A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Roomies by Christina Lauren

I have such mixed feelings about this, I feel like I should write a pro/con list instead of a review. Many of the aspects I disliked eventually grew into something better, and overall I read the book with interest and enjoyment — yet it’s hard to feel completely positive about a book when I spent so much of it wincing.

The book is narrated — first person present tense, sorry! It was mostly unobtrusive though — by Holland Bakker, a young woman who’s very halfheartedly trying to make in in New York. Her efforts are supported by her loving uncle Jeff and his husband Robert, who emotionally adopted her when she was born the last child in a large family. Working in a grunt job at Robert’s Broadway theater, with them paying most of her rent, Holland feels aimless and useless.

Holland was my first hurdle. She’s often such a typical contemporary romance/women’s fiction stereotype:

“While I’m not completely unfortunate-looking, I know everyone is half wondering how I ended up with someone like him. I’m that girl with the freckles, the one with snagged tights who spills her coffee awkwardly on her boobs, the one who knocks into everyone with my camera.”

I’m so not the reader for that girl’s adventures. But — first but — Holland has an interesting arc. Part of the story is about her finding herself and her passions… her passions other than Calvin. And her very stereotypical friendship with Lulu, the brash and bold girl who’s always pushing her to take risks, also goes in an unexpected, emotionally resonant direction

Calvin is an Irish musician that Holland semi-stalks when he busks in the subway. Although there is much panting by Holland over how gorgeously Irish he is, she is largely attracted by how intensely and lovingly he plays his guitar. And when an important musician storms out of her uncle Robert’s production, she has the brilliant idea of bringing Calvin into the show. There’s just one enormous problem: Calvin’s student visa expired and he’s in the country illegally. But Holland might be able to help with that too…

Okay, this was another big grimace, though perhaps an unfair one to criticize the book upon. It just made me so uncomfortable that the book focused on the needs of a white immigrant who’s in the country for music, in a time when there are so many immigrants in the US facing racism and deportation back to horrific circumstances. It felt intensely tone deaf.

That aside, Calvin is an extremely appealing hero — funny, and affectionate, and passionate about his art, always a huge draw for me. There are some niggles with him too, though I suppose they keep him from being ridiculously perfect. I did really enjoy the growth of their relationship… buuuut…. they have sex for the first time, a huge deal, when they’re too drunk to even remember it. What the what? This is not what I read romance for!

(Incidentally, in keeping with Lauren’s last several books, this one is quite steamy, but with less volume of sex scenes. I have no complaints whatsoever about this.)

The romance continues on in a very episodic way, which is really not my cuppa. Holland’s insecurity stretches out long past the point where it’s even narratively useful or sensible. A lot of the conflict felt manufactured.

Overall, I felt like the book wanted to be a rom com with both awkward hilarious moments and emotionally deep moments, and the combo didn’t perfectly gell for me. A lot of my complaints are specifically personal and might not bother any other reader at all. So I would recommend it to readers who enjoy contemporary romance; I think most everyone will adore Calvin.


TBR Challenge: With This Ring by Carla Kelly

The theme: an author with multiple books on your TBR

Why this one: Despite frequently reading Kelly for the challenge, I still have plenty left. And unlike many other authors on my TBR, I still like her. :-\

I read a few more recent Kelly titles last year and found them sadly meh.  I was intrigued by how similar this older book was to those, in terms of plotlines, yet how infinitely superior it was. (Now even more, I think Coming Home For Christmas would have more aptly been titled Phoning It In For Christmas.)

With This Ring is a little unusual for Kelly in being almost entirely from Lydia’s point of view. And it’s very much her emotional journey. When the book starts she’s Cinderella, basically a downtrodden servant to her self-centered mother and sister. She flabbergasted by her own life — often thinking thoughts like, “I do not understand these people I am related to” —  but has no concept of escaping it. But when she has to accompany her sister on a “fashionable” excursion to visit — ie, gawk at — wounded soldiers, she takes the first steps in fighting for what she knows is decent and humane behavior, by insisting on actually tending the wounded.

She also meets Sam, an Earl who’s far more concerned with taking care of his men than his title or his own severe wound. Though he does occasionally ponder on how to find the wife he’s already told his family he married (and had a child with!)

Lydia’s new independence leads to a serious rift with her family, and desperate straits that make her finally take Sam’s whimsical proposal seriously. This is where Lydia and “Cinderella” really part ways. Because rather than rescuing her from hardship, becoming Sam’s wife will force her to face incredible challenges, and show her how strong and capable she really is.

The romance-while-nursing theme works really well here. Much of the time Lydia’s taking care of Sam, which doesn’t make for much standard courtship. (Except when he gives her a hat.) But his down to earth conversation, which makes no concessions to her ladylike status, is rather adorable. We can feel them becoming a team, with similar goals because they’re both caring people. Sam lets us down a bit in the end though, putting other priorities ahead of Lydia; he’s punished for it, but doesn’t really repent or redeem himself, which is disappointing. He’s still sweet enough to be worthy of her, and and least can appreciate the amazing woman she becomes.


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TBR Challenge 1/18: Street Song by Ann Charlton

The theme: We like short shorts.

Why this one: Harlequin Presents are my go-to short reads, but I’m finding many of them too rough these days. This one looked likely to have less female intimidation and sex trafficking (!) than others I attempted. And in fact, it confirms my belief that the 1980s produced some of the most thoughtful and satisfying HPs.

Just for fun, here’s a song the Australian music teacher heroine and her busking partner play:


We know Cara isn’t the typical HP heroine right away: “She wore flat sandals and a full, calf-length skirt of Indian cotton, and a long, long sleeveless top with a fringed sash wound around her hips.” She’s also traveled around the world, and shares a flat with two men. Although she’s attracted to the suited-up man she sees going in the opposite direction on an escalator, she’s pretty philosophical when he doesn’t smile back at her. “Could there be two more complete opposites?”

Mitchell seems a more familiar type at first, sneering at Cara’s lifestyle and jumping to conclusions, but he does have “rather frivolous” green eyes, and she yearns to make him break into a smile. And to muss up his impossibly immaculate grooming. She gets her chance when it turns out he’s the father of a girl she’s teaching, and their heads start to butt.

Charlton writes some lovely scenes for the two that would be perfect in a RomCom, as aggression and attraction mingle:

“Look–why don’t we move out of the rain?” He pulled her, and she dug in her heels and resisted.

“I don’t want to move out of the rain. I like the rain–but then I’m not sensible! … Look at you!” She curled her lip at his damp but ultra-neat clothes. “Practically a store dummy.” She flicked his tie. “Don’t you ever loosen up a bit?” Before she could stop herself she was at the knot of the tie, tugging it loose from her collar. Mitchell Kirby looked down in astonishment at her hands on his clothes. The tie hung askew and she fumbled with the top button of his shirt.

“I must be crazy!”  he said. “Asking you to go anywhere with me. Look at you — sandals from Ancient Rome and — peepholes in your clothes —-” He plucked at her sleeves and some ties came undone on the split shoulders; his fingers slid through the openings just as Cara pushed open his shirt collar.

“There!” she said, looking up into his face. She was suddenly still. So was he. Everything stopped, or so it seemed… Rain  slanted down, gurgled into drains, dripped from shining leaves and shadowed eaves. The incomparable smell of warm, wet streets and earth was in the air, and the warm, masculine scent of the man holding her. Cara felt the rain cold and spiky on her cheek. Mitch’s skin warm beneath her hands — his hands warm on her shoulders.

Charlton brings atmosphere, emotion and humor to the story, as well as sexual tension, as Cara and Mitch get to know and love each other. Even a scene fairly typical in category romance — he wants to buy her a fancy diamond ring and she prefers a simple sapphire — ends on a sweet and funny note:

“We’ll take the sapphire,” Mitch told [the jeweler]. “It’s sincere. That one is just an exhibitionist.”

Her innate sincerity is probably what Mitch loves most in Cara, as well as her optimism and ability to take life and people as they come. And a relaxed Mitch is funny and warm and irresistibly devoted. But they’re spent their lives going to in different directions. Can they ever find a way to meet in the middle?

I enjoyed almost everything about this (there are a few standard old romance annoyances) including the author’s evident love for the Australian wilderness. And although the book often feels like it would make a great movie, it doesn’t feel any lacking as a book. The prose isn’t flowery or ornate, but willing to take its time to describe settings, and feelings, and moments.


For the curious, my first attempts:

Dance for a Stranger by Susanne McCarthy. I was attracted by the title and vaguely Latin dance look of the cover, but this was the sex trafficking book. Even when my stomach was stronger, that would have been a bridge too far. I did skim some, and was amused by the ending, which is almost point-for-point the same ending as Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter — to the point that both characters completely forgot that the heroine is pregnant.

Night Train by Anne Weale. Gave me flashback whiplash.

The Price of Freedom by Anne Fraser. I may wind up finishing this one, but I couldn’t summon up any enthusiasm for writing about it. The hero manhandles the heroine a lot and it’s also quite a bickerfest.


TBR Challenge: Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran

The theme: A recommended read. I remember reading blog reviews of this one, though I probably would have bought it after Duke of Shadows anyway.

Why this one: On my list of “DNFs by really good authors.”

To read this, I had to overcome my aversion to European historicals with a) archeology b) mystery elements and 3) spinster/rake combos. And I did have some difficulty pushing past where I stopped before. Once the romance heated up though, I found a lot to enjoy.

Our heroine is Lydia, who lost the man she loved to her younger sister and is now pretty much resigned to spinsterhood. A college graduate — so not a bluestocking, thank you very much! — she works for her father and promotes his archeological theories. Her specialized knowledge unwittingly draws her into a feud between wastrel Viscount Sanburne and his father.

Lydia works hard to be a proper lady; James works equally hard to be a family disappointment. But as they uneasily combine forces to investigate a forgery, they find they’ve both been living with less than the full truth.

The “starchy heroine getting unstarched” trope is well done here, with Lydia learning to embrace the wilder sides of  her nature in dramatic, exciting scenes. There are also intense themes around loyalty and — although of course the term isn’t used — codependency. It was worth having to put up with some stolen ancient relics, in the end.


The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #65: White Rose of Winter by Anne Mather

Harlequin Presents #65

(Image: Book cover is a portrait of a white woman with wavy blonde hair. Inset of a man in a white leisure suit — suede, no doubt — and a little girl, walking together in the sunset, on her neck.)

Best line: 

“In the lounge, Robert put several long-playing records on the hi-fi equipment, and presently the room was filled with the fourth dimensional quality of Burt Bacharach’s music.”

(Would that indicate the lack of timelessness?)

This is not the only sign that we’re in the seventies: the sideburned hero wears suede constantly. I’ll bet he has suede boxers. And it’s not the only oddity of word choice.

Another indication… I guess: the plot hinges on heroine Julie’s dead husband having left guardianship of their daughter Emma to his brother Robert. It’s bizarre to me that that could have been possible in a time I was alive, but I know nothing about British law in the 1970s.

If you enjoy classic Harlequin Present, this is a real page-turner. Lots of misery, punishing kisses, and feelings of betrayal on both sides. The downside is that almost all the female characters are intensely unpleasant, including the heroine. I can cut her some slack for her immaturity in the past, when she was quite young and had all her insecurities played on by her future mother-in-law, but when she doesn’t even think to have an adult conversation with Robert about her daughter’s horrible new governess, I wanted to smack her one.  For that matter, she never tries to have an adult conversation with him about anything — it’s all reaction. I guess he’s not much better.

Also, I really hated how the daughter was badly injured as a plot point, and especially when Robert thanked God it happened, because of the happy results. No! No no no!

So not a great read for the parents out there, but pretty fun otherwise.

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Reading, October 2017

Recurring themes of the month: Neck obsessions. The phrase “just like a man/woman.” The word “articulation.” Being bitten by animal corpses. (Weird month, am I right?) Author’s notes I liked more than the books. Thanksgiving. Desperately self-sufficient people. Titled characters who made secret misalliances. Parental misalliances. Late night library visits. Characters whose siblings want to be in society when they don’t. Genderfluid characters. (I’m really realizing the limitations of the usual hero/heroine terminology.) Hirsute heroes. Artists.

The Secret Wife by Lynne Graham.

Hero is forced to marry the woman he thinks was his adopted father’s mistress, but who was really his illegitimate daughter. One of those tempestuous relationships Graham loves, sometimes veering into a bickerfest.

Riveted by Meljean Brook

Really sweet love story mixed with awesome steampunk adventure. I would love to see a movie of this, because the visuals would be amazing.

The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb

I was searching for Hunting Eichmann and only found the ebook of this version, edited for younger readers. (I’ve since compared it to the original and it’s not rewritten or dumbed down, just shortened.) Very powerful read.

Tempted All Night by Liz Carlyle

Hero is uncomfortably rakish.

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields

Eye-opening and powerful, but a very dense academic read. There were whole chapters I think you’d need a Ph.D to understand. At any rate, I didn’t understand them.

Ruthless Contract by Kathryn Ross

The Markonos Bride by Michelle Reid

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

A little too much of the “heroine who knows she’s not beautiful yet nonetheless desired by simply everyone” trope, but an interesting premise and possible relationship set-up.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R. A. Dick aka Josephine Leslie, and that pseudonym just kills me.

A book after my own heart. Witty and sweet and old-fashioned in the best way. Widowed Mrs. Muir escapes from her stifling Victorian in-laws, and makes a happy life for herself with some help from the ghost of a crusty old sea captain. It’s very like the movie, if memory serves, but worth reading for the prose.

Wicked All Day by Liz Carlyle

Despite the historical basis for the premise — being “compromised” leads to a forced, highly unwanted engagement —  this had the feel of an angsty teen drama for me. It was like watching “The Fosters”: I felt so bad for all the characters and their immature mistakes that get them in such deep trouble and misery. Perhaps the involvement of several motherly characters (heroines of previous books in the series) helped activate my own motherly impulses, making me more sad than aggravated at them.

Bountiful by Sarina Bowen.

Read for a Heroes and Heartbreakers First Look.

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass.

I read this middle-grade story because my son read it in his book club and wanted to share it. It’s kind of odd. The first half is like an old-fashioned YA problem novel, in which Mia fears that she’s crazy but then gets a diagnosis of synesthesia. Then it turns into a completely different old-fashioned YA problem novel, as Mia starts ignoring friends and schoolwork to concentrate on learning about synesthesia, even deliberately using it like a drug. (She fakes needing acupuncture because it makes her see bright lights and auras/pheremones.) She’s frankly pretty awful, and then get punished in an old-fashioned literary way. (The author hangs a lampshade on this, but it didn’t work for me.) So… not the fan my son is.

The Italian’s Convenient Wife by Catherine Spencer

I hate when books kill off adoptive parents in order to reunite the child/ren with biological parents. As such plots go, this one wasn’t too bad… they were great parents and the children deeply miss them, and aren’t eager to accept their “aunt.”  But it never really lived up to its angst potential otherwise.

Love With a Chance of Zombies by Del Dryden.

Cute post-apocalyptic short, not too scary.

A Dream of Stone and Shadow by Marjorie M. Liu

Despite gruesome elements and a horrific plotline (children trapped by a pornography ring) I enjoyed this novella very much. (Being short probably saved it from too much grisly detail.) The gargoyle hero is sweet, protective, and essentially a ghost for much of the story, with the best kind of non-corporeal presence. (Siiiiigh….) There’s a redemption arc for him and a more complicated one for his emotionally isolated heroine. It’s part for the “Dirk and Steele” series but works fine as a standalone.

Hamilton’s Battalion by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan and Alyssa Cole.

Reviewed at GoodReads. From an ARC. I didn’t really do the Rose Lerner story justice in my review, because I read it too long ago and didn’t make notes. 😦

The Wild Road by Marjorie M. Liu.

My TBR Challenge read.

An Unseen Attraction by KJ Charles.

Gorgeous period atmosphere and two lovely heroes — one of whom is autistic — made this really work for me, despite some weaknesses.

An Unnatural Vice by KJ Charles.

The strongest book of the trilogy, IMO. Enemies-to-lovers with a powerful attraction/repulsion, and an emotional redemption arc for the seemingly amoral hero.

The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

If “Matilda” had not had psychic powers or Miss Honey… she might have wound up like Dee Moreno. Who makes a deal with a demon, because it seems to be the only way she can stay in boarding school and have a chance of escaping her ghastly, alcoholic parents.

Excellent writing and self-contained but hurting heroine. I was a little disappointed that it went in a romantic direction, which was pretty samey. (Be warned, not genre romance.) I think it could have been even better if it were just a story about friends. But very good in any case.

An Unsuitable Heir by KJ Charles.

I don’t think Charles can write a bad book, but this one missed the mark for me. It was a strong plot and ended well — except that I expected the mystery arc to follow the mystery “rules,” and it didn’t, so I found that part anti-climactic. But primarily, the romance never really spoke to me. Love that Mark has a congenital disability rather than an acquired one, though, which is really rare in romance.

Is That What People Do? by Robert Sheckley

A collection of some of Sheckley’s best collected science fiction stories and some uncollected ones — which to be frank, might as well have stayed uncollected. (Even, sadly, the Arnold and Gregor story. They’re a hapless duo of planet decontaminators and always run into ridiculous situations.) Sheckley is hard to read these days, and not just because of  casual classic SF misogyny and racism… he was way too prophetic. I only wish that the election of a reality star show had been peak Sheckley. And I think almost anyone, anywhere could relate to “the Store of the Worlds.”

Tempt Me Not by Susan Napier

Ugh. I was just wishing they’d digitize more old Napier, but this one can stay forgotten. All of the characters are dumbshits.

The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Gurhke

A light Victorian historical — seeming especially so after KJ Charles’s foggy Dickensian gloom — but not as painfully floofy as I feared from the “Dear Lady Truelove” series title. I wouldn’t call it better than readable, though. The “battle of the sexes” trope in which the arrogant hero just annoys the heck out of the feminist heroine is one I find irritating and it almost always winds up seeming actually anti-feminist. At least Irene has some good arguments to make, since they argue all the damn time.

Wife to Christopher by Mary Burchell

Burchell’s first book is less original than her later work, but shows her interesting way with characters. A major tearjerker. Sensitive readers should watch out for content warnings. (Note to self: find a way to do spoilers here!)

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

An utterly devastating book, especially since it needed updating practically the day it came out in 2016.

Baking With Kafka by Tom Gauld.

Very funny cartoons about reading, writing and literature, previously published in “The Guardian.”

Magic Burns by Ilona Andrews.

Considerably better than the first in the series, although a bit repetitious. I appreciated seeing Kate’s strong moral center and capacity for caring, and am excited about the series now.

A Midnight Feast by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

(Read from an ARC.) A touching marriage-in-jeopardy story, with two vivid, strong-willed characters.

That Summer by Lauren Willig.


This was recommended by someone as a comfort read, and I can see that… it’s rather old-fashioned in tone, not unlike The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in some ways. But it’s also desperately sad — perhaps especially so in the context of TGaMR, in which the main character actually got to escape from her stifling life. Like other Willig books, it has both a modern times and a historical plotline; I was most caught up in the past story, and desperately hoping it would somehow get to a HEA. The parts about art and art history are interesting, and the two storylines nicely juxtaposed. Overall I did really enjoy it, but I wish it had had two happy endings.

Divine Intervention by Robert Sheckley.

Another collection of previously uncollected works, and again not great — except the Arnold and Gregor story is hilarious.


At The Dark End of the Street by Danielle M. McGuire

No doubt a very valuable book, but just too painful to read right now.

Beautiful Stranger by Christina Lauren

Not my cuppa. I probably should just forget about this particular series, since it’s so sex-focused.

The Flower and the Sword by Jacqueline Navin.

I might have enjoyed this one years ago but then again, I did own it for seven years and it was picked up and put back down again several times. I like the old skool vengeful husband plot, but the prose and the characters were just meh.

Labyrinth by Alex Beecroft.

Too hard for me to follow.


TBR Challenge: The Wild Road by Marjorie Liu.

The theme: Paranormal or Romantic Suspense. As usual, I combined the two. Or maybe there are very few paranormals that aren’t also suspenseful? This is a genuine on the run from baddies suspense story, however.

Why this one: I bought it after AnimeJune wrote a rave review; I generally found her a reliable recommender. Since I’m a completionist, I decided to start the series from the beginning, quite a while ago, but I didn’t really feel it was for me. Seeing this in the TBR reminded me that I still wanted to read it, and luckily it is quite a good series entry. (Though I took a little time to read the related novella, A Dream of Stone and Shadow, and did not regret it.)

My main complaint about Tiger’s Eye was its “sameyness”; with Shadow Touch, it was its gruesomeness. Neither is an issue here. There is horror, but on a smaller scale, and the most of the villains are pathetic as well as hateful. There are also some familiar tropes, but the imaginativeness of the plot and depth of the characters kept them from seeming tired.

Lannes is a particularly darling hero, a lonely, isolated gargoyle suffering from PTSD. (From the events in the novella.) He’s probably a virgin; at the very least he’s never known a true relationship with either another gargoyle or a human woman. When not with his one lifelong friend (whom he’s almost outlived) or mending ancient books, he’s trapped inside an illusion of humanity that can only work if he isn’t touched, because he’s enormous and winged. But like all good literary gargoyles, he’s protective… and when he sees a bloodied, barefoot woman trying to break into his car, his urge is to help her.

This is a favorite Lanness moments, just one in which he breaks away from the paranormal hero mold:

“If we do this,” he whispered. “You’re mine. And I mean that, Lethe.”

“Promise?” she breathed, beginning to tremble.

Lannes inhaled sharply. “Just like I’ll be yours.”

Lethe leaned in, pressing her lips to his ear. “Is this a gargoyle thing.”

“No,” he murmured. “I just love you, that’s all.”

Lannes is undoubtedly the best part of the book, but the woman he finds, and later names Lethe, is compelling in her own way. She knows nothing about who she is, or why she woke up next to several dead men in a hotel on fire… and the more she finds out about her past and present, the more frightened she is. But she faces a number of unpleasant truths and refuses to let them destroy her, or Lannes. And she loves him just as he is.

I’m so glad I got to this one… and perhaps will go back and try some of the earlier books now. (Lethe apparently also appears in Soul Song, under her original name.) Paranormal romance so often aims for toughness and cynicism — I loved finding one that is poignant and life-affirming.

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TBR Challenge: Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale

The theme: Historical romance.

Why this one: Someone mentioned a great desert island scene on Twitter.

(Semi-spoilers ahead.)

Years ago, in a burst of supportive enthusiasm, I bought several big fat Kinsale books. And… I have DNF’d almost all of them — yes, including Flowers from the Storm, though I certainly plan to get back to it. (In ebook, because I’m smarter now.) It looked for a while like this would be another DNF, which is why my post is late.

This is one seriously challenging book. Sheridan is a fraud, a con-man, a liar, and a deserter. Olympia is cowardly, naive to the point of being deadly to others, and doesn’t get jokes or sarcasm. (She may be intended to be coded as autistic, though I’ve personally never met an autistic person without a sense of humor.) And that’s putting aside the racism in the depiction of Sheridan’s servant Mustafa (and every other non-white person) and the classism. (Sheridan quite bravely saves Olympia from being raped, but is not a whit concerned about her maid.) And the ickiness of Sheridan having sex with his late father’s mistress. And him mocking Olympia for the plumpness he supposedly admires.

No doubt because of my own internalized sexism, Olympia was the hardest pill to swallow. She is just so wet.

Nevertheless, I persisted. And despite the uncomfortable aspects, and the episodic adventures, and generally uneven plotting, it was a powerful story overall. And still rather unusual in the romance world, I think, because it leaves the main characters at an exceptionally low ebb, with very little left except each other. Although Olympia does become highly competent while they’re stranded on the desert island, she is psychologically wrecked by her complicity in their adventures. And Sheridan has been wrecked for a very long time by his horrible experiences at war.

The ending reminded me a bit of The Portrait by Megan Chance. In that, there can’t be a typical HEA, because the hero has bipolar disorder and there is no understanding or help in his time. Yet Chance did pull off a happy ending. Here it’s somewhat more ambiguous… there is no help or understanding for Sheridan and Olympia’s guilt and PTSD — except in each other.


Reading, September 2017

Recurring themes of the month: Girls who like to go barefoot. Strawberry jam. Characters who think becoming disabled or visibly injured means no one could love them. (Sigh.) Castles. Pots and kettles. Complicated birth parent relationships. Snake phobias. Hitting lovers below the belt. (Metaphorically.) Best friends who are angry that their best friends waited to tell them huge secrets. (This one was particularly funny, because my husband found the first one so implausible — and then I ran into a second one right after.) Teens in love with their best friend from childhood. Living in warehouses. Animals named after personal idols. Ginormous heroes. (Happy sigh.) Characters who must find important items without knowing what they are. The egg scene from “Cool Hand Luke.” Eating geese. Mothers who died from breast cancer. The smell of ozone. Heroines with fathers in professional sports. Trying to fulfill the wishes of a dying mother. Characters with slavic origins. Heroines forced to shoot people.

Sweet Spot by Amy Ettinger.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Castle of the Wolf by Sandra Schwab.

Blind Obsession by Lee Wilkinson.

So old skool, I was shocked when someone used a microwave. ALL the problematic elements y ou’d expect, especially with that title. A GoodReads friend of mine tagged this “why-do-I-like-this” and I’m right there with her.

Wake Up Call by J.L. Merrow

Engaging characters and setting kept me reading this, but by the end I was fed up with how much it meanders. I had a few issues with the disability rep too, though it’s probably spot on in many ways for a newly diagnosed person. (Narcolepsy/Cataplexy.) Dev’s acceptance of Kyle’s needs is nicely done: he doesn’t feel either saintly or bothered about it, it’s just part of being with Kyle. Which perhaps made it sting more when he hurls “go take a nap” at him in anger.

Set the Stars on Fire by Sally Wentworth.

Okay, I was wrong about Blind Obsession having all the problematic elements, because this one added some I hadn’t thought of.  Astonishingly douchy hero. Compelling, but the ending is a classic letdown.

Dawn of a New Day by Claudia Jameson.

A Touch of Frost by Jo Goodman.

Lovely intimate scenes between the main characters. Otherwise a lot of ado about nothing.

A Gentleman’s Guide To Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee.

Super fun young adult Regency romance/adventure, with a touch of steampunk. Wonderful voice.

Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers.

The everyday notes between a busy doctor and her teenage daughter take on new meaning when the mother is diagnosed with breast cancer. This is a short, easy to read novella, but has some meat on its bones; through the largely prosaic notes, we see the mother’s increasing despair about survival and her daughter’s growing maturity as she discovers that “broccoli and exercise” don’t cure everything.

Ryan’s Revenge by Lee Wilkinson.

Similar to Blind Obsession but not as well written or nearly as exciting. The hero is considerably less douchy though, for those who need that. 😉

I Could Pee on This and Other Poems by Cats by Francesco Marciuliano.

Pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the title.

A Chance Encounter by Mary Balogh.

Although this is a touch implausible and derivative, I can never resist the prideful bitterness of Balogh’s lovers turned enemies.

Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews.
A private investigator on the trail of a magic-using psychopath starts to fall for another magic-using psychopath. I really enjoyed this smart, courageous narrator who loves her family, takes no shit, knows that a being with a magic-using psychopath is a seriously bad idea, and takes steps to protect herself. Although the basic situation of a caring heroine being a hero’s path to humanity is a familiar one, it’s not same old, same old; if you’re bothered by the power imbalance and amorality of many paranormal romance tropes, this might be for you. My only complaint is it’s a bit heavy on the mental lusting — though not at all on actual sex. No happy ending, but there are two more books.
Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley.
Gorgeous young adult story about grief and books, with bonus romance. Includes the most wonderful bookstore in the world: you will want to to leap right into the pages. Crowley’s prose is full of wonderful imagery, but also very immediate and real, and I love that her book loving teens are as fond of John Green as they are of Pablo Neruda.
Friday Night Mistress by Jan Colley.
Adult kids from feuding rich families are getting it on in secret and the hero decides quite cold-bloodedly to make it more to suit his own purposes. He was OTT jealous too, and not in a fun way.
Non-Stop Till Tokyo by KJ Charles.
Here we have it folks… the romance that actually made me wish for MOAR SEX. The hero is a 300+ Samoan-American former Sumo wrestler, and we get closed door? That’s just cold.
Good characters and a fantastic sense of place. (Content warnings for tons of violence, racial slurs, and body-shaming.)
White Hot by Ilona Andrews.
In the second book of the series, Nevada discovers that Rogan isn’t as unprincipled as she thought… and that her own principles are stretched by the powerful and dangerous she’s now up against. Another excellent read, though I thought Rogan was retconned a touch.
My Cousin Rachel by Dapne DuMaurier.
*semi spoilers ahead*
For my third or fourth reread, I listened to the excellent audiobook. It made the tenseness of the story, even knowing what was coming, almost unbearable.
This stands out for me as the best example of what a reader brings to a book at different times. When I first read it when I was young, I accepted Phillip’s narrative at face value, and saw Rachel as an enigma, just as he did. Rereading it some years later, I realized that despite how utterly honest he is about his thoughts, feelings and experiences, his point of view is so narrow that he’s essentially an unreliable narrator. And Rachel had become completely explicable to me.
On this reading, I was struck by how much this story, published in 1951, describes the classic “nice guy,” who’s utterly adoring — until he doesn’t get what he wants and turns violent. And then can’t remotely understand how his violence has frightened and alienated the object of his obsession. Du Maurier was brilliant at charecterizations, as well as suspense.
Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber.
A Private Miscellany by KJ Charles
Wildfire by Ilona Andrews.
Great wrap-up to a great trilogy — though there are are a few loose ends, so there might be more books coming. Fast-paced and exciting, but also funny and grounded in humanity.
The Friend Zone by Kirsten Callihan.
I simultaneously thought this had a lot of issues and really enjoyed it. It felt… unformed to me. The focus on the friendship/romance is all encompassing, which means that by the end, when other elements of the characters’ lives come into play, they almost came out of nowhere. And there wasn’t enough grounding of the characters in any particular time or place. For example, we learn at the beginning that Gray is a double major in some heavy duty subjects, as well as a football player, but he never seems to lack time, or need to study. (Or worry about traumatic brain injury.)
I would love to see this book gone over by a really great editor — not for grammatical/typographical mistakes, although there are some, but for plotting and continuity. Because the emotional core is really strong. Gray is one of the best ass-over-teakettle-in-love heroes I’ve ever read.
An Heir to Make a Marriage by Abby Green.
Green’s usual formula of angry tycoon and misunderstood innocent isn’t helped by continuity errors and a lot of plot twisting to make the heroine innocent enough. (Perhaps the reason for the continuity errors?)
A Gathering Storm by Joanna Chambers.
I almost DNF’d this because the plot of a man trying trying to scientifically prove you can reach the spirit world through hypnosis and electricity turned me completely off. I’m glad I didn’t because it went in a very interesting direction. Ward is kind of an A. Conan Doyle type — highly intelligent, but made gullible to fakery because of his grief over losing his twin. There are also serious class issues between him and his lover Nicholas. The setting and emotional aspects of the story are very well drawn.
Pipe Dreams by Sarina Bowen.
I tried this on audio a few months back, and really didn’t enjoy the narration. I also got an “he’s just not that into you” vibe, which is pretty much the kiss of death for me in romance.
This time I read it in print and sadly, that vibe was still there. I generally appreciate some realism in romance, and it’s realistic that a man dealing with his wife’s fatal illness and his grieving child would be too preoccupied to think about his ex… but dammit, this is romance, and he should think about her anyway! His turnaround, from hoping she’d moved on to instant recommittal, just didn’t work for me. The story is also low on conflict. It was still well told and kept my interest, but not a fav.
Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale.
Woof. I will hopefully finish my write-up for this as my extremely late September TBR read.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
Woof again, for some of the same reasons even.
In the Dark by Pamela Burford.
If you enjoy reformed rake stories and heroes who get excessively solicitious when the heroine is pregnant, this is decently written and has funny moments. It seems far more dated than its 18 years, however.
Tanner by Sarah Mayberry.
Likeable, fast-paced romance featuring a veterinary student from Australia and an American bull rider.
Cold Fusion by Harper Fox
The autism rep in this book is simply ghastly. Vivian, the autistic character, gets no point of view, always seen through the eyes of the narrator who thinks he’s abnormal — but hot! — and treats him like a child. I didn’t want to get to sex scenes between these two, it would just be gross.
The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick.
I was afraid the plot was going in a certain offensive direction and when I found out I was right, I DNFd.

Reading, August 2017

Recurring themes of the month: Abusive exes in jail. Refugees. Animal loving boys. Feeding motherless lambs. Twisted stepmother/stepson relationships. Characters who grew up without unconditional love. *sniff* Heroes with a strong sense of responsibility. Imaginary kingdoms. Nice guys who are the heroine’s brother’s bff. Chronic health issues. Stranded on islands. Useful bad weather. Characters who were blackmailed into giving up their lovers. Neighbors. Helpful aunts. Hotel sex. Runaway carriages. Emancipated slaves.

The Family Next Door by Janice Kay Johnson. (Contemporary. Category. SuperRomance. Suspense Element. Cop. Teacher. Single mother.)

This had a very challenging hero, and I’m not sure if I’d had found his redemption more acceptable if I’d liked the book more, or perhaps the other way around. He had to be a father to his younger siblings while their mother worked two jobs, and his resentment has made him so anti-children that he reacted very badly when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant, and has never seen his child. When a single mother with two children moves next door, he’s attracted to her and finds himself getting reluctantly involved with her kids.

She, meanwhile, has only just gotten her young daughter back after a non-custodial parent kidnapping, and she’s in constant fear that her ex will grab the children again. So she’s happy to be living next to the Chief of Police, but his mixed signals are very aggravating.

Summer Stock by Vanessa North. (Contemporary. m/m. Bisexual hero. Hero with abusive ex. Movie star. Theatre.)

A low-conflict romance with sweet, goodhearted characters, though they tend to fly off the handle rather quickly.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (Children’s fiction. Reread.)

A childhood favorite that I still love, though it certainly has uncomfortable aspects. And I hate how the story discards Mary for Colin at the end. But the disagreeable Mary is one of the most memorable characters in children’s fiction. It was fun to read it now as someone who enjoys gardening; I never had any place I could garden until the 90s.

Safe Passage by Ida Cook. (Nonfiction — memoir. World War II. Opera.)

Mary Burchell’s autobiography — published, appropriately enough, by Harlequin. She doesn’t write that much about her work. Parts of the book are dull unless you’re very into old opera, but there’s a spirit of everyday goodness that shines through it which is very moving.

Mommy Said Goodbye by Janice Kay Johnson. (Contemporary. Category. SuperRomance. Police procedural. Single father. Single mother. Slow burn. Kisses only. Pilot. Teacher.)

The teacher of a trouble boy starts to fall for his father, who’s believed to have killed his wife and gotten away with it. An unusual romance, partially because almost half the narrative attention is on someone other than the couple — a police officer investigating the hero — and partially because there’s not even a kiss until almost the last page.  (The hero, very honorably, is trying not to start anything while there’s a cloud over his head and he might still have a wife.) It could have used a little more to the end — one of the cases in which an epilogue would have actually been helpful.  But the psychological aspects of the situation are well drawn.

Without You There is No Us by Suki Kim. (Nonfiction. Memoir. Journalism. North Korea.)

Super sad, scary, and sadly, scarily, relevant.

The Outsider by Penelope Williamson. (Historical romance. Americana. Montana.)

I remember loving Williamson’s epic Heart of the West; I don’t know if it’s me or the book or the zeitgeist, but this one felt like more of a chore. The central romance between a Plain woman and a gunslinger is strong, but the multiple side stories made me feel beaten down with their pain and violence. Virtually all the side characters lose something to violence — an eye, an arm, a pregnancy.

Revelations by Janice Kay Johnson. (Contemporary romance. Suspense element. Sequel. Cop. Colleagues.)

Rats, I didn’t make any notes on this one. It’s the story of the police officer from Mommy Said Goodbye (see above,) who discovered in that book that the father she tried so hard to please and emulate had feet of clay. Those revelations continue in this story. The discussion of misogyny in the police force is undercut by the “evil other women” treatment of the hero’s ex-wife.

Infamous Bargain by Daphne Clair. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Blackmailed into marriage. Heroine pov only.)

One of the earlier heroine-must-marry-hero-to-save-family story, and a particularly good one.

The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian. (Historical. Regency. m/m. Bisexual hero. Rake. Social climber.)

This started out seeming like an exciting match-up between two of my favorite types of historical hero: the seemingly languid, effortlessly cool kind and the starchy kind who badly needs to be unstarched. It actually went in a different direction, but I wasn’t disappointed.

Lovers’ Lies by Daphne Clair. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Reunited.)

The heroine meets up with the man she thinks drove her sister to suicide. Good angsty story.

One Night in the Ice Storm by Noelle Adams. (Contemporary. Short story. Reunited. Other side of the tracks. Beta hero. Christmas. Heroine pov only. Bickerfest.)

Ms. Marvel volumes 6 & 7

Strong story around superhero ethics in vol. 6 but vol. 7 was meh. And I was disappointed that after Bruno moved on so nicely, with the adorable and fat Mike, he then proceeded to apparently forget all about his new girlfriend and just dream about Kamala. Yeech.

Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis. (Fantasy. Contemporary.)

I’m glad I reread this before reading up on the Civil War recently,  because… well, it’s an old favorite and I’ll likely never be able to read it again. It very much buys into the heroic confederacy myth. Still, a gorgeous book.

Clean Breaks by Ruby Lang. (Contemporary. Third in series. Asian hero and heroine. Have history. Heroine is a cancer survivor. Beta hero.)

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Hard Knocks. The hero is lovely, but I felt like much of the relationship between them happened where I couldn’t see it.

Capelli’s Captive Virgin by Sarah Morgan. (Contemporary. Category. Harlequin Presents. Reunited.)

A two person story, with him pursuing, her resisting, and nothing much else happening. The hero gets some good lines but it’s otherwise pretty dull.

Sorceror to the Crown by Zen Cho. (Fantasy historical, Regency. Romantic element. Magic. No sex. Black hero. Biracial heroine.)

You could say that I enjoyed this more after I finished it than while I was reading it, because I found it a bit of a slog, but then wanted to reread it in light of all the interesting new information that comes out towards the end. It’s a very Heyer inspired fantasy — with some influence from the author’s Malaysian culture — and lightly romantic, with a particularly charming hero. Sharon Shinn’s Angelica gave me a taste for reserved, responsible heroes who put everyone else’s needs before their own, and Zacharias is another such quietly tormented man. I was less fond of the ruthlessly competent heroine Prunella, though she is certainly a character. At least she devotes some of her ruthlessness towards taking care of Zacharias.

A Taste of Honey by Rose Lerner. (Historical. Novella. Series. Historical 99%. Virgin hero.)

Review at GoodReads.

My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick. (Young Adult. Coming of Age/Romance. Audiobook. Boy next door. Sexy beta. Heroine pov only. Politics.)

A high school student with a seemingly perfect life falls in love and is then faced with some difficult ethical decisions. An interesting story and a very sweet romance, capturing the feeling of first love and first sex. (On page, but not explicit.) The large cast of characters, including several children, is performed very well by the audiobook narrator. It was a particularly interesting book in light of recent events, because Samantha’s mother is a state senator who has gone from conservative to right wing.

Wait for It by M. O’Keefe. (Contemporary. Fourth in series. Domestic violence. Single mother. Brother’s wife.)

Best response to a shovel talk ever:

“‘I don’t intend to hurt Tiffany.’

‘That’s good. Because I’ll slice you open if you do.’

I lifted my eyebrows. ‘And yet, Phil still breathes. You’ll excuse me if I doubt your fierceness on your sister’s behalf.'”

Nice mix of old skool elements and modern style.

The Nobody by Diane Farr. (Historical. Regency. Kisses only. Suspense element.)

A young woman from the country falls in love with a lord who not only has a ghastly fiance, but is being targeted by a murderer. The star-crossed romance is quite sweet, but the echoes of Heyer in language and characters was too strong for me to enjoy most of it. I found it odd that the heroine is completely absent from the escapade-filled ending.

Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai. (Contemporary. Family feud. Reunited. Childhood sweethearts. Tattoo artist.)

(I received this from an RWA giveaway.)

A “Romeo and Juliet” story in which the two characters got to live, but suffer a lot from being apart. A well-written and deliciously angsty page-turner. Lots of smouldering. Can’t wait for the next one.

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. (Historical. Civil War. Interracial romance. Black heroine/white hero. Power imbalance.)

And speaking of the heroic confederacy myth… I don’t think I’ve ever read a Civil War romance before which was firmly and completely pro-Union, and how disgusting is that? Usually the main characters are on opposite sides. Or both rebels. :-\ In this book, they’re both Union spies, so the main conflict is the extreme power imbalance between them. The fact that the hero is an excellent actor and a smooth talker doesn’t help the heroine trust him, but he manages to prove his worth and love. The story is both intelligent and exciting, one of the most compelling historicals I’ve read in awhile.


Naked in His Arms by Sandra Marton. I vaguely remembered not liking a previous book in this series, but I’d forgotten how offensive I found it. Unfortunate, because this is more of the same.

Burning Down the Night by M. O’Keefe. (Romantic suspense. Third in series. Gang member. Prisoner of love.)

For some reason, I just had no interest in this couple. I made myself read it because I was really eager to get to the next book, but about a quarter through I gave up. (And the last one stands alone pretty well anyway.)


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