A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: With This Ring by Carla Kelly

The theme: an author with multiple books on your TBR

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

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

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

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

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

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


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TBR Challenge 1/18: Street Song by Ann Charlton

The theme: We like short shorts.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For the curious, my first attempts:

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

Night Train by Anne Weale. Gave me flashback whiplash.

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


TBR Challenge: 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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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