A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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.

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TBR Challenge: The Love Charm by Pamela Morsi

The theme: Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older)

Why this one: I was actually reading it for #RippedBodiceBingo (theme: hero shorter than the heroine) and decided it was worth writing about.

When picking a book for this theme, I expect to go for an obviously “old skool” element. But there are other aspects to older romances besides abductions and betrayals and rapey heroes. Perhaps it’s just the cream, or the memorable, rising to the top, but it often seems like there was more variety in the past, especially in historicals. Morsi in particular wrote unusual characters and settings, as she did in this story about a bayou community of Acadians in the 1800s.

There are three romances here, and none are standard types. Armand Sonnier loves Aida Gaudet, but because he’s short and slight from a childhood illness, he doesn’t expect her to ever look at him. Aida is a “featherbrained” beauty (easily recognized now as having ADHD) and she knows she’s not smart enough for scholarly Armand. Hoping for love eventually, she’s gotten engaged to Laron, Armand’s best friend — who’s in no hurry to marry her, because he’s in love with Helga, an older German woman with three young children and unfortunately, a still living husband.

When Armand suggests that Laron shouldn’t marry someone he doesn’t love, everything begins to unravel, leaving Armand afraid that Aida will set her sights instead on his brother, Jean Baptiste. Jean Baptiste certainly seems to admire Aida more than his wife Felicite, who’s basically been pregnant nonstop ever since they got married. Could a love charm hidden in blueberry pie possibly sort out this mess?

It sounds like a farce and certainly some of it is; there’s humor even in lovemaking here, even in a childbirth scene. But it’s also an immersive trip into a distinct community, with a very strong set of values and traditions. There’s no way these characters can get a true happy ending, unless they can find ways to reconcile their desires with their needs as members of the community.

It took me a bit to get into the prose of the story, which is very tell-y. But soon I was sucked in by the strength of the worldbuilding, and the appealing characters. It’s not a typical “id” romance — if you had to pick one that was the exact opposite of a Harlequin Present, this could be it. But it’s not purely a cerebral enjoyment either. Just warm and sweet and funny and real.

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

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

Why this one: I wanted to finish the series.

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

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

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

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TBR Challenge: That Midas Man by Valerie Parv

CW: Death of a child

 

The theme: Something different.

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

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

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

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TBR Challenge: An Indecent Proposition by Carol Marinelli

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

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

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

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

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

And he lied.”

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

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

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

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TBR Challenge: Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career by Carla Kelly

The theme: A comfort read.

Why this one: This theme is a bit of a conundrum, because for me a true comfort read is always a reread. But Kelly’s wholesomeness is usually comforting — though I have been burned before — and many of my most loved books are set in schools and colleges.

I’m not sure this traditional Regency will join that list, but it was great fun to read, though with a serious underpinning. Unlike some of Kelly’s darker books, the stakes are small and personal… yet at the same time, universal. Ellen, the daughter of a wealthy squire, would seem to have very little to distress or vex her other than her ridiculous family. But Ellen was unfortunately born with a thirst for scholarship, and all she has to look forward to is the complete waste of her brains and talents. Enter, pursued by creditors, her rascal brother Gordon, who no longer has the money to pay someone to write his Oxford literature essays…

As Ellen begins disguised scholarly research into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure, she has the pleasure of learning from talented educators and reading in the sacred Bodleian library. Her masquerade is assisted by two people: the charming young scholar Jim Gatewood (sadly far too poor to be eligible) and the mysterious Lord Chesney, who for some completely unknown reason is greasing wheels for her socially.

It seems perfect that a book so concerned with Shakespeare should have its share of women passing as men (despite a lingering lavender scent,) men with secrets, ridiculous parents, and unwise pranks. But when all the mysteries have been cleared away, Ellen is still left to wrestle with unanswered questions, and yearnings she can’t satisfy.

As you can expect from Kelly, the main characters of this story are goodhearted, witty, and very pleasant to spend time with — and you have to love how much physicality she can get into a completely “clean” book. (It’s not so much sexual tension as just feeling like these characters crave closeness and don’t much care who knows it.) The plot falters towards the end and the resolution is perhaps a little too realistic to be completely satisfying. But all in all, it’s a delightful romp.

 

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TBR Challenge: Playing With Fire by Victoria Thompson

The theme: A NTM author.

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

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

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

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

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

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TBR Challenge: Roarke’s Kingdom by Sandra Marton

(CW: a past rape)

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

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

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

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

What saved it is:

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

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

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TBR Challenge: Whispers of Heaven by Candice Proctor

The theme: A holiday read. I declare the new holiday, “National Going Off-Theme Day.”

Why this one: After browsing through a ridiculous number of books for mentions of Christmas, and then DNFing every single one I found, I craved something rich and satisfying. Also, this one keeps spawning on my TBR shelves!

Set in colonized Tasmania  during the Victorian era, Whispers of Heaven includes much of what I hope to see in historical romance. It has a strong sense of time and place, including vivid descriptions of the beauty of the land, much loved by heroine Jessie. It justifies its historical setting through exploration of the mores of the time — particularly the power differentials of class and sex. It makes an innate plea for justice and compassion without making the main characters incongruously enlightened. And though I suppose it’s not essential, I never mind a forbidden love story.

Jessie and her brother Warrick are members of the wealthy ruling class in Tasmania, but their lives aren’t entirely free of troubles. The deaths of their four siblings and father have left them to carry out their stern mother’s insistence on proper role. (Warrick has even inherited his brother’s fiance.) While Warrick is pettishly defiant, Jessie struggles to fulfill the role she’s been born to, while also finding ways to express herself: studying science, and secretly befriending the town “fallen woman” for real conversations. But when a brooding Irish convict-labourer is assigned to be her groom, Jessie begins to have questions about the ethics of her family’s way of life, and about the possibility of happiness in her arranged marriage. The more she gets to know Lucas Gallagher, the more she cares for him, leading her to the age old question: “Where is the line between what a woman owes to others and what she owes herself?”

This is an immersive, adventurous, romantic story, and Lucas is an excellent hero: brave, tortured, and able to believably say things like “Even before there were stars in the sky, I was loving you.” But somehow, though I enjoyed it very much as I was reading it, I wound up admiring the book more than I really got swept away by the romance. It might be because Jessie comes off as bland, or because the theme is a little too in-your-face… or maybe it’s just the timing. In any event, I certainly recommend it.

 

 

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