A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Dating You, Hating You by Christina Lauren

I’m really squeeing about this book — not just because it’s good, though it is, and not just because the characters are very likeable, though they are. What impressed me the most is how much it just gets right. I’m a fan of the enemies-to-lovers story, but even those who aren’t might like this one.

Starting off, the trajectory is different from the usual instant lust-hate. Evie and Carter meet at a costume party where they’re the only singles — and he just happens to be Harry Potter to her Hermione. “Perfect. I ship it,” says Carter, and so do I. They’re two sweet, funny people who seem made for each other, although the fact that they’re both married-to-their-jobs Hollywood talent agents is a little concerning. But before their relationship has gotten further than dinner and making out, Carter’s company is suddenly bought by Evie’s… and the two of them are informed that there might only be one job between them.

What follows is the more typical competition story — defensiveness leading to anger leading to some nasty tricks. But though both somewhat enjoy their sparring, there’s something serious underneath the situation: Evie is being screwed over. And Carter is too good a man not to eventually realize it. So the pranks are a fairly small part of the story and never get truly nasty. And they would both much rather be lovers than fighters. There’s no hate sex, by the way, and though I love me some hate sex, I think that was a good call in this case. It’s also lighter on the steam than previous Lauren books, which I also appreciate. There’s still sex, and it’s plenty hot, but it takes up considerably fewer pages.

I was disappointed in the ending, which I felt took an easy way out rather than having to deal with the genuine difficult issue of sexism in the workplace. Also, it turned into a caper plot, which just rubs the falseness in. But the rest of the book, though often lighthearted, is pretty realistic and takes the subject matter seriously, and there was a part of me that — ever since Practice Makes Perfect —  was just crying out to see that in this kind of romance.

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TBR Challenge: Folly’s Reward by Jean R. Ewing (Julia Ross)

The theme: A favorite trope. Say it with me: Amnesia!

Why this one: I wanted to finish the series.

In the fifth of Ewing’s traditional Regencies, a young man is washed up on the Scottish shore where governess Prudence is watching over her young charge Bobby. He has no memory of who he is, other than the sense that he’s named Hal short for Henry, and no idea where he should be. But when Prudence is forced to flee to save Bobby from his evil guardian, he appoints himself their protector. Bobby, who believes Hal to be “a Selkie man,” is only too happy to have him with them, but Prudence fears the impact of his beauty and seductive nature on her peace of mind.

For the first half, this was pretty same old/same old. Despite his amnesia, Hal is a very typical Ewing/Ross hero: goodnaturedly cynical, reckless, and always ready with a suitable (or unsuitable) literary quote or bawdy rhyme. Prudence is decidedly bland, so his instant besottedness seems based only on her being the first face he sees, regaining consciousness. But when he recovers his memory in the second half, the story becomes far more intense and interesting; Hal’s memories are… very bad. There are strange but compelling subplots, and the Selkie metaphor is rather sweetly wrapped up, with Prudence showing some fire and backbone. I wound up enjoying it much more than I expected to.

Note: Most of the series is only loosely linked, but this is a direct sequel to Virtue’s Reward.

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Reading, May 2017

I’ve been saving this, hoping to be able to bingo-fy it… but the further I get from actually having read the books, the less likely it seems to happen, so I’m just going to forget it for this month. Lots of author glomming, because I have a trial Kindle Unlimited subscription that runs out in June. You can tell that I was getting pretty punchy.

Recurring themes of the month: Football players who ignore dangerous concussions. Acquired disabilities. (The two themes are sometimes related.) Really crap treatment of disability. Heroines who inherit farms and marry their foremen. (Not always the hero.) Heroines on the run from abusive partners/gunshy heroines. Churchgoers. Being different is a sign of evil. Dandelions. Alternative versions of ancient Greece. Twins with issues. Overheard conversations. Massive student loans. Fighters. Vegans. Virginias.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah — putting this here because I apparently forgot to note it when I read it around the beginning of the year. Less funny than I expected, but a fascinating history. Noah’s mother is just amazing.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. (Young adult. Fantasy. Beginning of series.)

I reread all the “Queens Thief” series so I could write about it for Heroes and Heartbreakers.

The Broken Wing by Mary Burchell. (Harlequin romance. Second in series. Boss/secretary. Disabled heroine. Singer. Good sister/bad sister.)

Tessa works as a secretary for Quentin, who is organizing a music festival. When she agrees to help her more vivacious twin sister audition for a part, she’s horrified to not only be forced to hide her own superior voice, but to have to watch her sister go after the man she secretly loves.

I have mixed feelings about this, since it was an excruciating read. I love good sister/bad sister romance but when the bad sister seems to be getting everything the heroine wants, while she’s left out in the cold, it really cuts. Luckily this is Mary Burchell, so we barely have to wonder if the hero and sister even kissed.

The disability narrative is also very old-fashioned — the original title was actually “Damaged Angel,” after a broken figurine Tessa identifies with, and oh my God. But I liked where it wound up going:

“For the whole of her life her lameness had been a matter of anguish to herself and slightly irritated embarrassment to the people around her. The idea that one might, so to speak, deal with it and then ignore it was shattering in its revolutionary simplicity.”

Later in the book, Tess has internalized this new idea so much, she “could refer to her lameness without pain — purely as a matter of fact.” Not half bad for 1966.

As with A Song Begins, the focus on artistic dedication is very engrossing, and it’s fun to see Tessa stop being a doormat to her sister, and get over her lovesickness enough to start giving Quentin what for. And there’s quite a bit of delicious, understated sexual tension. Another really good Burchell.

Blackmailed into her Boss’s Bed by Sandra Marton (originally published as Consenting Adults.) (Contemporary romance. Category. Harlequin Presents.)

Woman forced to work for man who wants her. Old skool Marton — ie, needless bickering, dubious consent, and a heroine who rarely finishes a sentence. Good angst, though. I’d think the obvious irony of the original title prompted them to rename it, except HQ never seems to worry about unintentional irony.

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. (Young adult. Fantasy. Second in series.)

All Played Out by Cora Carmack. (Audiobook. New adult. Series. Texas. College students. Football player. He’s just not that into you. Shy/geeky.)

This wasn’t as enjoyable as the previous books, for several reasons.

  1. Overdose of cute couples from the previous books.
  2. Way too much set-up for the next book, which has yet to actually appear.
  3. The hero is initially into the heroine because she looks so much like his ex, he thinks she’ll be a good antidote. Yeech.
  4. I suspect the heroine is intended to have undiagnosed Aspergers Syndrome and it’s a pretty stereotypical portrayal, which I find annoying.

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

When Love is Blind by Mary Burchell. (Category romance. Harlequin Romance. Third in series. Secretary/boss. Musicians. Heroines behaving badly. Deceit. Stalkeriffic heroine. Stay in your own damn book.)

As soon as I saw this title on a 1960s romance, I expected the worst, but after the relative inoffensiveness of The Broken Wing, I hoped for the best. Nope. Every single ablist cliche you’d expect to find in a book with a (temporarily, of course) blind character is here, including someone saying, “In a way it would almost have been better for him if he’d been killed.”

On top of that, the heroine is a spineless worm unworthy of the title. She inadvertently causes the hero’s blindness, refuses to take any kind of responsibility, and lies through her teeth until the very end. When faced with her lies by the Evil Other Woman, she says, “I’m sorry you had to find all this out in circumstances that put me in a very bad light.” I’m failing to think of circumstances that could show her in a good light. And though she does grow a bit as a musician — through her aching pity for the tragic blind man! — she never gets a real redemption. Almost a complete stinker.

Everything I Left Unsaid by M.O’Keefe. (Erotic romance series. No HEA. Cliffhanger. Domestic violence. Abusive husband. Adultery.)

Mostly very good, with wonderful sexual tension: the hero and heroine interact primarily by phone for most of the story. But the cliffhanger is so trite, I felt I’d have been pretty happy if the previous book had just stopped before the last chapter, even without a HEA.

The Truth About Him by M. O’Keefe. (Romance Suspense. Series. Couple HEA. Domestic violence.)

I was disappointed in the suspense direction this book went in, and that a lot of it was Annie being TSTL and Dylan being “I’m not good enough.” Again, I thought I might have been happy if the first book had just ended on a note of hope. But there were issues to wind up for Dylan, so it wound up being effective. Also had some good sequel-baiting.

The Curtain Rises by Mary Burchell. (Harlequin Romance. Series. Beta. Hero falls first.)

Similar to other Burchells — opera setting, broken hearted heroine who thinks she hates the hero — but unusual in that he’s rather sweet and sensitive, a rising star rather than an established power, and very obviously head over heels for her.

The Way Home by Keira Andrews. (Contemporary romance. End of series. m/m.)

Christening by Claire Kent. (Contemporary romance. Couple follow-up. Marriage in jeopardy. Adorable kid overload.)

Short sequel to Nameless, heavy on the parenting. Dullsville.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier. (Gothic historical fiction. Cornwall.)

One of the books discussed in How to Be a Heroine. I’m sorry I went with audiobook, because the narrator made the main characters sound so unappealing, it was hard to feel the romance. But an excellent creepy gothic. Watch out for a really offensive depiction of albinism.

A Baby for Easter by Noelle Adams.

Adams insists these books aren’t inspies, but I’d argue the point.

Incarnate by Claire Kent.

Another sequel to Nameless. I related a bit more to this one, since it’s about getting older and being parents of teens. The male-relative-getting-all aggressive-over-his-female-relative-dating trope is blech, but I liked that it touched on the problems of raising children well when you weren’t loved yourself.

A Family by Christmas by Noelle Adams. (Contemporary romance. Third in series. Convenient marriage. Hero is divorced. Child is a major character.)

This didn’t work as well for me as the previous two books. Everyday realism is Adam’s thing here, which didn’t gibe with two people having a convenient marriage and agreeing on both faithfulness and no sex, without ever thinking about what that means. Or a 27 year old woman still “saving herself” for marriage without apparently ever having had any kind of issue around it. And neither paid much attention to how this marriage might affect the hero’s daughter. (Especially given that he constantly lies to his daughter about the relationship, and that his wife is planning to leave for India soon.) I did enjoy the dark moment, but the conflict is very similar to that in the previous book and resolved in much the same way.

The Elopement by Megan Chance. (Short story. No HEA.)

I have no idea how to classify this short story. It doesn’t seem detailed enough, or to have enough sense of time or place, to count as historical fiction. Two of the main characters don’t even have names. But I feel concerned for the two people on goodreads who tagged it “romance.” It’s dark and very sad.

An interesting aspect of this story I realized after the fact: the unnamed man is basically a Victorian hipster. Nothing new under the sun…

Child of Music by Mary Burchell. (Harlequin Romance. Series. Music teacher. Evil Other woman. Child is a major character. Stay in your own damn book.)

Some nice angst, but it’s too talky and the hero is such a doof over the Evil Other woman. And then the heroine does that finger to the mouth thing when he apologises. I hate that finger to the mouth thing! I’m not usually big on kids in romance, but the matter-of-fact child prodigy Janet was the best part. I wish she’d gotten a story.

The Heart of It by Molly O’Keefe.

Intriguing, but too short for its issues.

Bad Neighbor by M. O’Keefe

This had a lot in common with Everything I Left Unsaid, so I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read it later.

Reconciled by Easter by Noelle Adams. (Contemporary romance. Fourth in series. Marriage in jeopardy.)

This may be the most “inspie” of the series, since the conflict is basically handled by trust in God. It’s also one of the most interesting. Abigail, who was raised in a much stricter and unforgiving religious tradition than other characters in the series, has tried to overcome her training and became her own person. But she believes her husband only wants her as she used to be.

The Only One by Penny Jordan. (Contemporary Romance. Category. Harlequin Presents.)

Meh, with a side of rapey hero.

Home for Christmas by Noelle Adams.

Music of the Heart by Mary Burchell.

Mary Burchell was a true heroine in real life and her experiences no doubt inspired parts of this story which speak about the sorrow and strength of refugees. It’s also a return in the series to a strong emphasis on music, and the conflict has higher stakes than just love, including artistic vision, and the importance of authenticity.

Baby, Come Back by Molly O’Keefe. (Contemporary romance. Sequel. Suspense element. Heroine is the bad sister.)

Has some plotting issues, but the story really grabbed me.

Unbidden Melody by Mary Burchell. (Contemporary romance. Category. Harlequin Romance. Singer.)

(You might not want to read my thoughts if you haven’t read the book.)

I might have had a different reaction to this if I hadn’t recently read a bit of Burchell’s autobiography, which gave me a feeling that this “ordinary office girl/famous opera singer” romance might have been inspired by actual events. (Also if a tenor singer didn’t bring to mind — ugh — Dick Powell.) When I realized the heroine is named “Mary Barstow” I wondered even more. It has a touch of reality in being the first Burchell I’ve read that even approaches the concept of sex: Mary actually ponders whether, should the hero invite her for a “dirty weekend,” she should accept. And then the ending is… ambiguous. In the last line, the heroine is “nearly sure” that the hero is over the trauma of his past and things will be okay for them. Come to think of it, even the title is suggestive.

My (completely uninformed and fictional) take is that Burchell wanted to write a happy ending for a true sad story but couldn’t quite bring herself to do it completely. Or perhaps her publishers insisted on a hopeful ending, like with the end of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. In any event this is one of those sad cases where the book itself is good, but I couldn’t buy the happy ending.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge. (Young Adult Fantasy.  Audiobook. Inspired by another source. Forced marriage.)

A fascinating beauty and the beast retelling (with shades of “Cupid and Psyche” and “Tam Lin”) featuring a bitter, resentful beauty and a truly beastly beast. A much more complex look at the popular “evil hero” than we usually see in either YA or romance, though you could argue that the ending undoes it.

Finished by Claire Kent. (Contemporary. Erotic romance. Polyamory.)

A polyamorous threesome implodes, for rather more complicated reasons than usual. Interesting story, though the writing is rather prosaic.  FYI, I think the author tried very hard to be respectful of polyamory but I’m not sure she always pulled it off.

His Forbidden Bride by Theodora Taylor. (Contemporary romance. Second in series. Interracial romance. Dark romance?Amnesia. Dominant hero. Doctor heroine.)

WOOF! This book was a hell of a ride. I’m not sure how much I can say about it without spoilers, and spoilers would be a terrible shame, but warnings for some violence, depictions of racism, and vast amounts of cray-cray, some of it seriously problematic as romance. Many readers will find it too upsetting, but I loved the appealing characters and the twists. (It’s a bit like the Sookie Stackhouse book in which vampire Eric gets amnesia and becomes vulnerable and lovable instead of simply deadly.) If you have any doubts, see the GoodReads reviews which are full of spoilers and disgust.

Tangentially, I thought it very cool that in her “50 Loving States series”  — Janet Daily, but with interracial romance — Taylor touches on the fact that loving in some states can be pretty difficult. It’s set in West Virginia and the black heroine says frankly, “West Virginia and me have a complicated relationship.”

ETA: I’ve started the follow-up to this, His to Own, and it’s actually making me rethink my fairly positive feelings. The overt racism is seriously disturbing. More next month.

DNFs

Living with Regret by Riann C. Miller. (Contemporary romance. Reunited. Amnesia. Slut shaming/disposable other women.)

I find the prose too OTT, but I skimmed because I’m a sucker for amnesia plots. But it set up a great conflict — dumbass hero has dumped the heroine *twice* — and then pissed it all away. If you’re going to go OTT, at least provide some payoff!

Wildfire by Anne Stuart. (Contemporary. Romance suspense. Heroine is married.)

To quote the Simpsons, “I can think of at least three things wrong with that title.” I got through more than half of this, desperately thinking, surely something will happen now? Instead the heroine plots revenge on her evil husband and thinks about how lean the hero is, the hero wonders whether he’ll kill the heroine or not, and the evil husband is skanky with some evil skanks. Forever. Not to mention, still yet more ableism out the wazoo. Too bad, because the story idea was great.

The Bride by S. Doyle. Just didn’t grab me.

Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman. Might be more interesting in print; really dragged in audio.

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His For Keeps by Theodora Taylor

His For Keeps by Theodora Taylor.

This interracial romance is a follow-up to His One and Only, and overlaps with it a bit. It’s also the first of the “Fairgood Boys” trio, but without the controversial aspects of the other two. Country star Colin Fairgood recruits Kyra Goode (I like the parallel naming, because she gives as good as she gets) to help him make his high school crush Josie jealous. Unfortunately, Kyra has an extremely soft spot for Josie’s ex, Beau, and helps him win Josie over instead. But Kyra continues to pursue a friendship with Colin — without telling him that Josie asked her to, and is technically paying her as well. As things get intense between them, the secrets she’s keeping from him, as well as from Josie and Beau, become ever more potentially explosive.

I’d definitely call this romance rather than erotica, but it does get kinky, with domination and bondage. (Nothing really scary or painful.) It’s neither straight-out fantasy nor a realistic safe-sane-and-consensual depiction: Colin throws Kyra right into a power exchange with very little warning or preparation, which I found off-putting. But she does have the power to stop it and chooses not to, so there is consent of a sort. And I did really like their discussions about how to have a D/s relationship while also having a regular everyday life, including having children.

I’ve really been enjoying Taylor’s first person stories, and Kyra has a particularly strong voice. Her interactions with her grandmother add humor and sentiment, and songwriting gives her a life outside her romance.

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The Loving Spirit by Penelope Stratton (Lucy Gordon)

Book content warning: depiction of rape

 

The Loving Spirit by Lucy Gordon.

This opens with what would be the epilogue of a typical historical romance: an ordinary woman named Amelia captured the heart of a harsh, withdrawn Earl named Justin, and they are now happily married with several children, and another on the way. But such happy endings were more precarious than most historicals like to acknowledge, and the birth of little Amelia leads to the death of her mother. On her deathbed, Amelia makes her husband and her children’s governess (her beloved school friend Kate, who fell on extremely bad times) promise to marry each other immediately, seeking to protect both of them.

Over time, the grief-stricken, bitter Justin and lonely Kate grow from having “no sympathy between their minds” to respect, liking, attraction, and then passionate love. But of course Kate’s horrible past comes back to attempt to destroy them.

I’m glad my attention was piqued by the plotline, because this is much meatier and more satisfying than Gordon’s frothy traditional Regencies. It’s a bit like a literary ancestor of The Passions of Emma by Penelope Williamson, but in more traditional genre romance form; readers who hate when a previous wife is downgraded and badmouthed to make the heroine look good will appreciate this one. Kate is a bit TSTL at times, but only when under tremendous pressure, and she’s a strong fighter. And there’s an excellent redemption for the narrowminded Justin.

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TBR Challenge: That Midas Man by Valerie Parv

CW: Death of a child

 

The theme: Something different.

Why this one: So, after making sure I had my April TBR post written in advance, I completely spaced on the May TBR challenge. I chose this as a fast read, by an author I haven’t, IIRC, tried before.

It actually was a little different, as Harlequin Presents go. Midas is almost a beta ruthless tycoon: he’s kind, and thoughtful, and has a legitimately tragic backstory. (His wife and child were driven to their deaths by paparazzi.) Journalist Jill is the baddie, invading his privacy in the name of getting custody of her daughter; she also has that irritating heroine habit of recklessly lying about something and then being pissed when he believes her. There’s kind of a weird suspense element at the end, which gives her a chance to redeem herself. It’s not overtly racist, but a POC is the bad guy.

So yeah, not all that different. A decent enough read, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to find a copy.

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Reading, April 2017

I apologize for how sparse this post is; my April was spent preparing for my trip, freaking out about my trip, taking my trip, and then recovering from my trip. So I didn’t make a lot of notes and some of the lighter books I barely remember. Squares unfilled: “Wild ride” and “West Side.”

Recurring themes of the month: Heroines who want to escape “the Marriage Plot.”Ambitious mamas. Historical ADHD and anxiety disorder. People who use their supposed craziness to defeat evil. Series merging. Victorian inventors with patents. Drama involving exes at the theatre. Heroines under surveillance. Twin babies. Heroines who fall for the black sheep of seemingly perfect families. Heroines taken advantage of while they’re grieving. Heroines from the Pacific Northwest. (Timely!) Pointless, cliched, and offensive big reveals. Bondage wounds. (Not the good kind.) Musicians/creative artists.

Hollywood: Married for the Tycoon’s Empire by Abby Green. (Harlequin Presents. First in multi-author series. Hero in pursuit.) Not actually set in Hollywood, but they have Hollywood-style problems.

Double denim: A Shameful Consequence by Carol Marinelli. (Harlequin Presents. First in a duo. One night stand. Secret baby.) Sexy twin brothers! Okay, so you only get one in this book…

Toast: The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian. (Historical – Victorian. M/M. Disabled hero. Criminal hero. Masquerade. In hiding.)

I can’t remember if there’s actually toast in this story — one hero only eats bread and ham — but there’s a lot of coziness to it, and surely there’s some toast in a cozy English romance?

This has such a romantic cover and thankfully the contents did it justice. The author has a lovely way with a romantic scene, as when the characters cautiously flirt while testing the telegraph they’re working on.

Belles: Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell. (Harlequin Romance. Paris in the 1940s. Love triangle/rectangle.)

I can’t really say much about this, because it’s one of those surprising oldies in which it’s genuinely hard to tell who the heroine will end up with. But I loved it, except for some quibbles with the ending. No steam at all but utterly delightful. Wonderful details about the Paris fashion world and what it was like to be a fashion model.

Exploring: How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis. The author explores how she wants to live through books. Thoughts here.

A Token Wife: Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas. (Historical Romance. Victorian. Series.) What Pandora has no intention of being.

I liked this the best of Kleypas’s recent historicals, though it’s not high drama as the title implies.

Now! (contemporary): An Indecent Proposal by Carol Marinelli. My TBR challenge read.

Sleepless Nights: A Lady’s Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran. (Historical – Victorian. Deceit. Fake marriage.) The heroine’s guilt no doubt caused her many sleepless nights.

It’s a shame this has such a generic title, because it’s one of Duran’s best books. The “marriage to someone who’s supposed to die soon” plot isn’t new, but there’s quite a twist here. The amnesia element almost made this a science fiction plot, so it’s interesting to anyone fascinated by genre.

Drinks O’Clock!: Lovers in the Afternoon by Carole Mortimer. (Harlequin Presents.) Self-explanatory. 🙂

Special Delivery: Pregnant by Mr. Wrong by Rachel Johns. (Category romance. Silhouette Special Edition. High school crush. One night stand. Not-so-secret secret baby.) Also self-explanatory.

The Perfect Kiss: Claimed for the De Carrillo Twins by Abby Green. (Harlequin Presents. Blackmailed into marriage. Free to Be a Family.) Neither can forget their one kiss.

Now that is one disappointing title. 😉

Party: Maid of Honour by Miranda Hammond. (Traditional Regency. Heroine is the good sister.) Most of the action takes place at a house party.

Puppy Love: My Only Sunshine by Mary Ann Rivers. (Contemporary romance. Novella. Musician. Writer. High school friends. Something to Love.) The characters fall in love young.

The cover of this story — and yay for an actually fat woman on a romance cover! — and the backstory reminded me a lot of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, so I was very amused when I got to this line:

“Even when I hadn’t seen Mallory in seven years, hadn’t had any more contact than a postcard I read the ink off of…”

Rivers writes beautifully and a story about two creative artists (one a musican, the other a writer) is a perfect showcase for her prose.

“He told Mallory that he always felt like his mother was afraid that if he didn’t do a hundred repetitions of some exercise his violin professor assigned him, the music would just drain out of him and he wouldn’t be special anymore.

He wouldn’t be worth loving.

He didn’t say that, but that condition was clearly obvious to John. What his mother didn’t understand was that John would never need to be told to do one hundred repetitions. He would always do then, because to reach for his instrument was to make his gangly, pointy body complete — whole and fluid and lovely.”

Pajama Time: On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman. (Fiction with romantic element.) A roommate is seduced with morning lingerie.

This had some of the same flaws as Lipman’s last book — primarily, too much gossip. It was very readable but I think I may be over her. 😦

April: Paris — and My Love by Mary Burchell. (Harlequin Romance. Sequel. Love triangle.) I can’t remember when this was set, but April and Paris just go together!

Similar to Under the Stars of Paris, but considerably less interesting.

7: Married for the Greek’s Convenience by Michelle Smart. (Harlequin Presents. Married.) I can’t remember how many years they were separated; let’s say seven.

Chasing the Light: A Song Begins by Mary Burchell. (Harlequin Romance. London. Series beginning. Singer. Conductor. Adult student/teacher. Large age difference. Controlling hero. Something to love.) Heroine is seeking money for the voice teaching she needs to become a singer.

This is similar in some ways to Under the Stars of Paris, but with the difference that the heroine is sincerely dedicated to her craft. Those tags don’t make it sound very appealing, but it’s really exciting and evocative.

Sweet City Woman: Ring of Deception by Sandra Marton. (Multi-author series. Single mother. Cop. Masquerade.)

“…he’d been dead wrong to have brought a city girl into the woods.”

I’m annoyed at Harlequin for reprinting this as an HP, when it doesn’t fit the line at all, and was originally part of a multi-author series and has a series cliffhanger ending. Otherwise, a decent story about an undercover cop and and a mom in hiding from her abusive ex. (But she doesn’t change her name!) The crime plot falls flat at the end, which brought my grade down.

No Questions Asked: Love Without Reason by Alison Fraser. (Harlequin Presents. Scotland and America. Reunited. Large age difference. Flashbacks. Secret baby. Bickerfest. Big Mis. Heroine pov only.) The lovers are separated because the hurt hero doesn’t bother to ask questions.

An amusingly apt title, since it’s hard to know what the unlikeable main characters see in each other. Nonetheless, the passion and hurt on both sides runs enjoyably high, and the effect of the heroine’s deep reserve is interesting. The prose is sometimes clunky, but I enjoyed the details about life in Scotland and the culture clash between the poor Scottish heroine and wealthy American hero. Warning for dubious consent and some violent behavior.

Cherish : Like None Other by Caroline Linden. (Victorian? Short story. Neighbors.) Likeable, mature characters, who will certainly cherish each other.

Dark Apollo: Consumed by Fire by Anne Stuart. (Romantic suspense. Italy and the U.S.) Hero is sometimes brunette, sometimes blonde, always dark. Though I was tempted to put this book under “Wild Ride” and use this for “Dark Apollo” instead.

I’m irked, because Stuart’s formula has started to get kind of meh for me of late and I was enjoying the twists of this one more than usual — until it got to an offensive plot twist, made even more offensive by being completely unnecessary.

Lily: Deceived by Sara Craven. (Harlequin Presents. Reunited. Stepcousin. ) Hero’s nickname for the heroine is “Madonna Lily.”

Morass: His Mistress’s Secret by Alison Fraser. (Harlequin Presents. Heroine POV only. Singer. Doctor. Hero is cynical about women.)

Not an apt Fraser title at all, this time… I think they just wanted to squash it into the “mistress to a millionaire line” despite the fact that the hero is a doctor and the heroine is a rock star and they barely even have sex until the end. Some interesting aspects around the heroine’s life — she was abandoned at a commune, where she grew up until social services forced her to leave —  but I didn’t feel the chemistry between them at all and the “secret” was nothing. (Or another offensive, cliched one, if you read between the lines.)

 

DNFs

Madly by Ruthie Knox. I’m not sure how much I read, but I never got any sense that the characters should be together.

Shadows by Robin McKinley. As Bona wrote, to enjoy a first person narrative, you have to care about the person narrating.

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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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