A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Recurring Themes in My Reading August 2022

Men confronting their fathers about their terrible parenting.

Mental breakdowns caused by papparazzi stalking.

Solitaire as a metaphor.

Math lovers.

Heroines rescued from dangerously high trees by their heroes.

Heroines running into abusive exes they were very much hoping not to run into.

Forbidden lovers sneaking around.

Shared baths.

Human descendants using the detritus of our consumer culture.

Meet cutes involving susperstitious food consumption.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

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TBR Challenge: Don’t Forget to Smile by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

CN: Use of “g” slur, mild disordered eating, maybe some ableism? I’m not sure.

The theme: Blue collar

Why this one: My TBR has several Seidel books and she seemed likely to have a good option.

An extremely vague and not particularly accurate blurb indicated this would be a good blue collar read: a romance between Tory, who owns a bar catering to loggers in Oregon and Joe, who’s from a logging family. It turned out to be more complex than that, but even more interesting for it.

Joe, previously just another of the Brigham clan, comes to Tory’s attention when her bar is held up by two armed and unnerved kids who have not thought things through at all. Thanks to his good sense and calm manner, everyone escapes unscathed and the hapless robbers are caught. Joe begins using Tory’s bar to conduct delicate union talks and the two strike up a friendship, which leads to more. But Tory is dismayed when Joe decides not to move to Portland to further his career — he won’t leave his young son, who lives with his ex-wife — and even more dismayed when he asks her to marry him.

Tory and Joe are perhaps both blue collar with an asterisk. (Lol! I spelled this “asterix” and didn’t understand why spellcheck thought that was wrong.) Tory is a former beauty queen who was “the perfect Southern coed–and now one hell of a fine bartender. Other people might think that was coming down in the world, but Tory didn’t. Not even close.” Having spent her life being a dress-up doll for her mother and then a trophy wife, Tory relishes her independence and success. She has also, without exactly realizing it, created a new family with her employees.

Joe is one of a large family who all have pretty much the same name and the same life. But having gone from logging to mill work to being a financial secretary for the union, he’s just starting to realize that he has the skills to move much further. And that can easily make him in outsider, or at least an outlier, in his community. It already cost him his marriage.

“It was the union business–how involved he was getting. It took all his time. He was on every committee there was, and then they started sending him to Portland for these deals–leadership training seminars, they called them. He would be gone a couple of days, and Marianne really didn’t think that was right. I couldn’t figure it out myself. She never said a word about hunting trips and still doesn’t if Dennis goes on them now. I can’t say that I see the difference between going hunting and going to Portland, especially if someone else is paying for Portland.”

Tory smiled as if she agreed, but she didn’t. She could see the difference. This was a blue-collar town. Most people still thought of life as a struggle; work and family life took enough out of a man, why take on more? Lots of women around here didn’t think people ought to stick their necks out; it was asking for trouble. Joe’s wife probably worried that his union work would somehow all end terribly, with him out of work, them poor, and their baby going to sleep hungry.

Such attitudes kept the town the way it was–pleasant, safe, and, to a half-outsider like Tory, unspeakably bland. No one sunk, no one soared.

This is one of the main themes of the story–getting the tools to soar, if you want to. It can easily be interpreted as classist or snobbish, but I found it layered and understanding enough. Part of Tory’s journey is understanding Joe’s point of view and his desire to stay connected to his family.

It can also be easily interpreted as mischaracterized as romance. Joe and Tory’s relationship definitely takes a back seat during the last section of the book, which is about her family relationships. And the earlier section concentrates much more on his feelings for his ex-wife than many readers will be comfortable with. But I found it rich and interesting and not the same-old story. And a pro-Union hero to boot! They should reissue the cover with a “Jorts-approved” badge.

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Recurring Themes in My Reading July 2022

Descriptions of Asian food, lavish to the point of cruelty.

Parents who disown their children. (Seriously, how can they?!)

Caring kid/adult relationships. (Much better.)

Multiverses

Brexit

Poutine

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TBR Challenge: Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

The theme: Vintage

Why this one: I love this sort of old-fashioned book, which was first published in 1933. It’s not genre romance but does have a happy ending. Fun fact: the authors, under the name Joan Blair, were very prolific early Mills & Boon authors!

I’ve written before about being annoyed by epistolary novels that borrow from Jean Webster, but this is one case where I didn’t much mind, perhaps because they were published less than 20 years apart and I got a mental picture of the authors as girls, loving the book when it first came out. (I guess it feels more acceptable when it seems like the borrows were part of the zeitgeist? Though considering the title of this blog was literally inspired by Dear Enemy, I’m likely just being an ass.)

And perhaps another reason is… I can’t read Dear Enemy anymore, so having a decent substitute doesn’t hurt. And I do mean decent.

Like Sallie McBride, our letter writer Hilary is a young, educated, upper-class woman, who’s decided to spend some time working before marrying her successful, upper-class fiancee. Both find the experience very drab and depressing at first, and bring a sense of humor to get through the difficult times.

But the reality seems… more real with Hilary. As she writes to her fiancee, “The worst of earning one’s living, Basil, is that it leaves so little time over to live in.“ And she backs this up with vivid detail of just how grim and on the edge her life as a worker is. Ugly, uncomfortable lodgings, being constantly nickled-and-dimed for the basic necessities of life like heat and hot water, having to calculate what meals could be skpped… and how much time it all takes, with so little left over for pleasure, intellectual stimulation or even simple relaxation. The book is hardly a rallying cry for socialism, but the picture it paints of how soul-crushing even a “respectable” job can be, especially when it doesn’t pay enough to provide more than a meagre living, speaks for itself. And when Hilary is in a position to help her fellow workers, she does so without judgment.

It’s hardly all grim though. Hilary has a strong spirit, and she learns to find bright spots and compensations. And, again like Sallie, she finds that working can be interesting… perhaps even more interesting than a fiancee. Ultimately, it’s a smile-making, comfort sort of read, and I’m glad it’s still around.

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Recurring Themes in My Reading June 2022

Entitled assholes utterly shocked by a well deserved broken nose.

Living in an expensive family-owned apartment, you lucky jerks.

It’s good to be a duke.

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romances are so much more complicated now (hooray!)

I’m starting to do my tagging for Book Boyfriend by Kris Ripper (did not love it, sad to say) and it’s a reminder that I really need to work out a new system that works for the modern romance. When I first began over a decade ago, I was largely looking at recurring tropes, which tended to be heavily gendered, and my tags reflect that.

Now I have a book featuring a pansexual cis man main character and his best friend/love interest, an apparently gender-bending pansexual man who is never officially labeled but moves into using “they/them” pronouns, so should perhaps not be called a man after all. I checked on my tags for Ripper’s previous book The Love Study (liked very much, happy to say) because that had a non-binary love interest and I just tagged “non-binary character” which really isn’t very useful. I mean, I guess the relevant info is in the book description but if I were searching in order to give someone a recommendation, it might not come up in a useful way.

For a non-gendered term, “love interest” works. But it’s also not maybe specific enough for romance? We want to know who the final person (or persons) is, the happy ever after.

I read so much queer romance these days, and much more interesting queer romance than used to be available. I really need to work this out.

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TBR Challenge: Fall From Grace by Megan Chance

CW for book: off-page seduction of an adolescent girl, who grows up to marry the rapist’s son. Violence, injury and murder. Captivity.

The theme: After the war

Why this one: I started it last month and finally finished it.

So, I DNF’d Prairie Moon for being set in the post-Civil War South, but I finished this one, also set in the post-Civil War South. Why? I’m not exactly sure, because I was definitely slogging at first and I found it a very rough read overall. Megan Chance is particularly good at complex characters and situations, though, so I guess I hoped I’d be rewarded. I guess I was?

An important point for the book is that it doesn’t glorify the Southern side. (To be fair, I don’t know that Prairie Moon did. What I saw when I skimmed was basically talk about “very fine people on both sides.” Nope.) The one character who does glorify it is Josie, a naive young woman who’s been brought up to idealize her outlaw family for stickin’ it to the Yankee Man. The truth, that her father, brother, and sister-in-law are all ruthless thieves and murderers gradually becomes clear to her.

No, Josie isn’t our main character. Two of the aforementioned thieves and murderers are.

The story begins with Texas Sharpe in pursuit of his errant wife. A job went bad, he got shot, his father and another member of the Sharpe gang are in jail, and it’s all because someone squealed–most probably Lily. When he finds her, she’s overjoyed to learn he’s still alive. Or is she?

No wait, that’s not really where the story begins. It’s with the murder of Lily’s Yankee parents during a stagecoach robbery. Feeling delicate about killing young Lily, the gang takes her home to their leader Hank, a fascinating portrayal of monstrous egoism and ruthlessness clothed in piety. Lily literally sings for her life and Hank decides to keep her. And use her.

There couldn’t be more contrast between Lily and Hank’s daughter Josie, who was protected from knowing the truth about her family and destined for a respectable marriage. And it naturally galls her:

“Just tell me something, Texas,” she said, and the pain from yesterday came back, the bitterness she’d felt whenever she looked at Josie and Hank together, only know she understood it. Now she could put words to it. “Tell me why. Why did Hank decided to make me an outlaw? What did he see in me? He could have made me into Josie. Why–why did he make me this instead?”

Instead of a cherished daughter, Hank made Lily part of the gang, asserted his power by having sex with her when she was twelve and then breaking her heart (all very deliberately, when his son Texas expressed a liking for her,) and molded her into a ruthless outlaw. Lily yearns to escape what she’s become, and when she first runs away, it’s towards a dream of a normal life. But she comes to believe that for someone with her terrible past, it could never be more than a dream.

I tend to love books in which two scoundrels wind up together, having to fight against their bad instincts and trust issues — Crooked Hearts by Patricia Gaffney is a great example — but this is much bleaker than usual. The stakes are particularly high: everyone’s lives are genuinely in danger, and no one can really be trusted. Except… no matter what, Travis truly loves Lily, and can’t seem to stop.

Though Lily had the benefit of a loving family as a child, that foundation didn’t stay with her. She has no idea how to love, or even how to recognize love, until it’s almost too late. Texas feels equally warped, equally loathsome for his crimes, but he does know how to love. (Maybe having a mother and sister living outside the gang helped.) It’s a very hard road for these two, and they just barely get there — so just barely, some find it hard to consider this a romance. Perhaps there’s no way they could have a standard romance, but they do find something. And that makes the book ultimately rather beautiful, in its way.

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Recurring Themes in My Reading April-May 2022

Friends to lovers (and sometimes back again)

Childhood friendships gone bad (and sometimes back again)

Quiet, unassuming heroes who are the only ones who can lead and get things done

Replacement spouses

Embezzeling uncles

Blind dates whose wives show up

A very specific form of torturous execution, ack

Gay characters who don’t come out to a grandparent and regret it when the grandparent dies 😦

Yens for New York hot dogs

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The Italian’s Rags-to-Riches Wife by Julia James

James now has the unfortunate distinction of having written two of the most unpleasant romances I’ve ever read. The other is Purchased for Revenge, and they actually fail in pretty much the same way: I think James was trying for a positive message in each, but massively screws up the journey. (I’m reminded of Frost in May by Antonia White, in which a devout young girl is expelled from a convent school after writing a lurid story full of sinfulness; she’s devastated, because she had not yet written the redemptive ending in which everyone repents, which surely would have made it all okay.)

The story is that Laura’s mother was completely abandoned by her Italian lover when she became pregnant. Laura was brought up to absolutely loath her father, and when her grandfather discovers her existence after his son’s death and wants to meet her, she has to be bribed by Allesandro, who in turn was bribed into collecting her from England. (His company, board of directors, yadda yadda, the usual Harlequin Presents sort of thing.) Allesandro finds Laura pretty revolting, in both looks and manners. (Somehow not noticing that his own reactions to someone living all alone in poverty are rude, callous and cruel.) When the grandfather spreads a rumor that Allesandro will be marrying Laura, Allesandro panics and forces a makeover on her, with the expected results.

Makeover stories are almost inevitably a little iffy (a rather charming counter-example is The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie) and this is one of the iffiest ever. Allesandro barely sees Laura as a human being before she’s made into a societally acceptable beauty — not just reasonably attractive but completely fitting into the elevated ranks he moves in. I guess we’re expected to believe this could happen in a few hours, because, really it was all about her attitude. But nothing could dispel the miasma of Allesandro’s utter disgust that pervades the first part of the story, making this a complete romance fail. I actually invented a new book tag inspired by him: “with heroes like these…”

Everything else aside, the book is pretty dull. The prose is not just purple, and written as if the author was using an extremely unreliable thesaurus, but highly repetitive, with the same wangsty monologues over and over for both characters. I confess to having a reluctant fascination for Purchased for Revenge, which is somewhat compellingly over the top despite how gross it is — and come to think of it, Baby of Shame is terrible in many of the same ways as this, but I sort of love it for its angst factor. But nothing saves this one.

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Tales of Much Too Old

This month has been a real lesson in why I don’t read historicals much anymore, aside from the fact that the current popular prose style isn’t to my taste.

I decided to combine this month’s TBR challenge, “tales of old,” with another one, of picking a random TBR book — pretty simple, because my print historical TBR is separate from my (much smaller) contemporary and fantasy piles. My first random book was Prairie Moon by Maggie Osborne, which turned out to be set in the south, post Civil War. I probably don’t have to go into why I DNF’d it. My second random book was September Moon by Candice Proctor… set in the early days of colonizing Australia. For crying out loud! The third, Fall from Grace by Megan Chance, yet another post Civil War South story. I may yet finish this one, for next month’s theme, but it’s been a bit of a slog.

Fourth was Chase the Heart by Maggie Osborn, which has the advantage of being an Elizabethan setting, but also the disadvantage of being an Elizabethan setting.

A long way of saying I have no TBR Challenge book this month. 😦

6 Comments »

What We've Been Reading

Reading inspiration from the HabitRPG Legendary Book Club's URC/MRC challenges.

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