A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Playing With Fire by Victoria Thompson

The theme: A NTM author.

Why this one: I’ve been reading a lot of European-set historicals and felt like some Americana.

This author is not only new to me, but I don’t think I’ve heard her mentioned before, so I expected this to be pretty forgettable. While not great, it was lively story that kept me interested until the last fourth. Since it’s almost 400 pages, that’s a reasonable amount of interest, though it really did drag at the end.

After the last of her family dies, twenty-nine year old Isabel Forester impulsively decides to take a teaching position out west. She doesn’t expect much more than a change of scene. But when she arrives in Bittercreek, Texas, she’s amazed to find that she’s no longer considered a plain, superfluous old maid but a desirable woman every bachelor in town wants. Unfortunately, the only one to catch her eye is Eben, a taciturn blacksmith who reportedly adored his late wife so much he’ll never marry again.

This is a fun plot reminiscent of several favorite old movies — “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The Harvey Girls”… and another I won’t mention, since it would be a spoiler. The setting is well realized, with a strong cast of supporting characters; I enjoyed the wooing hijinks, and the antics of Isabel’s students– likeable in the style of the Avonlea stories. Then the book went into romantic gear, with Eben trying to woo Isabel and doing everything wrong, romance-hero style. There’s some effective tension, and nice sensuality — Eben the blacksmith is quite good with his hands! But the push and pull between them went on way too long, and a whole bunch of extra plot at the end didn’t help my exhausted feeling.

Though I wish it had been shorter, it was a nicely immersive historical and felt like it offered more than just the romance.

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TBR Challenge: Roarke’s Kingdom by Sandra Marton

(CW: a past rape)

The theme: “We Love Short Shorts.” Except for maybe Courtney Milan novellas, my most loved shorts will always be category romance.

Why this one: I went through a few books from my HP stack pretty much randomly and this is the one that stuck.

Roarke — no relation to another fine billionaire Roarke, though he does have a similar fondness for choosing his lover’s clothes — lives on a lonesome but luxurious island off of San Juan, with lots of servants and his young daughter Susanna. After a bitter divorce he’s very Cynical About Women, HP-style. Which means he falls fairly quickly under the spell of sweet, non-materialistic, child-lovin’ Victoria despite his initial suspicions. But of course, she is hiding a Big Secret.

This could easily have been a wallbanger. Not because of the feisty heroine and totally controlling hero — the first doesn’t go on painfully long, and you know I eat HP alphas with a round-bowl spoon. But it came close to serious pet peeve territory because there’s an Evil Other Woman — you can tell how evil she is before she even appears, because she doesn’t like babies or living on isolated islands — and she’s an adoptive mother, and Victoria is the child’s biological mother. That sort of story can so easily go wrong.

What saved it is:

  • I don’t know if it was intentional on the author’s part, but she draws a good picture of the importance of closure for a birth mother. Victoria, at a very vulnerable time in her life, is cheated out of the chance to say goodbye to her baby, or even see her. She has no trustworthy assurance of the baby’s welfare. The uncertainty eats at her, as well it might.
  • Although there’s undoubtedly misogyny in the story, the biological bond is not given ultimate importance. There’s no sense that the adoptive mother didn’t bond with her child because of biology — she’s just evil, you know.

So within the framework of an old HP, the book didn’t strike me as horribly offensive. (There is a scene where they observe a voodoo ceremony, but it seemed fairly neutral. Then again, what do I know.) And there’s some delicious pain and heartbreak, even though Victoria spends most of the beginning of the book ill, and the end of it lachrymose. 4 stars on the angsty-goodness scale.

7 Comments »

TBR Challenge: Whispers of Heaven by Candice Proctor

The theme: A holiday read. I declare the new holiday, “National Going Off-Theme Day.”

Why this one: After browsing through a ridiculous number of books for mentions of Christmas, and then DNFing every single one I found, I craved something rich and satisfying. Also, this one keeps spawning on my TBR shelves!

Set in colonized Tasmania  during the Victorian era, Whispers of Heaven includes much of what I hope to see in historical romance. It has a strong sense of time and place, including vivid descriptions of the beauty of the land, much loved by heroine Jessie. It justifies its historical setting through exploration of the mores of the time — particularly the power differentials of class and sex. It makes an innate plea for justice and compassion without making the main characters incongruously enlightened. And though I suppose it’s not essential, I never mind a forbidden love story.

Jessie and her brother Warrick are members of the wealthy ruling class in Tasmania, but their lives aren’t entirely free of troubles. The deaths of their four siblings and father have left them to carry out their stern mother’s insistence on proper role. (Warrick has even inherited his brother’s fiance.) While Warrick is pettishly defiant, Jessie struggles to fulfill the role she’s been born to, while also finding ways to express herself: studying science, and secretly befriending the town “fallen woman” for real conversations. But when a brooding Irish convict-labourer is assigned to be her groom, Jessie begins to have questions about the ethics of her family’s way of life, and about the possibility of happiness in her arranged marriage. The more she gets to know Lucas Gallagher, the more she cares for him, leading her to the age old question: “Where is the line between what a woman owes to others and what she owes herself?”

This is an immersive, adventurous, romantic story, and Lucas is an excellent hero: brave, tortured, and able to believably say things like “Even before there were stars in the sky, I was loving you.” But somehow, though I enjoyed it very much as I was reading it, I wound up admiring the book more than I really got swept away by the romance. It might be because Jessie comes off as bland, or because the theme is a little too in-your-face… or maybe it’s just the timing. In any event, I certainly recommend it.

 

 

9 Comments »

TBR Challenge: A Dangerous Man by Candace Camp

The theme: A historical romance.

Why this one?: I’d like to say it was for biting social commentary, but I literally picked the first book off one of my many piles.

I almost gave up Candace Camp forever after reading Suddenly, a mediocre rip-off of Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage. It’s perhaps inevitable that she would also have had a stab at Faro’s Daughter — those two seem to be Heyer’s most imitated books — but in this case, that was more of a jumping off point; there’s quite a different plot and characters. Although not up to Camp’s most powerful work, it turned out to be a undemanding, entertaining read… just the sort of easily digested story I needed right now.

Anthony, Lord Neale, is really not looking forward to having to meet with his nephew’s widow, Eleanor. The first time he saw her — a failed attempt to buy her off — his attraction was immediate and unsettling. But his sister Honoria insists there was something sinister about her son’s death, so Anthony is forced to investigate. Oddly enough, his silly, selfish sister is not wrong.

My favorite part of the book was Eleanor. Although in some ways a historical heroine cliche — philanthropic, open-minded, fiercely protected by her devoted servants, and… something else I won’t mention, but which you’ll likely quickly guess — she’s also a smart, independent person. And it’s not just that everyone says she is — she actually is. Anthony is less distinctive, but a perfectly adequate hero, and there’s good chemistry between them.

There’s a mystery involved that’s pretty well done, and a satisfactory secondary cast, including several POC (albeit in small roles.) My biggest complaint is how many things are left hanging. The hero is cynical about beautiful women because of something dark in his family’s past that is only alluded to, never explained. A secondary romance is started and then the characters are sent off to safety, never to be heard from again. No one even mentions the potential scandal/weirdness of a man marrying his nephew’s widow. And the relationship is shafted by the mystery.

It certainly could have been a better book. But as a way to pass time that is extremely hard to pass right now, it made me happy.

9 Comments »

TBR Challenge: Return to Me by Shannon McKenna

The theme: Paranormal or Romantic Suspense

Why this one: continuing my October tradition of using a McKenna book to kill two themes with one stone , though the paranormal aspect here is very minor. Believe me, I’m not complaining. (It’s a nice Halloweeny sort of title and cover, too. I’m going to use it for my “from beyond the grave” Shallowreader Bingo square.)

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A sweet, domestic, “classy” heroine and a bad boy who knows he’s not good enough for her… pretty typical McKenna fare. This was a little different in that Simon and Ellen were childhood friends and had lost their virginities to each other — right before he ran away. Now he’s back in town, still hated by everyone, and afraid that he is much too cursed to be part of Ellen’s life. (The mild paranormal element is Simon’s clairvoyant feelings of dread and occasional ghostly visitations.)

Also typical for McKenna, Simon is somewhat physically controlling, pushy, and untrustworthy. He would have “danger: potential abuser” signs written all over him in real life. In a book, Ellen stands up to him pretty well and frequently calls on him on his bullshit; I wound up liking her character more than his. The darkness is lightened somewhat by cute, down-to-earth moments between them:

“He leaned forward, kissing the tops of her thighs, and ellen pulled out the elastic tie that held his hair. She spread it over his muscular back and stroked it.

He peered up impatiently through the tangled dark veil and shoved it behind his ears. “El, give me my hair thing back,” he complained. Oral sex is tough to do with your hair all over the place.

She threw the hair tie across the room. ‘Cope,’ she said.”

We always know who the bad guy is, which I found a little disappointing; there doesn’t wind up being a whole lot of suspense, just a few awful scenes. There’s also a refreshing secondary romance between the town “bad girl” and the rich boy who threw her over — she really makes him work for it — and of course, lots of juicy sex.

3 Comments »

TBR Challenge: The Awakening by Jude Deveraux

The theme: A random book.

Why this one: I was cleaning out my unread Deverauxs, feeling like the right time in my life to read them was past, but I could not resist the description of “a hot-blooded union organizer” hero. My grandpa would have been proud.

(Damn, I suppose I should’ve reached in the cabinet and pulled a book out at random? Too late now.)

The Awakening reminded me that the Deveraux books I’ve enjoyed the most have all been North American-set historicals… and that she thinks up some great stories. The setting of 1913 California is unusual enough, but when you add in the plight of migrant workers, it puts in some compelling history.

The romance plotline is compelling too, at least for much of the book. Hank Montgomery, an economics professor who works with unions, is invited to the Caulden family ranch in hopes he will soften towards their side in a brewing union battle. There he finds a truly weird set-up: Caulden’s wife is hidden away, and his daughter Amanda is subject to the strict rules and schedules of her tutor/fiance, who controls every aspect of her life, down to when and for how long she uses the bathroom. Obedient and adoring Amanda is instructed to entertain Hank and keep him on schedule, too.

It’s love at first sight for Hank — or maybe it would be, if Amanda wasn’t such a know-it-all prissy bore. For her part, Amanda is frustrated and upset with this man who uses the bathroom whenever he wants, insists on huge delicious meals, and makes her feel things that upset the way everything should be. Their interactions are romantically offbeat because a lot of the time they genuinely don’t like each other, yet they’re continually forced into intriguing intimacy. (Such as Hank having to brush Amada’s hair.)

Hank isn’t always a great guy here (though he usually recognizes when he’s messed up.) To be honest, none of the main characters behaves truly honorably — everybody cheats on everybody else — which I guess makes it sort of even out in the end.  Also, though basically a beta hero, Hank lives up to Willa’s law — so if you’re very sensitive about dubious consent and sexual coercion, avoid this one. Hank’s carefree bachelor sexual history is kind of irksome too; he seems to belong to the “nobody gets pregnant unless they have sex 24/7” school of thought. No wonder there were so many Montgomerys.

Even so, about two-thirds of the book felt fresh and captivating — but then the last third pissed away a lot of the tension. The plot meanders to keep things going, and the most action-filled moments in the book are written at a remove. Perhaps this is because, as the author’s note explains, Hank and his union organizing were based on a real person and actual events. The descriptions of the workers’ living conditions are vivid and sickening; it’s a shame the union plot aspects aren’t better integrated into the story.

Still, just having an older historical romance touch on how badly migrant workers were treated feels important to me. The genre has so many romantic Southern plantations and wealthy ranches — I just finished a Diana Palmer book in which the union organizers were the baddies —  that it’s good to see acknowledgement of the exploitation that often accompanies wealth. (Racism isn’t addressed, btw.) If you want a historical read that really isn’t the same old thing, this fits the bill in a number of ways.

 

5 Comments »

TBR Challenge: The Sound of Snow by Katherine Kingsley

The theme: Kickin’ It Old Skool. Wendy defines this as “published more than 10 years ago” but to me, Old Skool means a nice fat historical with an ugly cover. This was published in 1999, so isn’t in prime old school territory, but the plot is kind of a mix of Violet Fire by Jo Goodman and Light And Shadow by Lisa Gregory (both read last April) so it has some roots.

Why This One: I own literally hundreds of possibilities for this theme, but really was not in the mood for sweeping stories of lover’s betrayal during wars. This Regency romance seemed pretty cozy. As it turned out, I might have been happier with a rapey hero and a long sea voyage.

The first part of the book is pleasant enough, albeit bland. The loss of her parents sent Joanna to live with her aunt and uncle, who were none too happy about the arrangement. Fortunately, Joanna had her younger cousin Lydia to dote on. When faced with a forced marriage to a man she loathed, Joanna escaped to Italy, but she and Lydia kept up a correspondence.

Six years later, a now-widowed Joanna returns to England after hearing of Lydia’s death. She’s heard all about how terrible Lydia’s husband is, and what a dreadful father to their son — and indeed, young Miles is in a state of great emotional disturbance. But Guy is by no means the villain Joanna expected, and he’s a very attractive man.

I doubt any reader is really surprised to learn that Lydia was not the basically good-hearted person Joanna thought she was. There are other non-surprising surprises to come.

Joanna using affection and art therapy to help Miles get over his trauma, and Guy and Joanna falling in love was, again, pleasant if bland. The second half of the story was where I started to wish this book had gotten lost behind a cabinet. Joanna is adored by absolutely everyone, and she gets away with some terrible behavior — forcing Guy to tell her his horror story from the war, for one thing, and then later lying to him about something he specifically tells her is very important to him, for his own good.

And then there’s the resolution of the plot. The Sound of Snow reads somewhat like an inspirational romance (though one with steamy pre-marital sex.) God and religion are very important to Joanna and become important to Guy. And religious themes are used here is a way that made me wish I’d read it while fasting. The characters act in a really callous manner, but it’s all part of God’s plan and there’s even a freakin’ heavenly visitation to show just how okay God is with everything that happens.

Perhaps if I’d been more in charity with the book as a whole, I wouldn’t have had such a visceral reaction to the end, but it felt ten kinds of wrong to me. On the bright side, I own at least three more Kingsley books, so the TBR will now be much reduced.

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TBR Challenge: Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair

The theme: Lovely RITA. This was a RITA finalist.

Why this one: I couldn’t seem to get through any of my historicals. To put it as politely as possible, the RITA committees and I seem to have tastes in historicals that’s about as opposite as you can get. (With some exceptions, of course.)

I was thinking that Finders Keepers was more romance than science fiction, but towards the end I realized it’s more that it’s a subgenre of science fiction I don’t read much — space opera. Not a lot of world-building or character development, but lots of scheming, shooting, and escaping. Since it’s also gorgeously romantic, I enjoyed it a lot.

Captain Trilby Elliot is flying solo (apart from a sweet, loquacious droid, Dezi.) Being dumped by her lover has left her hurting, and she’s struggling to make ends meet on a transport ship held together with duct tape and ingenuity. When she finds an abandoned, injured human from a planet her society has a hostile truce with, she takes him aboard, only to find the healed man is very sexy and very devious.

Rhis (pronounced Reece) is a pretty standard romance hero. Intimidating, somewhat emotionally scarred, and very alpha, in the sense that he’s extremely protective, possessive, and thinks he knows best. But he and Trilby work together really well, and when he gets tender with her…. oh my. Rhis teaching Trilby how to say “I want you” in his language is a running… a running swoon? There are all kinds of difficulties, from Trilby’s fear of being hurt again to aliens trying to kill her, but the combined courage and smarts of the couple make it all work.

16 Comments »

TBR Challenge: Angel in a Red Dress by Judith Ivory

CW: Mention of rape.

The theme: a favorite trope.

Why this one: It was the only TBR book I picked up that I felt like reading, though the main tropes — rake in pursuit and spying — are far from favorites of mine.

I think this book, originally titled Starlit Surrender, was Ivory’s first, and it shows. It’s occasionally far from subtle in the storytelling, as you can see in this offhand phrase:

“All three — Thomas, Sam, and Charles — were in league with Adrien to rescue French aristocrats destined for the guillotine.”

This blunt “telling” of a deep secret had already been “shown” perfectly clearly, and I can only assume Ivory had a really crap editor (who perhaps made her insert it.) The same editor obviously didn’t give a hang about historical accuracy, since the hero, Adrien, is breeding roses in the footsteps of Mendel around thirty years before Mendel was born.

The worst part of the story though, is that Adrien rapes Christina in a particularly chilling way — not violently or to punish her as is common in old skool romance, but over a long period of time, while she is essentially his prisoner. It’s too reminiscent of a realistic situation to be glossed over as “forced seduction” though Christina is depicted as ambivalent. (There’s an attempted rape later, not by the hero, which she fights off quite effectively.) The fact that this is all seen through Adrien’s entitled eyes and he barely realizes what he’s doing to her makes it particularly upsetting.

Nonetheless, this is Judith Ivory, which means much of the writing is elegant and gorgeous, especially in the sex scenes that aren’t horrible. She writes so evocatively about attraction and intimacy; early scenes which play with consent are wonderfully done, which makes it even sadder that it got so ugly later on.

There’s also what seems to be deliberate trope subversion. Adrien is highly intelligent, a brilliant strategist and playing a very dangerous game of intrigue, but he’s not the omnipotent historical hero we often see. He’s often taken by surprise, vulnerable, even prone to highly unromantic physical ailments. I adore the classic cool hero, but I enjoyed seeing a more human version. Attempts to give Christina greater depth than the usual feisty redhaired heroine aren’t completely successful, but I appreciated the effort. You can see the seeds here of the amazing writer Ivory would become.

1 Comment »

TBR Challenge: Forget Me Not (Mnevermind 2) by Jordan Castillo Price

The theme: Something “different.”

Why this one: I broke my “print books only” rule this month, because my print tbr is 99% historical romance, and .99% contemporary or paranormal romance. I decided to go truly out of my comfort zone with science fiction. As it turned out, most of the science fiction in this trilogy (of the two books I’ve read) was in the first book; the second is almost all romance and character study. So not really all that different; don’t tell the Theme Police.

Forget Me Not is narrated by Elijah Crowe, the autistic man who started mysteriously appearing in Daniel’s mnems in book one. (Mnems, pronounced “neems,” are a bit like programmed dreams– a simplification, but it will do for the purposes of this review.) I was not in love with how Elijah’s autism was perceived by Daniel in The Persistence of Memory, so what a relief and joy it was to discover that he’s not only a beautifully drawn character, but his own narrative is not self-hating.

“‘I see the way you treat Big Dan,’ he said, as the elevator settled and the first floor light went off. ‘Like a regular person.’

Although his use of the word “regular” was problematically inexact, I had a sense of what he meant. Big Dan [Daniel’s father] wasn’t neurotypical, but neither was I. Being neurotypical was overrated, in my opinion — plenty of people like Tod and Ryan were about as ‘regular’ as you could get, and as far as I was concerned, it didn’t make them any more appealing.”

The story is mainly about Elijah’s navigating his newfound interest in another man, something which is difficult for him because the dating rules he’s learned so carefully may not apply. There are a lot of roadblocks in the way, including Daniel’s prejudices, a therapist who believes Elijah may be the victim of a predatory Daniel, a scarily homophobic bully at Elijah’s work, and Elijah’s sensory issues. Not all of these are fully resolved, though I suppose they may be in the third book. (From the reviews, it doesn’t look like they are. I would love to see him find a new therapist who really supports him, doesn’t infantilize him, and for God’s sake, helps him find a non obtrusive stim instead of having him fight it all the time.)

I appreciated that Elijah has neither cute quirky romance novel autism nor cliched lit fic aloof autism. He’s genuinely disabled, but not helpless, and he’s a fully realized, sympathetic, and lovable person. His anxieties strongly resonated with me, and I was saddened by how much he feels the need to change himself for others, even answering the classic “top or bottom” question by deciding,

“I would force myself to be whatever would go best with him. After all, he’d had several years in which to develop his preferences. I was new at being gay. I would adapt.”

Thankfully, Daniel is patient and not at all pushy.

As with the first book, the ending kind of fades away, so it’s really not a complete story. But it’s completely worth reading anyway.

9 Comments »

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