A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #22

CW: Rape. In an Anne Hampson book, shocking I know.

 

Harlequin Presents #22: The Hawk and the Dove by Anne Hampson

Image description: The book cover shows the head and shoulders of a young woman with long, straight blonde hair, wearing a childish wide-brimmed hat, against elaborately decorated glass doors.

Deliberate Anne of Green Gables vibe in this cover?

Most memorable line: 

“You’ve shown me by every conceivable means that you consider me far beneath you.” Janis felt she’d grown up since yesterday and a note of experience and maturity entered into her voice. “But however ill-bred I may be,” she went on, “If I despised anyone half as much as you despise me, I would at least have the good manners not to show it.”

Finally, the worm turns! Annoyingly, it turns right back again!

I was finally able to download The Hawk and the Dove from Open Library, and though the scan is utterly dreadful, I got sufficiently emotionally involved in the story to put up with it. Like many old HPs, it shows a strong Rebecca influence, though hero Perry was never married. The resemblance is mainly in their relationship: Janis is adoring, and as soppy as Con Firth’s shirt; Perry veers between scorn and indulgence. He’s deeply nasty at times; that and the huge power differential between them keep TSTL Janis from being utterly unbearable.

Janis, wrongly fired from her job, is downtroddingly trying to find shelter when Perry’s car crashes into her. He sees an opportunity to fulfil the terms of his uncle’s will, which require him to marry within a week. (His fiance had turned out to have been in cahoots with the alternate heir…  so of course he hates all women now. Except his dead mother and his former nurse and his female best friend.)

Perry intends to annul the marriage after Janis is fully healed from her injuries, but manages to make this as clear as mud to Janis, who thinks he’s waiting to consummate the marriage. By the time she realizes the truth, of course she’s fallen in love with him, and she decides not to immediately reveal that the doctor has cleared her for take off. This will later bite her on the ass, rapey hero style. (Not explicit.)

I was surprised by a subplot of the story: Perry’s friend Avril is in love with John, a married man, and they’re constantly together. This isn’t treated with any hint of scandalousness or shock — perhaps because they’re both upper class?

Although I found a lot to critique, I was absorbed. The estate setting, which Janis completely falls in love with, is well done, and the secondary characters are mostly likeable. And classic HP angst. Basically, if you enjoy this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll enjoy.

 

 

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TBR Challenge: Playing With Fire by Victoria Thompson

The theme: A NTM author.

Why this one: I’ve been reading a lot of European-set historicals and felt like some Americana.

This author is not only new to me, but I don’t think I’ve heard her mentioned before, so I expected this to be pretty forgettable. While not great, it was lively story that kept me interested until the last fourth. Since it’s almost 400 pages, that’s a reasonable amount of interest, though it really did drag at the end.

After the last of her family dies, twenty-nine year old Isabel Forester impulsively decides to take a teaching position out west. She doesn’t expect much more than a change of scene. But when she arrives in Bittercreek, Texas, she’s amazed to find that she’s no longer considered a plain, superfluous old maid but a desirable woman every bachelor in town wants. Unfortunately, the only one to catch her eye is Eben, a taciturn blacksmith who reportedly adored his late wife so much he’ll never marry again.

This is a fun plot reminiscent of several favorite old movies — “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The Harvey Girls”… and another I won’t mention, since it would be a spoiler. The setting is well realized, with a strong cast of supporting characters; I enjoyed the wooing hijinks, and the antics of Isabel’s students– likeable in the style of the Avonlea stories. Then the book went into romantic gear, with Eben trying to woo Isabel and doing everything wrong, romance-hero style. There’s some effective tension, and nice sensuality — Eben the blacksmith is quite good with his hands! But the push and pull between them went on way too long, and a whole bunch of extra plot at the end didn’t help my exhausted feeling.

Though I wish it had been shorter, it was a nicely immersive historical and felt like it offered more than just the romance.

7 Comments »

TBR Challenge: Whispers of Heaven by Candice Proctor

The theme: A holiday read. I declare the new holiday, “National Going Off-Theme Day.”

Why this one: After browsing through a ridiculous number of books for mentions of Christmas, and then DNFing every single one I found, I craved something rich and satisfying. Also, this one keeps spawning on my TBR shelves!

Set in colonized Tasmania  during the Victorian era, Whispers of Heaven includes much of what I hope to see in historical romance. It has a strong sense of time and place, including vivid descriptions of the beauty of the land, much loved by heroine Jessie. It justifies its historical setting through exploration of the mores of the time — particularly the power differentials of class and sex. It makes an innate plea for justice and compassion without making the main characters incongruously enlightened. And though I suppose it’s not essential, I never mind a forbidden love story.

Jessie and her brother Warrick are members of the wealthy ruling class in Tasmania, but their lives aren’t entirely free of troubles. The deaths of their four siblings and father have left them to carry out their stern mother’s insistence on proper role. (Warrick has even inherited his brother’s fiance.) While Warrick is pettishly defiant, Jessie struggles to fulfill the role she’s been born to, while also finding ways to express herself: studying science, and secretly befriending the town “fallen woman” for real conversations. But when a brooding Irish convict-labourer is assigned to be her groom, Jessie begins to have questions about the ethics of her family’s way of life, and about the possibility of happiness in her arranged marriage. The more she gets to know Lucas Gallagher, the more she cares for him, leading her to the age old question: “Where is the line between what a woman owes to others and what she owes herself?”

This is an immersive, adventurous, romantic story, and Lucas is an excellent hero: brave, tortured, and able to believably say things like “Even before there were stars in the sky, I was loving you.” But somehow, though I enjoyed it very much as I was reading it, I wound up admiring the book more than I really got swept away by the romance. It might be because Jessie comes off as bland, or because the theme is a little too in-your-face… or maybe it’s just the timing. In any event, I certainly recommend it.

 

 

9 Comments »

TBR Challenge: Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair

The theme: Lovely RITA. This was a RITA finalist.

Why this one: I couldn’t seem to get through any of my historicals. To put it as politely as possible, the RITA committees and I seem to have tastes in historicals that’s about as opposite as you can get. (With some exceptions, of course.)

I was thinking that Finders Keepers was more romance than science fiction, but towards the end I realized it’s more that it’s a subgenre of science fiction I don’t read much — space opera. Not a lot of world-building or character development, but lots of scheming, shooting, and escaping. Since it’s also gorgeously romantic, I enjoyed it a lot.

Captain Trilby Elliot is flying solo (apart from a sweet, loquacious droid, Dezi.) Being dumped by her lover has left her hurting, and she’s struggling to make ends meet on a transport ship held together with duct tape and ingenuity. When she finds an abandoned, injured human from a planet her society has a hostile truce with, she takes him aboard, only to find the healed man is very sexy and very devious.

Rhis (pronounced Reece) is a pretty standard romance hero. Intimidating, somewhat emotionally scarred, and very alpha, in the sense that he’s extremely protective, possessive, and thinks he knows best. But he and Trilby work together really well, and when he gets tender with her…. oh my. Rhis teaching Trilby how to say “I want you” in his language is a running… a running swoon? There are all kinds of difficulties, from Trilby’s fear of being hurt again to aliens trying to kill her, but the combined courage and smarts of the couple make it all work.

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Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt

I love reformed villain romances in theory, but in practice find that too often the villains get watered down in their own books. Duke of Sin did not disappoint. Val, Duke of Montgomery, might not be a textbook sociopath (he seems to embody aspects of both sociopathy and psychopathy) but he’s pretty damn close. He’s made more palatable with a ghastly backstory, love of his illegitimate sister, and a fastidious dislike of rape, but his lack of a moral compass is genuine.

What makes him stand out amongst historical romance’s other so-called blackhearted rogues, rakes, and scoundrels is not just how genuinely wicked he is — blackmail, abductions, premeditated murder — but his enjoyment of his own wickedness. Although he does have have some moments of tortured brooding, most of the time he’s either amused or bemused by himself, having been so thoroughly twisted that he embraces his own amorality. His gleeful self-satisfaction and mercurial temperament make him a lot of fun to read, even if you’d never want to actually meet him. (Oh good grief, is he a handsome, historical Donald Trump? Sorry! Forget I said that!)

So how does he get reformed? He’s matched with a woman with the courage and ability to tell him what’s what. A housekeeper in the old-fashioned sense — one who supervises a household — Bridget, nicknamed Seraphine by Val, is exceptionally competent and mature (although implausibly young.) She’s also self-contained and courageous, and though unable to resist Valentine’s golden charms, always sees him with a clear eye. And she’s the perfect person to provide him with moral guidance, though perhaps it might be confusing at times:

“‘But I don’t understand. You’re saying that at times it’s perfectly all right for me to kill a man.’

‘Well…’ She bit her lip and he could tell she was trying not to say it, but in the end she had to. ‘Yes.’

He smiled very slowly at her. ‘Seraphine, are you making these rules up?'”

I just had to quote that, it made me laugh so much.

There are some parts of the story I thought could have been fleshed out more, generally reactions or decisions by Val that we didn’t get to see. But overall, I’d put this in the top ten list of historical romances titled Duke of Sin.

 

6 Comments »

TBR Challenge: Angel in a Red Dress by Judith Ivory

CW: Mention of rape.

The theme: a favorite trope.

Why this one: It was the only TBR book I picked up that I felt like reading, though the main tropes — rake in pursuit and spying — are far from favorites of mine.

I think this book, originally titled Starlit Surrender, was Ivory’s first, and it shows. It’s occasionally far from subtle in the storytelling, as you can see in this offhand phrase:

“All three — Thomas, Sam, and Charles — were in league with Adrien to rescue French aristocrats destined for the guillotine.”

This blunt “telling” of a deep secret had already been “shown” perfectly clearly, and I can only assume Ivory had a really crap editor (who perhaps made her insert it.) The same editor obviously didn’t give a hang about historical accuracy, since the hero, Adrien, is breeding roses in the footsteps of Mendel around thirty years before Mendel was born.

The worst part of the story though, is that Adrien rapes Christina in a particularly chilling way — not violently or to punish her as is common in old skool romance, but over a long period of time, while she is essentially his prisoner. It’s too reminiscent of a realistic situation to be glossed over as “forced seduction” though Christina is depicted as ambivalent. (There’s an attempted rape later, not by the hero, which she fights off quite effectively.) The fact that this is all seen through Adrien’s entitled eyes and he barely realizes what he’s doing to her makes it particularly upsetting.

Nonetheless, this is Judith Ivory, which means much of the writing is elegant and gorgeous, especially in the sex scenes that aren’t horrible. She writes so evocatively about attraction and intimacy; early scenes which play with consent are wonderfully done, which makes it even sadder that it got so ugly later on.

There’s also what seems to be deliberate trope subversion. Adrien is highly intelligent, a brilliant strategist and playing a very dangerous game of intrigue, but he’s not the omnipotent historical hero we often see. He’s often taken by surprise, vulnerable, even prone to highly unromantic physical ailments. I adore the classic cool hero, but I enjoyed seeing a more human version. Attempts to give Christina greater depth than the usual feisty redhaired heroine aren’t completely successful, but I appreciated the effort. You can see the seeds here of the amazing writer Ivory would become.

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TBR Challenge: Beautiful Stranger by Ruth Wind

The Theme: Contemporary romance

Why This One: I’m almost out of print contemporaries!

 

There were two plot elements that made me approach this book with trepidation: the hero is Native American, and the heroine was formerly fat and has lost a lot of weight. Only one of these is in my wheelhouse, but I’d say neither fear was justified. I was a bit put off by the heroine’s thoughts about her former weight, but I can’t say they aren’t true-to-life… and her overall arc won me over.

Marissa Pierce and Robert Martinez aren’t really strangers — both are friends with the Forrest family, heroes of the three previous book in the series, which are loosely linked by a matchmaking theme. (I haven’t read any of the previous books and didn’t find that a problem.) But they only really come to know each other over concern for Robert’s niece Crystal, a pregnant teen who is Robert’s ward and Marissa’s student.

Robert doesn’t want to act on his strong attraction to the very wealthy Marissa, because he thinks she’d just be slumming. Marissa has self-esteem issues of her own, because she’s still far from where she wants to be, and she’s also freaked out by how intense things get between them. These are fairly typical romance themes; what set the book apart for me was how strong a character Marissa is. She has a very full, vibrant life, including a close relationship with her twin, whose issues expressed themselves in under- rather than over-eating. (Her book, sadly, never got written.) Marissa has some guilt around being so rich, founds charities. and doesn’t live a high profile lifestyle, but she also doesn’t hesitate to use money to enrich her life or make it easier. (As someone who grew up very poor, I envy that ease.)

I loved that Marissa is not a pathetic virgin — she had plenty of boyfriends before she lost weight. Despite the changes, she’s not thin and will never achieve a “perfect” body. (Another area I can really relate to.) Her weight loss is based on exercise and mindful eating, which makes it interesting to read about, rather than unutterably tedious and sad, and she is, very realistically, worried about gaining weight again. But it’s clear that Robert always found her attractive, admiring her style and zest for life, and so we don’t have to be concerned that he’ll only love her if she stays smaller. I also loved that she doesn’t put up with any crap about her eating choices from others; she does what she knows works for her and to hell with them.

The side story with Crystal is also very well drawn. She’s an intelligent girl from a horrific background, and she’s dealing with a lot of hidden pain. Her story reminded me a bit of the author’s wonderful The Sleeping Night, which she wrote under the name Barbara Samuel.

I’m glad I took a chance on this one.

15 Comments »

TBR Challenge: The Madness of Lord Ian McKenzie by Jennifer Ashley

The theme: a hyped book. And how.

Why this one: I looked up the narrator of the “Psy-Changeling” books, Angela Dawe, and was happy to see she also narrated this one, another sad half-read book still lurking in my TBR. I was much less happy that she uses an upper crust British accent, my bete noir, but she gives Ian a hot Scottish burr, so I was able to stick with it. Also, Mean Fat Old Bat really liked the book, so I figured it must have hidden depths.

I’m trying to remember why I bogged down in this one before. I think my excitement over the first autistic hero in romance was dashed by him being still so romance-hero-y in so many ways. So rich, so hot, so good in bed, so immune to any sensory issues around sex. (And Ian tells Beth he can never love her — it annoys me that’s supposed to be about autism, when it’s such a romance cliche.) I also DNF’d the sequel, and concluded that Ashley is a commonplace kind of writer.

Having finished the book I can now see some of its strengths. The family bonds between Ian and his brothers are powerful but complex. The plot and backstory are interesting. Beth is intelligent, capable and witty, and I appreciated that she had previously had a loving marriage with good sexy-times. (These are particularly rare in historical romance; having now listened to several more of this series, I suspect that the vividly drawn heroines and conspicuous lack of classic wide-eyed virgins is a strong draw for many readers.)

I also feel more able to rationalize away the aspects I don’t like. If you want to write a popular romance, there are certain heroic aspects it’s hard not to include, like abs and sexual prowess. Ian is remarkably articulate about his issues, far more than I’d expect from someone who not only never received any kind of help or understanding, but was actually locked away in a madhouse and given shock treatments — but better that he talks about them himself than someone else doing it, or the author info dumping.

I still find it annoying that Ian is a mathematical savant with an eidetic memory. I remember another mom of an autistic boy telling me how stressful it was that everyone assumed her kid must be super smart, when he was average. Savants are pretty damn rare — if eidetic memory even exists — and it’s such a cliche. It makes Ian useful to his brothers… but couldn’t they just love him for himself? And speaking of that, I’m not really sure just why Beth loves him. I’m guessing it’s his protectiveness combined with his sexy air of mystery, but I’m kind of extrapolating from my own experience there.

Ultimately, I’m still disappointed that Ian feels more like a product of research than a recognizable person. I’ve read a number of romances featuring autistic characters — the lovely Water Bound by Christine Feehan, An Heir of Uncertainty by Alyssa Everett, Phoenix Inheritance by Corinna Lawson — and I could feel in those portrayals that the author really knew and loved an autistic person. I may be completely wrong, but I just didn’t feel that here. Still, the author has a way with characters and some interesting themes… and who could help but adore Ian’s eventual discussion about love with Beth?

4 Comments »

TBR Challenge: Beyond the Sunrise by Mary Balogh

Note for sensitive readers: This isn’t a particularly graphic book, but there are some upsetting scenes involving rape and violence.

The theme: A book at least ten years old.

Why this one: I’ve owned this (previously) hard to find historical romance for some years, but was put off by it being about spies and war.  Finding it in ebook at the library was incentive to finally try it, especially since I’m trying to take advantage of having fewer reviewing responsibilities by reading longer books and venturing outside my comfort zone.

Jeanne, daughter of a titled Frenchman, and Robert, illegitimate son of a titled Englishman, fall in blissful young love when she’s fifteen and he’s seventeen. But their idyll is soon ruined by her father, who tells Jeanne that Robert had boasted to the servants that he would seduce her. In retaliation, she pretends she was just toying with him, since he’s completely ineligible. This incident embitters them both, and sets the pattern for their future relationship.

Ten years later, they meet in Lisbon during wartime. Robert is a rare English officer who’s got there by promotion rather than money and influence. And Jeanne, now going by the name Joana, is a society belle and consummate flirt… and a spy for Wellington.

This was far more engrossing than I thought it might be, though I did skim some of sections that were entirely about war strategy. Once well in, I appreciated the historical aspects more, and the setting and scenario certainly makes the stakes higher.

But I wasn’t entirely enthralled by the romance. Robert, a somewhat introverted man who feels more comfortable with his fellow soldiers than with the high society provided for officers, is a good character, and kind of unexpected. He doesn’t really hold a grudge against Joana, and his behavior towards her is far less old skool than I feared it might be. But Joanna is highly aggravating; I kept thinking of the show “Community,” and Britta’s D&D nickname, “Britta, the Needlessly Defiant.” Her pride makes her insist on being trusted and believed despite the fact that she’s always lying. Even after she realizes she’s cut off her nose to spite her face, she just carries on in the same way. And the misunderstandings go on for a ridiculous amount of time, deliberately furthered by other people for no plausible reason than to keep Joana’s games going.

I have issues with this kind of character in romance, not just because I find them irritating — which goodness knows I do — but because I find them unloveable. That is to say, the reason we’re given for men fall in love with these Scarlet O’Hara type heroines is because they’re captivating and challenging and yadda yadda yadda. And Joana is also brave, and a worthy companion on a dangerous trip, so it’s not that she has not good points. But I’m immune to her charms, and so I find it hard to understand why Robert (and every other man in the book) isn’t.

It was certainly worth reading, and I’m holding on to my copy just in case, but I don’t think this will be a treasured keeper for me.

 

2 Comments »

The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

I loved Revealed so much, and every other Noble book I’ve tried has been a sad disappointment to me. Until now.

It’s not that I think this is a great book. I’d have to read it in print to feel like I could properly evaluate it, but it definitely had its fair share of historical cliches and commonplace writing. Still, what an interesting concept and characters!  The hero Ned is challenging in an unusual way, yet one extremely suited to a Regency-set historical: he’s privileged, and selfish, and has no idea of how much of his much vaunted “luck” is due to his circumstances. That’s the premise: his former friend, now turned highly resentful secretary, bets him that Ned won’t be able to attract a woman without his rank and wealth. To test it, they switch places on a visit to relative strangers. Ned, of course, gets a thorough comeuppance as he learns how invisible (and even offensive) he is without his trappings of wealth and rank.

The audiobook was also “challenging.” Accents are very well done, always a plus, but Ned’s voice is so high-pitched and foolish sounding that I was considerably bemused as it started to become clear he was the book’s hero! After a while though, I started to approve of it — it seemed like just the sort of voice a hearty, amiable, unenlightened lord would have, and the fact that it wasn’t  at all attractive made it kind of cooler when Phoebe (a governess who’s not supposed to be outwardly attractive herself) fell in love with him. So the audiobook narrative stopped me from finding the book sexy, but in some ways made it more interesting.

And the romance did work. In Revealed, there’s a phrase — “it’s just me” — that became integral to the blossoming relationship. Here the special phrase was “your Mr. Turner.” Phoebe is flabbergasted when the servants start referring to Ned as “your Mr. Turner” as if there’s something between them, yet it starts to seem more and more appropriate. Eventually she starts to hug the phrase to herself; “my Mr. Turner.” It’s very sweet and resonant.

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