A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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.

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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.

Siiiiiiiigh…

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.

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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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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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