A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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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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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TBR Challenge: Thai Triangle by Jayne Bauling

 

CW: Racism, Misogyny, Sexual Assault

The theme: Contemporary

Why this one: Pretty much random, though I did think (erroneously) from the title and cover that it was a very rare Harlequin Presents interracial romance.

Thai Triangle was a flabbergasting read. I was reminded of a joke from “Community,” about how Greendale college is thought of as “weird, passionate, and gross” — what they call in marketing, “the Good Belushi.” Thai Triangle has that trifecta down pat.

Just to get this out of the way — of course there is othering and exoticizing of Asian women in the book. (One grieving Thai woman is described as having “slow tears rolling down her passive face.”) There’s also a surprising amount of kink-shaming, because apparently that’s what you do in Thailand. And slut-shaming. Massive, massive amounts of slut-shaming. I’ll get to that.

So. The weird: Nineteen-year-old Romney has sacrificed her entire life to be an unpaid, platonic caretaker for Kit, a spoiled rich boy who’s dying. She cares for him a lot, in the purplest of prose, despite the fact that he’s not only very needy but often very nasty.

Romney wants to help Kit reconcile with his older brother Justin, but Kit refuses to let her tell his secret, and deliberately goes out of his way to cause trouble for her with Justin.

The complicated dynamics between the three is actually somewhat interesting, except the plot really doesn’t do much with them except repeat the same patterns. Justin tries to seduce Romney. Romney refuses, declaring her undying love for Kit — apparently the words “as a friend” aren’t in her vocabulary — even as her will melts into a puddle from Justin’s manly manliness. She’s such a martyr, that’s probably the only thing keeping her from finding a cross and climbing up on it.

The passionate: Oh my God, there’s a whole lotta love. And hate. And burning loins.

This, this torrid, pulsing excitement, was what she had been created for, Justin the man she had been born to await unawakened and now find. He brought her to wild, wondrous life, his kisses deepening, becoming searching, in quest of her very soul it seemed. She knew she had never been truly alive until now.

The gross: The set-up in itself is on the gross side, but that’s nothing to where it goes. Justin, who must be in his 30s, is ruthless in his judgement and treatment of a 19 year old girl. And that’s even before Kit convinces him — Kit being so truthful and trustworthy — that Romney is a nymphomaniac and therefore apparently deserving the cruelest possible treatment. Kit also assaults Romney to set her up, because he’s just that wonderful.

It nonetheless all adds up to a somewhat compelling read, primarily because there’s some real drama amidst the angst. Kit’s situation is genuinely pathetic; he’s awful at least partially because he had a raw deal growing up, and he touches the heart a bit like Charlie in Alcott’s Rose in Bloom, for never getting a chance to grow up and be the person he might have been. Twelve year old me would have utterly adored this book. Now me kept on reading it, now matter how awful it got, albeit with a sort of “what in the hell…?!” thought balloon over my head.

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TBR Challenge: Fortune’s Lady by Patricia Gaffney

The theme: Kicking it Old School

Why this one: Gaffney was one of the very best historical writers, but I still have a few of hers unread.

Fortune’s Lady seems likely to have been inspired by the Ingrid Bergman/Cary Grant film “Notorious,” and the first half is somewhat uncomfortable to read in the same way the movie is somewhat uncomfortable to watch. The  basic plot is very similar: a beautiful young woman with a party girl reputation, left alone in the world because of a treasonous father, is convinced to spy on her father’s former comrades by getting “close” to one of them. She and her handler fall for each other, but he’s so jealous that he constantly berates her for doing exactly what he’s telling her to do.

The she here is frivilous 19 year old Cassie Merlin, the he is Phillip Riordan, a British MP and reluctant Scarlet Pimpernel, and the time and place are London, 1792, where a revolution threatens the monarchy. (This is less inherently sympathetic for an American reader than Bergman overthrowing Nazis, but old historicals are like that.) Cassie has a bad reputation (mostly unfounded — because old historicals are like that) so seems like the perfect person to seduce her father’s probable accomplice.

The book doesn’t achieve the excellent characterizations of Gaffney’s later romances, but if it had just told this one story, it could have been a decent read. Cass, it turns out, is farsighted and needs glasses: when she’s able to read without pain, she discovers a real interest in political thought. Phillip expects to marry a cool, elegant lady who seems perfect for the life he wants, but his relationship with Cass grows from lust to genuine partnership, as she helps him keep up his drunken oaf deception and studies with him.

Unfortunately, this was the time of the doorstopper historical, and so the story has to be spun out. And it spins with ridiculous Big Mis after Big Mis. Phillip stops being a complete assclown, and Cass takes over the role for him, with extra TSTL. And then we get the …. wait for it… sadistic, kinky, gay villain!

I love Gaffney’s sprawling, OTT old skool Lily, but this just alternated sex scenes and stupidity in a way that never built up the good angst rush that makes old school so fun.

 

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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.

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TBR Challenge: several holiday-ish reads

I’ve thinned out the few holiday romance I had in print in previous TBR challenges, so this year I turned to my ebook TBR. And then I had to keep reading, because none of them inspired me to write a full post.

Nine Lights Over Edinburgh by Harper Fox.

This is a bit of an odd duck, probably because it was originally written for a holiday anthology. It’s very dark, but in a kind of “Frosty the Snowman” way. Did you weep copious tears over Frosty’s death when  you were a kid? And then he came back? This is kind of like that, minus the Christian symbolism — a lot of bad stuff goes down but then in a Chanukah miracle it’s all okay in the end.

Coming Home for Christmas by Carla Kelly

These are three linked stories about three generations of doctors/nurses in a family. The first two are stuck away from home in wartime, the third encounters some complicated adventures on the way back. The details about doctoring during wartime are vivid, as was a subplot about a woman who grew up with a Native American tribe and is forcibly torn away from her children and returned to her original family. (I think a whole book about her might have been more interesting.) Nice enough holiday reading, but not particularly memorable.

Snowbound by Janice Kay Johnson

A teacher and her eight teenage charges get snowbound with a hermit innkeeper. She and he fall in love, but his inability to acknowledge and deal with his PSTD causes a rift between them. Once I got past the idea of all those kids, I really enjoyed this.

The Admiral’s Penniless Bride by Carla Kelly

(This has an extremely tenuous connection to Christmas. Eh, so do I.)

Kelly’s books generally tend towards the sweetly warmhearted, but for me, she crossed the line into saccharine here. A middle-aged admiral at loose ends impulsively marries a younger, destitute widow and everything in the garden is simply too lovely for words, until he finds out she lied to him. I was uncomfortable with how everything in the story was designed to show how compassionate and wonderful they both are — charitable, free from prejudice, etc. — and then abruptly shifted into melodrama. By the time something exciting happened, the balance of the story felt way off.

On the plus side is a very matter-of-fact depiction of a disabled hero; his arm was amputated many years ago and he’s perfectly comfortable with his new normal. And there are some fun and wryly witty moments.

 

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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.

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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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