A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: The Love Charm by Pamela Morsi

The theme: Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older)

Why this one: I was actually reading it for #RippedBodiceBingo (theme: hero shorter than the heroine) and decided it was worth writing about.

When picking a book for this theme, I expect to go for an obviously “old skool” element. But there are other aspects to older romances besides abductions and betrayals and rapey heroes. Perhaps it’s just the cream, or the memorable, rising to the top, but it often seems like there was more variety in the past, especially in historicals. Morsi in particular wrote unusual characters and settings, as she did in this story about a bayou community of Acadians in the 1800s.

There are three romances here, and none are standard types. Armand Sonnier loves Aida Gaudet, but because he’s short and slight from a childhood illness, he doesn’t expect her to ever look at him. Aida is a “featherbrained” beauty (easily recognized now as having ADHD) and she knows she’s not smart enough for scholarly Armand. Hoping for love eventually, she’s gotten engaged to Laron, Armand’s best friend — who’s in no hurry to marry her, because he’s in love with Helga, an older German woman with three young children and unfortunately, a still living husband.

When Armand suggests that Laron shouldn’t marry someone he doesn’t love, everything begins to unravel, leaving Armand afraid that Aida will set her sights instead on his brother, Jean Baptiste. Jean Baptiste certainly seems to admire Aida more than his wife Felicite, who’s basically been pregnant nonstop ever since they got married. Could a love charm hidden in blueberry pie possibly sort out this mess?

It sounds like a farce and certainly some of it is; there’s humor even in lovemaking here, even in a childbirth scene. But it’s also an immersive trip into a distinct community, with a very strong set of values and traditions. There’s no way these characters can get a true happy ending, unless they can find ways to reconcile their desires with their needs as members of the community.

It took me a bit to get into the prose of the story, which is very tell-y. But soon I was sucked in by the strength of the worldbuilding, and the appealing characters. It’s not a typical “id” romance — if you had to pick one that was the exact opposite of a Harlequin Present, this could be it. But it’s not purely a cerebral enjoyment either. Just warm and sweet and funny and real.

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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.

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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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Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath

I’m trying desperately to get caught up with ARC Mountain, so just a few thoughts on finally reading this classic.

So I realized that my love for the cruelly misjudged heroine isn’t gendered at all… a misjudged hero is just as good. Authors just don’t write them very often. (Suggestions?)

Another reviewer criticized hero Clay for being a saint. This is definitely a valid criticism, but I appreciated that he didn’t always turn the other cheek. He said a few pretty sharp (and entirely deserved) things to the heroine. And it’s an absolutely essential part of his character that he is totally committed to his beliefs.

The prose isn’t totally solid. In particular, the action scenes are very flat. And everything comes to an abrupt, neat ending. But there’s a beautiful use of incorporation around the themes of courage and what it really means. I had to grade down a bit for flaws, but I couldn’t give such an original and powerful book less than an A-.

Tangentially, it’s interesting how often a book I’ve heard about many times over the years turns out to be truly great, while a book I’ve heard about many times over the course of a week or month… not so much.

6 Comments »

Review: After the Frost by Megan Chance

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

I don’t think Chance had hit her stride as a writer when she wrote this historical romance, but she was already creating challenging characters. After the Frost stands out for not only having a mother who abandoned her child — breaking the number one romance commandment, Thou Shalt Not Be an Imperfect Mother — but didn’t do it in a particularly melodramatic way. Unwed mother Belle left her newborn daughter Sarah in the care of people she trusted, hoping to make enough money so they could be together soon, but life was hard and the years slipped away before she realized it.

The story opens as Belle returns to her old home on a farm, having discovered that her mother Lillian and Sarah’s father Rand (Belle’s stepbrother) had tracked down and reclaimed the child two years previously.  She’s determined that Sarah, now five, won’t grow up in the same soul-crushing atmosphere she did, but she’s flummoxed to realize that Rand and Sarah love each other.  Although Lillian and Rand both think of Belle as wild, reckless, and untrustworthy, she’s actually a very decent person; she resolves to stay at the farm instead of trying to take Sarah away.

Rand on the other hand… not so decent. I’d like to think writers just didn’t create this kind of character anymore, but in fact I read a new one just the other day.

*spoilers*
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