A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Still a Friend of Narnia

I recently read Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Books as an Adult by Bruce Handy, which is a book right up my alley. (Not that it mentions Magic in the Alley by Mary Calhoun, since the poor book never got the love it deserves.) Although even reading about books I don’t have strong feelings about was interesting, I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled “God and Man in Narnia,” which is the first one that touched on books I deeply cared about, and it really struck a chord in me.

First, there was this quote in the footnotes: “The kids enjoyed the live-action Narnia films that began coming out a few years later, but though they sound like perfectly reasonable adaptation, I have strenuously avoided them, not wanting to literalize such a core part of my childhood imagination.”

Yes, yes, yes! I’ve never known how to put this: usually when I have to defend my desire not to see movies based on beloved books, I say “I already know what they look like,” but this really captures the true sentiment. They’re exactly as real in my head as they should ever be.

Hardy goes on to discuss some of the issues with the Narnia books, which is always uncomfortable reading. I’m not a Christian, which no doubt made it easier to for me to overlook spects that make others squirm. (Coincidentally, I literally only realized last night, when my husband mentioned the breaking of the tombs, that there was allegorical significance to the breaking of the stone table.) But when the book discussed the intentionality of it — Narnia as deliberate propaganda —  I started to feel like that was really the last straw and I would never be able to read them again.

And then I got to a quote from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, describing the magnificence of Aslan and the children’s instinctual, awed reaction to him. And Hardy’s commentary:

“I’m no expert [the author has previously stated he’s an atheist], but Lewis’s ostensible fantasy strikes me as an unusually sophisticated, not to mention graceful and humane, portrayal of belief, no matter the age of the intended audience. Or perhaps I should just say that the Narnia books allow me to ‘get it’ in a way that most religious expression, whether art or testament, does not.”

And again, this. I felt it. My older sister and her friends felt it. Even my mother , who raised us without any religious influences at all, felt it. (I remember discussing with her whether the poor stone picnickers would be brought back to life, and her assuring me that Aslan would find them.) Even knowing very little about Christian imagery and theology, I felt the pull of Aslan. It didn’t convert me, but it gave me something important. A sense of grace?

~~~

The book does also talk about racism and sexism in Narnia, and makes a sincere attempt to address the racism problems in much of classic children’s literature, including offering The Birchbark House  and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as counterpoints to the “Little House” books. But I felt the author didn’t give enough account to his own internal blinkers about “girl books.” He describes Dorothy, Lucy and Susan Pevensie, and Alice as “blank slates,” and thinks Anne is too soppy to even read. He skimmed Little Men, thereby missing out on some fantastic fun. I was thinking as I read, a little wistfully, that this is the book I myself once wanted to write. Maybe I still need to.

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Roomies by Christina Lauren

I have such mixed feelings about this, I feel like I should write a pro/con list instead of a review. Many of the aspects I disliked eventually grew into something better, and overall I read the book with interest and enjoyment — yet it’s hard to feel completely positive about a book when I spent so much of it wincing.

The book is narrated — first person present tense, sorry! It was mostly unobtrusive though — by Holland Bakker, a young woman who’s very halfheartedly trying to make in in New York. Her efforts are supported by her loving uncle Jeff and his husband Robert, who emotionally adopted her when she was born the last child in a large family. Working in a grunt job at Robert’s Broadway theater, with them paying most of her rent, Holland feels aimless and useless.

Holland was my first hurdle. She’s often such a typical contemporary romance/women’s fiction stereotype:

“While I’m not completely unfortunate-looking, I know everyone is half wondering how I ended up with someone like him. I’m that girl with the freckles, the one with snagged tights who spills her coffee awkwardly on her boobs, the one who knocks into everyone with my camera.”

I’m so not the reader for that girl’s adventures. But — first but — Holland has an interesting arc. Part of the story is about her finding herself and her passions… her passions other than Calvin. And her very stereotypical friendship with Lulu, the brash and bold girl who’s always pushing her to take risks, also goes in an unexpected, emotionally resonant direction

Calvin is an Irish musician that Holland semi-stalks when he busks in the subway. Although there is much panting by Holland over how gorgeously Irish he is, she is largely attracted by how intensely and lovingly he plays his guitar. And when an important musician storms out of her uncle Robert’s production, she has the brilliant idea of bringing Calvin into the show. There’s just one enormous problem: Calvin’s student visa expired and he’s in the country illegally. But Holland might be able to help with that too…

Okay, this was another big grimace, though perhaps an unfair one to criticize the book upon. It just made me so uncomfortable that the book focused on the needs of a white immigrant who’s in the country for music, in a time when there are so many immigrants in the US facing racism and deportation back to horrific circumstances. It felt intensely tone deaf.

That aside, Calvin is an extremely appealing hero — funny, and affectionate, and passionate about his art, always a huge draw for me. There are some niggles with him too, though I suppose they keep him from being ridiculously perfect. I did really enjoy the growth of their relationship… buuuut…. they have sex for the first time, a huge deal, when they’re too drunk to even remember it. What the what? This is not what I read romance for!

(Incidentally, in keeping with Lauren’s last several books, this one is quite steamy, but with less volume of sex scenes. I have no complaints whatsoever about this.)

The romance continues on in a very episodic way, which is really not my cuppa. Holland’s insecurity stretches out long past the point where it’s even narratively useful or sensible. A lot of the conflict felt manufactured.

Overall, I felt like the book wanted to be a rom com with both awkward hilarious moments and emotionally deep moments, and the combo didn’t perfectly gell for me. A lot of my complaints are specifically personal and might not bother any other reader at all. So I would recommend it to readers who enjoy contemporary romance; I think most everyone will adore Calvin.

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TBR Challenge: With This Ring by Carla Kelly

The theme: an author with multiple books on your TBR

Why this one: Despite frequently reading Kelly for the challenge, I still have plenty left. And unlike many other authors on my TBR, I still like her. :-\

I read a few more recent Kelly titles last year and found them sadly meh.  I was intrigued by how similar this older book was to those, in terms of plotlines, yet how infinitely superior it was. (Now even more, I think Coming Home For Christmas would have more aptly been titled Phoning It In For Christmas.)

With This Ring is a little unusual for Kelly in being almost entirely from Lydia’s point of view. And it’s very much her emotional journey. When the book starts she’s Cinderella, basically a downtrodden servant to her self-centered mother and sister. She flabbergasted by her own life — often thinking thoughts like, “I do not understand these people I am related to” —  but has no concept of escaping it. But when she has to accompany her sister on a “fashionable” excursion to visit — ie, gawk at — wounded soldiers, she takes the first steps in fighting for what she knows is decent and humane behavior, by insisting on actually tending the wounded.

She also meets Sam, an Earl who’s far more concerned with taking care of his men than his title or his own severe wound. Though he does occasionally ponder on how to find the wife he’s already told his family he married (and had a child with!)

Lydia’s new independence leads to a serious rift with her family, and desperate straits that make her finally take Sam’s whimsical proposal seriously. This is where Lydia and “Cinderella” really part ways. Because rather than rescuing her from hardship, becoming Sam’s wife will force her to face incredible challenges, and show her how strong and capable she really is.

The romance-while-nursing theme works really well here. Much of the time Lydia’s taking care of Sam, which doesn’t make for much standard courtship. (Except when he gives her a hat.) But his down to earth conversation, which makes no concessions to her ladylike status, is rather adorable. We can feel them becoming a team, with similar goals because they’re both caring people. Sam lets us down a bit in the end though, putting other priorities ahead of Lydia; he’s punished for it, but doesn’t really repent or redeem himself, which is disappointing. He’s still sweet enough to be worthy of her, and and least can appreciate the amazing woman she becomes.

 

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TBR Challenge 1/18: Street Song by Ann Charlton

The theme: We like short shorts.

Why this one: Harlequin Presents are my go-to short reads, but I’m finding many of them too rough these days. This one looked likely to have less female intimidation and sex trafficking (!) than others I attempted. And in fact, it confirms my belief that the 1980s produced some of the most thoughtful and satisfying HPs.

Just for fun, here’s a song the Australian music teacher heroine and her busking partner play:

 

We know Cara isn’t the typical HP heroine right away: “She wore flat sandals and a full, calf-length skirt of Indian cotton, and a long, long sleeveless top with a fringed sash wound around her hips.” She’s also traveled around the world, and shares a flat with two men. Although she’s attracted to the suited-up man she sees going in the opposite direction on an escalator, she’s pretty philosophical when he doesn’t smile back at her. “Could there be two more complete opposites?”

Mitchell seems a more familiar type at first, sneering at Cara’s lifestyle and jumping to conclusions, but he does have “rather frivolous” green eyes, and she yearns to make him break into a smile. And to muss up his impossibly immaculate grooming. She gets her chance when it turns out he’s the father of a girl she’s teaching, and their heads start to butt.

Charlton writes some lovely scenes for the two that would be perfect in a RomCom, as aggression and attraction mingle:

“Look–why don’t we move out of the rain?” He pulled her, and she dug in her heels and resisted.

“I don’t want to move out of the rain. I like the rain–but then I’m not sensible! … Look at you!” She curled her lip at his damp but ultra-neat clothes. “Practically a store dummy.” She flicked his tie. “Don’t you ever loosen up a bit?” Before she could stop herself she was at the knot of the tie, tugging it loose from her collar. Mitchell Kirby looked down in astonishment at her hands on his clothes. The tie hung askew and she fumbled with the top button of his shirt.

“I must be crazy!”  he said. “Asking you to go anywhere with me. Look at you — sandals from Ancient Rome and — peepholes in your clothes —-” He plucked at her sleeves and some ties came undone on the split shoulders; his fingers slid through the openings just as Cara pushed open his shirt collar.

“There!” she said, looking up into his face. She was suddenly still. So was he. Everything stopped, or so it seemed… Rain  slanted down, gurgled into drains, dripped from shining leaves and shadowed eaves. The incomparable smell of warm, wet streets and earth was in the air, and the warm, masculine scent of the man holding her. Cara felt the rain cold and spiky on her cheek. Mitch’s skin warm beneath her hands — his hands warm on her shoulders.

Charlton brings atmosphere, emotion and humor to the story, as well as sexual tension, as Cara and Mitch get to know and love each other. Even a scene fairly typical in category romance — he wants to buy her a fancy diamond ring and she prefers a simple sapphire — ends on a sweet and funny note:

“We’ll take the sapphire,” Mitch told [the jeweler]. “It’s sincere. That one is just an exhibitionist.”

Her innate sincerity is probably what Mitch loves most in Cara, as well as her optimism and ability to take life and people as they come. And a relaxed Mitch is funny and warm and irresistibly devoted. But they’re spent their lives going to in different directions. Can they ever find a way to meet in the middle?

I enjoyed almost everything about this (there are a few standard old romance annoyances) including the author’s evident love for the Australian wilderness. And although the book often feels like it would make a great movie, it doesn’t feel any lacking as a book. The prose isn’t flowery or ornate, but willing to take its time to describe settings, and feelings, and moments.

~~~

For the curious, my first attempts:

Dance for a Stranger by Susanne McCarthy. I was attracted by the title and vaguely Latin dance look of the cover, but this was the sex trafficking book. Even when my stomach was stronger, that would have been a bridge too far. I did skim some, and was amused by the ending, which is almost point-for-point the same ending as Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter — to the point that both characters completely forgot that the heroine is pregnant.

Night Train by Anne Weale. Gave me flashback whiplash.

The Price of Freedom by Anne Fraser. I may wind up finishing this one, but I couldn’t summon up any enthusiasm for writing about it. The hero manhandles the heroine a lot and it’s also quite a bickerfest.

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TBR Challenge: several holiday-ish reads

I’ve thinned out the few holiday romance I had in print in previous TBR challenges, so this year I turned to my ebook TBR. And then I had to keep reading, because none of them inspired me to write a full post.

Nine Lights Over Edinburgh by Harper Fox.

This is a bit of an odd duck, probably because it was originally written for a holiday anthology. It’s very dark, but in a kind of “Frosty the Snowman” way. Did you weep copious tears over Frosty’s death when  you were a kid? And then he came back? This is kind of like that, minus the Christian symbolism — a lot of bad stuff goes down but then in a Chanukah miracle it’s all okay in the end.

Coming Home for Christmas by Carla Kelly

These are three linked stories about three generations of doctors/nurses in a family. The first two are stuck away from home in wartime, the third encounters some complicated adventures on the way back. The details about doctoring during wartime are vivid, as was a subplot about a woman who grew up with a Native American tribe and is forcibly torn away from her children and returned to her original family. (I think a whole book about her might have been more interesting.) Nice enough holiday reading, but not particularly memorable.

Snowbound by Janice Kay Johnson

A teacher and her eight teenage charges get snowbound with a hermit innkeeper. She and he fall in love, but his inability to acknowledge and deal with his PSTD causes a rift between them. Once I got past the idea of all those kids, I really enjoyed this.

The Admiral’s Penniless Bride by Carla Kelly

(This has an extremely tenuous connection to Christmas. Eh, so do I.)

Kelly’s books generally tend towards the sweetly warmhearted, but for me, she crossed the line into saccharine here. A middle-aged admiral at loose ends impulsively marries a younger, destitute widow and everything in the garden is simply too lovely for words, until he finds out she lied to him. I was uncomfortable with how everything in the story was designed to show how compassionate and wonderful they both are — charitable, free from prejudice, etc. — and then abruptly shifted into melodrama. By the time something exciting happened, the balance of the story felt way off.

On the plus side is a very matter-of-fact depiction of a disabled hero; his arm was amputated many years ago and he’s perfectly comfortable with his new normal. And there are some fun and wryly witty moments.

 

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We Interrupt Your Irregularly Scheduled Romance Posts

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

Christmas:
“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

XMAS:
“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

HO:
“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)

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So, This Happened

https://wendythesuperlibrarian.blogspot.com/2017/11/decktheharlequin-all-december-long.html

Excited-Baby-Opening-Present

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TBR Challenge: Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran

The theme: A recommended read. I remember reading blog reviews of this one, though I probably would have bought it after Duke of Shadows anyway.

Why this one: On my list of “DNFs by really good authors.”

To read this, I had to overcome my aversion to European historicals with a) archeology b) mystery elements and 3) spinster/rake combos. And I did have some difficulty pushing past where I stopped before. Once the romance heated up though, I found a lot to enjoy.

Our heroine is Lydia, who lost the man she loved to her younger sister and is now pretty much resigned to spinsterhood. A college graduate — so not a bluestocking, thank you very much! — she works for her father and promotes his archeological theories. Her specialized knowledge unwittingly draws her into a feud between wastrel Viscount Sanburne and his father.

Lydia works hard to be a proper lady; James works equally hard to be a family disappointment. But as they uneasily combine forces to investigate a forgery, they find they’ve both been living with less than the full truth.

The “starchy heroine getting unstarched” trope is well done here, with Lydia learning to embrace the wilder sides of  her nature in dramatic, exciting scenes. There are also intense themes around loyalty and — although of course the term isn’t used — codependency. It was worth having to put up with some stolen ancient relics, in the end.

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #65: White Rose of Winter by Anne Mather

Harlequin Presents #65

(Image: Book cover is a portrait of a white woman with wavy blonde hair. Inset of a man in a white leisure suit — suede, no doubt — and a little girl, walking together in the sunset, on her neck.)

Best line: 

“In the lounge, Robert put several long-playing records on the hi-fi equipment, and presently the room was filled with the fourth dimensional quality of Burt Bacharach’s music.”

(Would that indicate the lack of timelessness?)

This is not the only sign that we’re in the seventies: the sideburned hero wears suede constantly. I’ll bet he has suede boxers. And it’s not the only oddity of word choice.

Another indication… I guess: the plot hinges on heroine Julie’s dead husband having left guardianship of their daughter Emma to his brother Robert. It’s bizarre to me that that could have been possible in a time I was alive, but I know nothing about British law in the 1970s.

If you enjoy classic Harlequin Present, this is a real page-turner. Lots of misery, punishing kisses, and feelings of betrayal on both sides. The downside is that almost all the female characters are intensely unpleasant, including the heroine. I can cut her some slack for her immaturity in the past, when she was quite young and had all her insecurities played on by her future mother-in-law, but when she doesn’t even think to have an adult conversation with Robert about her daughter’s horrible new governess, I wanted to smack her one.  For that matter, she never tries to have an adult conversation with him about anything — it’s all reaction. I guess he’s not much better.

Also, I really hated how the daughter was badly injured as a plot point, and especially when Robert thanked God it happened, because of the happy results. No! No no no!

So not a great read for the parents out there, but pretty fun otherwise.

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Reading, October 2017

Recurring themes of the month: Neck obsessions. The phrase “just like a man/woman.” The word “articulation.” Being bitten by animal corpses. (Weird month, am I right?) Author’s notes I liked more than the books. Thanksgiving. Desperately self-sufficient people. Titled characters who made secret misalliances. Parental misalliances. Late night library visits. Characters whose siblings want to be in society when they don’t. Genderfluid characters. (I’m really realizing the limitations of the usual hero/heroine terminology.) Hirsute heroes. Artists.

The Secret Wife by Lynne Graham.

Hero is forced to marry the woman he thinks was his adopted father’s mistress, but who was really his illegitimate daughter. One of those tempestuous relationships Graham loves, sometimes veering into a bickerfest.

Riveted by Meljean Brook

Really sweet love story mixed with awesome steampunk adventure. I would love to see a movie of this, because the visuals would be amazing.

The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb

I was searching for Hunting Eichmann and only found the ebook of this version, edited for younger readers. (I’ve since compared it to the original and it’s not rewritten or dumbed down, just shortened.) Very powerful read.

Tempted All Night by Liz Carlyle

Hero is uncomfortably rakish.

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields

Eye-opening and powerful, but a very dense academic read. There were whole chapters I think you’d need a Ph.D to understand. At any rate, I didn’t understand them.

Ruthless Contract by Kathryn Ross

The Markonos Bride by Michelle Reid

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

A little too much of the “heroine who knows she’s not beautiful yet nonetheless desired by simply everyone” trope, but an interesting premise and possible relationship set-up.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R. A. Dick aka Josephine Leslie, and that pseudonym just kills me.

A book after my own heart. Witty and sweet and old-fashioned in the best way. Widowed Mrs. Muir escapes from her stifling Victorian in-laws, and makes a happy life for herself with some help from the ghost of a crusty old sea captain. It’s very like the movie, if memory serves, but worth reading for the prose.

Wicked All Day by Liz Carlyle

Despite the historical basis for the premise — being “compromised” leads to a forced, highly unwanted engagement —  this had the feel of an angsty teen drama for me. It was like watching “The Fosters”: I felt so bad for all the characters and their immature mistakes that get them in such deep trouble and misery. Perhaps the involvement of several motherly characters (heroines of previous books in the series) helped activate my own motherly impulses, making me more sad than aggravated at them.

Bountiful by Sarina Bowen.

Read for a Heroes and Heartbreakers First Look.

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass.

I read this middle-grade story because my son read it in his book club and wanted to share it. It’s kind of odd. The first half is like an old-fashioned YA problem novel, in which Mia fears that she’s crazy but then gets a diagnosis of synesthesia. Then it turns into a completely different old-fashioned YA problem novel, as Mia starts ignoring friends and schoolwork to concentrate on learning about synesthesia, even deliberately using it like a drug. (She fakes needing acupuncture because it makes her see bright lights and auras/pheremones.) She’s frankly pretty awful, and then get punished in an old-fashioned literary way. (The author hangs a lampshade on this, but it didn’t work for me.) So… not the fan my son is.

The Italian’s Convenient Wife by Catherine Spencer

I hate when books kill off adoptive parents in order to reunite the child/ren with biological parents. As such plots go, this one wasn’t too bad… they were great parents and the children deeply miss them, and aren’t eager to accept their “aunt.”  But it never really lived up to its angst potential otherwise.

Love With a Chance of Zombies by Del Dryden.

Cute post-apocalyptic short, not too scary.

A Dream of Stone and Shadow by Marjorie M. Liu

Despite gruesome elements and a horrific plotline (children trapped by a pornography ring) I enjoyed this novella very much. (Being short probably saved it from too much grisly detail.) The gargoyle hero is sweet, protective, and essentially a ghost for much of the story, with the best kind of non-corporeal presence. (Siiiiigh….) There’s a redemption arc for him and a more complicated one for his emotionally isolated heroine. It’s part for the “Dirk and Steele” series but works fine as a standalone.

Hamilton’s Battalion by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan and Alyssa Cole.

Reviewed at GoodReads. From an ARC. I didn’t really do the Rose Lerner story justice in my review, because I read it too long ago and didn’t make notes. 😦

The Wild Road by Marjorie M. Liu.

My TBR Challenge read.

An Unseen Attraction by KJ Charles.

Gorgeous period atmosphere and two lovely heroes — one of whom is autistic — made this really work for me, despite some weaknesses.

An Unnatural Vice by KJ Charles.

The strongest book of the trilogy, IMO. Enemies-to-lovers with a powerful attraction/repulsion, and an emotional redemption arc for the seemingly amoral hero.

The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

If “Matilda” had not had psychic powers or Miss Honey… she might have wound up like Dee Moreno. Who makes a deal with a demon, because it seems to be the only way she can stay in boarding school and have a chance of escaping her ghastly, alcoholic parents.

Excellent writing and self-contained but hurting heroine. I was a little disappointed that it went in a romantic direction, which was pretty samey. (Be warned, not genre romance.) I think it could have been even better if it were just a story about friends. But very good in any case.

An Unsuitable Heir by KJ Charles.

I don’t think Charles can write a bad book, but this one missed the mark for me. It was a strong plot and ended well — except that I expected the mystery arc to follow the mystery “rules,” and it didn’t, so I found that part anti-climactic. But primarily, the romance never really spoke to me. Love that Mark has a congenital disability rather than an acquired one, though, which is really rare in romance.

Is That What People Do? by Robert Sheckley

A collection of some of Sheckley’s best collected science fiction stories and some uncollected ones — which to be frank, might as well have stayed uncollected. (Even, sadly, the Arnold and Gregor story. They’re a hapless duo of planet decontaminators and always run into ridiculous situations.) Sheckley is hard to read these days, and not just because of  casual classic SF misogyny and racism… he was way too prophetic. I only wish that the election of a reality star show had been peak Sheckley. And I think almost anyone, anywhere could relate to “the Store of the Worlds.”

Tempt Me Not by Susan Napier

Ugh. I was just wishing they’d digitize more old Napier, but this one can stay forgotten. All of the characters are dumbshits.

The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Gurhke

A light Victorian historical — seeming especially so after KJ Charles’s foggy Dickensian gloom — but not as painfully floofy as I feared from the “Dear Lady Truelove” series title. I wouldn’t call it better than readable, though. The “battle of the sexes” trope in which the arrogant hero just annoys the heck out of the feminist heroine is one I find irritating and it almost always winds up seeming actually anti-feminist. At least Irene has some good arguments to make, since they argue all the damn time.

Wife to Christopher by Mary Burchell

Burchell’s first book is less original than her later work, but shows her interesting way with characters. A major tearjerker. Sensitive readers should watch out for content warnings. (Note to self: find a way to do spoilers here!)

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

An utterly devastating book, especially since it needed updating practically the day it came out in 2016.

Baking With Kafka by Tom Gauld.

Very funny cartoons about reading, writing and literature, previously published in “The Guardian.”

Magic Burns by Ilona Andrews.

Considerably better than the first in the series, although a bit repetitious. I appreciated seeing Kate’s strong moral center and capacity for caring, and am excited about the series now.

A Midnight Feast by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

(Read from an ARC.) A touching marriage-in-jeopardy story, with two vivid, strong-willed characters.

That Summer by Lauren Willig.

(Spoilers)

This was recommended by someone as a comfort read, and I can see that… it’s rather old-fashioned in tone, not unlike The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in some ways. But it’s also desperately sad — perhaps especially so in the context of TGaMR, in which the main character actually got to escape from her stifling life. Like other Willig books, it has both a modern times and a historical plotline; I was most caught up in the past story, and desperately hoping it would somehow get to a HEA. The parts about art and art history are interesting, and the two storylines nicely juxtaposed. Overall I did really enjoy it, but I wish it had had two happy endings.

Divine Intervention by Robert Sheckley.

Another collection of previously uncollected works, and again not great — except the Arnold and Gregor story is hilarious.

DNFs

At The Dark End of the Street by Danielle M. McGuire

No doubt a very valuable book, but just too painful to read right now.

Beautiful Stranger by Christina Lauren

Not my cuppa. I probably should just forget about this particular series, since it’s so sex-focused.

The Flower and the Sword by Jacqueline Navin.

I might have enjoyed this one years ago but then again, I did own it for seven years and it was picked up and put back down again several times. I like the old skool vengeful husband plot, but the prose and the characters were just meh.

Labyrinth by Alex Beecroft.

Too hard for me to follow.

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