A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

How (Not) to Ask a Boy to Prom by S.J. Goslee

I wound up really like this YA book, which reminded me of “Booksmart,” my absolute favorite depiction of High School. (Not counting the absurd magic of Don’t Care High.) It took a while to get there. Although the writing is instantly engaging, it’s also instantly confusing, with a huge cast of characters casually mentioned. And Nolan, our narrator, seems to passively drift through life, bullied by everyone including those closest to him. Drawings of dicks on his locker are a daily occurrence since he came out as gay at fourteen, as is getting deliberately bonked in gym class. (At one point, his gym teacher is literally, albeit humorously blackmailed with threats of a lawsuit.)

But perhaps the worst is his “soul-twin” and adoptive sister Daphne, who absolutely knows what’s best for him, including forcing him into a ridiculous “prom-posal” to the boy he has a crush on. Utterly humiliated, Nolan is rescued from an unexpected source: Ira Bernstein, “Bern,” who casually accepts the proposal. Although previously mentioned as low-key harassing Nolan after he came out, Bern is completely unfazed by the idea of being Nolan’s date or even faking a relationship.

As Bern and Nolan’s cross-clique dating begins to expand his high school world — previously limited pretty much to his best friend Evie and their Secret Awesome Sacred Art Club, and Daphne’s circle of friends, all of whom he thinks are unutterably evil — Nolan makes some surprising discoveries. For one thing, he’s seen at school as an “asshat hipster wannabe.”

“Which, for the record, I am nothing like a hipster at all. I have an appreciation for art that sometimes includes the absurd, but my outfits are born out of incredible laziness, not any sense of style. All my ugliness is a side effect of being too tired to care.”

For another, all of Bern’s friends are worried he’s going to break Bern’s heart. Because, apparently, he already did: Bern had asked him out freshman year, and Nolan assumed it was bullying and yelled at him. (Ouch, I felt this one. I’ve been there.)

This is where it started to feel like “Booksmart”: the discovery that things weren’t like the main character thought amidst offbeat high school fun going on. Rope ladders to the bathroom roof. Drunken games of spoons. Face painting with possibly toxic art supplies. Wild and crazy nights singing songs about math. And it shared with the movie a sense of underlying… safety. Even when Nolan is getting massively drunk on booze that smells like apples and gasoline — “Go with God,” the drink mixer says — I never really worried about him. (Oh! It’s almost another big queer party!)

The main flaw of the book is that I don’t think the author quite pulled off the very necessary first-person-romance skill of showing what the other person is thinking. I had to go back and reread sections to feel like I had some idea of what was going on with Bern. And Nolan isn’t just an unreliable narrator from self-absorption, but because he’s, as he puts it, “not good at feelings.” He tells us virtually nothing about his life before being adopted as a teen, and there are just a few clues that it’s left profound emotional scars, despite the fact that his adoptive family is just about ideal:

“This is bad. Daphne and I always get along. It’s how our family works. I don’t do any stupid shit, and Daphne and Marla and Tom all love me for it.”

I was sorry that there wasn’t more about this insecure attachment, especially not more disproving of it. I usually complain about books not being subtle enough, but I needed more here.

But overall, it was really a good time. Now I wanna go watch “Booksmart” again.

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TBR Challenge: Sweet Treason by Patricia Gaffney

CW for book: Pretty much all of them, sans overt racism. To its credit, it calls rape rape.

The theme: Danger Will Robinson!

Why this one: Oh my goodness, what old skool danger doesn’t happen to this pair of obsessed numbskulls? There’s barely a peaceful moment.

Kate and Burke: they’re always either doing each other wrong, or just doing each other. She’s a Scottish spy for Bonnie Prince Charlie — primarily seeking revenge because of the English soldiers who assaulted her and killed her family. He’s in charge of delivering her to be tried. They spend the first part of the book at each other’s throat and the second half saving each other’s life, between bouts of sex and mutual torture.

It’s not a form of romance I’m especially fond of, though some of the wilder ones, like Gaffney’s Lily and Brenda Joyce’s The Conqueror, are so out there I can’t help but love them. But while Lily elicits cries of “Oh no he didn’t!” Sweet Treason is more like “oh, of course he did.” There’s endless drama but nothing really surprising. Kate is irritatingly stubborn and pettish and they’re both irritatingly obtuse. And it’s episodic in a way that often comes with lack of pay-off. A villain leaves with a sneer of “I’ll get you yet, my pretty!” and then is replaced with a different villain and never seen again. The ending leaves so many unanswered questions.

I enjoyed it more than it sounds. The prose and characterizations aren’t memorable in the way of later Gaffney, but she’s a good story-teller, and it’s not dull. And an old skool hero who’s also ridonkulously besotted is a fun combo. Put this one most definitely in the “to each their own, or if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you might like” pile.

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Element of Risk by Robyn Donald

When it comes to Robyn Donald, my motto is always “go old skool or go home.” She overdoes the alphole sometimes, sure, but her books with kinder, gentler heroes are so boring. This one hit the sweet spot nicely, as well as being an amazing trainwreck of a story.

Perdita, a stunning model on the verge of retirement, gets a call she’s been waiting for for a very long time — the twin girls she gave up at birth eleven years ago have finally been located. But that’s not all… to her shock, Perdita discovers they were adopted by her beloved cousin Natalie and Natalie’s husband Luke… who is, in fact, their biological father.

I’m not sure I want to say much more about the plot, which only gets wilder from there. Perdita has to square off with Luke to get a chance to see the children (Natalie has conveniently died) and she’s just about perfect at it — intelligent, committed, truly wanting what’s best for them. Meanwhile, Luke is bitter and accusatory and just a step away from serious violence. He might be unbearable if she wasn’t so capable of holding her own.

(One not-so old skool element about this book I really liked, is that Natalie is treated respectfully as the girls’s mother. There’s none of the “now they have their REAL family” crap I’ve seen in other books. It might even be a little too good to be true, but I don’t care.)

The classic bleak moment, when it comes, is rather unusual — though precipitated by an event so over-the-top that I imagined Charlotte Lamb calling to tell Donald to tone it down a bit.  There’s a lot about the past that Perdita has to sort through and understand, before she can have a happy ending.

I don’t always enjoy Harlequin Presents like I used to, these hard days, but this was a fun trip back to when I loved them, the wackier the better.

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TBR Challenge: One to Watch

CW for book: hate speech against fat women. Note also that this isn’t a genre romance and doesn’t follow their conventions.

The theme: Dress for Success

Why this one: It’s so perfect for the theme, I’m going to ignore my usual rule and count a library book. It was on my tbr for several months!

One to Watch initially delighted me. Told partially in the form of blog posts, tweets, and online chats, it’s got a relatable feel for modern life and gives us a winning heroine in Bea, a fat woman who loves fashion. Bea has carved out a space for herself in a very sizest field as the blogger @OMBea.

When a blog post about the sizeism and lack of diversity on her favorite show “Main Squeeze” (ala “the Bachelorette”) goes viral, Bea is asked to be the first contestant on the show who isn’t model-sized. She’s very dubious about romance, but producer Lauren convinces her that she doesn’t have to take the show seriously in order to “show America that plus-size women deserve to be the leads in their own stories.” And it doesn’t hurt that Bea will have something to take her mind off her heartbreak over her old friend and crush Ray, who slept with her and then went back to his fiance and completely ghosted her.

The book started to pall a bit for me when we get to the show. (Perhaps I would’ve liked it more if I watched those kinds of shows?) It becomes clear that despite her internet honesty, Bea is actually very insecure about her size, and finds it truly difficult to believe a man would want to be with her — which impacts the men contestants who notice her lack of sincerity. And there are constant reality show “surprises” that humiliate and freak her out, not to mention several disgusting contestants who mock and belittle her.

Not all of them, though. As Bea starts to make real connections with some of her dates, Lauren tells her she can’t make her feelings about any one man too clear, otherwise the audience will lose interest. It seems the author felt the same way, because Bea is truly undecided for quite a long way into the book. There’s nothing wrong with that… except that Bea seems to make promises to at least one bachelor that she might not actually decide to keep, and she has no compunction about it. (Meeting someone’s motherless kids in this context? On television? Seriously?! ) It felt very off-putting. 

I also got fed to the teeth with Bea’s insecurity; any time a bachelor made a move she didn’t like, she believed it was designed to humiliate her. I expected better from a book about a woman who dares to be openly fat on the Internet.

There are some nice surprises in the plot, including some interesting queer representation, and some much deserved and funny comeuppances. (There are not so nice surprises, too.) There are cute running jokes about celebrity tweeters, and I enjoyed Bea’s parents, who are basically Britta’s adoring and adorable parents from “Community.” (Bea’s father is technically her stepfather, and the theme of choosing love is important.) And the ending comes together nicely, a happy one especially for any fat girl readers. But because of my issues with what came before, I couldn’t embrace it as much as I’d like.

Still, as I looked over my bookmarks while writing this, and was reminded of aspects of the book I’d loved — perhaps my favorite is a suitor who punctuates an apology to Bea with endless profanity, so the show won’t be able to air it — my appreciation for it increased again. I think on the whole I’d recommend it.


The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams

Gavin, a successful but somewhat insecure baseball player, is devastated when his wife asks him for a divorce. That’s when his fellow players introduce him to their book club and “the manuals” — romance novels which help them understand what women need from relationships. With the help of a Regency called Courting the Countess, Gavin sets out to woo his wife. But he forgets the most important lesson: backstory is everything. Unless Thea deals with the pain in her history, they don’t stand a chance.

I had some issues with this story and it might have been the audiobook.The second narrator, who reads the “book within a book” sections, has a die-away upper-crust English accent which is very much not to my taste. But the main narration, while in a perfectly pleasant voice, may have done more harm. All of the women characters sound very bitchy, and the way the voices emphasize the “inherent” humor of manly men athletes seriously discussing romance novel tropes really put me off.

Still, there was a lot to enjoy. Unlike most athlete heroes in romance, Gavin has tremendous sweetness and vulnerability, and Thea loves him for it. At one point she overhears a spiteful member of the “wives and girlfriends” club mock Gavin by wondering if he even stutters in bed and she retorts, “yes he does stutter in bed, and it’s beautiful!” Thea’s continual rejection and mistrust of Gavin’s efforts make her seem unpleasant for much of the story, but it all comes together by the end.


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TBR Challenge: The Passionate One by Connie Brockway

CW for book: a near rape, and maybe a whiff of homophobia.


The theme: Family Ties

Why this one: It’s the start of a family series, and coincidentally, turned out to have some deeply messed up family dynamics.

This had its share of problems, but still hit the spot. It’s kind of old skool, with a tortured hero and a brave heroine to rescue him with love, and it does those well-worn roles very nicely.

Ash Merrick is the oldest son of a despicable English lord, who won a Scottish castle by betraying his wife’s people. Ash loathes dear old dad, but is forced to participate in his father’s nasty schemes, while trying to earn enough to ransom his younger brother from a French prison. The current scheme is to bring home his father’s ward, Rhiannon Russell.

After the trauma of losing all her relatives at Culloden, and being homeless for a time, Rhiannon has been living very comfortably with English relatives who adore her, and is happily engaged. The one tiny flaw in her cozy life is the constant need she feels to be grateful for everything she’s been given, and not to make waves. She was even chosen by her fiance, Phillip, for these exact attributes. But the arrival of the powerfully attractive Ash throws her for a loop.

Ash is also drawn to Rhiannon, and her engagement is the least of his worries. He can’t possibly marry, he’s a total mess of a human being, he’s pretty sure his father plans to make Rhiannon his fourth wife — and he’s also increasingly sure that someone is trying to murder her.

The story kind of goes off the rails here. Ash convinces himself that Phillip is gay — whether this is true or not is never stated, though you could make a case that Phillip is enamoured of Ash himself — and is the person trying to kill Rhiannon, so she can’t expose him after they’re married. So he carries her off to his father’s castle against her will, while caught between trying to make her think the worst of him, for her own sake, and being devastated when she does.

Despite the vagaries of the plot, the mystery element is well done, and there’s some very effective sequel baiting for the rest of the series. But the romance is the best part. Ash is a mix of two favorite hero archetypes, the utterly competent and the savagely besotted. He can half-kill himself with drink while still being entirely effective at espionage or combat, but here he is after their first kiss:

She turned away, gathering her skirts and bolting into the too bright light. And so she did not see Ash Merrick’s gaze follow her, or see him take his hands from behind his back and turn them over. And she did not see the bloody hands that had been torn strangling the thorny vines behind her so he could keep from crushing her to him.


Rhiannon isn’t quite as compelling, but she has a decent arc of reclaiming boldness and forthrightness along with her Scottish heritage. And Brockway writes lovely sex scenes of the all-too-rare “manages not to be very graphic while also avoiding gawdawful old skool words like ‘manroot'” variety.


Reading June 2020

CW: Many sober themes this month, including suicide.


Recurring themes: Apartments with views of Central Park. Magnolia as a name. Holding on and not letting go. The Boston Marathon. Hell’s Kitchen. Dead moms, so many dead moms. Suicide and assisted death. Narrating ghosts. Psychometry.


Spellbound by Allie Therin. A very enjoyable 1920s paranormal romance, somewhat along the lines of K.J. Charles. Hurt/comfort, with a young hero who’s had a terrible time because of his psychic gift, and a nice rich, tall, handsome hero who wants nothing more than to take care of him.

A Woman Like Her by Marc Levy. An easy, feel-good kind of story, which isn’t a bad thing right now. (But warning that a very traumatic event is referenced.) Seemed to have pretty decent disability rep other than a dubious ending; not so sure on racial issues. (Several main characters are Indian/Indian-American.)

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth. Kind of a great-grandma of the modern romance, with vast numbers of Big Misunderstandings and quite a few Evil Other Men and Women performing machinations. Also coincidences up the wazoo. The hero and heroine aren’t nearly as interesting as the heroine’s friend Lady Delacour, who is spirited and contrary and never loses her verve, even when “tamed.” Not as good as Austen, IMO, but entertaining.

The Phoenix Codex by Bryn Donovan. I’m really impressed that Donovan wrote a kick-ass warrior/demon hunter who’s also the beta to end all betas. Deadly and protective, but also openhearted, vulnerable, and a total marshmallow for love. Intriguing worldbuilding, but it doesn’t take away from the romance.

I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi. A ghost tries to help her grieving husband and daughter find happiness. I liked it and found it moving, but also a tad manipulative — or perhaps I just prefer my own theory, that the mom killed herself because he husband’s a Republican. 😉

The Secret Loves of Geeks by various. Geeky people writing and drawing about love. Very queer!

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

The theme: Getaway

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


True Pretenses by Rose Lerner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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