A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: To Cage a Whirlwind by Jane Donnelly

The theme: freebie

Why this one: I must have tried 6 or 7 books! At least my print pile is shrinking.

My second disappointing Donnelly in a row, though this one is still considerably better than Ring of Crystal.

The first half is good. Morag Macdonald runs off to visit her brother Alistair, her only remaining family, after catching her boyfriend in flagrante delicto. Unfortunately, her brother is also just about to be caught, for embezzling from his employer, Callum Mcconnell. Morag agrees to go to the Scottish island where she grew up, where Callum is the laird, to be a companion for Callum’s elderly relatives and ensure’s Alistair’s good behavior.

Morag is a bit of a conundrum in the castle; as the daughter of a fisherman and a woman who used to sew for the Mcconnell’s, no one quite knows what to make of her position as companion, and it’s generally assumed she’s really Callum’s mistress. Donnelly always writes vividly about Scotland, and though there isn’t a whole lot of plot going on, all the background detail about Morag rediscovering the island she loves and settling into the castle makes for entertaining reading. And when Callum visits, the initial antagonism between them begins to morph into a playful friendship and strong attraction. It’s much better reading than old categories in which the main characters just bicker endlessly forever.

And then, of course, it all goes to hell — both the relationship and the book.

The second half is one long — overly long — bout of suffering for Morag, forced by circumstances to witness Callum’s courtship of Rosalie, the beautiful and imminently suitable girl his relatives want him to marry. I do enjoy a good suffer, and Morag is a likable, fairly emotionally mature character, so I don’t really mind being in her point-of-view for the entire book. But there’s an art to limited third person and in both Ring of Crystal and this, Donnelly doesn’t pull it off. There have to be some clues for the reader and there just aren’t any; Callum seems completely indifferent to Morag. There’s a sudden, ludicrous misunderstanding and then poof, everything’s fine again.

I really like the freshness of Donnelly’s writing, so I’ll keep reading her, but I do hope I hit the bottom of the barrel with these last two.


Love, Comment, Subscribe by Cathy Yardley

The theme: Unusual historical. Ooops.

(I did actually try two historicals. Angels Wings by Anne Stuart, genuinely unusual, had both characters and plot I disliked. One Bride Too Many by Connie Brockway… let me just quote verbatim this one star review from GoodReads: ‘The plot is “man wears dress”.’

Why this one: I dunno, it was just calling to me. Of course it’s not a historical, but it did turn out to be unusual.

This opposites-attract romance started out with a huge strike against it, because I’m so turned off by characters who desperately want to be in with the “popular crowd.” (My teen review of the show “Square Pegs”: “they have each other and nice boys who like them, what the hell else do they need?”) So I had little sympathy for teen Lily’s efforts to leave her nerdy friends behind — they call themselves the Nerd Herd, I would be friends with them in a hot second — and think she was damn lucky they didn’t hold a grudge. And then she grows up to be an ambitious beauty YouTuber… that’s a meh from me.

Buuuut, the MMC Tobin Bui is a total goofball who likes silly but harmless pranks and is straight out of All Dogs Have ADHD. (He does in fact have ADHD which he controls largely with exercise, so geeky but ripped.) In other words, basically my husband, sans the ripped part. How could I not keep reading?

Tobin has also grown up to be a professional YouTuber, Goofybui, who does sketches and game playthroughs. But though Lily and Tobin have been frenemies pretty much forever, ten years after high school they aren’t really in touch. Then one of Tobin’s videos goes viral at a time both are feeling stuck in their careers, and they decide to give collaboration a try. And though they’re coming from very different niches, the cute way they play off each other makes their numbers explode. (I found this somewhat implausible, but then I don’t really get why people watch any of this stuff to begin with, so *shrug*.) Of course people start to ship them, and as they each start to appreciate the other’s very different style, it begins to seem less impossible.

Both characters are also on personal journeys. Tobin is being pushed by his agent to take on more work commitments, but the pressure is burning out his creativity. And Lily, as you might expect, has a lot of growing to do around her high school popularity issues, including understanding how it seemed to her friends.

“I was an outcast. We were all outcasts!”

He looked at her and it wasn’t pity. It was… disappointment.

“We had each other,” he said, almost under his breath. “That was what I never understood. Why did you give a shit what they thought, when you had us?”

(I swear to God, I wrote about “Square Pegs” above before I read this scene!)

I appreciate Yardley’s efforts to make this story inclusive and as non-toxic as possible, given the milieu. Both their professional colleagues and friend group are a diverse bunch. Tobin, whose parents are from England and Vietnam, realistically encounters some microagressions, and of course there are some unpleasant dudebro comments about Lily on Tobin’s feed, but he immediately deletes them; he’s not just a goofy bui but a very good bui. Not even a beta hero, as my husband would say, but “a episilon.” Here’s an unusually sweet “forced to share a bed” scene:

“I never got why guys wouldn’t be into snuggling,” he admitted. “It’s been a minute since I’ve had a girlfriend, but when I do, it like it when they spend the night. They’re all soft and warm and feel great and smell better.”

“You’re a hair sniffer, aren’t you?” He could hear the smirk in her voice and burst out laughing.

“Yup, that’s me,” he teased back. “Just sucking in that air like a pervy Roomba. Now get some sleep, or I’ll snuggle you.”

“Heh.” Then, to his shock, she wriggled until she was flush against him, then dragged his arm over her like a blanket. “Don’t threaten me with a good time.”

So yeah, I continued to love Tobin, and Lily thankfully grew on me, as she grew personally. She might even be good enough for him by the end. 😉 The prose could’ve used a bit more editing, mainly for repetitions, but overall I definitely click the “heart” button on this.


TBR Challenge: Caprice by Amanda Carpenter (aka Thea Harrison)

The theme: Starting Over

Why This One: I didn’t have the theme in mind when I started, but it kind of fits. As a romance reader, I hope it fits.

From the Goodreads reviews this isn’t a fan favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s almost no plot — all vibes, as the kids say. And the vibes aren’t all that good.

Caprice is the name of our heroine and she doesn’t know herself whether it’s “a case of the name predicting the personality, or the personality fitting itself to the name.” She’s whimsical, capricious, manipulative and an inveterate flirt, and she’s starting to realize that she’s in perhaps in a trap of her own making. She’s not a terrible person by any means, and many of her ploys throughout the book are for the benefit of her friends, though she’s never truly let those friends in. But her socialite lifestyle is shallow and she has no desire to change it, even while realizing something is missing.

In typical Harlequin fashion, Caprice’s feelings are upended by an attractive man named Pierce — another descriptive name, I just realized — and it scares the hell out of her.

She felt an inner lurch, and then was frightened. Foolish, foolish, for this man was a stranger and he didn’t matter any more than the others mattered. She shouldn’t fear him. He didn’t know her, couldn’t know her. She was glittering brightness, she was cool fire, she was laughter and gaiety, and malicious gentleness, she was Caprice. Underneath that, she was untouchable.

These thoughts happens right after Pierce tells her “everyone has a basic reason for doing something. Sometimes, with the more twisted or fanatic mind, you need to search deeper for the reason, but it’s always there, deep, underlying actions and thought like the still waters under the surface of this lake.” Which makes a lot of sense in terms of her character, but sets the reader up for disappointment, because we expect some powerful reason for Caprice’s behavior, some trauma, and we don’t really get one. (Though on the other hand, yay for avoiding that particular romance cliche?)

Pierce finds Caprice about as frustrating as you’d expect, but nonetheless courts her in spite of her hot and cold reactions, and in the end manages to make a pretty good argument for how their opposite attracts relationship could work. I still have my doubts about their ultimate happiness, and I wish there could have been more progress in Caprice’s understanding herself better and moving closer to other people in her life, to help create a happy ending. Instead it comes out more as “she just needed a good shagging” quite literally ala “Gone with the Wind.” The second half of the book is less interesting than the first.

It’s hard to believe this was published in 1986, because it feels like a time capsule — those who enjoy loving descriptions of clothes will be happy — but more like 1960 than the 1986 I knew. (Though coincidentally enough, I was just about Caprice’s age then, and it’s the year I met my husband.) The feel is so old-fashioned, I kept being surprised when Caprice could go off with a young man without a chaperone or be caught kissing him without a scandal. Were rich people really having innocent house parties in 1986?


TBR Challenge: Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

The theme: Lies

Why this one: Lucky coincidence

This is basically a rom-com movie in book form, even including a more family Christmas-sy version of a gratuitous karaoke moment. And for a while I was afraid that it really wasn’t going to work for me. It starts out so dismal and depressing, with a heroine who hates her life, hates herself, and is a martyr to her exceedingly horrible mother. Oh, how I loathe fictional martyrs! But I persisted and it was worth it.

It’s mainly a queer “While You Were Sleeping,” though I also noticed a touch of “Gilmore Girls.” The narrator is Ellie, who agrees to a convenient engagement with wealthy Andrew because she’s really in dire straits. And a part of her hopes it will turn out like all romance readers would expect, with them really falling in love. If only she could get over the one-night stand she had with an incredible woman named Jack last Christmas…

Going to Andrew’s family Christmas with him, she discovers he has the kind of warm and loving relatives she always wanted for herself, and they’re thrilled to make her part of the family. Unfortunately, she also discovers that one of those relatives is his sister Jack.

(For those who worry about these things, Andrew and Ellie never do more than kiss.)

The Christmas section is just about holiday romance perfect. There’s awful sweaters and tree-trimming and mistletoe, and the author does a great job of incorporating the classic “we’re accidentally touching and oh my God” moments of the rom-com genre, with almost palpable attraction and tension. The only things that didn’t work for me was I was a bit skeptical about a very wealthy family being so down-to-earth, and with what seemed like an attempt to smush in the “big queer party” atmosphere of The Charm Offensive. It was awkward.

And there’s a lot of drinking. It made me a uncomfortable, how much of the action happened while people were drinking.

Lovely romance though, and effective character growth arcs for Ellie, Jack and Andrew.

(Personal story: I told my husband about the book and he found it very strange that Andrew wasn’t in a coma, since that was such a big movie plot point. Then I read the author notes, in which she thanks her agent “for talking me out of so many bad ideas (including the coma.”) 😂)

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TBR Challenge: No Place to Run by Jane Donnelly

The theme: location, location, location

Why this one: I’ve been on a bit of a Donnelly glom and this one fit nicely.

CW: Use of “gypsy,” somewhat stalkery hero, and heroine who berates herself for saying no to sex after being “criminally provocative” by, you know, kissing someone. (He, unlike many a Harlequin hero, gives her no hassle about it at all.)

Despite the title and a rather perturbing opening, in which Lucy gets a magazine cutting of herself and her fiancee marked, “So that’s where you’ve been hiding,” this isn’t romantic suspense, but a story with a largely internal conflict. As the book opens, Lucy has just gotten engaged to Mr. Right and is resolutely stifling any memories of her time on a Scottish island, when she met a man named Matt and… sort of married him.

“For a few years before the clearances the young folk were forbidden to marry unless they emigrated, so they married with the ring of rock. Like gypsies jumping hand in hand over the campfire.”

She said “Well, thank you for bringing me here,” and she put her hand through because it was irresistible, gasping when his fingers closed over hers. He loosed her within seconds and they both laughed and the singing cave took up their laughter.

As they spent more time together, this little ritual became meaningful for them both. But Lucy, the child of an aggressively unhappy marriage, desperately wants safety and security. Which seems perfectly embodied in Giles, her town’s Most Eligible Bachelor. Lucy’s life is perfect — except for the persistent fear that Matt might show up and ruin everything.

And then he does show up and does ruin everything… not in so much in deliberately stirring up trouble, but because somewhere inside, Lucy knows she’s doing the wrong thing. A conversation with Giles:

“I’ll see you this evening. I love you.” He added, “There’s nothing wrong, is there?”

“Now what could be possibly be wrong?” It was a lovely day. “Bye, then; I love you.” She put down the phone and sat looking at it for a moment. “I love you,” she said softly again. “Oh, I do hope I love you.”

This isn’t a popular book; a lot of readers find Lucy annoyingly wishy-washy. But Donnelly’s voice makes it work for me, and I think Lucy gets a good arc — not just throwing her cap over the windmill for love, but because she realizes that her life with Giles would be utterly stifling. And though I’m not usually a big fan of woo-woo, something about the connection between Lucy and Matt, that mystical pull deeply rooted in harsh history, enchanted me.


TBR Challenge: The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

The theme: Competition

Why this one: I read it, I loved it, I felt like writing about it, and it fit the theme! The fact that it’s a new book didn’t seem so important. 🙂

“Honestly, who even cast last season? Was the network trying to make it a queer party?”

I’m pretty sure the author was trying to make this book a queer party, and she did a great job. Comparisons to Casey McQuinston’s work are quite apt, not only because of the quality of the writing, but because of the time spent in effortlessly delightful queer space.

Dev Deshpande would be thrilled to know that he’s a character in an interracial gay romance. Ever since he was a little boy and declared that he wanted to marry Aladin, he’s been in love with love, making him one of the best possible “handlers” for competitors on the reality show “Ever After.” Dev genuinely sees his job as helping people fall in love, and when faced with a miserable, stammering, vomiting Prince for the latest season, he assures him, “You can do this. I believe in you.”

It’s not so easy to make tech superstar Charlie Winshaw into reality show Prince material. He has significant mental health issues, doesn’t like to be touched, and has never really felt sexual attraction. He’s so far from believing he could have a happy ending, he doesn’t even want to try; his only goal is to appear publicly “normal” so he might be able to work in tech again. Dev diligently works to understand Charlie’s needs and help him feel comfortable and relaxed, succeeding well enough that the Charlie is able to start bonding with his potential Princesses. (Who are treated with great sympathy throughout the story.) But the only one he really wants to kiss is… Dev.

As you can probably guess from that synopsis, there’s a lot of not-great stuff happening here. Dev is absolutely not allowed to get involved with a cast member, and he has mental health problems of his own. Charlie is often put into uncomfortable/humiliating situations. And they spend a lot of time pretending around their feelings. But countering this are gorgeously written falling-in-love scenes, which are most tender when they focus on what each thinks are their weaknesses: Charlie relishes “scrawny” Dev’s sharp points digging into him. Dev is enchanted by Charlie’s constant blushes and awkward vulnerability.

And then there’s that big queer party. The times when Dev and Charlies and their friends and co-workers, all varieties of LQBTQA+++, drink, dance and have fun, and stop worrying about who’s supposed to fall in love with whom.

“Men flock to Charlie, and Charlie tries to introduce the men to Dev, but it’s impossible to see anyone else when Charlie’s around, hulking and blond and sweating in the flashing lights… He wonders how many nights like this Charlie Winshaw has had in his life. Permanent smile, completely out of his head, not worried about being weird and being totally, unapologetically weird as he thrusts his hips to Lady Gaga. Has Charlie ever had a night like this? Has he ever just let himself be? Charlie dances like his skin is a pair of stiff jeans he’s finally broken in, like for the first time, he fits.”

There’s so much joy in this story, and the bleaker parts are all so thematically important and well integrated, that it was pretty much a charmer from beginning to end.


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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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.


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.


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.


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