A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Recurring Themes in My Reading 3/21

Redheaded heroes

Intimidating eyebrows

Adoptions gone bad 😦

Romeo & Juliet allusions

Historical heroines cursed by their own sexiness

Obnoxiously smartass but goodhearted young adult heroes

Gifts of granting happy dreams


TBR Challenge: Here Comes the Bride by Pamela Morsi

The theme: A favorite author.

Why this one?: I find Americana romance a good palate cleanser.

Like many Morsi books, this one features two couples — but here she mixes things up with a quadrangle.

Businesswoman Gussie, owner of “Mudd’s Manufactured Ice,” has been keeping company with Amos Dewey for three years, but when she asks his intentions point blank, he reveals he doesn’t have any. So she enlists her employer Rome to fake court her and make Amos jealous. Meanwhile, Rome has been having a secret affair with the local scandalous widow Pansy, but she won’t marry him; no matter what the town thinks, she deeply loved her husband, and will only marry again for love. And she’s the only one who realizes that Amos Dewey is still too stricken with grief over his wife’s death to be truly interested in anyone… yet.

It’s not hard to guess what happens but of course it’s a complicated journey. Pansy and Amos were initially the more interesting couple for me, but I did start to enjoy Gussie and Rome, especially Gussie’s obliviousness to her changing feelings.

[the dress] did look very nice on her. She hoped Rome agreed. If Rome thought she looked nice, then, of course, Amos would think the same. She’d worn the dress for Amos. Because she knew Rome liked it.

She allowed her imagination to wander. In her mind’s eye she saw herself leaning over the narrow counter [of the kissing booth], her lips dangerously close to those of Rome Akers. Suddenly, Amos Dewey comes pushing through the crowd. He grabs Rome by the shoulder and jerks him away from her. Then he pulls Gussie into his arms and kisses her, he kisses her exactly the same way that Rome had kissed her.

Pansy and Amos’s romance doesn’t hold up quite as well. Pansy decides to seduce Amos as a favor to Rome, since she can tell he and Gussie are perfect for each other. The seduction scene is just gorgeous — let’s hear it for old-fashioned barber chairs! — and they share a very promising afterglow, but she feels so close to Amos she makes the mistake of blurting out her plan, and of course he goes into an Old Skool snit. Although they wind up with a HEA, I’m iffy about how they got there.

I wouldn’t recommend this as a classic of the genre, but it does have a detailed, atmospheric setting, sweet characters, and believable insights into human nature. Worth a read.



I just discovered that TBR Challenge: Ghost of the Past by Sally Wentworth was the second half of a two-parter! So all the whackadoodle from the past has its own book, Twin Torment, if anyone cares. (Does not raise hand.)

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TBR Challenge: Ghost of the Past by Sally Wentworth

CW: slut-shaming, violence against women

The theme: A comfort read

Why this one: What, you’re not comforted by bananapants drama about nasty men and the women who love them anyway? How about very short books?

Ghost of the Past may be the winner of the Wackiest Sentence Ever Uttered in a Romance award. We’re only a few pages in and our hero Alex has just slapped our heroine Ginny:

Then he stood back, his body shaking, his hands clenched tightly, fighting for control. ‘Dear God! The first time I’ve ever hit a woman and it has to be a little slut like you.’

All I can think is, “what nice, pure woman were you saving it for, then?”

Alex is a typical sexist, unreasonably jealous HP hero but interestingly enough, if this story was an “Am I the Asshole Post” it would probably be voted ESH — everybody sucks here. The ways in which the two primary women in his life messed with him and each other is laughably awful. Yet oddly enough, the actual story is fairly down-to-earth — the wackery is largely in the past.

Summing up, both Ginny and her identical twin sister Venetia fell in love with Alex, and literally tossed a coin to see who could have him. Ginny lost, and left to become a well known model. When the story begins, Venetia has died and left her home to Ginny, which brings her back into Alex’s sphere. She still loves him, and he has feelings for her as well… but how can you manage a relationship with someone who was in love with someone exactly like you?

This is not a good twin//bad twin story, which was a little disappointing at first. Ginny and Venetia were very close and had that mystical “twin bond” writers adore. A man came between them, but never destroyed that bond. I wound up liking that choice, despite my love of a juicy good sister/bad sister story. Ginny isn’t going to win Alex’s love just because Venetia was really a bad person.

But Wentworth set herself quite a challenge here, and I’m not sure she met it. The fact that Ginny and Venetia were constantly Patty Duke-ing Alex in the past makes his claim that he always loved Ginny too seem pretty weak. How do Alex and Ginny get past their issues? By literally duking it out. They have a drag out fight, which of course turns into sex, and… that’s it. Problems solved.

And there’s very little compensation for all Alex put Ginny through, and how much she had to be the one in pursuit, dealing with his ever-mixing emotions. Overall, a letdown in the catharsis department.


TBR Challenge: Christmas Belles by Susan Carroll

The theme: festive!

Why this one: I confess, I just scanned my books for “Christmas” in the title. I think I’ve tried to read this one one or two times before, and since I’m enjoying quieter stories now, it seemed time. Also nothing says “festive” like a Christmas-set Traditional Regency.

The story opens with hints of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice : four sisters, an entailed estate, and a father who can’t provide for their futures. Eldest Emma is domestic, and quietly in love with the impoverished local vicar; Lucy loves society and fashion; Abigail is a bookworm. Our primary heroine is Chloe, who’s warm-hearted and imaginative. But as we will discover, she also has chin! (ping Miss Bates!)

When their father is killed trying to earn dowries for his daughters, his heir feels responsible for the girls and proposes to Emma via letter; she accepts. When he arrives, Captain Will Trent is relieved to find Emma is pretty and pleasant, but her sister Chloe is so stubborn and complicated, seeming to hate him on sight.

Will is no awful Mr. Collins — he’s closer to Mr. Darcy. Responsible, repressed, and absolutely in need of someone to show him how to enjoy himself.

This could be one of those irritating “why don’t you just SAY something!” stories, except that Will is quite believably clueless. Almost from first meeting her, his thoughts are on Chloe, but he’s completely out of touch with his own feelings. The first part of the book is charmingly silly, as they butt heads while constantly thinking about each other, and then become friends as Chloe coaxes Will into enjoying the season. Then the story falls into lot of drama all at once, but it mostly works, thematically.

I’m reading Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh for a book club this month, and it’s interesting to compare this with Balogh’s family-filled, spiritually uplifting Christmas. Carroll’s is almost pagan in contrast, with much more emphasis on legends and luck than “the meaning of Christmas.” If the usual sentimentality of Christmas stories is overdone for you, give this one a try.


Been cleaning out my blogroll…

… which is very depressing. Since I actually read blogs from an RSS reader, I hadn’t consciously noticed how many of them are defunct. In brighter news, quite a few I read aren’t listed, so I’ll get those added.

I deleted most blogs that haven’t been updated in years, but kept “Love in the Margins,” in memory of meoskop.

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You Never Forget Your First

CW: Violence

(Since we’re talking about romance gateways on Twitter today, here’s a reprint from H&H about my first romance.)

The internet helped me locate the very first genre romance I ever read as an adolescent, a book that made such a strong impression on me, I still can’t use the word “chiffon” in a crossword puzzle without thinking of it. (You never forget your first heroine’s dress with usefully inconvenient tiny buttons down the back…)

The book was The Romantic Spirit by Glenna Finley, a prolific author in the ’70s and ’80s who is now pretty obscure. I’ve never seen a mention of her in the last eight years or so I’ve hung out in online Romancelandia; her GoodReads ratings are high, yet there are only two short reviews. Rereading this book now, it doesn’t seem surprising that her books haven’t lasted: it is very much a product of its time, yet in a way that already seemed dated to me when I first read it, around a year after it was published. With its superficial descriptions of the counter-culture, coupled with the heroine’s extreme prudishness about sex, it reads like the last gasp of a fading world; the main character is a wide-eyed tourist, not just in California, but in society at large:

Maggie shook her head wonderingly as they passed a teen-aged twosome where the coloring of the girl’s tie-dyed jeans resembled the many-shaded bleach job in her hair. Her escort had his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail as he strode along in a garment that looked like a Moroccan caftan except for the Wild West fringe on the bottom.

‘If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was a “Come as you are” party,’ Maggie murmured to John.

Yet it’s not a bad book. Local color was Finley’s big selling point and it’s well done, even if I had to snort when the heroine finds a convenient parking spot in San Francisco. The writing is crisp and professional, the description are vivid, and the banter can be charming:

‘We simply went to another woman and had our fortunes told in tea leaves.’

John chuckled. ‘A real scientific approach.

‘Absolutely. She said I’d meet someone interesting in the water, so I started hanging around the swimming pool on campus.’

‘Nothing?’ he prompted.

‘Nothing. Since I was in the girls’ gym swimming pool, it wasn’t surprising, but I didn’t figure that out for several weeks.’

I was curious about how my memories of the book would hold up. I discovered with my reread of Anne Mather’s The Waterfalls of the Moon, another early favorite, that I had remembered the dramatic highlights of the plot, but got most of the details completely wrong. In this case, I largely remembered dialogue, and was intrigued to find that I had in fact got much of it word for word. What stuck with me was the meet-cute when Maggie drops a wrench on John’s foot (complete with his curse, “God damn it to hell!) and their angsty moment involving the difficult chiffon dress.  

But I completely forgot the plot, the suspenseful and vaguely paranormal elements, and the pun in the title. There’s a vivid scene in which Maggie is attacked, and it startles me that none of it stuck in my memory:

Frantically she tried to fight back but her resistance was hopeless against the other’s superior strength. Her startled, painful whimper was [unreadable] off ruthlessly when his fingers tightened their grip. Only her labored breathing rasped in the silence as she writhed in that suffocating grasp.

The agony was prolonged for an instant that seemed like a lifetime and her lungs were at the bursting point before darkness mercifully shuttered her senses. She was totally unconscious by the time her attacker released his grip and callously dumped her limp body on the floor.

Yow! Reading that now, it’s quite terrifying.

Comparing my memories of this book and others from that same first bout of romance reading, I think this book must have been the match set to tinder that was already laid, setting off a passionate love for romantic drama. The relationship is staid by the standards of later books, or even contemporaneous Harlequin Presents: a bit of uncertainty, a bit of jealousy, a bit of kissing, leading directly to marriage. The conflict could not be more dated: Maggie needs help undoing her dress, John thinks she’s coming on to him (which instantly makes her ”a carbon copy of all the other women he had known — charming, superficial and conveniently available“) and Maggie is shocked and outraged.

His voice roughened. ‘Come off your high horse, Maggie. Let’s not play any more games.’ He pulled her close against him suddenly, and she felt his strong fingers on the bare skin at her back. At the same time, his head bent to nuzzle the soft hollow of her shoulder. ‘You had me fooled,” he was murmuring against her satiny skin. ‘I was playing on a different set of rules. I didn’t think you were the type.’

Spoken as softly as they were, his words penetrated Maggie with hurricane force. Her eyes widened with shock. Dear God, he’d though she’d been angling for something like this ever since she’d knocked on his door. It was merely an excuse to fall into his arms.

It may be the nostalgia talking, but I still find that scene pretty hot.  Strong fingers and nuzzling and misunderstandings… it’s the stuff romance is made of.

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Be True to Yourself: Ten Life Lessons from Mary Balogh

(Because Heroes and Heartbreakers has closed, I’m reprinting some of my favorite pieces. By popular demand, this one is first.)

CW: Sexual abuse

In a career spanning almost 30 years to date, Mary Balogh has broken numerous boundaries in romance. Sex in traditional Regencies. A courtesan heroine. An adulterous sex addict hero. A heroine who molested her stepson. An ordinary shlub hero! Amidst her many rule-breaking stories and unusual characterizations, certain themes regularly recur, together creating the sense of a strong moral compass and philosophy of life.

1) Do the right thing, and “fake it til you make it.”

In the historical periods Balogh covers, societal constraints were extremely strong and her characters often find themselves forced to agree to unwanted marriages. Sometimes there is bitterness to work through, and they can be cruel to one another in the grip of despair. But that’s no excuse for Eleanor in A Christmas Promise to break her sacred vows, as she tells her former lover point blank: “My feelings for him have nothing to say to anything… The point is that I consented to marry him and did marry him and can no longer indulge my love for you.”

In Dark Angel, Gabriel speaks for many Balogh heroes and heroines when he tells his new bride, “It is a damnable mess I have got you into, but there is only one way out. We can go forward and try to make something workable out of what seems impossible tonight.” And he doesn’t intend for them to simply tolerate each other: “We are going to fall in love, Jennifer. We are going to be happy despite the seemingly insuperable odds, I promise you.”

2) Acceptance does not mean settling. Do not compromise your values or sense of self worth.

Personhood and valuing oneself are central themes in Balogh’s books, especially for heroines. Jane refuses a man she’s loved for years in An Unacceptable Offer, because he wants her primarily to take care of his children: “There is only one of me, I am unique… I am a person, not  a commodity, not a footstool.”

Harriet, a secondary character in Dancing With Clara, steadfastly refuses to become the mistress of the man she loves, choosing respectable marriage instead. When she finally gives in in Tempting Harriet, she regrets it:

“I thought that because I was a widow and you were still unmarried, I would have you and no one would be harmed. I was mistaken. I was harmed. It was wrong. That room. What we did there. It was devoid of everything but—itself.”

3) Physical attraction is not always trustworthy.

It’s quite possible to be strongly attracted to someone unprincipled and unworthy, as Samantha discovers after the Earl of Rushford basely uses her in his schemes. She initially turns to the less obviously attractive Hartly for safety in Lord Carew’s Bride, but discovers true love can grow from tenderness and friendship.

4) Similarly, lack of immediate attraction is not always a barrier to love.

Edmund and Alexandra, in The Gilded Web, have a singularly unpromising beginning: “He did not find her in any way attractive… She was totally untouchable. He tried to picture himself tasting her lips with his mouth and tongue. He could not imagine it… Yet she was to be his wife!” Only when he really gets to know her does Alexandra’s true appeal come to light.

5) Your first love may not be your last love.

It’s not unusual for a Balogh hero or heroine to have had a previous love—sometimes someone who turned out to be undeserving, sometimes someone whom circumstances took away—and affection and loyalty can lead to a conflicted heart. In Slightly Married, both main characters had dreams for a future with other mates, dreams ruined by their necessary marriage; there is some struggle before they accept that it’s not wrong to let go of those feelings, finally creating “something better than a dream” … “a dynamic, exciting, happy reality that they would work on together every day for as long as they both lived.”

6) People are only human, and can’t always live up to our ideals.

It’s not that a Balogh hero or heroine has to be perfect: sometimes they’re vindictive or scheming or simply make terrible mistakes. But expecting too much of someone is also a fault, and one that can damage a relationship. In The Plumed Bonnet, Stephanie idolizes Alastair and feels unworthy of him, not realizing that she completely misinterpreted his motives in helping her. “I tried so very hard to please you, because I thought you were like a god” she tells him. “I might have better spent the time pleasing myself.” Arabella’s disillusionment with her husband in The Obedient Bride, after she discovers he had no respect for his marriage vows, makes it hard for them to try again.

7) Because people aren’t perfect, forgiveness is essential.

Forgiveness comes in many forms in Balogh’s books. In A Christmas Bride, Gerald’s wife urges him to forgive his stepmother for trying to seduce him:

“Here is your chance for final peace. If you forgive her, you may finally forget… For our own sakes we must forgive as much as for the sake of the person we forgive.”

Helena has been suffering for her sin for years: “I would have begged your pardon… if I had felt the offense pardonable. But I did not feel it was… I will take the offense to the grave with me.” Seeing that Gerald is whole and at peace lets Helena finally forgive herself and allow herself some happiness.

In Dancing With Clara, Clara offers her tormented adulterous husband unconditional forgiveness:

“Yes, you have wronged me. But I forgive you. And I will keep on forgiving you as many times as you wrong me. For I love you and I know you will always be sorry if you stray. Don’t punish yourself any longer. By punishing yourself you will be punishing me.”

“Can it be done, then,” he asked, “by just trying and trying and trying? Failing and trying again? And so on?”

“I don’t think there is any easier way, Freddie,“ she said. ”Just a day-to-day effort.”

8) If forgiveness heals, revenge always hurts.

In Christmas Beau, Max achieves the perfect revenge and discovers he’s hurt himself far more than the woman who betrayed him:

“And this was what sweet revenge felt like. He had waited eight years for this. This was what it felt like. So empty, so very very empty that there was pain… She was going away in the morning. He would be as greedy for news of her as he had ever been.”

9) The sexual double standard is wrong.

This is a complicated idea for a historical writer to express, particularly a writer like Balogh, who works hard to maintain an authentic tone. Generally it arises from her characters’ strong sense of fairness and justice. In Secrets of the Heart, Sarah asserts her right to make love with her divorced husband: “don’t ask me to feel ashamed… I have done with shame.” Later, he apologizes for judging her for her lack of virginity, though still expressing it in the sexist language of the times: “I love you Sarah. It does not matter who possessed you before me.”

Although Harriet has her own personal shame about having an affair, she refuses to be looked down upon for it: “If I am a whore, then so are you. Why should women be considered to have fallen when they give themselves outside marriage, but not men?”

10) A true lover will always want you to be true to yourself.

Just as personhood is a central theme in Balogh, so is acceptance of ones lover’s true self and desires. This is particularly well expressed in her ”opposites attract“ romances. The lively Christine initially refuses a very correct and intimidating duke in Slightly Dangerous, telling him, ”I would be consumed by you. You would sap the energy and all the joy from me. You would put out all the fire of my vitality.“ He proves her wrong, so we can believe him when he tells her, ”If you were to agree to be my wife. I would not expect you to shape yourself into your image of what a duchess would be—or into anyone else’s image either. If anyone does not like your style of duchess, then to hell with that person.“ And Christine accept him as he is as well:

“I will always be the stern, aloof, rather cold aristocrat you so despise,“ he said. ”I have to be. I—”

“I know,“ she said, looking up quickly. ”I would neither expect nor want you to change. I love the Duke of Bewcastle as he is.”

Alistair redeems himself in The Plumed Bonnet by giving Stephanie back all the freedom she lost through marriage to him:

“I will not hold you against your will,” he said.

“Why not?” Her eyes were closed very tightly.

“Because I would rather live without a dream than with a spoiled one,” he said. And more softly, “Because I love you.”

“Alistair…” she looked up at him, all teary-eyed and wobbly-voiced. “It does not need to be a spoiled dream. I will live in it with you. You will never understand, perhaps, how wonderful it is to know that one may say no. How wonderful it is for a woman. For now I know beyond any doubt that I may say no to you, then I know too that I am free to say yes with all my heart.”

Perhaps the most powerful part of this acceptance is that it allows characters to become their very best selves. Angeline, the heroine of The Secret Mistress has always felt like a “great dark beanpole of a girl.” Looking through her lover’s eyes, “suddenly and gloriously she knew that she was beautiful, that she had grown into the tall, dark bloom that was herself, and that she was perfect. Perfectly who she was and who she was meant to be.”

Romances are often criticized, sometimes fairly, for being filled with negative messages about women, men, and relationships. Mary Balogh’s work shows that that doesn’t have to be true.

My thanks to Janet Webb for her invaluable suggestions and insights.


We Interrupt Your Irregularly Scheduled Romance Posts

for some lists of Christmas songs from my husband’s mixes.

“carol of the bells”, windham hill
“welcome christmas”, how the grinch stole christmas soundtrack
“the christians and the pagans”, dar williams
l”ittle drummer boy/peace on earth”, bing crosby & david bowie
“a christmas wish”, kermit the frog
“first christmas away from home”, the black family
“star of wonder”, the roches
“christmastime is here”, vince guaraldi
“happy christmas (war is over)”, john lennon & yoko ono
“trim up the tree”, how the grinch stole christmas soundtrack
“dona nobis pacem”, windham hill
“god rest ye merry, gentlemen”, bruce cockburn
“the holly and the ivy”, george winston
“we three kings”, the roches
“a baby just like you”, john denver

“suddenly it’s christmas”, loudon wainwright iii
“you’re a mean one, mr. grinch”, how the grinch stole christmas soundtrack
“green chri$tma$”, stan freberg
“please daddy, don’t get drunk this christmas”, john denver
“the day after christmas”, martin azevedo
“father christmas”, the kinks
“christmas is pain”, roy zimmerman
“the lonely jew on christmas”, south park
“stand up for judas”, leon rosselson
“mr. snow miser”, the year without a santa claus
“a christmas wish”, steve martin
“fairytale of new york”, the pogues
“buy war toys for christmas”, the foremen
“a christmas carol”, tom lehrer
“you’re a mean one, mr. grinch” (a capella), metropolis barbershop quartet

Winter Howdies:
“Ring Out Solstice Bells”, Jethro Tull
“Calling on Mary”, Aimee Mann
“Christ the Messiah”, Evan and the Chipmunks
“The Island of Misfit Toys”, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Soundtrack
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, Death Cab For Cutie
“Christmas Carol”, The Neilds
“Chiron Beta Prime”, Jonathan Coulton
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, Pete Nelson
“Christmas Bells”, John Gorka
“Deck the Halls”, Klezmonauts
“I Believe in Father Christmas”, U2
“Elf’s Lament”, Barenaked Ladies
“Shepherds”, Bruce Cockburn
“Welcome Christmas”, Sean Harkness
“ChristmaHanuRamaKaDonaKwanzaa”, Roy Zimmerman
“Christmas Song”, Dave Matthews
“Greensleeved”, Jethro Tull
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, Barenaked Ladies
“When a Child is Born”, Roy Zimmerman

“your holiday song”, indigo girls
“all that I want”, the weepies
“have yourself a merry little christmas”, daphne loves darby
“the lord’s bright blessing”, mr. magoo’s christmas carol
“family”, dar williams
“santa santa”, david sederis
“away in a manger”, kevin olusola
“christmas song”, bruce cockburn
“prayer of st. francis”, sarah mclachlan
“twelve days of christmas”, garrison keillor
“silent night”, cynthia bredfeldt
“the winter song”, eisley
“christmas eve (sarajevo 12/24)”, savatage
“the rebel jesus”, jackson browne
“glorious”, melissa etheridge
“rudolph (you don’t have to put on the red nose)”, mojochronic
“if it be your will”, leonard cohen
“first snow on brooklyn”, jethro tull
“bright morning star”, oysterband (with june tabor & chumbawamba)



I’m rethinking doing the diverse romance challenge. No one has said anything negative to me, but I’m starting to feel uncomfortable with the bingo square format in this context. Am I overthinking?


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