A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: When the Laird Returns by Karen Ranney

CN for book: Domestic violence.

The theme: a favorite trope. (Forced marriage.)

Why this one: I’m double-dipping with the Buzzwords Readathon.

(It’s perturbing, by the way, how many books are in my TBR that don’t have favorite tropes. Time for another sorting.)

I just spent a baffled couple of minutes trying to find my TBR Challenge review for One Man’s Love, finally remembering that I had been too rushed (and honestly, not interested enough) to actually review it. That, the first in the “Highland Lords” series, had a most favorite troupe, the lover in disguise, but it was just an average read. This one had its flaws, but interest in the characters keep me reading.

Ship designer and captain Alisdair MacRae is on his way to England to reject a title. (Hmm.) He stops in Scotland to visit the ruins of his family’s keep, only to discover that the McRae’s former enemy, Magnus Drummond, is ruining his land with sheep. Intent on regaining it, Alisdair finds himself forced to marry to Drummond’s daughter Iseabal. Since it’s not a marriage in English law, however, he expect it will be easy enough to annul it once they get to England.

Having grown up with a tyrannical and abusive father, Iseabal prays for the strength to endure marriage. But her new husband is so kind and considerate with her, she starts to think marriage is to her taste after all. And then she learns Alisdair’s plan

The plot hops around hither and yon after this, almost stopping dead at one point for multiple sex scenes. (They are tender and engaging, but space them out a bit!) It was all too episodic for my taste, and I think parts of the plot are over simplified, to say the least. (See this post on inheritance law by K.J. Charles.) But Iseabal’s arc remained intriguing. Her personality has been so stifled from living in constant fear and stoic endurance, she retreats to silent passivity whenever she feels threatened. Alisdair doesn’t have much of an journey, but is a generally charming and likeable hero who does his honorable best, and gives Iseabal a reason to find her inner bravery.

 

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TBR Challenge: Rising Moon by Lori Handeland

CN: Ableism and racism.

The theme: a series book

Why this one: I don’t think I really expected to finish it? And now I wish I hadn’t.

The first two books in this paranormal romance series weren’t great but kind of hooked me anyway — glasses-wearing hero in the first, sacrificial hero in the second. But they’ve gotten pretty samey as they go on, and with the background switched to New Orleans, the woo-woo elements have become more and more squirm-producing: I’m pretty sure I DNF’d the previous book from the synopsis about a white voodoo priestess alone.

Unfortunately, the author seems to have asked herself to hold her own beer. This was all kinds of problematic.

But before I start on that — is it at least a good story? I vote mostly no. As is typical for the series, the narrator is a tough, single-minded heroine who meets a hero with seeeeecrets. Anne’s hard-boiled narrative stretched plausibility numerous times, with her frequently not seeming to notice much that her life was in imminent danger. Add in countless explanations about the 500 different types of werewolf and how they operate and excitement never really has much chance to build. I’ll give it that it has some nice chemistry, because Handeland does give good hero. But then…

*HUGE COMPLETELY SPOILERY RANT ALA WENDY*

First off, hero John is blind. And the representation is just about as terrible as it can be, short of fetishization. We only get Anne’s point-of-view and it’s all how terrible to be stuck in darkness blah-blah-blah. So that’s bad enough, but then the big reveal — which is actually pretty obvious — John isn’t actually blind at all! He’s been faking it as… some kind of disguise? This was during one of the duller sections so I may have dozed off. And this all ties in to Anne’s feeling like John only found her attractive because he was blind, so woohoo, he really does!

So that’s terrible on top of terrible. And the terrible cherry on top of this terrible sundae is that John’s dark past is he is a freaking evil werewolf (a particular one of the 500 kinds) because when he was human he was an especially cruel and evil slave-owner. Oh, and did I mention that John’s only friend is a descendent of the slave who cursed him?

Nobody needs this particular redemption narrative! And it isn’t even done well. John’s cure at the end feels like he got over a bad case of the sniffles.

Since this is a particularly harsh review, I will add that I think the author genuinely tried to be respectful about voodoo and its practitioners. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t enough to overcome the really bad themes here.

So, that’s this series sorted, especially since the last one I own has a part-Cherokee heroine. I suspect the two currently on my keeper shelf may slink away in shame.

 

 

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TBR Challenge: The Legacy by T.J. Bennett

The theme: I’m off-theme again. Somebody stop me!

Why this one: It also fits a Geographical challenge I’m doing.

CN for the book: abuse, sexual violence, and implied rape

 

It’s nice to read a historical that’s been on my TBR for far too long and not feel regret about how much more I might once have enjoyed it. Although not as timeless as an old Carla Kelly, The Legacy is still quite my cup of tea. 

Set in Medieval Germany during the Protestant reformation, it’s a romance between Sabina, who recently escaped from a nunnery with the help of Martin Luther, and Wolf, the prosperous owner of a print shop. Both have been blackmailed into marriage by her adoptive father, Baron von Ziegler. (There’s a cross-class element here, but it’s not particularly important to the story.)

Although wanting to be cold to the wife forced on him, Wolf is aghast to realize how badly the Baron has mistreated her, and attracted in spite of himself. But two things stop him from commiting to the marriage: his guilt over having feelings for another, after the death of his beloved first wife, and his guilt over having to take Sabina’s legacy from her mother, which she dreams of using to help vulnerable children and women like herself. Sabina doesn’t know whether to be angrier about losing her dream, or about Wolf’s refusal to let her in.

The theme of legacy resounds throughout the book. At one point, Sabina tells Wolf the most traumatic secret of her past, that her older brother was murdered trying to save her from sexual assault. Their father blamed her for the death and hated her thereafter, and she’s hated herself as well.

“Your brother was a hero, Sabina, not a sacrifice. Don’t let that devil take that away from you… It was his choice, Sabina. No one forced it upon him. He did it because he thought you were worthy of being saved. That is his legacy to you. Don’t ignore it. Don’t throw it away, because  if you do, he really will have died in vain.”

The Baron’s legacy of cruelty rebounds on him, when Sabina chooses not to be forgiving. And in the end, Sabina helps Wolf with his own ugly secrets: “Neither of us is responsible for the sins of our fathers. Let the legacy of guilt and shame die with them today.”

Well researched history is nicely woven into the plot, and Wolf manages to seem true to the time while being essentially a decent man. Sabina is admirably strong, with her basically feminist views given appropriate historical roots. And… there’s just the sort of angst I like.

Sadly, Bennett seems to have either stopped writing, or perhaps is writing under a different name. Does anyone know?

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TBR Challenge: Out of the Shadows by Sandra Marton

The theme: A holiday read. Sorry, not happening this year.

Why This One: You know why — it’s a Harlequin Presents, which is to say short. December is hard. The book is kind of hard, too.

The story opens with a “grey, sunless sky” and “low clouds sweeping menacingly” over a funeral. And then it goes downhill from there. I’m mostly kidding, but not entirely; it’s not a bad book, but it’s kind of a downer.

Basically, Lauren and Matt are two perfectly nice, compatible people who fall in love. (He’s also her boss and he does use that fact some to get close to her, but not in a really icky way.) There would be nothing to put in a romance about them if they didn’t both have relatives from the Gawdawful Parents Hall of Fame.

It would make an interesting debate to try to figure out who’s worse, Lauren’s controlling mother or Matt’s entitled father. The mother makes herself unpleasantly felt all through the story, while Matt’s father is more of a behind-the-scenes player, but they both squeeze in quite a lot of terrible.

Add to that some pretty old-fashioned plot twists, and a story that ends when many would think it should begin, and it just hasn’t worn that well. It is kind of nice to read an HP hero who isn’t a jerk, though.

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Four Doors Down by Emma Doherty

Wow, this book annoyed the shit out of me. It’s theoretically YA — ie, takes places in high school and doesn’t get super explicit — but it’s got pretty much every negative aspect generally associated with the “New Adult” subgenre — like a controlling, asshole hero whose “devotion” to the heroine is supposed to give him a pass for all his terrible/creepy behavior, including trying to forget her by treating other girls as disposable. And of course terrible other romantic interests to make the main characters look good by comparison. (Doesn’t work.) And every character other than the heroine knowing that the hero is really a wonderful guy who’s just madly in love, and abetting him in his crazy-making behavior. (I read reviews of the sequel to this, which shocked many readers by being very dark NA, in exactly the most obvious, cliched way for NA to be dark. I’m not a bit shocked or surprised.)

The story: neighbors Becca and Ryan were best friends until middle school, when he got in with the popular crowd and publicly rejected and humiliated her. He then cemented their status as enemies by very nastily bad-mouthing her, which she overheard, and generally acting like a jerk every time they interact. So yes, this is a “he teases you because he REALLY LIKES YOU” story.

Pretty much everything that happens in the story is Becca describing being at school, when suddenly Ryan appears and they interact. Or sometimes she’s at a pizza place and Ryan appears. Or at a party and Ryan appears. They only thing that happens more often than Ryan appearing is someone smirking. Usually, but not always, Ryan.

I’ll give it this, it’s a pretty engaging story before the repetitiveness becomes obvious. This wasn’t just a hate read; I was interested, and stayed up late to finish it. And I liked Becca’s assertiveness. Her refusal to take any shit was great — until every other character in the book started to get pissed with her because she wouldn’t see how incredibly IN LUV with her Ryan really is. Every time her inability to cut him any slack whatsoever got annoying, he did something obnoxious to justify it.

We don’t see Ryan’s point-of-view until the end, and when we do, it doesn’t help much. He fell in love with Becca after she got hot, what a prince. He makes no real effort to mend fences with her honestly, despite creating many opportunities to do so. What a shock to know he’s going to be a huge asshole in the next book too.

And yeah… I’m gonna read it.

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TBR Challenge: Surrender to the Devil by Lorraine Heath

CN for book: A past rape, a scene of attempted rape, and some violence.

The theme: Historical romance.

Why this one: I don’t remember.

Historicals were my first romance passion, and my TBR cupboard is full of books just like this one: mainstream historical romance by mainstream authors. And there’s nothing wrong with it (well, except the so many things that are) but it’s not much to my tastes anymore. I found this a bit of a slog, though it did get more compelling towards the end.

The first thing you should know: this is book three in a series, and it’s really a series. Characters from the previous books are all over the damn place. It makes sense, given that the link between them — four or so heroes from other books and the heroine of this one — is that they grew up together as child thieves in the “rookeries” of London. But unless you’ve read the other books, or possibly even if you have, the constant reference to backstory is tedious.

This is a tortured hero meets tortured heroine story. Frannie’s torture was being sold and raped at a young age.  She has a good life now, with the help of her childhood friends, but isn’t much inclined towards love; her passion is getting abused children off the streets.  Sterling’s torture is the slow loss of his vision, which will likely result in permanent blindness. He was dumped by the woman he courted, and despised as “flawed” by his father, because of course he was.

Sterling’s disability gives him a vulnerability that is somewhat unusual in a standard hero. He’s both beaten up by Frannie’s mistrustful friends, and loses sight of her when she’s in danger, so he doesn’t get to be bigger and badder than everyone. Other than that the book is just so samey. I don’t even read these kind of books anymore, yet I recognized virtually every part of it. An ending that includes a grand gesture and the appearance of Charles Dickens — his characters were based on the friends, ha ha ha — just made me groan. I guess it’s once again one of those “if this is the sort of thing you like, you may like this” situations.

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TBR Challenge: Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuel

(Content note for book: Depictions of anti-semitism, rape and murder. Not very graphic, but extremely disturbing.)

 

The theme: Book in a series, but I’m going off-theme because I really need to double-dip for the #RippedBodiceBingo.

Why This One: All the other Medieval books in my TBR seem to be exactly the same tired “cruel lord/feisty lady” story. This is Romeo and Juliet — with much of the bleakness of the original.

Rica and Solomon could hardly be in a worse time or place to fall in love than Strassburg in 1348. Rica is the daughter of a lord, Catholic, and (unbeknownst to her) already betrothed. Solomon is Jewish. Love between them is a sin that could mean death for both. But the attraction between them is only strengthened by their similarity — the adventurous spirits and intellectual curiosity that causes them both to seek out Helga, the local midwife, for instruction in medicine.

Like many forbidden lovers, Rica and Solomon grapple with the disconnect between what they’ve always believed and what they feel:

Encircled by the mist, in the holy silence of the day, Rica did not care so much now for kissing him and feeling his naked flesh against her own. All those sensual vision paled in comparison to the solidity of his arms wrapped around her, to the simple glory of being next to him. She felt dizzy, as if she were standing in the center of the world and all else would slip into harmony as long as Solomon held her.

He rocked her silently, holding her almost painfully close. “It does not seem an evil thing,” he said with quiet wonder. “It seems as if I have held you this for all of time, that I should go on doing so forever.”

But too many outside forces batter their still center. Rica’s betrothed, a repressed religious fanatic who’s also the beloved of her severely traumatized twin sister. The threat of plague. And the growing likelihood of mob violence against the Jewish people of Strassburg, the convenient scapegoat.

There’s no way all of this could end well, and it mostly doesn’t. But Solomon and Rica, supported by their own love and the love of their parents, manage to find what they need.

This is a wonderfully immersive book, a look at the past that manages to feel both believably alien and completely relevant. (There are some echoes of The Sleeping Night, a later Samuel book about forbidden love much closer to our time.) The treatment of religion is one of the most interesting parts of the book: it’s respectful, but doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects people can find. I don’t think the overtones in the above quote… holy, glory, wonder… are accidental. Rica and Solomon don’t reject God; they simply embrace the sacredness of love.

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The Rest of the Story: Jo Baker’s Longbourn

(Reprinted from “Heoes and Heartbreakers,” because I just recommend the book to my mother.)

Pride and Prejudice may have inspired more spin-offs, rewrites, imitations, and alternate versions than any other work of fiction—did the world really need another one? When it’s as compelling and enlightening as Longbourn, most certainly. Longbourn is not an attempt to imitate Austen’s style or plot; instead it jumps off from the well-known story to show us what else was happening in the world that Austen very consciously kept small and contained, that famous “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.”

The story is told through the other people in the Bennet household, the ones who merit only a mention or two in the original.  If we scour the book, we find them: there’s a Sarah and another unnamed housemaid, a Mrs. Hill, a footman, and a butler. In Longbourn, Sarah is a young woman struggling with the brutal fact that her entire life is spent taking care of other young women who have everything she naturally desires. The second housemaid Polly is very young and naive, still fairly happy as long as she can shirk her work and filch some sugar. The kindhearted housekeeper Mrs. Hill has suffered enough heartache to feel grateful for her relatively privileged position, though occasionally spares a thought about the unfairness of life, particularly when the security of the servant hall is threatened by Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins:

“What it is to be young and lovely and very well aware of it. What it is to know that you will only settle for the keenest love, the most perfect match.”

At first, Longbourn follows the basic structure of Pride and Prejudice, down to being broken into three volumes.  (And everything that happens in the story, the author notes, is based on the exact events in the original—every note brought by a footman, every dinner.) It begins with the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy at Netherfield, which is paralleled by the arrival of two new men in the lives of the Longbourn servants: a new footman named James Smith, and one of Mr. Bingley’s footmen, Ptolemy Bingley, a frequent deliverer of notes. The Netherfield footman is here revealed to be a former slave on the sugar plantation of Mr. Bingley’s father—and quite possibly Mr. Bingley’s half-brother. James also seems to have an unrevealed connection to the Bennet family.

For Sarah, the arrival of both men brings a potential for more than her current existence of endless drudgery, which keeps her “so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies.” Tol is ambitious and resourceful; she can tell that he’ll raise himself up to a better position someday. But though it’s not as sensible a choice, she’s more drawn to the quiet, hardworking, secretive James. When James’s secrets catch up with him, Sarah must decide how important love is compared to security, a far harder decision in her case than in Elizabeth’s. In the end, she must give up all hope of help from her “betters,” who can never recognize that she has needs and desires of her own, and make her own way towards happiness.

It’s fascinating to see the Bennets through the eyes of their servants. From their own perspectives their life is one of frugality and even deprivation; to Sarah, with her never-ending chilblains, it’s one of comfort and extravagance beyond imagining. Even when Elizabeth is miserable, Sarah envies her: “she would have loved to have the luxury of tears and headaches: the darkened parlour, a cool cloth for the forehead…”  And while Mrs. Bennet endlessly laments the unfairness of her daughters not being able to inherit their father’s estate, she never realizes that an even more blatant example of unfairness is right under her nose.

Longbourn gives importance and understanding not just to the servants, but to other neglected characters in the story. Sarah has some fellow feeling for the despised Mr. Collins: “He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him.” And Mary is seen as a pathetic girl full of dreams of being needed, not “just the plain, awkward, overlooked middle child.” The other characters are recognizably themselves, but have a darker side from this perspective. Jane is still sweet; Elizabeth is still charming, and even carelessly kind to Sarah. But she never considers how her choices affect Sarah—her carefree walks creating massive amounts of nasty work for those who must wash her muddied petticoats, her visits taking Sarah away from home.

In many ways, the story extends the characters to their logical extremes, showing what else might have happened to a Mr. Bennet who’s thoughtlessly susceptible to attractive women and a Wickham who would callously run off with a fifteen-year-old girl… and an Elizabeth who’s forced to check her natural vivacity. If you love the original, it can be painful to see the characters in this light—but it feels like an equal truth rather than a contradiction of the original text.

Longbourn brings history to a book in which it is notably absent. Austen felt no need to go into what exactly the militia was doing in Merryton, or anywhere else, but to a young man like James, it’s of tremendous importance. The third volume of the book breaks with the previous structure for an extended flashback about James’ horrific experiences in the army, making us hope even more for a happy ending for him and Sarah.  

Pride and Prejudice is complete, even perfect, in its own right; it does everything it sets out to do. But this gritty yet very humane novel reveals that there was more to class issues in Austen’s time than just what was happening between the middle and ruling classes. It’s powerful reading for anyone who wants to truly understand the world our beloved characters inhabited. And ultimately, Longbourn upholds the basic premise of Pride and Prejudice — that some compromises cost too much, that it is better to choose love.

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TBR Challenge – DNF: The Mermaid’s Song by Marianne Willman

The theme: A comfort read

Why this one: I planned on an easily digestible historical. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind… but I needed a Mermaid book for the #RippedBodiceBingo card. Score! Or not so much, since I didn’t finish.

A heroine on the lam is not exactly comforting, and the book only gets darker from there. Flora is in hiding from the Bow Street Runners after a conman seduced her, robbed and murdered her employer, and then claimed Flora was an accomplice. Just when she fears she’s been found, she receives an offer to be a convenient wife to the brooding uncle of one of her pupils, who has removed the young lady from school. You can guess the rest of the story — or can you? I skimmed around and read the end, and it gets pretty wild.

I have no particular quibble with the book; it’s just not really my thing anymore, and I didn’t feel like slogging through. If you enjoy older, darker historical romance, it’s at Open Library.

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The Almack’s Scene in Pam Rosenthals’s Almost a Gentleman

(A reblog from Heroes and Heartbreakers)

It’s a strange alchemy that makes a trope that’s tiresome in one writer’s hands a winner in another’s. “Chicks in pants” is high on my list of instant turn-off tropes, but Almost a Gentleman has joined my (very) short list—The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer, The Lady’s Secret by Joanna Chambers—of favorites.

Widower David, Lord Linseley, is on the watch for a suitable wife at Almack’s. It’s quite a shock to him to be hit with lust—or even perhaps love—at first sight:

He roused himself from his reverie to watch a particularly graceful couple glide by. Yes, that’s how it should be done, he thought. There was a purity, a concentration to the young man’s swift steps, a perfection to the set of his hips and shoulders, joy of movement elevated to art through intense control and mastery. The lady held herself very upright, but one could feel a tiny shudder of surrender in her posture, a willingness to be led. One could see it in the arch at the small of her back, the confidence with which she entrusted her balance to her partner’s gloved hand at her waist.

Of course that’s how it’s done, Linseley thought. It was how all the important things in life were done—from the body’s center. It was how you guided a horse over a gate, heaved a forkful of hay onto a wagon, took a woman to bed. This new dance led one’s thought to lovemaking: no wonder there had been such consternation in fashionable circles when the waltz was introduced. The couple whirled back into the crowd; losing sight of them, Lord Linseley stared at the space they’d occupied, astonished and rather shaken by the feelings that had seized him.

He’s even more shaken when he meets the young man’s—really, of course, a young woman’s—eyes.

Ridiculous, Linseley thought helplessly. Impossible. He wasn’t the sort of man for an exotic passion. But there was no denying that he’d felt something—a bolt of strange cold lightning had flashed through him when he’d returned the young man’s gaze.

What’s gorgeous about this scene is the attraction isn’t based on mere physical allure. David recognizes in the stranger, Phizz Marston, a form of exquisite excellence—someone who is utterly committed and simply smashing at what they do. When that’s combined with beautiful, forceful eyes staring into yours… who could help but fall in love?

Thankfully, the masquerade is not spun out for very long: this isn’t a story about David’s fears and then his relief. Indeed, there’s a lot of other plot going on—secrets, mysteries, past anguish, hidden villains. But the heart of the story is love strengthened with admiration and respect, because David continues to appreciate Phizz—Phoebe—for her courage and competence, even after her metaphorical mask comes off. His ability to recognize her special qualities in a man, and then continue to value them in a woman, make him a hero worthy of her.

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