A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TBR Challenge April 2020: The Last Grand Passion by Emma Darcy

The theme: whatevs.

Why this one: whatevs.

 

There was a time when the most emo hero ever written since this MST3K sketch might have made me laugh, but we’re all a little testy these days. From the start, this seemed an astonishingly pretentious Harlequin — perhaps that’s the Plus in Harlequin Plus? The hero appears out of nowhere, surrounded by billowing clouds of angst, quotes lines from “Pagliacci” and then sods off.

After that the ride gets a bit more interesting, because this heroine is not going to take no for an answer. (She’s already quite a bit different for HQ, because she slept with another man while the hero was gone!) She then proceeds to disregard pretty much everything the hero says he wants, all with the best of intentions of course. I don’t actually hate her — she’s in love, and she’s being screwed over, and she usually recognizes her mistakes, though that doesn’t stop her from making new ones.

If you like your Harlequins over the top, this one is reasonably fun and inoffensive — though I don’t know that I wouldn’t prefer a raging old school alphole to this sad, soggy clown.

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TBR Challenge March 2020: Summer Campaign by Carla Kelly

CW: attempted rape in the story

 

The theme: Seasons.

Why this one: It arrived fortuitously for the theme, and also the circumstances, as Kelly is a great comfort read.

If I’d tried this traditional Regency back in my “nobody is any good but Heyer” days, I would have been — who knows, possibly was — too annoyed by the similarities to enjoy it. Nowadays I can see that though there is definitely some Heyer (and Austen) language and character influence, Kelly already had her own, very appealing voice.

The somewhat episodic story follows Onyx Hamilton, a poor relation who is on her way to refurbish the vicarage of her deathly dull Mr. Collins of a fiance. Onyx is rescued from a terrible highwayman attack by Major Jack Beresford, who is shot saving her. Of course, it’s necessary for her to nurse him back to health and for them to pretend to be married while she does.

As usual with Kelly, there isn’t much angst between Onyx and Jack, their only conflict being the fact that she was an illegitimate foundling and he’s heir to a title. They have an immediate rapport of gentle teasing and mutual care, especially since fever from his wound increases Jack’s nightmares about wartime. Onyx has her own emotional burdens, particularly the loss of her twin during the war, and the simply dreadful way her so-called family reacted to it. One of the most visceral aspects of the attack is her few mementos of her brother being stolen and maliciously destroyed.

So there’s fear and grief and sadness in this story, but Kelly’s characters always give each other emotional boosts which leave me feeling warmed. They’re a great read in a lonely world.

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TBR Challenge: After All These Years by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

The theme: friends

Why this one: Picked for a “midwest” challenge.

CW for book: Technical adultery, angst-free all around.

 

I’m afraid I can’t do this book justice now, since I finished it over a month ago. (forgive a brief pity-party, but you would not believe how complicated things get when a disabled child turns eighteen.) But in short, I loved this down-to-earth story. It very much fits the theme because Curry, Tom and Huck were the closest of friends all their lives, with a blood pact to always be straight with one another.

Curry and Huck got married, then Huck died in Vietnam, leaving her with another Huck to raise. Tom also fought, was injured in body and mind, and has little relationship with his wife and daughter. But this isn’t the standard “his friend got there first and he’s been pining ever since” story. Part of the story’s realistic charm is that its very straightforward about teens and their hormone-driven behavior, especially when living in a very small town with little to divert them. Tom and Curry started dating first, Tom pushed way too hard, and Curry kicked him to the curb. They both moved on.

Curry is just the best. She’s very much an adult: capable, empathetic, and so honest and true to herself. Tom, though over his pushy teen self, is pretty messed up, but learns that he can be a good partner and father.

It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, and I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much in my all-romance-angst-all-the-time days, but hey, how nice is it that some old books are better now, for a change?

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TBR Challenge: Flirting With Ruin by Marguerite Kaye

The theme: Short shorts.

Why This One: Having realized last night that I wasn’t going to get my book read in time, I searched for a short story. This is an author I’ve enjoyed before, and one of the fews shorts I have that’s not erotica. (I should just delete all my erotica ebooks at this point — except what if I go wild in my 70s?)

Flirting With Ruin is more sedate than its title suggest. It’s designed primarily to introduce the “Castonbury” series, a Downton Abbey-inspired multi author series, most notable for including an interracial romance also written by Kaye. (Unexpected from Harlequin in 2012.)

At 47 pages on my Kindle, there’s not a lot of room here to spend on the characters. Lady Rosalind has acquired a reputation as a wanton widow, a reaction to “six years married to a puritanical man, seventeen before that raised by a puritanical father” — but she hasn’t really done much to deserve the reputation, or enjoyed the little she’s done. On a slightly scandalous evening out at a harvest celebration, she’s immediately attracted to a stranger, and vice versa. They share some passionate anonymous necking but agree to stop there.

The next day the stranger, revealed as Major Fraser Lennox, appears at Castonbury to give the family a medal earned in battle by the dead heir. This reminder of mortality spurs Fraser and Rosalind to say the hell with it and have a fling. It’s a nice enough story, with a nice ending for the heroine who’s had such a repressed, depressing life. But it didn’t leave me panting to get my hands on the rest of the books.

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TBR Challenge: The Sugar Rose by Susan Carroll

CW: weight shaming and diet talk in book, a little repellant villain POV

The theme: Sugar or Spice (either very hot or closed door)

Why This One: Double-dipping, as usual these days of oh-so-many reading challenges, this time with the Pop Sugar Challenge.

Book Description:

“THIS IS THE OUTSIDE OF ENOUGH TO BE MAKING MISS SINCLAIR AN OFFER WITH ME SITTING HERE!”

Even Everard Ramsey’s outrage could not dampen the delight that Aurelia Sinclair felt at the prearranged proposal of her childhood sweetheart, Justin, Lord Spencer. If Justin was less than ardent, well…what could such a dowdy, plump girl as herself expect from one of the handsomest bucks in the ton?

His sympathy thoroughly engaged, the fastidious Mr. Ramsey was already forming a most famous plan. If he could but help Aurelia with her wardrobe and sweet tooth, surely his friend Justin would sit up and take notice.

But when a breathtaking Aurelia emerged from her cocoon, slender and radiant, Everard began to wish Justin far away–the better to have his creation all to himself!

I included the blurb because it’s so gaggy that it was a relief to find the book isn’t as bad as it’s painted. Admittedly, if you’re very sensitive about food and weight issues, you should stay away, but the romance is not Pygmalion-esque at all and properly satisfying.

The book does start with Justin offhandedly “proposing” to Aurelia right in front of of his friend Everard. Aurelia regards Everard as an affected dandy — he uses a quizzing glass! — but he’s disgusted by his friend’s disrespectful behavior, and more than a bit taken with Aurelia himself.  Although she has very low self-esteem, she’s witty, frank, and has more physical charms than she believes. Nor are his efforts to help her initially focused on her weight:

“I don’t mean to offer advice where it may not be wanted, but you intrigue me, Miss Sinclair. You have from the first. If you could get past the point of letting Justin treat you with less consideration than he shows his horse, I believe you are exactly the sort of woman he needs.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how much your opinion means to me, sir.” Aurelia glowered, spanning her fingers along her waistline. “Such a nice, sensible, solid sort of woman, is that your estimation?”

“No,” he retorted. “Such a lovely, intelligent woman who, for some strange reason, is at pains to hide her beauty behind a silken monstrosity that resembles a rose garden run amok.”

When Aurelia accepts Everard’s offer, of course they wind up spending a lot of time together. She discovers she’s not actually clumsy while dancing with him, and that he is a far pleasanter person than she’d thought.

When he laughed, it suddenly occurred to her how very much she liked Everard Ramsey this way, the cynical lines of his face relaxing, gentles by his smile. No bored mask of indifference, no elegant dandy hiding behind his quizzing glass. Simply a man who looked at her as if–

Aurelia’s breath caught in her throat. As if it didn’t matter whether she was beautiful. Because it was enough that he made her feel as if she were.

There’s unfortunately some terrible diet crap in this section, but there’s never a sense that Everard is unhappy with Aurelia as she is or that he only falls for her when she loses weight. And there’s psychological symmetry between them: both of them had unloving families but she eats her feelings and he gambles to ignore his.

In the manner of traditional Regencies, there’s some villainous meddling and rather ridiculous high jinks at the end, which I liked more than I expected, because they give both Aurelia and Everard a chance to symbolically move on from their coping mechanisms. It’s definitely a sweet book in more than the euphemistic way, and made me smile.

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TBR Challenge: Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale

(I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’m going to go ahead and publish what I have and hopefully add to it later.)

The theme: historical

Why this one: I’m trying to focus on those books in my TBR I would really hate to still have there when I die!

It can be fascinating to read historical romance in which medical or psychological issues that are better understood now are shown in a completely different context. In Flowers from the Storm, it’s more than fascinating — it’s excruciating. Having your speech and movements incapacitated by a stroke must be terribly frustrating, even when people somewhat understand what’s happening and can accomodate you. But imagine it being taken as a sign that you’ve lost your mind, and need to be penned up and chained, with no privacy or dignity or any kind of help in coming to terms with what’s happened to you.

That’s what Kinsale does here, and because she’s such an excellent writer, she does it within an inch of its life.

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TBR Challenge: The Trysting Place by Mary Balogh

Note: The surprises in this story are so obvious and mild, I’m not bothering with spoilers. 

 

The Theme: An author with more than one book in your TBR.

Why This One: In today’s world, might as well eat dessert first. Though all my saved Baloghs seem to be lesser ones.

I found the heroine of The Trysting Place challenging. She’s not obviously dislikeable in the antagonistic and self-sabotaging way of some Balogh heroines, but she really got up my nose somehow.

As the story opens, Felicity is just out of mourning for the elderly husband she had married out of duty, despite having been passionately in love with her childhood friend Tom. And a marriage of convenience — her family’s convenience, largely — has not taught her to value love and passion more. Rather, she’s eager to now enjoy herself as a wealthy widow in the ton, and grateful that she didn’t have those six children she and Tom had once planned together.

I really shouldn’t hate Felicity for this and yet I kinda do. Perhaps especially because she’s completely oblivious to the fact that her good friend Tom is still deeply in love with her, and she uses him for her own selfish ends. Which are to make a rakish lord so jealous he’ll give up his arranged engagement and marry her instead.

I’m making Felicity sound worse than she is, which might be because there really doesn’t seem to be that much to her. She’s beautiful, cultured but naive, loves her family, and does her best for them. But girls just wanna have (respectable, married) fun. The stakes just aren’t very high, or very interesting, at least for much of the book.

Tom’s point of view makes the story more compelling, because although he’ll do just about anything for Felicity, he recognizes some of the childish flaws in her way of thinking. And Felicity’s growing awareness of her own foolishness, largely through seeing the far more mature romantic choices of her much younger twin sisters, makes a nice enough redemption — except she then goes on to behave so much more foolishly, I didn’t know whether she needed a smack or an “oh, honey.”

I happened across a quote from Balogh that said writing this book was like wading through molasses. It shows.

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TBR Challenge: Rising Moon by Lori Handeland

CN: Ableism and racism.

The theme: a series book

Why this one: I don’t think I really expected to finish it? And now I wish I hadn’t.

The first two books in this paranormal romance series weren’t great but kind of hooked me anyway — glasses-wearing hero in the first, sacrificial hero in the second. But they’ve gotten pretty samey as they go on, and with the background switched to New Orleans, the woo-woo elements have become more and more squirm-producing: I’m pretty sure I DNF’d the previous book from the synopsis about a white voodoo priestess alone.

Unfortunately, the author seems to have asked herself to hold her own beer. This was all kinds of problematic.

But before I start on that — is it at least a good story? I vote mostly no. As is typical for the series, the narrator is a tough, single-minded heroine who meets a hero with seeeeecrets. Anne’s hard-boiled narrative stretched plausibility numerous times, with her frequently not seeming to notice much that her life was in imminent danger. Add in countless explanations about the 500 different types of werewolf and how they operate and excitement never really has much chance to build. I’ll give it that it has some nice chemistry, because Handeland does give good hero. But then…

*HUGE COMPLETELY SPOILERY RANT ALA WENDY*

First off, hero John is blind. And the representation is just about as terrible as it can be, short of fetishization. We only get Anne’s point-of-view and it’s all how terrible to be stuck in darkness blah-blah-blah. So that’s bad enough, but then the big reveal — which is actually pretty obvious — John isn’t actually blind at all! He’s been faking it as… some kind of disguise? This was during one of the duller sections so I may have dozed off. And this all ties in to Anne’s feeling like John only found her attractive because he was blind, so woohoo, he really does!

So that’s terrible on top of terrible. And the terrible cherry on top of this terrible sundae is that John’s dark past is he is a freaking evil werewolf (a particular one of the 500 kinds) because when he was human he was an especially cruel and evil slave-owner. Oh, and did I mention that John’s only friend is a descendent of the slave who cursed him?

Nobody needs this particular redemption narrative! And it isn’t even done well. John’s cure at the end feels like he got over a bad case of the sniffles.

Since this is a particularly harsh review, I will add that I think the author genuinely tried to be respectful about voodoo and its practitioners. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t enough to overcome the really bad themes here.

So, that’s this series sorted, especially since the last one I own has a part-Cherokee heroine. I suspect the two currently on my keeper shelf may slink away in shame.

 

 

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TBR Challenge: The Legacy by T.J. Bennett

The theme: I’m off-theme again. Somebody stop me!

Why this one: It also fits a Geographical challenge I’m doing.

CN for the book: abuse, sexual violence, and implied rape

 

It’s nice to read a historical that’s been on my TBR for far too long and not feel regret about how much more I might once have enjoyed it. Although not as timeless as an old Carla Kelly, The Legacy is still quite my cup of tea. 

Set in Medieval Germany during the Protestant reformation, it’s a romance between Sabina, who recently escaped from a nunnery with the help of Martin Luther, and Wolf, the prosperous owner of a print shop. Both have been blackmailed into marriage by her adoptive father, Baron von Ziegler. (There’s a cross-class element here, but it’s not particularly important to the story.)

Although wanting to be cold to the wife forced on him, Wolf is aghast to realize how badly the Baron has mistreated her, and attracted in spite of himself. But two things stop him from commiting to the marriage: his guilt over having feelings for another, after the death of his beloved first wife, and his guilt over having to take Sabina’s legacy from her mother, which she dreams of using to help vulnerable children and women like herself. Sabina doesn’t know whether to be angrier about losing her dream, or about Wolf’s refusal to let her in.

The theme of legacy resounds throughout the book. At one point, Sabina tells Wolf the most traumatic secret of her past, that her older brother was murdered trying to save her from sexual assault. Their father blamed her for the death and hated her thereafter, and she’s hated herself as well.

“Your brother was a hero, Sabina, not a sacrifice. Don’t let that devil take that away from you… It was his choice, Sabina. No one forced it upon him. He did it because he thought you were worthy of being saved. That is his legacy to you. Don’t ignore it. Don’t throw it away, because  if you do, he really will have died in vain.”

The Baron’s legacy of cruelty rebounds on him, when Sabina chooses not to be forgiving. And in the end, Sabina helps Wolf with his own ugly secrets: “Neither of us is responsible for the sins of our fathers. Let the legacy of guilt and shame die with them today.”

Well researched history is nicely woven into the plot, and Wolf manages to seem true to the time while being essentially a decent man. Sabina is admirably strong, with her basically feminist views given appropriate historical roots. And… there’s just the sort of angst I like.

Sadly, Bennett seems to have either stopped writing, or perhaps is writing under a different name. Does anyone know?

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