowl of mush by Roxanna’s adorable children and her adorable self. As usual with Kelly, the development of the relationship (relationships in this case) is sweet and disarming in its swift intimacy; her characters are always old friends who just met. In Roxanna’s case, missing “the comfort of a husband” is definitely a factor. Here she cleans up after the stranded Lord Winn has spent the night (alone) in her bed:

She made her bed, noting the indentation of Lord Winn’s head on the empty pillow next to hers. I wonder if men have an instinct about these things? she thought as she fluffed her pillow and straightened the blankets. After Helen was born, she had claimed the side of the bed closest to the door, so she could be up quickly in the night. She started to fluff his pillow but changed her mind. She traced her finger over the indentation, then pulled the bedspread over both pillows. I really should change the sheets, she thought, but knew she would not.

Kelly’s books are known for being “clean,” but there’s some powerful sexual tension in this story. It wasn’t that usual when this was published for a romance about a widow to be so honest about her needs; it’s one of the charms of the book, along with Fletcher’s unexpected vulnerability, and the beautifully drawn children — the younger lively and mischievous, the older sadly quiet and matured by her father’s death.

I didn’t love everything: Fletcher’s past is unpleasant, and the plot meanders its way to a truly ridiculous Big Misunderstanding. There’s certainly adventure and drama enough without throwing that in. And then there’s Fletcher pushing Roxanna to forgive her brother-in-law, whose redemption could have used more work. But I was very drawn into this story about a woman trying to “play her hand,” no matter what terrible cards life dealt her, and glad that she finally got to put down… let’s call it a full house.

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True Pretenses by Rose Lerner

(reprinted from Heroes and Heartbreakers. This is currently on sale, so a good time to snatch it up. Also, the author could really use the support right now.)

There are many fascinating themes in True Pretenses, around family bonds, and religion, and the meaning of public service, but the major theme is found right there in the title. As you might expect from a romance in which one character is a con man, the characters struggle with knowing what is real between them. Yet paradoxically, they find truth within their masquerade.

On the surface, Asher Cohen and Lydia Reeve could not be more different. She’s the highly respectable daughter of a wealthy English peer; he’s the son of a Jewish prostitute from the London slums. But both come from lives requiring masks. Maintaining propriety requires constant vigilance for Lydia, as does her work in local politics. Asher’s mask as trustworthy Christian gentleman Ash Cahill might seem harder to live with, yet he’s learned to embrace his lies. When his younger brother Rafe asks him, “Aren’t you tired of celebrating other people’s holidays?,” Ash honestly answers, no.

He loved celebrating other people’s holidays. Moments were as satisfying to steal as money, and besides, sharing things with strangers made him feel as if the whole world was really one family.

What’s most striking about Ash and Lydia’s relationship, especially in the romance genre, is how honest it is almost from the start. The lies between them end very quickly, and Lydia discovers that she can be herself with Ash: she can express her lustiness, and admit that she doesn’t want to have children. It’s a constant pleasure for her to realize that Ash appreciates her just as she is.

It was a calculating thought, the kind she’d always pretended she didn’t have. But Mr. Cahill liked that she was calculating.

Living in a time when in which “gentlemen liked ladies to be the repository of their daydreams of innocence and virtue,” Ash’s unshockability is as attractive to her as his warm brown eyes and sweetly rumpled look.

Honesty comes harder to Ash; a lifetime of secrets has made him a compulsive liar, sometimes over the silliest things. (He gets a queasy comeuppance after giving Lydia a list of his favorite foods, which were actually Rafe’s.) Perhaps his biggest problem is that he no longer believes in the validity of his own feelings. He’s so used to an invisible wall of lies between him and the people he cares about, and to giving things up, and persuading himself that he didn’t need them, that it’s difficult for him to accept his true desires.

They’re both repressed in completely different ways, and Lydia’s delight at being allowed to pull Ash’s clothes off (the cover illustration is very apt!) combines with his wistful tenderness towards her to create a moving, memorable romance.

This is a sequel to the wonderful Sweet Disorder, but it’s fine to start here, although there are some glimpses of its characters and their happy ever afters — amusingly, from Lydia’s perspective as a disdainful political rival.

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TBR Challenge April 2020: The Last Grand Passion by Emma Darcy

The theme: whatevs.

Why this one: whatevs.

 

There was a time when the most emo hero ever written since this MST3K sketch might have made me laugh, but we’re all a little testy these days. From the start, this seemed an astonishingly pretentious Harlequin — perhaps that’s the Plus in Harlequin Plus? The hero appears out of nowhere, surrounded by billowing clouds of angst, quotes lines from “Pagliacci” and then sods off.

After that the ride gets a bit more interesting, because this heroine is not going to take no for an answer. (She’s already quite a bit different for HQ, because she slept with another man while the hero was gone!) She then proceeds to disregard pretty much everything the hero says he wants, all with the best of intentions of course. I don’t actually hate her — she’s in love, and she’s being screwed over, and she usually recognizes her mistakes, though that doesn’t stop her from making new ones.

If you like your Harlequins over the top, this one is reasonably fun and inoffensive — though I don’t know that I wouldn’t prefer a raging old school alphole to this sad, soggy clown.

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TBR Challenge March 2020: Summer Campaign by Carla Kelly

CW: attempted rape in the story

 

The theme: Seasons.

Why this one: It arrived fortuitously for the theme, and also the circumstances, as Kelly is a great comfort read.

If I’d tried this traditional Regency back in my “nobody is any good but Heyer” days, I would have been — who knows, possibly was — too annoyed by the similarities to enjoy it. Nowadays I can see that though there is definitely some Heyer (and Austen) language and character influence, Kelly already had her own, very appealing voice.

The somewhat episodic story follows Onyx Hamilton, a poor relation who is on her way to refurbish the vicarage of her deathly dull Mr. Collins of a fiance. Onyx is rescued from a terrible highwayman attack by Major Jack Beresford, who is shot saving her. Of course, it’s necessary for her to nurse him back to health and for them to pretend to be married while she does.

As usual with Kelly, there isn’t much angst between Onyx and Jack, their only conflict being the fact that she was an illegitimate foundling and he’s heir to a title. They have an immediate rapport of gentle teasing and mutual care, especially since fever from his wound increases Jack’s nightmares about wartime. Onyx has her own emotional burdens, particularly the loss of her twin during the war, and the simply dreadful way her so-called family reacted to it. One of the most visceral aspects of the attack is her few mementos of her brother being stolen and maliciously destroyed.

So there’s fear and grief and sadness in this story, but Kelly’s characters always give each other emotional boosts which leave me feeling warmed. They’re a great read in a lonely world.

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March 2020 Reading, such as it is

The only thing I’ve been doing less than reading for the past month is writing about my reading.

Recurring themes in my reading: Early women drivers. Marginalized college students. Mushrooms.

A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities by Mady G. and J.R. Zuckerberg

I’m a bit baffled by this short, nonfiction graphic novel. The combination of somewhat dense text with the cutsiest of illustrated characters… who is it for? I was turned off by the aesthetic and so was my trans teen. I do like the straightforward, caring tone, and it had some charming moments, but unless a kid looked at this and went “oooo, that’s so adowable!,” I’d probably get the info elsewhere.

Runabout by Pamela Morsi

Early twentieth century Americana, with a fake relationship, friends-to-lovers, and multiple complex relationships with complex characters. Morsi’s forte, but it doesn’t entirely come off. The title (referring to the intrepid heroine’s car) suggests she was aiming for farce, and there’s definitely a switching partners theme, but there’s also a lot of disturbing elements. Might be the mood of the day rather than the book — but then again, CW for attempted rape, violence, slut-shaming and a lot of Native American slurs. (Two of the heroes are half Cherokee.)

Well-Read Black Girl edited by Gory Edim

Black women writers talk about the books and authors that made a difference in their young lives. Most of the stories are about finding representation, unsurprisingly; I was tickled by the author who found it in Roald Dahl.

The Panty Raid by Pamela Morsi

A silly title but a serious theme — a young college student is stymied by sexism as she tries to pursue her interest in a scientific career. Short and pretty frothy, but you have to love her hero, who refuses to let her give up her dreams.

Making Hay by Pamela Morsi

Though short, this has everything I hope to find in Morsi. Great sense of time and place, vivid characters, and a meaningful conflict.

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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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