A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Fastest Way to Fall by Denise Williams

#SnowInLoveBingo square: “Holding Hands”

CN for book: drug addiction, slurs about the main character’s weight, discussion of eating disorders

Some people like to plan their bingo boards out ahead of time. Me, I love the synchronicity of a random book just falling perfectly into a square. This could go in “all the tropes”: there’s forbidden love, evil other woman, secrets, fake dating, only one bed, a touch of grumpy/sunshine. It could go into sparring, since the love interests are a personal trainer and his client and they playfully spar a lot. It has several delightful romantic gestures (and a past one that went excruciatingly wrong.) I could even make an argument for “dessert,” because the hero’s name is Wes and I don’t care if the author says he has dark hair, to me he is undoubtedly the hunk of deliciousness from “Nailed It.”

But as soon as I got to this line, I knew where the book had to go: “that night began a lifelong love of hand-holding.” And the theme continues. Although Wes and Britta are resisting each other for much of the book (ethical concerns on both sides) and don’t have many official boyfriend/girlfriend moments, his hand is always there to catch hers when she needs it.

“Let’s stretch,” I said, hurriedly reaching a hand to help her up again. In the sterile, muted colors of the gym, she was full of color and life, and the moment her hand was in mine, things felt right.

I mostly really liked this. Wes is very sweet, trying painfully hard to be a better man than the father who abandoned his family, and Britta is totally relatable with her efforts to love her large body. They’re adorable together, and I laughed so hard at this scene from their brief stint of fake dating:

“You’re an easy fake girlfriend to love.”

My breath stuttered at his words. “Whoa cowboy. Love? You’re moving a little fast, aren’t you? We’ve been fake dating for less than six hours.”

“When you pretend to know, you know.” His low chuckle shook the mattress enough to put my body on a delicious edge. “And after defeating your aunt, I’m feeling confident.”

“Fair, And, I’ll admit, the pretend sex is good–“

“Good? C’mon girl. I rock your imaginary world.”

There’s some good stuff about self-love and self-care, and those grand gestures are worked in so well thematically, I wound up feeling more positively overall about the book than I expected to. The thing that put me off was the personal training aspect. Wes co-owns a coaching app, and has worked very hard to make it one that is positive, supportive and not weight focused. And I really appreciated that we see Britta fall into the trap of over-exercising and undereating, with pretty dire results. I’ve been there, and it’s not talked about enough. But I’m really skeptical about a lot of the “science” of physical education and nutrition, to say nothing of “healthy living” fads that are all just diets under another name. Despite Wes and the author’s best intentions, I guess I found this a little triggering.

Still, the scenes in which he’s helping her train are very tender. And Britta has a really good arc, learning to love herself and reach her dreams, both personally and professionally. I do hope it’ll all continue to be good for her.

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Recurring Themes in My Reading, November 2021

Significant physical/mental disabilities.

Heroes who read romance.

Miracles on 34th Street.

Pranks.

People named Paul. Or not named Paul.

Petrifying parental puppet shows.

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#SnowInLoveBingo 2021-2022

I’ve been doing these bingo games on Twitter for about a year now and I just remembered how much fun it used to be to blog my bingo choices. Description of the visual is below.

(credits at the bottom — I had to screenshot the board)

Row One: Black Love (Definition: Written by a Black author and featuring Black love interests), ‘Tis the Damn Season (an illustration of a Methodist Church with a car parked beside it and then a school on the other side, and garland over the full illustration), Found Family, Adventure (illustration of a map and a compass), and 20th Century Vibes
Row Two: Romantic Gesture (illustration of a dog holding out a bouquet of roses), Job You Want(ed), Cozy (illustration of an armchair by a fireplace), Established Relationship, and Wolves (illustration of a cute wolf)
Row Three: Dessert (illustration of a pie and a cake), Author You Want to Try, Happy Holidays, Backlist Title, Five Star Prediction (illustration of five stars)
Row Four: All the Tropes, Winter Wonderland (illustration of a snow globe with reindeer inside), Indigenous Author, Holding Hands (illustration of a red heart with a brown hand and dark brown hand holding hands), Swoonies Rec
Row Five: Sparring, Star, Hotel/Inn (illustration of a hotel), Non-Binary or Trans Rep., and MC’s Name Stars with an A/D/J
Created by: @ardentlyaarya, @danis_bookshelf, and @graciouslyjen
Artwork by: @sarbethart with the Instagram logo beside it

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Recurring Themes in My Reading, Spooky October Edition

Characters haunted by their dead spouses. Not literally. Mostly.

Taliesin.

Horrifying mind control, magical and technological.

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In Want of a Wife by Jo Goodman

I don’t really want to review this — it was okay, but not especially captivating — but I did find it interesting when compared to my reaction to the first book in the series, TBR Challenge DNF: The Last Renegade by Jo Goodman. This also had some very grisly elements, in the pasts of both main characters, but though they didn’t make me DNF, I found them curiously… meaningless. They didn’t add anything to the story — there’s no real healing process — but almost felt as if they were just inserted because they’re Goodman’s trademark.

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TBR Challenge DNF: The Last Renegade by Jo Goodman

CN for book: Many horrible things happen. I don’t want to list them.

The theme: A book by an author that has 2 or more books in your TBR

Why this one: See last month’s TBR Challenge: True to the Law by Jo Goodman

So I’d tried to read this book three or four times, and I think the “bad guys threaten town” plot was too dark for me. I should’ve trusted that instinct. At almost halfway through, so many terrible things have happened that I can only assume a dog and a horse will die, and very likely the KKK will turn up in the second half. No way am I subjecting myself to four more hours of this, and I can’t wait to get home and toss my print copy in the trash.

I’m stunned that none of the reviews mention how graphically dark it is, but I guess back in 2012 romance readers were less shockable. (I know I was.)

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TBR Challenge: True to the Law by Jo Goodman

CN for book: attempted rape. Some violence and suspense.

The theme: Secrets and Lies. This was my theme contribution! It was always one of my favorite GoodReads shelves.

Why this one: I’ve been trying to get through the first book in this series since it came out and I finally decided to just move on. Fortunately, it seems to be a fairly loosely-linked series and both main characters are relative newcomers to the town of Bitter Springs.

It’s a bit ironic that I chose this for the theme; it’s definitely well supplied with both secrets and lies, but there isn’t much surprise or angsty payoff. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the book though.

Cobb Bridger is a detective who’s been hired to find Gertrude Morrow–a thief, though the man who hires Cobb oddly refuses to tell him what she stole. She turns up as the schoolmistress in the town of Bitter Springs, Wyoming, a town named for its weather. Cobb takes up residence in town as a traveling gambler, while he tries to figure out why exactly he was hired and who the beautiful and intelligent Tru Morrow really is.

Great set-up for angst here, but there isn’t a lot around the primary relationship. Instead we get a sweet, albeit somewhat misunderstanding-prone courtship, with some delightful pillow talk. (Annoyingly, my ebook returned itself to the library, so I don’t have any quotes.) Like most Goodman from the period it’s rather quiet in tone and sometimes verging on over-written (her most recent books fall over that edge, IMO.) Cobb and Tru shine as attractive, smart, and dependable characters, and there’s a large supporting cast of interesting town folks that make me want to give the first book just one last try.

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TBR Challenge: Again by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

CN: Miscarriage. Past death of a child sibling. And though there are uncomplicated gay characters, there are a few slighting references to other sorts of queerness — more ignorant than malicious, I think.

The theme: A one word title.

Why this one: Another author I’m trying to complete.

I expected this post to be late, since I only started the book Monday night. But it was like a very bingeable t.v. show — a backstage dramedy — and I couldn’t stop reading. Like other Seidel stories, it might be classified more as “women’s fiction” than romance, these days — though that would be an odd category, because I think we get far more hero point of view than heroine. In any event, it was tremendous fun.

Actor Alec is rather different from many of his colleagues on soap operas, who are all about the drama; he just wants to be a professional amongst other professionals. But he has a hard time not stepping in when others aren’t doing their jobs, and when he happens to be there when pregnant head writer Jenny starts to miscarry, he can’t help noticing someone’s really not doing his job: Brian, Jenny’s long-time lover and the father of the baby, who barely acknowledges anything has happened.

Alec’s ingrained chivalry makes him feel tenderly towards Jenny, and then to his horror, he realizes it’s gone farther than that: he’s in love with her.

This couldn’t be happening. Not to him. He was sensible, he was down-to-earth, he was Canadian.

This personal drama happens amidst the day-to-day workings of “Her Lady’s Chamber,” a soap opera set during the Regency. As Alec quickly realizes, Jenny — creator and writer of the show — has put a lot of her own relationship into it, some parts consciously, some decidedly not. As the characters develop, and especially as Alec creates his role as a villain, the parallels start to become uncomfortably obvious to both of them.

It’s a fantastic use of the story within a story format. As often with Seidel, it’s not very subtle storytelling, with a lot more tell than show. But it’s just so interesting and satisfying. And though it’s dated (amusingly, one of Alec’s previous soap operas was called “Passions” — several years before that show existed) and barely steamy, anyone who enjoyed “Downton Abbey” or “Bridgerton,” or likes reading about acting and backstage life, should give it a try.

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5 Great Secondary Romances (repost from H&H)

We got into a discussion of secondary romances on Twitter, which reminded me of this piece. Dexter & Victoria are still a fan favorite today!

Secondary couples are often an opportunity for authors to take interesting risks; consequently, they’re sometimes more memorable than the primary couple. Here are five secondary couples that have stood out from the crowd.

5) Dexter/Victoria —  Secondary romances are one of Susan Elizabeth Phillips‘s trademarks and it’s hard to choose just one. But years before geeks were an in thing, she created Dexter O’Connor in Lady Be Good, “a rather disheveled man in his early thirties wearing chinos, a rumpled blue oxford cloth shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses,” who is also described as “the biggest nerd in Wynette, Texas.” Victoria Traveler is resisting her father’s efforts to force her to marry Dexter, but she gradually discovers his careful, precise attitude has its benefits:

As the minutes ticked by, she discovered new things about Dex. He liked to inspect everything. Thoroughly. To evaluate, measure, and caress. And his curiosity seemed just about insatiable.

There’s a bit of a dominance/submission edge to the pairing of contrary, defiant Tori with the firm and straitlaced Dex—there’s even an old skool spanking scene!—which plays a little oddly today, when such relationships are much more openly drawn in romance. But Dexter remains delightful.

And he’s—I mean, for all his faults, any fool can see that he’ll be a good father. Except when it comes to sports, but I figure between you and me, we can make up for his shortcomings in that department. And then there’s . . . there’s just something about him.” She gave an uncomfortable shrug, clearly wanting to put an end to the conversation. “Something sweet and . . . Oh, I don’t know.”

“Your sister’s fallen in love with me,” Dex said, in case Kenny had missed the point.

4) Joanna/Adrian — If SEP is the queen of secondary romances in contemporaries, Anne Stuart is the queen in historicals. (A good argument could also be made for Sherry Thomas.) Stuart gets more varied in her secondary lovers than in her main characters, and there are many intriguing pairings, but the couple from Hidden Honor is particularly memorable. Joanna is a beautiful woman who’s survived “on her wits and on her back”; sex is a distasteful but useful tool to her. When she helps the wounded knight Adrian, he doesn’t care about her past or that she’s older than him, but her cynicism and mistrust of men could be a real problem. But Adrian’s wooing is made unexpectedly easy, when the two of them are forced to hide in a tiny space in a moving cart, which puts them in a very… interesting position.

…she had already stretched out in the small, coffinlike space he’d arranged. “Keep your weight on your elbows and we’ll be fine,” she said calmly.

It was more difficult than she had imagined. He settled down on top of her, as gently as possible, pulling the rough sacks over them before resting his arms on either side of her. The sacks smelled like flour and honey—they blotted out the light, enclosing the two of them in muffled darkness. She could feel himstretched along the length of her body, even though he was doing his best not to put his whole weight on her. The position was miserably uncomfortable, with her face in his shoulder, trying not to breathe in the intoxicating scent of his skin.

Bump…bump…bump…. The friction was gentle but insistent, and he seemed to become bigger still, harder, and she knew it wasn’t her imagination. The rhythm of the wagon was setting an age-old rhythm in their bodies, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

She put her hands on his shoulders, pushing at him. “You need to get off me,” she whispered. “This isn’t right.”

Bump…bump…bump…. She was shivering, not quite sure why, cold and hot at the same time. She had no idea what was going on with her body, only that it was sinful and wicked and out of her control. Bump…bump…bump….

“Hush, love,” he whispered in her ear. “Just let go.”

Her body went completely rigid beneath his, as a thousand tiny sparks of light raced beneath her skin. She tried to cry out, but his hand kept her silent. It seemed to last forever, and then she went limp beneath him, afraid she might faint.

He took his hand from her mouth, turned her head to face his and kissed her mouth. And for the first time in her life, without thinking, she kissed someone back.

3) Gideon/Livia — Against the high drama and angst of Aline and McKenna’s tempestuous reunion in Lisa Kleypas‘s historical Again the Magic, the gentler romance between Livia and Gideon stands out for its maturity. Livia has already lost one love, and is too wise to either commit herself to the alcoholic Gideon or to try to coerce him into changing.

Sighing, Livia lowered her face to his chest and rested her cheek against the crisp, curling hair. She forced herself to be honest. “Nothing would induce me to marry you, my darling.”

Gideon’s arms went around her then. He held her a little too tightly, and ran his hands over her back in a long, supplicating stroke. “Why not?”

“Because I care for you too much to watch you destroy yourself.”

She felt the sudden tension in the long body beneath hers. Again she moved to roll away from him, expecting that this time he would let her go. But his arm tightened around her slender back, and one hand came to press her head more firmly against his chest. Resignation flattened his tone. “You want me to stop drinking.”

“No—I want no part of that decision.”

Gideon’s return, sober, is utterly joyous, because Livia can accept it with no qualms — he’s done what’s best for him, as well as for him.

A thrill of sudden, intense excitement stole Livia’s breath away. She watched him without blinking, rapidly calculating…yes, it had been six months, almost to the day. But Gideon had made it clear that he wouldn’t come for her unless he was certain that he could be the kind of man he felt she deserved. And I’ll come armed with honorable intentions, he had written—more’s the pity for you.

Now Gideon was more handsome than before, if that was possible. The lines of strain and cynicism had been smoothed away, and the dark smudges had disappeared from beneath his eyes, and he looked so vibrant and vigorous that her heart thudded wildly in response.

2) Peabody/McNab — It may be a law that any romance list has to includeJ.D. Robb‘s In Death series somewhere, but really, how could there be a best secondary couple list without Peabody and McNab? Starting out with the classic antagonism that inevitably leads to bed, in fiction, the relationship evolves over the course of several books — most notably in Witness in Death, in which McNab consults Roarke on how to get Peabody to take him more seriously:

“So I finally get a chance to bounce on the naked She-body, and it’s making me crazy. I’m all tied up inside and she’s cruising right along. I always figured women, you know, mostly they were supposed to want the whole relationship thing.”

What’s so fun about McNab and Peabody is that neither is glamorous or intriguingly troubled or fabulous-looking like Eve and Roarke, and yet they’re still so darned crazy about each other. “McNab’s got a little, bitty butt and hardly any shoulders,” says Peabody, thoughtfully adding, “Still…”  McNab is more clear about what he likes, refusing to listen to Peabody’s complaint that she’s pudgy: “You’re built. Seriously built.” They’re ordinary people, and they still get to have passionate love and great sex. After the tentative beginning, their relationship has been relatively free of angst, but when troubles come along—as when McNab is seriously wounded in Purity in Death—we can see how firm the connection is underneath all the naked bouncing.

1) Mary Lou/Ihbraham — Suzanne Brockmann specializes in unexpected pairings, showing that despite differences in age, skin color, religion or gender, love is love. Perhaps none was as unexpected as the matching of Mary Lou Starrett and Ihbraham Rahman, which begins in Into the Night and ends happily in Gone Too Far. Mary Lou was one of the most hated characters in romance, the Evil Other Woman who deliberately got pregnant, destroying Sam Starrett and Alyssa Locke’s blossoming romance; she’s also unconsciously racist and classist. But as we learn, she’s an alcoholic young mother married to a man who very obviously doesn’t love her, and she’s hanging on to sobriety by a thread. Also a recovering alcoholic, and an Arab-American living in the post 9/11 United States, Ihbraham knows a lot about accepting what you can’t change and changing what you can. He becomes the friend she desperately needs, though he refuses to be her sponsor…and tells her why with a kiss:

It was meltingly lovely. It was heart-stoppingly perfect. It was completely, shockingly exactly what she so desperately wanted.

A man she really liked—who wanted her the way she longed to be wanted.
Except he was black. Or brown. Certainly non-white.

Although who the hell could tell what color either of them were while her eyes were closed, while she was kissing him?

[Me from now — I don’t know how well this book holds up; this was a very white/mainstream list.]

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TBR Challenge: Dear Mr. Knightly by Katherine Reay

CW: descriptions of violence against women and children.

The theme: folk or fairy tale. I went a bit off book.

Why this one: Despite the title, it’s actually a retelling of an old favorite, Daddy-Long-Legs. Spoilers for the original story.

(I actually just listened to a perfect book for this theme: Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier, a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling set in ancient Ireland. But it didn’t occur to me to take notes while listening, so I can’t really write about it other than to say it excellent, albeit somewhat irritating. The heroine wound up on my now-seldom-used “too stupid to live” shelf.)

I started this a little dubiously, because the title seems like it’s trying to cash in on Austen’s popularity — which is apparently something of this author’s brand. It did make some sense thematically, though. The main character, Samantha, has survived a very rough childhood by escaping into books — I related a lot — and has acquired a habit of using fake personas and book quotations because she has such uncertain social skills — again, I related a lot.

The basic plot follows the originally fairly closely. Orphaned girl is given a scholarship to college — in this case, graduate school in Journalism — by an anonymous benefactor, who asks only for letters describing her progress. Lonely girl uses the letters to express herself because she feels so alienated from her peers; meanwhile she falls in love with a man she happens to meet… guess who! I think the author had a goal to “fix” aspects of the original story that bother some readers today — it’s made very clear that the benefactor is not “grooming” Samantha, and he doesn’t interfere with her plans or her other relationships, as the original “Daddy-Long-Legs” did. And Sam gets angry when she discovers the truth about her benefactor, which the original orphan didn’t. (The “grooming” theory still bugs the hell out of me, but I won’t dissect it here.)

It’s very hard for me to review this book, because I started to realize about halfway through that it’s an Inspie. And though that wasn’t so in-your-face that I couldn’t enjoy it, I see from other reviews that there’s a lot of standard Inspie conversion tactics going on. This is making me second-guess my reaction to the book, much as I did when I learned that a book I thought had an excellent depiction of a disabled character was published by a fetish press. (Not comparing Christianity to a fetish — and not that there’s anything wrong with fetishes — but I’m really bothered by hidden agendas.)

Trying to put that aside, the epistolary narrative was engaging and I enjoyed reading it. It’s maybe a bit too good to be true in parts, but mostly stays believable. But if you’re sensitive about any of the issues mentioned here, I suggest giving the GoodReads reviews a good look through before deciding to try it.

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