A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: An Indecent Proposition by Carol Marinelli

The theme: A contemporary romance. I no longer have any in my print TBR that aren’t categories, so went for the HP pile.

Why this one: It was on top of the pile, and revenge in the blurb instantly caught my eye.

This turned out to be the second half of a duology, and I’d recommend reading them in order. In A Shameful Consequence we learned that Nico and Zander’s mother was thrown out by her brutal husband and forced to take only one of their baby twins. (He kept the eldest, Zander.) Forced into prostitution, she agrees to give up Nico to a wealthy, childless Greek couple. As this opens, Nico has finally learned about his past and located his missing twin. But Zander, who grew up in poverty, believing his mother had deserted him and chosen his brother over him, is intent on revenge against the brother who he thinks had everything. He wants to take everything away from Nico — starting with his lovely PA Charlotte.

I was afraid it would be hard to find much to say about this type of modern Harlequin Presents, which tends to be heavily formulaic and samey. But I was surprised, not as much by the plot as by the prose. I don’t remember if it’s her usual style, but in this and the first book Marinelli writes in a much more evocative way than you’d normally find in a line known mostly for its efficient angst-building in a limited space.

“He took her away with his kiss and then he brought her back with its absence. He handed her her bag, which told her he had come out to fetch her; he draped her in her wrap and covered the swell of nipples beneath her dress, looked into her blue eyes and told her, looked right into them and told her, ‘You’ll never regret this.’

And he lied.”

It’s a bit more Ulysses than I expect to find in a Presents, but quite effective. The first book in particular has a lovely dreamlike quality, which is unfortunately offset by clunky sentence structure and a first draft feeling. Perhaps an editor took a firmer hand with the second, because the poetic feeling is less often interrupted by trying to figure out what on earth a line is saying.

Charlotte gets some family drama too, as caregiver for a mother with Alzheimer’s who made her promise not to put her in a home. Even in the short space, her tangled feelings of guilt, concern and resentment are depicted with some nuance.

Add to that some hot betrayal and a thematically satisfying conclusion to the overall plot, and you have an enjoyable read.

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Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas

As soon as I saw this title and plot announced, I knew the book would be fan service. Having now read it, I say, yeah, so what? Kleypas is excellent at keeping her previous characters themselves when they reappear, which makes seeing them again delightful. And though she gives Sebastian and Evangeline a whole prologue to themselves, she doesn’t overdo the nostalgia.

And this isn’t a retread of Devil in Winter, nor would it have made sense for it to be one. Gabriel, eldest son of that couple, has had the privilege of growing up in a warm, loving, and witty family. Unlike his father, he’s also grown up with a strong sense of responsibility and need to achieve. There really isn’t anything particularly devilish about him, other than that he’s having an affair with a married woman.

This misnaming contributes to a flatness at the end of the book. Gabriel thinks of himself as having a sexual “dark side,” which turns out to be absolutely nothing. The story would more aptly be called Incredibly Devoted Sex God in Spring. The ending fails in other ways too, introducing a new, over-the-top conflict instead of dealing with the genuine, realistic issue that already existed for the couple.

That said, the first three-fourths of the book are delightful. Our heroine is Pandora, the rather wild child from the previous two books in the Ravenel series. Here we learn that Pandora has a disability resulting from childhood abuse; she lost hearing in one ear and frequently has episodes of severe vertigo and tinnitis. I don’t know if it was the author’s intent, but I suspect Pandora would also be diagnosed with ADD today, and possibly with ASD. Her mind moves quickly from thought to thought, making her seem forgetful and disorganized, she has anxiety in crowds and unfamiliar places, and she’s always entirely herself, no matter how hard she tries to be like everyone else.

After Gabriel quite innocently compromises Pandora — see, not devilish at all, his father would totally have gotten some foreplay out of it — he knows he has to do the right thing, but is worried about how this scatterbrained, antisocial woman would manage as his eventual duchess. To his amazement, Pandora has no desire at all to manage: she’s on the verge of starting a boardgame design business and her plans for her life do not include giving up everything she’s worked for to a husband. (Which the law would force upon them.) As Gabriel falls more and more for her, he has to use his charms and occasionally devious intelligence to convince her he’s worth the risk.

I adored this courtship. The love scenes are achingly slow and gorgeous. But it was the conversation and witty dialogue that really won my heart. It’s such a funny book, and they have so much fun together.

But Pandora is also very clear about her feelings and needs.

“‘Damn it Pandora, I can’t promise not to protect you.’

‘Protecting can turn into controlling’

‘No one has absolute freedom. Not even me.’

‘But you have so much of it. When someone has only a little of something, they have to fight to keep from losing any of it.'”

Her insights made the ending even more disappointing to me, when a conflict arises between and then is instantly brushed off as nothing after some time in the sack.

So, not as terrific a book as it could have been. But there was much to love, and perhaps most of all, the theme of acceptance. In giving Pandora his acceptance of her, flaws and all, Gabriel also finds he can just be himself with her, flaws and all, the one thing this beloved golden child needed.

 

 

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How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

I happened across a mention of this while reading a critical review of The Year of Reading Dangerously, and I have to agree that this book is far more engaging in describing the book-reader experience. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve read almost every book Ellis talks about, which range from What Katy Did to The Bell Jar — but even when I hadn’t read the book, or don’t really remember it, her intimate knowledge and enthusiasm for the books made it easy to follow her points. I think it’s telling that while TYoRD didn’t inspire me to want to read anything the author read, this sent me dashing to the library site several times.

It’s curious that our youthful reading choices were so similar, because it’s hard to imagine someone from a more different background than mine. Ellis’s parents were immigrants from Iraq to England, and fairly devout and traditional Jews. She not only had a bat mitzvah, but a tier from the cake was pointedly saved for her wedding day. Much of her reading as she got older centered around the idea of escape from the life being rigidly prescribed for her, while mine was escape from a life without any protective boundaries.

Yet we read the same… and not just the obvious classics like Little Women, but more obscure books like Frost in May by Antonia White. Virago Modern Classic girls, both of us. All the books center women — who may or may not be appropriate heroines — and only two that I recall were written by men. (Franny and Zooey and Marjorie Morningstar.)

The theme of the memoir is how books helped Ellis become an independent woman doing what she loves, and she writes from two perspectives: what she remembers of her feelings when originally reading the books, and what she takes away from rereading them now. It made me think of a quote which sadly I can’t entirely remember, something along the lives of “Don’t think me superficial for reading novels; I’m trying to build a life.” Her insights are personal and not necessarily particularly deep; I’m sure there are far more thorough and complex feminists examinations of Gone With the Wind, for example. But seeing her react and think and rethink the roles of women in her favorite books, and come to peace with her own life, is captivating.

As a romance reader, I was also intrigued by the conflicting thoughts in Ellis around love and romance. She’s drawn to the bad boys of fiction — Heathcliff and Rhett — but her desire for fictional happy endings is at war with her desire to live a very different kind of life herself. And so she searches for heroine role models amongst spinster characters. (I’m reminded of a discussion I had recently on twitter about the difference between a happy ending and a HEA. To me, a HEA is inherently fairy tale in meaning, and so has to be a fairy tale ending. But that doesn’t mean you have to have a couple ride off into the sunset together to have a happy ending.) Ellis ends the book on a note of satisfaction and reconciliation, just the right note for this reader’s journey.

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The RITAs and Me: an Acquaintance

I’m stealing borrowing with permission this idea and the format from Ana of Immersed in Books. It’s always interesting to see how the Rita nominees correlate with my own reading. (Less and less each year, I’d say, as I read fewer books published by mainstream publishers.) So this is what I’ve read from the nominees.

Nominees by category:

Best First Book: 0/6

Contemporary Romance: Long: 2/7

Miracle on 5th Avenue by Sarah Morgan. An enjoyable story. Although I disliked the heroine’s pressure on the hero and invasion of his privacy in the name of good will, it was so effectively emotional that it may be my favorite of the series.

Pansies by Alexis Hall. Too busy for me, but I enjoyed the unusually serious look at a former bully and bull-ee relationship, and the “return to a small town” trope set in an ugly, provincial English town full of bigots.

I also DNF’d Hot in Hellcat Canyon by Julie Anne Long. There was nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t grabbing me.

Contemporary Romance: Mid-Length: 0/10

Contemporary Romance: Short: 0/10

Erotic Romance: 0/5

Historical Romance: Long: 1/4

No Mistress of Mine by Laura Lee Gurhke. (I’m really puzzled as to why this is in long rather than short. It was a quick read. I guess there’s just an arbitrary page count?) I don’t have any notes about this one, though I remember enjoying it. I think the heroine was well drawn and strong.

Historical Romance: Short: 2/6

Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt. This is my favorite of the RITA nominees I’ve read: it was fresh and fun, and I’m rooting for it. My review.

The Study of Seduction by Sabrina Jeffries. My first Jeffries read in awhile and I was underwhelmed. My notes are that the plot was all over the place.

Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance: 0/4

I’m going to check out all these nominees, because that’s a category I often enjoy.

Paranormal Romance: 0/8

I plan to read The Leopard King by Ann Aguirre.

 

Romance Novella: 0/7

Two DNFs for me here. I generally love Courtney Milan’s books but her Worth saga has been a complete failure for me. It feels strained and bloated. And I didn’t get into Tycoon by Shupe, though I don’t remember why.

Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements: 0/4

Completely unsurprising.

Romantic Suspense: 0/8

Also pretty unsurprising, this year. I hope this category will work for me again someday. Right now, the world is too scary.

Young Adult Romance 0/4

Not that surprising. I mostly read YA fantasy.

Total read: 5. Total DNF‘d: 3

It will be interesting to see if any of those 5 turns out to be a winner. Go Duke of Sin!

 

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Reading, March 2017

CW: mention of rape.

I didn’t need to badly circle my card squares, because I filled every space! I addressed my concentration problem in a somewhat different way this month, with some short stories and nonfiction. Also, I gave up playing “plants vs. zombies 2”; that helped a lot.

Recurring themes of the month: Athletes, sometimes using drugs. Athletes discussing how to woo the ladies. Fat/chubby heroines. Shakespeare. Sweltering summer days. Fairs. Titled heroes forced to give up scholarly pursuits. Commitment-phobe heroes whose estranged parents get back together. Characters described as lions. Enemies to lovers. Starchy heroines. Reckless heroes. Heroes explaining sports to heroines. Plots to drive people away. Carving initials. Texas. Dogs. Family members with awful significant others. Upstairs/downstairs neighbors.

Suite: An Enticing Debt to Pay by Annie West. (Harlequin Presents. Blackmail/Punishment.) He forces her to be his housekeeper; en suites are no doubt involved, because they always are in Harlequin Presents.

I’m having a run of books with reproductive pet peeves. This was on the meh side for me; it couldn’t seem to make up its mind what story it wanted to tell. But at the end, my general indifference turned into hulksmash hate.

Independence: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. (Nonfiction. American History. Black History. Space.) I confess to being very tempted to put this book in “the Black Moment,” but that seemed like the wrong spirit. Independence, on the other hand, is doubly appropriate for the story of these brilliant black women.

Terribly Sad: Past Loving by Penny Jordan. (Harlequin Presents. Reunited lovers. Sexy beta. Heroes behaving badly.) Books in which the hero left for greener pastures are always gut-twisters.

Hero who left the heroine years before returns. A more emotionally plausible Jordan than usual. I thought it needed more remorse from the hero — he snipes at her for not accepting his apology before he even made it! The heroine was extremely wet, but I had to love how she talks to her plants.

Dancing: All Lined Up by Cora Cormack. (New Adult. Audiobook. Athletes. Sexy beta.) Heroine is a dancer, struggling because her father refuses to let her pursue her dream.

Knock Three Times: To Dream Again by Laura Lee Guhrke. (Historical romance. Victorian era. Widow.) Inventor hero lives upstairs from the emotionally distant heroine and no doubt sings this 1970s classic to himself.

Hero/ine: Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career by Carla Kelly. My TBR challenge read. The square seems appropriate for this masquerade story.

March: Hard Hitter by Sarina Bowen. (Contemporary romance. Audiobook. Athletes. Suspense element.)

“March, man. Fucking March.”

Glass Madonna: Summer Days and Summer Nights edited by Stephanie Perkins. (Young adult. Short stories.) In one story, innocent people are imprisoned within mirrors.

An Elegant Madness: Devil’s Luck by Carolyn Crane. (Paranormal romance. Novella. Series.) The heroine is persuaded to appreciate the hero’s tempting of fate.

Ready and Willing: May the Best Man Win by Mira Lyn Kelly. (Contemporary romance. First in series.) Former friends turned enemies who discover they may not exactly be willing, but they’re always ready.

A little as if someone wrote a romance for Bobby from Sondheim’s “Company.” Set over the course of a year, with a large cast, it was occasionally confusing but a solid “his friend made a move first” romance.

It’s All Greek to me: Exquisite Revenge by Abby Green. (Category romance. Trope reversal.) Greek island.

Started out well with a trope reversal — the heroine kidnaps the hero, takes him to an island and buys him a wardrobe full of fancy clothes! But it was so repetitious! Every scene on the island starts with one or both of them fresh out of the shower and the heroine always looks delicate and vulnerable. I wanted to break her neck like a twig.

Bodily Fluid: Beautiful Bastard by Christina Lauren. (Contemporary romance. New Adult. Series beginning. Fanfic.) This is one of those easy squares to fill, but I had to go with this book because of Rebekah Weatherspoon’s pithy comments in her Goodreads review:

“Bennett fucks Miss. Mills in a white dress. he comes inside of her. he takes her underwear. she never cleans her crotch up and goes back to work. ill let you think about that. i know i did.”

An Ill Wind: Housebroken by Laurie Notaro. (Nonfiction. Personal essays. Domestic Humor.)

Funny personal stories. The book goes downhill towards the end, perhaps explained by the story about a giant tree falling on her house while she was writing it.

The Black Moment: Wires and Nerve by Melissa Meyer. Illustrated by Doug Holgate. (Graphic novel. Series continuation.) Although Iko is less fragile than a human, she does have mechanical vulnerabilities and loses her vision.

I expected this graphic novel to be a retelling of the Lunar Chronicles, but it’s actually a continuation, focusing on Iko the android. (Yay!) It’s the start of a good story (there’s a cliffhanger) though the art is not particularly inspired.

Bear Witness: The Mammoth Book of Ghost Romance edited by Trisha Telep. (Paranormal romance.) Ghosts, death, untold stories.

Pretty standard anthology covering many romance subgenres, with a few standouts and a few stinkers. All manage to find true love for their characters, though not always in the most ethical manner. Warning: stereotypical gay villain alert.

Pretty: Beautiful Bitch by Christina Lauren. (Contemporary Romance. Couple Follow-up. Series. Novella.) The title says it all.

Sex, flashback, sex, sex, fight, flashback, sex, sex, fight, sex.

Tropical Orchid: The Gentle Prisoner by Sara Seale. (Category romance. Beauty and the Beast. Large age difference.) The heroine marries a distant man who loves collecting beautiful things; she feels stifled and more like a part of his collection than a wife.

Valency’s post about comfort reads had me seeking out Sara Seale. I did not regret it.

Redundant: Midnight Run by Lisa Marie Rice. (Erotic romance. Second in series. Cop hero.)

Rice doing what Rice does, but not her best. The plot meanders, and though there’s an interesting conflict — heroine was overprotected/smothered by her wealthy father and is angry that hero treats her like a child — it isn’t resolved satisfactorily.

Comfort: The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller. (Nonfiction — literature, memoir.) The author goes out of his comfort zone to tackle difficult books.

This is less about the books Miller read then about his views of books, reading, masculinity, fatherhood, and writing. Although he comes off as snobby, pretentious, and indulgent at times — and embraces it — a lot of what he wrote resonated with me, as a reader who has in some ways forgotten how to read, and as someone who blogs about reading. I might have enjoyed the book more if we had anything like the same taste in books —  I’d never even heard of many of his choices, a lot of which are apparently “cult” books. But it was funny enough and insightful enough that I wanted to keep reading it.

Father Figure: All Broke Down by Cora Cormack. (Audiobook. New Adult. Book two in series.College students. Athlete hero. Heroine was adopted.) Hero is basically parentless, getting adult guidance from his coach.

Kind: Tell Me Something Good by Jamie Wesley. (Contemporary romance. Series beginning. Workplace romance. Opposites attract.) The relationship expert heroine is very giving of her time and attention to her radio show listeners.

Love Thy Neighbor: The Shameless Hour by Sarina Bowen. (New adult. Fourth in series. College students. ) Neighbors have been secretly crushing on each other.

I was a bit iffy coming into this one, because Bella’s previous appearance showed her as sexually aggressive to the point of being creepy and because I’m sick of books where the “wild” girl gets punished. She’s toned down a bit here — still assertive, but no longer making me wonder if she’s got any restraining orders. And though she does have an understandably bad reaction to what happens to her — not rape, but bad enough — her natural enthusiasm for sex isn’t dimmed for long.

Buff: The Wingman by Natasha Anders. (Contemporary romance. South Africa. Fake relationship.) Another square almost any romance could fill — but this hero was an underwear model!

(This was a Netgalley arc.)

Kissed by Moonlight by Dorothy Vernon. (Category romance. Convenient marriage. Reunited. Age difference. Bickerfest.)

Young woman marries older guy she fell for and had been rejected by years ago… just cause, I guess? It all happens very fast, to make sure there’s plenty of time for them to bicker and misunderstand each other. Had a certain sparkle to it, but the ending was such a letdown.

Patience: The Hook-Up by Kristen Callihan. (New adult. College students. Athlete. Insecure heroine.) The heroine is determined to protect herself from emotional involvement and refuses to even let the hero kiss her while they’re having hot sex. He actually puts up with this shit for quite a long time.

45: The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart. (Gothic mystery with romantic element. Inspired by another source. First person.)

“we must have been doing forty-five.”

Clever story with an excellent heroine.

DNFs:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. (Nonfiction. History. Black history. Science.)

A fascinating true story, but I read it slowly and the loan expired. Basically, the book was too broad and epic for me. I wasn’t that interested in the details of every person involved in Henrietta’s life or in the author’s research.

Blue Notes by Carrie Lofty. (New Adult. College student and CEO. Musician.)

I’ve never been so incredibly turned off by a romance hero. And I read old Brenda Joyce! I skimmed through the book, hoping it would turn out he was her big mistake and she met someone good.

 

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Reading, February 2017

So we have BINGO again! But it’s now being released towards the end of the month, which is going to make it a lot harder to squeeze books into categories. Challenge…accepted!

febbingo

 

The bingo card of someone who has not yet quite figured out how to do this on the computer. As you can see, sort of, I got two lines this month and read 20 books. I’m partially through about 20 more.

Recurring themes of the month: heroines who need to be carried by their heroes. Caregiver heroines at a loose end when their ailing family member dies. Heroes who do yoga. Heroines with men who want them completely passive during sex. Historical heroines who have had a lover. Valentine’s Day (sheer coincidence.) Couples with large age differences. Heroines who reject arranged marriages. First loves crushed into hate on 21st birthdays. (Yes, that specifically similar.) Characters who caused a lot of trouble as child witnesses. Really evil brothers.

Sweet Nectar of GloryKeepsake by Sarina Bowen. (New Adult. Farm setting. Virgin hero. Heroine with PTSD.) Although this exact phrase isn’t used, “glorious” is, and in the context of the hero’s sweet nectar. *snort*

Possibly the best book in possibly Bowen’s best series. Really lovely, tender hero. Very tortured heroine who is helped but not saved by him. Emotional sex scenes. I was tempted to do the whole card on this book because he is a kind pure loving beta adonis who has, as his friend puts it, gone 23 years without girl trouble.

Tomato Sauce: The Older Man by Laurey Bright. (Category.  Much older hero. Single father.)

” ‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘It’s not blood, it’s tomato sauce.’ “

Scratching: Wild Embrace by Nalini Singh. (Paranormal romance. Anthology of Psy-Changeling world novellas.) When you have cat and wolf shifters, there’s bound to be scratching.

Black: The Black Angel by Barbara Samuel. (Historical romance. Set in England and Ireland.) The titular hero is “Black Irish,” but the story is also notable as an  older historical romance with several black characters (half-siblings of the heroine.)

I Wrote a Letter to My Mother: A Stormy Spanish Summer by Penny Jordan. (Harlequin Presents. Judgey hero.) I learned this song from my great-uncle, who sang it “to my father” and if it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. The letter the heroine wrote to the father she never met is intercepted by the hero.

BetaHow Not to Let Go by by Emily Foster. (New Adult. Second half of a duo. Tortured hero.) Charles is probably the ultimate romance beta, because he believes –and acts on —  pussy ideals like “enthusiastic consent” and “responsibility” and “balance of power.” What a wuss!

Uncup Me: Rocky Road by Anne Stuart. (Category romance. Grumpy cop hero, busybody heroine.) Drugged, unconscious hero cups the heroine and she can’t get him to uncup her.

Suck It: Own It By Joss Whedon and Christos Gage. (Graphic novel.)The conclusion of “Season ten” of Buffy. No one can say suck it like she can.

Happy Dance: The Doctor’s Diamond Proposal by Annie Claydon. (Category, medical romance. Disabled heroine.) The heroine is Cinderella at a ball.

Kind: Don’t Ask Me Now by Emma Darcy. (Harlequin Presents. Love triangle.) Will our heroine pick her kind friend or the passionate lover from her past?

Beauty: Valor’s Reward by Jean Ewing. (Traditional Regency.) Beauty can be a mixed blessing, especially when your father is a compulsive gambler…

Bad Hair Day: Stormswept by Sabrina Jeffries. (Historical romance. Set in Wales. Lovers are separated by a Big Mis. Secondary romance.)

The title says it all. 😉

The most interesting thing about this book was wondering about how it was updated from the original (published under the name Deborah Martin.) My guesses are that the hero was not celibate while they were separated, and that he was significantly rapey-er.

23: Payment in Love by Penny Jordan. (Harlequin Presents. Foster sister/brother.) Heroine is 23.

That Would Be Grand: The Boy is Back by Meg Cabot. (Epistolary novel. Reunited lovers.) There’s a pretty grand mansion, but I’m going with this box because even though there’s swearing and mentions of sex, all Cabot’s books have a sort of “gosh, that’d be swell!” old movie feel to them.

Octopus: “Chocolate Kisses” by Judith Arnold in the My Valentine’s Day, 1993 anthology. (Categoiry romance. Novellas.) This hero has at least 8 hands… he is all over the heroine while she’s trying to work! Enjoyable collection of quick romantic reads.

Self: No Greater Pleasure by Megan Hart. (Gaslight fantasy. Second in a same-world series.) The heroine belongs to a religious order which teaches,”selfish is the heart that thinks first of itself.” She feels somewhat differently by the end.

New to You: Playing with Fire by Victoria Thompson. My TBR challenge read.

No Lycra: Bootie and the Beast by Falguni Kothari. (Contemporary romance. Set in Texas. Hero and heroine from India.) Diya is both health and fashion conscious and her hero is very much a no-lycra kind of guy.

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How Not to Let Go by Emily Foster

How Not to Let Go by by Emily Foster.

I really got into How Not to Fall, despite it having way, way more sex than I enjoy, and no HEA. It’s a successful attempt by the author to write a feminist New Adult romance that’s both emotional and hot, and it also has a wonderful narrator in science-loving Annie.

How Not to Let Go adds Charles’s voice to the narrative, which I found disappointing, since he comes off sounding like every other brooding NA hero. And I think the focus on his life — mainly huge family issues — takes away from Annie’s: she’s mainly a support to him here. Which I guess is fair, since he was mainly a support to her in the first book, but I missed her experiences.

As with the first book, I’m unclear about whether the depiction of BDSM style sex is offensive or empowering. We see Annie get uncomfortable when her best friend is put off by a description of what Charles likes to do to her, but I don’t think that was resolved later. And there are “reasons” for Charles’s unusual desires, which is always potentially iffy. But nothing happens without Annie’s enthusiastic consent.

On the positive side, these were aspects I really liked:

Like the first book, the prose is sometimes challenging with allusions, metaphors, and philosophy. As a reader, I had to do some googling and also make some intuitive leaps.

Although Charles is typically rich (and even titled!), his relationship with Annie has nothing to do with expensive gifts. His gifts to her are of time, attention, and shared experiences. When she needs financial help, she turns to her loving parents.

Also typically, Charles is fucked up to hell and and back. Untypically, he is working very hard to heal.

Although we don’t see enough of Annie’s life, it isn’t denied importance. She’s a student and they both prioritize that.

Most importantly, Charles’s issues aren’t an excuse for him to be a terrible person. Annie continually tells him, “you’re the best man I know,” and she’s not wrong. No matter what his feelings, he battles valiantly to always do the right thing for his family and for Annie.

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TBR Challenge: Playing With Fire by Victoria Thompson

The theme: A NTM author.

Why this one: I’ve been reading a lot of European-set historicals and felt like some Americana.

This author is not only new to me, but I don’t think I’ve heard her mentioned before, so I expected this to be pretty forgettable. While not great, it was lively story that kept me interested until the last fourth. Since it’s almost 400 pages, that’s a reasonable amount of interest, though it really did drag at the end.

After the last of her family dies, twenty-nine year old Isabel Forester impulsively decides to take a teaching position out west. She doesn’t expect much more than a change of scene. But when she arrives in Bittercreek, Texas, she’s amazed to find that she’s no longer considered a plain, superfluous old maid but a desirable woman every bachelor in town wants. Unfortunately, the only one to catch her eye is Eben, a taciturn blacksmith who reportedly adored his late wife so much he’ll never marry again.

This is a fun plot reminiscent of several favorite old movies — “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The Harvey Girls”… and another I won’t mention, since it would be a spoiler. The setting is well realized, with a strong cast of supporting characters; I enjoyed the wooing hijinks, and the antics of Isabel’s students– likeable in the style of the Avonlea stories. Then the book went into romantic gear, with Eben trying to woo Isabel and doing everything wrong, romance-hero style. There’s some effective tension, and nice sensuality — Eben the blacksmith is quite good with his hands! But the push and pull between them went on way too long, and a whole bunch of extra plot at the end didn’t help my exhausted feeling.

Though I wish it had been shorter, it was a nicely immersive historical and felt like it offered more than just the romance.

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January 2017

There’s supposed to be some new game this year, but it hasn’t as yet materialized, so just a few comments. I read a lot more than this, but haven’t felt up to writing. Surprise.

CW: Mentions of rape, abuse, torture and death.

Recurring themes of the month: Couple follow-ups. (Good ones! Blow me down!) First person narration from multiple points of view. Heroine who were raped. Fathers who know or learn they aren’t biological fathers. Heroine watching their heroes being sweet with babies. (Awww.) Cinderellas and balls, including in contemporaries. Dead siblings. Bad first marriages but not totally Evil first wives. Christmas. English historical heroes who learned martial arts. English contemporary heroes prone to bestowing nicknames. Heroes who need Fight Clubs. Heroes with monstrous fathers who fear they’re also monsters. Remorse scholarships.

A Reluctant Betrothal by Amanda Weaver. Historical romance, series.

I wrote about A Duchess in Name that it had kind of an old skool plot, but with a more new skool hero. That seems to be Weaver’s forte and she does a lovely job with it here, providing emotional satisfaction for readers with both the hero’s role and the heroine’s.

The Year of the Crocodile by Courtney Milan. Contemporary romance, series. Short story. Tropes: Couple follow-up. Family feud.

This short follow-up to the novel Trade Me was such a nice surprise. Rather than simply a frothy check-in with the couple, or some manufactured conflict, it had some real meat on its bones… because Tina’s Chinese parents have a legitimate grievance with Blake’s dad’s business practices. It’s maybe tied up a little too neatly to play well in the current world situation, but I appreciate the effort.

Someone to Love by Mary Balogh. Family series, first book. Tropes: Strongminded heroine. Secret ninja hero.

After the snoozefest that was Only Beloved, I was glad to find this had a little snap to it. It doesn’t hurt that the hero is that most irresistible type, the bored, resplendent, and secretly vastly competent dandy. (He’s also refreshingly small and slight.) As is typical of recent Balogh, it gets prosy at times, and as others have pointed out, the hero’s background of having learned martial arts from an unnamed Asian man with no history whatsoever is problematic and weird.

Christmas on 5th Avenue by Sarah Morgan. Contemporary romance, best friend series. Tropes: Opposites attract. Afraid to love again. Friends are family.

Both characters are grieving, and Lucas helps Eva see that she doesn’t have to try and be sunny all the time. Some nice angst. In some ways I liked this more than the others in the series, because it had more emotional oomph. But Eva really got up my nose. Her blather isn’t as charming as it wants to be, and I find it hard to believe that she’s an incredible romantic when she has a list for what she wants in a man that begins with broad shoulders and abs. I know romance. Romance is a friend of mine. You, ma’am, are no romantic.

The kicker was Eva’s insistence on interfering with Lucas’s life, to the point of actually changing his manuscript. I guess this could have been written as a harmless prank, but it didn’t come off that way. I would have kicked her to the curb immediately.

Tiger Eyes by Robyn Donald. Category romance. Tropes: Rich boy, poor girl. Prisoner of Love. Creative passion.

An unusually interesting heroine for an old HP: Tansy is deeply committed to music and ran away from home to put herself through music school by busking. The hero, not so interesting. My tolerance for old skool alphas is fairly high, but Leo is entitled, condescending, and stomach-turningly controlling. This is in character, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant to read. I’d have liked to see more reform and apologies from him. If you have a strong stomach, it’s still worth a read.

The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne. Historical romance, Victorian era. Second in a series. Tropes: Tortured hero. A Big Secret.

This almost feels like a paranormal in (well researched) historical garb. Ruthless assassin Christopher is close to superhuman in his fearlessness, ability to withstand pain, and ability to inflict it. And like many a paranormal hero, when he falls he falls with every fibre of his being. Actress Millie is our ordinary human, but fierce as anything when her son is threatened.  And like many a paranormal heroine, falling in love means she has to learn to live with moral ambiguity.

This was definitely compelling and I appreciated the author’s attempts to write original, evocative prose. There are some weird bobbles and clunky moments. It’s also squicky at times, though I was more bothered by the aspects of Christopher that are similar to stereotypes about autism: he doesn’t make eye contact, speaks in a monotone, has no sense of empathy, etc. Presumably this is from his tortured life, but it perturbs me that he could be read as autistic.

Note for sensitive readers: there are depictions of rape and torture, and mentions of necrophilia.

Steadfast by Sarina Bowen.

TIt was hard for me to really appreciate this, because I listened to it and the male narrator sounded like one of these guys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0wYchCT_1U Didn’t love the female narrator’s tendency towards a petulent tone either. (Ironically, her hero voice was quite good. A shame they didn’t switch.) So that really colored my feelings about the book. I also didn’t enjoy the unexpected suspense element. There was plenty of story potential without it, and it felt over the top. But I listened to the whole thing, so obviously there was an interesting story, and I do love reunited lovers who are still passionate about each other.

 

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TBR Challenge: Roarke’s Kingdom by Sandra Marton

(CW: a past rape)

The theme: “We Love Short Shorts.” Except for maybe Courtney Milan novellas, my most loved shorts will always be category romance.

Why this one: I went through a few books from my HP stack pretty much randomly and this is the one that stuck.

Roarke — no relation to another fine billionaire Roarke, though he does have a similar fondness for choosing his lover’s clothes — lives on a lonesome but luxurious island off of San Juan, with lots of servants and his young daughter Susanna. After a bitter divorce he’s very Cynical About Women, HP-style. Which means he falls fairly quickly under the spell of sweet, non-materialistic, child-lovin’ Victoria despite his initial suspicions. But of course, she is hiding a Big Secret.

This could easily have been a wallbanger. Not because of the feisty heroine and totally controlling hero — the first doesn’t go on painfully long, and you know I eat HP alphas with a round-bowl spoon. But it came close to serious pet peeve territory because there’s an Evil Other Woman — you can tell how evil she is before she even appears, because she doesn’t like babies or living on isolated islands — and she’s an adoptive mother, and Victoria is the child’s biological mother. That sort of story can so easily go wrong.

What saved it is:

  • I don’t know if it was intentional on the author’s part, but she draws a good picture of the importance of closure for a birth mother. Victoria, at a very vulnerable time in her life, is cheated out of the chance to say goodbye to her baby, or even see her. She has no trustworthy assurance of the baby’s welfare. The uncertainty eats at her, as well it might.
  • Although there’s undoubtedly misogyny in the story, the biological bond is not given ultimate importance. There’s no sense that the adoptive mother didn’t bond with her child because of biology — she’s just evil, you know.

So within the framework of an old HP, the book didn’t strike me as horribly offensive. (There is a scene where they observe a voodoo ceremony, but it seemed fairly neutral. Then again, what do I know.) And there’s some delicious pain and heartbreak, even though Victoria spends most of the beginning of the book ill, and the end of it lachrymose. 4 stars on the angsty-goodness scale.

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