A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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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TBR Challenge: Out of the Shadows by Sandra Marton

The theme: A holiday read. Sorry, not happening this year.

Why This One: You know why — it’s a Harlequin Presents, which is to say short. December is hard. The book is kind of hard, too.

The story opens with a “grey, sunless sky” and “low clouds sweeping menacingly” over a funeral. And then it goes downhill from there. I’m mostly kidding, but not entirely; it’s not a bad book, but it’s kind of a downer.

Basically, Lauren and Matt are two perfectly nice, compatible people who fall in love. (He’s also her boss and he does use that fact some to get close to her, but not in a really icky way.) There would be nothing to put in a romance about them if they didn’t both have relatives from the Gawdawful Parents Hall of Fame.

It would make an interesting debate to try to figure out who’s worse, Lauren’s controlling mother or Matt’s entitled father. The mother makes herself unpleasantly felt all through the story, while Matt’s father is more of a behind-the-scenes player, but they both squeeze in quite a lot of terrible.

Add to that some pretty old-fashioned plot twists, and a story that ends when many would think it should begin, and it just hasn’t worn that well. It is kind of nice to read an HP hero who isn’t a jerk, though.

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TBR Challenge: Caught on Camera by Meg Maguire (Cara McKenna)

The Theme: “Cover Girl,” a great or terrible cover.

Why This One: I’m kinda cheating here: I decided I wanted to use this, so I made it fit the theme. But it is a legitimately hideous cover. I’m not quite sure how to explain its effect, so I’m going to borrow from GoodReads.

(Simple description: setting is a woods, with sun shining through the trees. A woman with shoulder-length auburn hair, holding a sophisticated camera, is being smirked at by a blonde man in khaki holding his shirt open.)

From Giedre: “That cover… is fug, but I feel like the cover designers unlocked an achievement – producing a weird mix between a clothing catalogue behind-the-scenes photo and a peeping Tom’s diary entry – so they should be applauded. That kind of level of creepiness requires effort, I imagine. A+.”

To be fair, author Penny Watson is very pro-cover: “Now, most of the time, a cheesy cover is something that would make an author cringe. Not a good thing. But in this case, the cover made me smile. First of all, there is a hilarious sub-title on the front cover that says “This show is getting x-rated”…hee hee! Then, you notice the camera strategically placed over the dude’s crotch. And finally, the hero himself…he looks so damned naughty, with his shirt hanging open and a very wicked look on his face. How I love this cover! ”

For me, perhaps the worst thing about the cover is it didn’t entice me to read the book, which I’ve owned for 7 years.(I bought all the Meg Maguire books after reading the amazing The Reluctant Nude .) As Watson says, it screams “naughty fluff,” which I guess is the Blaze visual brand, and explains why I rarely read them.

You could say Caught on Camera is on the naughty side, but it’s not fluff. Like many of the author’s best books, it’s highly concentrated — all hero and heroine, all the time. Ty and Kate are co-workers (technically he’s her boss,) extremely intimate best friends, and always just one tiny step/enormous chasm away from becoming lovers. When they’re stranded in a snowy Canadian forest while filming Ty’s thrill-seeker adventure show, their feelings for each other and their emotional baggage collide.

I never feel like I get enough romance like this, where the main characters spend glorious amounts of time together, talking wittily and meaningfully. Here, they also have to deal with freezing cold, and fire, and the fact that Ty has barely eaten in days because he keeps strictly to a live-off-the-land policy while filming. It’s a life-changing experience for them both. But it was the relationship that really got me, the feeling that these two are genuinely essential to each other.

 

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TBR Challenge: Surrender to the Devil by Lorraine Heath

CN for book: A past rape, a scene of attempted rape, and some violence.

The theme: Historical romance.

Why this one: I don’t remember.

Historicals were my first romance passion, and my TBR cupboard is full of books just like this one: mainstream historical romance by mainstream authors. And there’s nothing wrong with it (well, except the so many things that are) but it’s not much to my tastes anymore. I found this a bit of a slog, though it did get more compelling towards the end.

The first thing you should know: this is book three in a series, and it’s really a series. Characters from the previous books are all over the damn place. It makes sense, given that the link between them — four or so heroes from other books and the heroine of this one — is that they grew up together as child thieves in the “rookeries” of London. But unless you’ve read the other books, or possibly even if you have, the constant reference to backstory is tedious.

This is a tortured hero meets tortured heroine story. Frannie’s torture was being sold and raped at a young age.  She has a good life now, with the help of her childhood friends, but isn’t much inclined towards love; her passion is getting abused children off the streets.  Sterling’s torture is the slow loss of his vision, which will likely result in permanent blindness. He was dumped by the woman he courted, and despised as “flawed” by his father, because of course he was.

Sterling’s disability gives him a vulnerability that is somewhat unusual in a standard hero. He’s both beaten up by Frannie’s mistrustful friends, and loses sight of her when she’s in danger, so he doesn’t get to be bigger and badder than everyone. Other than that the book is just so samey. I don’t even read these kind of books anymore, yet I recognized virtually every part of it. An ending that includes a grand gesture and the appearance of Charles Dickens — his characters were based on the friends, ha ha ha — just made me groan. I guess it’s once again one of those “if this is the sort of thing you like, you may like this” situations.

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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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