A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #148

I’m hopelessly out of order at this point, but oh well. I keep getting stuck on The Hawk and the Dove, which will never download from Open Library for me. (I’ve checked it out at least 3 times.) But a lot of ancient Anne Mather books have now been digitized, so I may backtrack.

Harlequin Presents #148 – For the Love of Sara by Anne Mather

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I kind of love this cover. The heroine looks like she has a terrible headache, and by God, she deserves one.

Best Line:

“Where’s Greece?”

“Sara, I told you. It’s a long, long way away, where the sun shines all the time.”

“I don’t want the sun to shine all the time.”

For the Love of Sara was published about 3 years after the first Harlequin Presents but it’s like another world. Virginity is still a hot button — heh — and sex is only in the past, but the whole tone of the story is different. It actually starts off with the hero’s point of view, though it does drop it later to keep things suspenseful (a trick that still happens in some HPs.)

Mather tended to be an envelope pusher, which is great in theory but in practice often ends up being fairly icky. This definitely scores high on the ick scale, with the heroine engaged to the father of her former lover and the grandfather of her child. Talk about bad parents — apparently that’s how much dear old dad wanted to score off his son. Another way in which this book is different is that the hero’s father is considerably worse than the Evil Other Woman, who actually isn’t all that bad. And there’s a well drawn, far from angelic child character.

The book on the whole is thoughtful and intriguing, which perhaps makes it worse that the heroine stunk up the whole thing.  I was seriously tempted to change my “heroine needs a kick in the pants” tag to “heroine needs to be thrown through a plate-glass window.” However, this is a very tense time in our lives, so I’ll try to keep it sane.

But seriously, what an awful, dislikable person Rachel is. I’m not generally upset by secret baby stories, but Rachel is so obviously at fault here, and so damn stubborn for so long.

*Spoilers*

— She kept her pregnancy secret from Joel, and continues to distrust him and try to push him away, despite his interest in getting to know his child.

— Rachel is marrying James because he’s promised to donate a kidney to Sara. She assumes that if the operation is not successful, she won’t have to go through with the marriage. (Hey, dude still gave up his kidney!) Later when he asks if she was thinking about changing her mind about marriage after the operation, she’s indignant to be asked.

— After Rachel has an old skool fall — from running away from Joel while refusing to listen to what he’s actually saying — and requires surgery, her main freak out is about her head being shaved.

Joel is no saint, mind you, especially when he mocks Rachel for insisting that just because she was a virgin when they had sex, he should marry her. Though it is fairly mockworthy, for 1975. But he takes responsibility for his behavior, which is more than Rachel ever does.

So — not a bad book, but I kind of wish Joel had just sued for custody and never had to deal with Rachel again.

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October in Book Bingo

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Recurring themes of the month: Main characters whose siblings get married to their exes. Ambiguity. Characters being killed off so their loves will get new romances. (Ew.) Small heroines with big heroes. Jewish characters. Children being kidnapped. (Ack!) References to “Top Gun.” Organized crime bosses. Romance heroes who would be considered abusers in real life. Childhood sweethearts. Water sex. Homicidal mania. “Me” titles. “Girl” titles. Pittsburgh, again. High school boys with odd social roles. Characters who were adopted. Widows, virgin or otherwise. First books in series. The name Voldemort.

The horror… The horror…: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. The main character and his friend like to remake movies, including “Apocalypse Now.”

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I have mixed feelings about this book. It was funny, and had moving moments, but its frequent self-conscious meta asides about not being one of those profound YA books about cancer got really old. (They might work better in print than audio, but reviews seem to indicate not.) And the portrayal of Earl made me uncomfortable — he came off as a magical Negro, and he’s totally shafted.

Turtle: Leave Me by Gayle Forman.

This would also work well in “Blossom,” but I like the metaphor of the main character retreating into her shell and then slowly emerging.

(Holy crap! I wrote the above before finishing the book, and just opened it up and read, “when she and Jason got into a fight, this was exactly what he did: became a turtle, all hard shell.” BONUS.

I started out finding this really upsetting, and ending up finding it heartwarming.

October: Asperger’s From the Inside Out by Michael John Carley. Because it took me all October to struggle through this book. Not that it’s bad! I have kind of a block about autism books of the “helping kind (as opposed to, say, fiction or autobiography) and there wasn’t much here that was new to me. I’ll save it for my son. Though his block is worse even than mine.

From Beyond the Grave: Return to Me by Shannon McKenna.

I chose this square name, and I was envisioning a book in which characters are brought together because of a will. It turned out to be more apt than I figured, because the plot is driven by a letter from a dead man… and there are also ghostly visitations. My TBR Challenge read.

Spring: Sting by Sandra Brown. They have to spring someone out of jail — I won’t say who. Prime Brown romantic suspense with great twists.

Power Failure: The Rich Man’s Whim by Lynne Graham. A perfect square because every time the book comes close to possibly being interestingly dramatic, it pulls its punches. It’s like reading The Little Engine That Could going “I think I can, I think I can… nah, it’s a bad idea, better forget about it.”

Head: The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev. Ria’s mother and grandmother were both severely mentally ill, and she spends a lot of time in her own head, freaking out.

I didn’t get the love for Dev’s first book, which I remember as kind of twee, but this one caught me with its intensity. There are some problematic aspects — Miss Bates’s comparison to Jane Eyre is apt — but the combo of angst and strong writing can’t be beat.

Fester: Unforgiven by Mary Balogh. I had planned to use this square for The Hating Game — and then I noticed “Death Stare.” No contest! Anyway, Unforgiven is the ultimate in festering resentment. These are some seriously bitter people.

Signed sealed delivered: Galgorithm by Aaron Karo. Dorky boys, your time has come — Shane’s technique will get you the girl of your dreams, signed, sealed, delivered.

I started this audiobook right after The Girl Before (see directly below) and it was almost terrible timing. Nothing like a book about sex trafficking to make you really, really not in the mood to read about a junior PUA. I kept going because Shane’s character seemed genuinely good-hearted — his goal is to get boys into happy relationships, not get them sex — and I was glad I did, because it’s not the book it initially appears. Also, the secondary character of the bully who has two moms and will threaten you for not recycling was straight out of Gordon Korman, which made me happy.

Whitewash: The Girl Before by Rena Olsen.

Note: all the trigger warnings for this book. It’s not very explicit, but scary and upsetting af. The best you can say is I don’t think any dogs die.

My initial thought for this square was that it fit because the ugliness of Clara’s life has been whitewashed/prettied up but then I realized it fits even better than that… because the villains have convinced her to do some of their dirty work for them. Tom Sawyer would be shocked.

This is a very compelling psychological thriller about extreme Stockholm syndrome, and the ability to use our minds to deceive ourselves. It’s not that plausible and has some plot holes, but I was glued to my mp3 player. (An excellent narrator helped.)

But then I thought about the game: Talk of the Town by Beth Andrews. The hero is a hocky player who generally puts the game — winning and security — before his daughter.

This is an ambitious, interesting romance. Both main characters have messed up badly in different ways; both earn sympathy and forgiveness. But there’s so much bad feeling between them that much of the book was a tough slog.

Campus Life: Winning Back His Wife, by Gwen Hayes and Zoe York. The characters originally fall in love at summer camp, and then meet again as college students. Though as the book starts, they’re on the verge of divorce. Not especially memorable but nice lead in to a series  — they buy the camp to run it for adults.

Delight: The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel. I have to put this in the “delight” square, because not only is it a delight to read, but it’s about delight, and how it’s created in a musical show.

BEER: Another Man’s Wife by Dallas Schulze.

“You might be surprised what a man will do for a cold beer on a hot day.”

A widow and her husband’s best friend fall in love irritatingly slowly. Pleasant enough, but meh. Very little real conflict.

Death Stare: The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. What Lucy and her much-hated coworker Josh give each other every day.

I absolutely loved this, but it’s not for everyone. More at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

78: Castelli’s Virgin Widow by Caitlin Crews. Heroine was married to a dude old enough to be her grandfather, but young enough to be the father of the hero. (Which, in fact, he was. But it’s okay, ’cause like the title says, virgin widow.) I unilaterally declare dude to have been 78.

I am really liking these new Harlequin Presents! This is an updating of the classic “hero thinks she’s a gold-digging whore but she’s really a virgin,” always a fav. The main update is that Kathryn has a lot of backbone and doesn’t put up with Luca’s crap (though still unable to resist his punishing kisses), but I also liked the bit of a twist that she married Luca’s father not as a family martyr but to escape from a lifetime of being one. Luca is far less sympathetic but the intensity of his feelings let me forgive him. The resolution of the conflict was too abrupt and those seeking a grovel will be disappointed.

Spawning: Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold. I am chortling with glee over the perfection of this square choice. I don’t want to spoil the book but (metaphorical and otherwise) versions of Miles are spawning all over the place.

Dutch Oven: Didn’t find anything. #SorryNotSorry

SLIT: The Young Blood by Erin Satie.

“She narrowed her eyes down to slits and hunched closer to the rails.”

Lovely writing, strong characters, and a genuine unprincipled rake for a starchy heroine to reform while she gets unstarched. Excellent in many ways, but I found the pacing off — not that it was dull, but it kept switching from leisurely to fast-moving in jarring ways.

Wild thingFly With Me by Chanel Cleeton.  Heroine has relatives on her case about relationships, implying she’s “too wild” to settle down.

Not really my kind of book — sex, sex and more sex — but I was grabbed by the heroine’s sassy narrative and the hero’s uncomplicated admiration for her. The unexpected sadness of the end was moving. But I didn’t buy the heroine as a potential strong and long-suffering military wife, given her high-maintenance freakout when her boyfriend simply grew a mustache without warning her.

BlurMarried for Amari’s Heir by Maisey Yates.

(There’s a line about blurring, but I returned the book before remembering to quote it.)

Kind of like a Harlequin Presents version of Dragon Bound (which I always saw as a paranormal romance version of The Hobbit.) The hero is Smaug guarding his treasure — for emo HP reasons, of course — and seeking revenge. The heroine is Bilbo, daring to steal from him —  for emo HP reasons, of course — and then having to deal with his wrath. I enjoyed how blunt she was, even snarky at times, and there’s an unusually realistic (for an HP) discussion of their potential shortcomings as good parents. Topped off with a nice redemption for them both. Note: the heroine is apparently not white. We’re never actually told what her racial background is, but her skin is frequently compared to coffee, so we’ll know. Sigh.

In decent: Craving Flight by Tamsen Parker. An excellent square for this story about a BDSM relationship between two Orthodox Jews, which is very much about public modesty, private needs, and personal choices. It’s more on the SM side than I personally enjoy, and the relationship develops kind of abruptly, but the juxtaposition of religious faith and submission was fascinating.

BLOSSOM: The Greek Tycoon’s Unexpected Wife by Annie West

“He tried to match the clever, avaricious schmer with the woman of simple tastes. The woman who’d flowered before his eyes with just a little care and attention.”

Reread of one of my favorite fabulous wallbangers.

Legend…: Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie. On the scent of a  murderer in a small village, our detective pretends to be studying old legends and superstitions.

This was an odd reread because it turned out to have been published in America in its edited serial magazine form, like The Moving Finger, and I kept being startled by the parts I didn’t remember. Unlike that book, I didn’t think the original was significantly better than the one I was used to. (I cherish my British copy of The Moving Finger!)

stripped: Almost a Gentleman by Pam Rosenthal. The heroine (ha! I originally wrote “hero”) has two personas, and stipping away her male clothes to reveal her female self is very emotionally significant.

More about it at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

Also read (or not):

Five, Six, Seven, Nate by Tim Federle. DNF. Didn’t have the exuberance or high stakes of the first book… seemed to just be about a chaotic group of eccentrics.

A Gentleman Never Tells by Eloisa James. DNF. Interesting premise, but very unfunny banter.

Falling for the Enemy by Dawn Stewardson. DNF. Hero works for the mob boss who kidnaps the heroine’s son. I figured he had a good reason, but I had trouble getting past that premise and the book didn’t especially grab me in any way.

The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra Decker. Very thorough, dense discussion of asexuality, yet I still don’t feel I entirely understand it. I could use a specific definition of “sexual attraction” and apparently that’s a hotly debated point.

Change of Heart by Sonali Dev. DNF. Ironically enough, I only read The Bollywood Bride because I was interested in this, but it was simultaneously too dark and too soppy for me, and unlike the previous book, the prose didn’t seem noteworthy.

Adulting 101 by Lisa Henry. DNF. Fun style, but I could not get past a 25 year old guy who’s traveled the world getting involved with an 18 year old virgin who still lives with his parents. Read some Dan Savage, dude, learn the campsite rules at least.

 

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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.

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September in Book Bingo part 2

Recurring themes of the month: Heroes who get shot protecting their heroines. Voluptuous Latina heroines. (Could we please have a flat-chested Latina heroine sometime? Or literally any other body type?) Romance between colleagues. Villains with narcissistic personality disorder. Really good cooks. (Useful for this month!) Heroines with “masculine” nicknames. Heroines who think they’re plain. Southern accents. Abusive/downright evil parents. “Other side of the tracks” romance. Interfering fathers. Secret couples caught at high school dances. Theater. “Awakenings.” Pittsburgh. Chubby Jewish teenage boys. (Aww.) References to Pride and Prejudice. Unions (pro and anti.) Video games (pro and anti.) Fighting against isolationism. Manhoods, presumably throbbing. Recommendations from #ownvoices chat on Twitter. Recommendations from friends, with mixed results.

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Christmas Gifts *wink wink nudge nudge: Sweetest Regret by Meredith Duran.

“Lucas. Two years, I’ve waited. Will you keep me waiting longer? Or will you give me my gift?”

Reunion novella set during a Christmas houseparty. It was a very nice gift indeed.

This is a pretty good story, especially if you like a serious bluestocking heroine, but more conventional/samey than I expect from Duran.

Do You Remember: Inherited by Ferranti by Kate Hewitt.

“You undid me, with your loveliness. I was caught from the moment I saw you, at your father’s palazzo. Do you remember? You were standing in the drawing room, wearing a pink dress. You looked like a rose.”

There wasn’t a lot going on in this story, but I liked the strong emotions. Pining hero for the win.

September: Craving Jamie by Emma Darcy.

“His skin was warm, despite the coolness of the September evening. How did he transmit the electric vibrancy that was racing through her?”

A Harlequin Present version of the classic “childhood sweethearts” tearjerker romance.

A Woman in Her Prime: Mayday by Oliva Dade. (Usual disclaimer: author is a friend.) 35 year old virgin finally gets her long-time crush into bed… and it’s TERRIBLE. (Let’s hear it for her getting it on with another guy to try to wipe the memory out of her mind.) Then he has to win her back and make up for it. This hit my sweet spot, because it had pain as well as laughter.

Balance: On The Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis.

I decided fairly early on that this book would get the “balance” square, because I thought there was excellent balance in the portrayal of an autistic person in an emergency situation. She’s freaked out and having a really hard time but she’s also contributing. By the end of the book though, I realized that the whole point is it shouldn’t matter–that people don’t need to be useful to be valuable. I’ll still leave it in this square, in appreciation of a depiction of autism that isn’t either super powers or tragedy. This is why we need #ownvoices. More random thoughts.

Where There’s a Will: Carides Forgotten Bride by Maisy Yates. Romance manipulated from beyond the grave, mwah ha ha ha ha!

This seemed like a fairly standard amnesia story, with way too much naval gazing… and then it got interesting. I actually reviewed it at GoodReads (something I almost never do any more unless it’s for an ARC) because I was so irked at reviewers who will happily read heroes who’ve had more lovers than hot dinners, as long as there are no unpleasant consequences for their actions. If you like old skool HP intensity but aren’t fond of old skool rapey-ness or brutality, give this one a try.

Taming of the Shrew: The Awakening by Jude Deveraux. A REVERSE-SHREW! My tbr challenge book.

BIRTH DAY: Downtown Devil by Cara McKenna.

“If you’re there, God, hear my birthday wish: Give me just three hours alone with that man and I’ll die a grateful woman.”

I didn’t read this straight through, so I’m not sure how much is fair to say about it. Also, it’s hard to articulate my complaints without spoilers. Basically, I was not buying the story’s premise, and then I read a spoiler which made me feel that the writing was very manipulative. However, since I didn’t read the entire thing, I may not have gotten nuances that would have changed my opinion.

You Complete Me: The Way Home by Linda Howard. Not exactly the most psychologically healthy relationship.

Twenty Fifth: Blue-Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas. I got a yen to reread this old fav (the only contemporary Kleypas I really love) just as my husband and I were leaving on a trip, so it turned out to be the book I read on our 25th anniversary. 🙂 To make it even more appropriate, Hardy calls Haven “brown-eyed girl”; one of my husband’s favorite memories from our wedding is dancing to that.

Coupling: The Object of the Game by Vanessa James.

“…she leapt into the bath, leaned back luxuriantly, propped her copy of Couplings on the soap tray and prepared to read. She stayed there quite a long time, her eyes growing rounder and wider as she read on…”

Almost any book I read could fit this square, but how perfect is that?

Gush: The Italian Millionaire’s Virgin Wife by Diana Hamilton. Much gush about the hero’s hotness.

Swooning: Merry Christmas by Emma Darcy.

Well, I haz a sad. I wanted this square for a book that made me swoon, even if just metaphorically. Instead I had to go for a swooning woman in a book I DNF’d with extreme prejudice. If there’s one thing I hate, loathe, despise, and abominate, it’s the trope of “selfish or otherwise terrible adoptive parents conveniently die so the adopted child’s REAL parents can get the child.” Not even amnesia could make me finish this. (The hero’s amnesia, that is.)

Naked Truth: Shrill by Lindy West. Audiobook.

This was the perfect square for this book, because it’s true and it’s raw. I really admire how West writes about the importance of body positivity and fat acceptance while not being afraid to show the many ways in which being fat in a fat-hating world has affected her emotionally and psychologically.

You’re History: Night Broken by Patricia Briggs. “You’re history” is a message that Adam’s ex-wife has not quite gotten.

I was putting off reading this one because it sounded uncomfortable — and it was. The dynamic with the ex-wife taking over and Mercy being all put upon… she came across as a real Mercy-Sue.

69: Never Let Go by Deborah Smith.

Why is this older Loveswept reissue in the “69” square? I have no idea! I went to Overdrive, searched on “69” and almost 10,000 romances came up. I went with this one because it looked chock full of betrayal.

It was a fairly fun read, but hasn’t aged all that well. Lots of mockery of country stereotypes… perhaps meant to be fond, but it didn’t feel that way to me. I enjoyed the angst — though the heroine’s actual innocence made very little sense — and there was some cute banter. This turned out to be a sequel to another book featuring the same couple, but I didn’t feel lost.

Somewhere Around the Corner: This Side of Home by Renee Watson.

This square seemed appropriate for a story about a neighborhood, and also about people who spend a lot of time thinking about their futures. Set in a traditionally black Portland neighborhood that’s becoming gentrified, it’s a poignant YA coming-of-age story narrated by Maya, who coping with a lot of change in her life: her identical twin sister Nikki has developed different interests, their best friend was forced to move, their new high school principal is pandering to white parents… and she’s falling for a white boy. There’s sadness and painful themes, but also hope for Maya’s community, depicted in prose that’s beautiful and accessible. (Romance fans, take note: though there’s a romantic element, it’s not a genre romance.)

Ravish: Awakened By Her Desert Captor by Abby Green. Kidnapped by a Sheikh, dude!

HATE: Shifting Shadows by Patricia Briggs. There’s much hatred in this collection of stories, usually because someone was turned into a paranormal being against their will.

These are good stories — including the wonderful “Alpha and Omega” and a very poignant vampire/ghost story — but the grouping makes the similarities of themes very obvious. I’d recommended reading in small bites.

Cool Dude: Looking for Group by Alexis Hall. Self-aware and self-accepting 19 year old Kit is who I want to be when I grow up.

This was a NetGalley arc, so I reviewed it for GoodReads.

Flip Back: All I Am by Nicole Helm. Lots of flipping back and forth in this relationship.

Mixed feelings about this one. Both characters are very emo. But there were some fresh touches I liked, including a more realistic than usual initiation for a virgin hero.

HOME cooking: The Girl from Summer Hill by Jude Deveraux. Heroine is a chef who “can make dirt and rocks taste good.”

This modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice was a recommendation from the awesome Janet W, so I’m sad that I really, really didn’t like it. 😦 It got up my nose so much, I’m not sure there’s even any point in detailing the things I didn’t like, though I will anyway:

— So, so many characters, with complicated relationships. And many are related to Deveraux’s other long-running families,  because of course they are.

— Nobody notices any resemblance between Pride and Prejudice and the events actually happening in the story until near the end.  Even though each character is playing the role in a play version of P&P that they play in the retelling, including sometimes using similar dialogue.

— Tate, the Darcy, is basically perfect. He does absolutely nothing wrong. How can this be a Pride and Prejudice story if it ignores one of the most basic themes?

— There were many scenes of described action, which seemed intended to seen in a visual medium rather than read, and they were extremely dull. It didn’t help that Deveraux’s prose style is not well suited to audio; it has a very bland rhythm. Towards the end, I actually got so bored I switch to print. At least it went faster.

One positive point: I did like the modern interpretation of Lydia, which really brought out the awfulness of what happened to her in the original story. “Lizzie Bennet’s Diary” did it better, though.

Pillow Talk: September Morning by Diana Palmer. Meh. Very irritating hero constantly blows hot and cold. But Palmer does write a nice sex scene, even when there’s no sex.

Subtle: Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle. 13 year old musicals geek Nate doesn’t feel remotely ready to have a sexual orientation yet — “I am a freshman at the College of Sexuality and I have undecided my major” — yet somehow this sort of thing keeps happening to him:

“out he comes from the bedroom, wearing pajama bottoms and — oh how funny — no shirt.”

It’s like Nate is living this scene from “Community.”

 

Jokes aside, I loved this book. Nate’s search for freedom to be himself, and his appreciation of the wonders of New York — “Everything is so flipping jubilant here” — made me laugh and cry and wish I had found a way to let my musicals geek shine when I was young.

Gamma: Earth Bound by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

me: Can I justify “gamma” as the bingo square for a book about space flight?

hub: bit of a stretch, but there was a gamma rocket engine back in the early days of rocketry

me: good enough!

I would have enjoyed putting this one in “You’re history,” but this way I don’t have to worry all month about what definition of Gamma to use.

Terrific book! There’s nothing like a grumpy irascible hero who is totally ground to dust by a strong heroine. 🙂 The tension is excellent, and though the historical setting is important, it doesn’t overpower the romance.

Also read (or not):

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed. DNF. It’s not you, book, it’s me…  It’s a very important real life topic — forced marriage, and not the fun fantasy romance kind — but I read spoilers and just couldn’t face how the story was going to go.

First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. DNF It’s not me, book, it’s you. Super cringey attempt at including diverse characters which includes white savior storyline.

The Cosy Teashop in the Castle by Caroline Roberts. DNF. Not my cuppa.

Carrying the King’s Pride by Jennifer Hayward. Another friend favorite that didn’t work for me.  The prose was awkward and I didn’t feel much connection between the characters.

The Unromantic Lady by Lucy Gordon. How many of my favorite category writers will turn out to have written Regencies under different names? This was originally written as Penelope Stratton.

Smoke and Secrets by Suleikha Snyder. Reunited lovers with secret babies — it’s like Harlequin Presents in Bollywood!

Fire Touched by Patricia Briggs.

Self-Reg by Stuart Shanker. Very interesting book about the factors affecting self-regulation. I wish it had more concrete ideas, however; just when I thought it was about to put forward a specific plan, it ended! Still, I picked up a lot of helpful information.

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Thoughts?

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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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.

 

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Diverse Romance Challenge

diverse-romance-card

(No one seems to have a problem with this, so I’m going to proceed as planned.)

This new challenge just started and will run til the end of the year. Since it’ll take awhile, I’m going to post now and update as I fill it in. I think I will also attempt to find “own voices” stories for as many of the squares as possible. Suggestions very welcome!

f/f:

interracial: Hold Me by Courtney Milan. Hero’s ethnicity is Thai and Chinese, heroine’s is way back Latina. This also features a trans heroine, but I’m hoping to fill that box with an “own voices” square. (Which as far as I know, this isn’t.)

Latinx MC

Muslim MC

MC w/mental illness:

Desi MCSmoke and Secrets by Suleikha Snyder.

The second book in the “Bollywood Confidential” is set in the same world as Spice and Smoke, with some recurring characters, but it’s a far more conventional genre romance. The two storylines could have come straight out a Harlequin Presents: one is about a betrayed ex-wife who fears to love again, the other is reunited lovers with a secret baby! And an Evil Other Woman tries to destroy both.The frequent references to Bollywood movies make this all kind of meta, but not in an annoying way. The main characters — Priya, “item girl,” and her former love, producer and actor Rahul, and Sunny, talk show hostess loved by Davey, her producer — are all awash in the Bollywood milieu and living a life right out of a romantic movie seems only natural.

Jewish MC: Craving Flight by Tamsen Parker. I don’t know if this is own voices, but it seems to be really well done. Clever, insightful juxtaposition of religious orthodoxy and kink.

Trans MC:

Physically disabled MC:

Bi/Pan:

Diverse Historical:

Polyamery:

Ownvoices: The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev. I’m hoping to get own voices books for as many squares as possible; since I already filled the “Desi MC” square, I’m putting this story here. Intense, angsty romance. It’s actually less about Bollywood than about first and second generation Indians living in America, and the immersive supporting detail is lovely.

Black MC:

East Asian MC:

WOC in Romance:

Set outside US/UK

Full figured MC: Mayday by Olivia Dade.

Neurodiversity

Asexual MC:

Middle Eastern MC:

Poc on Cover:

m/m:

QPoc:

non-binary:

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On The Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

I’m having so many thoughts and feelings while reading this that I decided to write a reaction post as I read, rather than try to do a traditional review.

The story is narrated by Denise, a biracial autistic teen living in Amsterdam. It opens as the earth is just about to be hit by a comet. Denise and her mother are late leaving for their assigned shelter, because they’re waiting for Denise’s missing sister, Iris.

— I wonder if the author wrote this partially to address her own fears about how she might survive as an autistic person in a cataclysmic disaster? I know it’s something I’ve thought about a lot myself — one of the reasons I’m really not attracted to dystopian fiction — and especially now that I have an autistic son.  When I told my husband the premise, that’s immediately where his mind went and he thought the book would be too scary to read.

(One of my favorite stories is John Varley’s The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged). You can read it online. In it he writes,

“We all love after-the-bomb stories. If we didn’t, why would there be so many of them? There’s something attractive about all those people being gone, about wandering in a depopulated world, scrounging cans of Campbell’s pork and beans, defending one’s family from marauders. Sure, it’s horrible, sure we weep for all those dead people. But some secret part of us thinks it would be good to survive, to start all over.

Secretly, we know we’ll survive. All those other folks will die. That’s what after-the-bomb stories are all about.”

Not me. I have never believed that. In my scenario, if I survive, I will undoubtedly die shortly thereafter.)

— Denise’s beloved missing sister is a trans woman. This worries me in a post-apocalyptic story. (It turns out not to be an issue at all.)

— (32%) I appreciate the nuance of this portrait and it feels really well balanced. Denise is realistically having trouble dealing with stress and melting down, but she’s also contributing. She’s neither SuperAutistic Girl or Autistic Robot Girl.

—  (37%) “It’s the end of the world; I knew I would have to change. ”

I pondered this sentence for awhile. It seems an ableist point of view. I guess Denise means she will have to be really brave? To do things that are very hard for her? Does she really think she can just decide to change?

— (60-something%) This plan is so messed up. Does no one think about what it will be like to spend the rest of your life stuck with people who will utterly hate you?

— The moral ambiguity in this scenario is excruciating. I hope the story will find some good way to resolve it, but I can’t imagine what.

Oh. Now I understand what the earlier thought about needing to change was about. It is an ableist point of view, because it’s internalized ableism. Denise thinks she has to be more “normal” and useful in order to justify her existence in the post-apocalyptic world.

Ending — Wow. Just wow. I’m so impressed with how this played out. It’s an amazing book. I wish I could read it to my son without scaring him to death. This is why #ownvoices matter.

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Awakened By Her Desert Captor by Abby Green

I’m often aghast when reading reviews of modern Harlequin Presents that dare to break out of rigid formulas. (I wrote about one example, also, as it happens, by Abby Green.) The hate a book garners when the heroine dares to have sex with someone other than the hero is sickening. So it was embarrassing, reading the reviews of this and having to go… “Yes. True. You’re absolutely spot on.” Liking a book despite the fact that it’s really sexist isn’t as bad as hating it because it isn’t, right?

The plot is a bit of a mix of The Sheikh (sans physical force or brutality), Susan Napier’s Mistress of the Groom, and Green’s own The Brazilian’s Blackmail Bargain — two of which I really like. (No prize for guessing which two.)  Arkim is planning to marry a sweet young girl, as part of a business deal and also to establish his respectability because his dad was — gasp! — a porn mogul. Unfortunately, the sweet young girl has an older, hotter sister who works in a – gasp! – naughty Paris revue. When Sylvie destroys the wedding by proclaiming that she and Arkim had had sex the night before, he decides to take his revenge by stealing her away to his Sheikhy desert hideaway and making her lie true.

Revenge! Misunderstood innocent! Whore goggles! I totally love this shit! But it’s hard to deny that it’s extremely implausible here. The contortions the story goes through to make 28 year old Sylvie a total innocent who barely shows a thing when she dances would fit handily in her revue:

“‘I couldn’t care less if you stripped naked and hung upside down on a trapeze in your show. This conversation is over.’

Sylvie refrained from pointing out that that was actually Giselle’s act…”

Sylvie is the fakest of fake rakes and Arkim is pretty much a fake Sheikh, which is offensive in other ways. Credit to the author for trying to strike a positive note against slut-shaming at the end, by having Arkim accept Sylvie’s job… but it’s gloss. It can’t mitigate the sexism at the heart of the story.

I feel like I should write more about why I enjoyed the book anyway, but there isn’t much to say past, “I like this kind of thing.” The prose is smooth and effective. It’s intense, it’s angsty, it’s cathartic in some way. It hits the sweet spot; I’ve learned to be okay with this.

 

 

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September in Book Bingo part 1

I decided to do something a little different this month. I was reading A Few of the Girls by Maeve Binchy, and was pleased to see there was a story title perfect for “Taming of the Shrew,” a square name I had picked based on my reading last month. I then thought it would be fun — and would make the bland collection more interesting — to see if I could fit a story from the book into every square! (Definitely a little challenging, since Binchy sex is always off-page. 😉 ) I’ll also do a regular reading round-up at the end of the month and see if I can fill my card the usual way.

There are more than 25 stories in the book, so a few aren’t mentioned here.

Christmas Gifts *wink wink nudge nudge: “Forgiving.” A woman estranged from her family decides to forgive them and visit for Christmas

Do You Remember: “The Sensible Celebration” A woman recalls the repercussions of the very foolish parties her friends have thrown.

September: “Be Prepared.” To truly prepare for Christmas, you have to buy your cooking foil in September.

A Woman in Her Prime: “A Few of the Girls.” This was a hard story to place because I don’t think I really got it, but the character of Nicola seems to really have her shit together.

Balance: “The Mirror.” A disastrous evening is balanced out by a happy realization.

Where There’s a Will: “Audrey.” For fans of sentient cat stories.

Taming of the Shrew: “Kiss Me Kate.” Just the title really, but it’s enough!

BIRTH DAY: “The Custardy Case.” Bernard thinks all the drama in the house is a surprise for his seventh birthday. 😦

You Complete Me: “Chalk and Cheese.” Linda doesn’t appreciate how much her perfect life runs smoothly because of her friend Chalkie.

Twenty Fifth: “The Consultant Aunt.” 17 year old Sara gets romantic advice from her 25 year old aunt.

Coupling: “The Bargain.” A meh little romance.

Gush: “The Afternoon Phone-In”. Rory thinks that radio host Fiona is amazing, far too special for an ordinary bloke like himself.

Swooning: “New Year’s Eve and the Garden”. Instead of her traditional New Year’s Eve party, a newly widowed woman reads her late husband’s journal and gains a sweet legacy from him.

Naked Truth: “Falling Apart.” A woman realizes that her chance at happiness depends on being very firm and honest with her alcoholic mother.

You’re History: “The Foul-Weather Friend.” A friendship that will only last as long as you’re miserable.

69: “Picnic at St. Pauls.” Catherine is very disappointed when the attractive stranger in town who phones her turns out to be “in his late sixties, at least.” (This is Binchy, that’s the closest I’m gonna get!)

Somewhere Around the Corner: “The Afterthought”. A man having an affair dreams about how it could all be perfectly resolved someday.

Ravish: “No Tears in the Tivoli.” The main character is a trophy wife, so presumably pretty ravishing. Sorry, that’s all I got.

HATE: “Giving Up Men.” Ironic Binchy at her most aggravating.

Cool Dude: “Sandra’s Suitcase. A friendly tour guide helps out when a tourist loses her suitcase and changes her forever.

Flip Back: “Living Well.” No, THIS is ironic Binchy at her most aggravating.

HOME cooking: “Catering for Love.” Ronnie is a caterer, hired to pass off food as home-cooked, with unfortunate results.

Pillow Talk: “A Tactful Conversation.” A tough square, because sex is only alluded to in Binchy. But the couple has conversations and they could certainly be having them in bed!

Subtle: “Someone’s Got to Tell Her.” A one-sided conversation in which the narrator gradually becomes aware that not all is as she thought.

Gamma: “Mr. Mangan.” The definition of gamma is somewhat confused, even in romance terms, but one generally accepted definition is a sort of Alpha/Beta combo — a hero who is confident and top dog, but also sensitive and not arrogant. Mr. Mangan is quite the guy.

 

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