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: Winterbourne by Susan Carroll

The theme: A recommended read.

Why this one: One of my oldest TBR books; it was mentioned in the paperbackswap forums as an underrated classic. I’ve been intimidated by it — longish scary Medieval! —  but I’ve felt like I have my historical mojo back, so it seemed like the time.

Favorite line: “God’s blood, if this isn’t the last thing I needed to find out today, that I am sire to some half-lunatic Sir Galahad.”

Like many good Medievals, Winterbourne is a story around power. I have a theory that Medievals fell out of favor because many readers want their romance heroes to be at the absolute top of the power chain, and that doesn’t lend itself to stories like this one. Our hero is indeed a rich and mighty warrior… but king John is royally pissed at him, and it really didn’t pay to upset the king. Although he accidentally brings Jaufre and Melyssan together at the start — she pretends to be Jaufre’s wife to escape John’s lascivious attentions — his spite and malice also frequently separates them and causes them great suffering.

There’s also internal conflict to the story, because although Jaufre can take a severe whipping without a sound, he becomes a petulant child when faced with his own emotions. After being betrayed by his first wife, he finds it hard to trust Melyssan, and fears losing his heart again; Diana Palmer-style, his guilt over treating her badly just makes him treat her worse. As old skool epic romance heroes go though, he’s practically a saint — i.e. no rapes, brutality, or infidelity.

I found this easier to read than I expected, though it definitely has some meat on its bones. Jaufre is a bit irritating, but does have a satisfying redemption arc.

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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?

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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.

 

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A Past Revenge by Carole Mortimer

Yesterday I DNF’d one of the creepiest books I’ve ever encountered: Wanting by Penny Jordan. The “hero” is a model of the entitled rapey guy who thinks that his attraction to a woman means she belongs to him, and any rejection on her part is “teasing.” (Which, of course, makes him even MORE entitled to her.) And the heroine’s best friend aides and abets him in stalking and trapping her! Seriously ugh!

This book was similar in some ways, yet also an excellent antidote. The hero is the same kind of instantly possessive guy, aggressive enough to make advances to the heroine right in front of his current lover. But Danielle has been rather handily inoculated — they have past history, although he doesn’t recognize her — and she utterly loathes him, with good reason. When Nick forces a savage kiss on her, she’s had it and decides it’s time for revenge:

She has tried to treat him like any other client, had intended being polite to him if nothing else, but he had made that impossible from the first, was intent now on punishing her for the fact that she didn’t want him as he wanted her. But she had been punished enough in the past by this man, wasn’t prepare to accept his cold-blooded arrogance for a second time.

As you can see from the excerpt, the prose gets pretty sloppy with the comma splices; these aren’t even the worst examples. But it’s a hell of a story. I love the way Danielle continually challenges Nick’s offensive behavior, even getting pissed enough at him not to melt in his arms, as all good Harlequin heroines are required to do. She genuinely has the power in the relationship, which is pretty rare, and she knows it and uses it. I think she’s a little too forgiving in the end — Nick isn’t quite as bad as she thought, but was still very cruel to her — but I’d say he suffers enough for satisfaction. Great read.

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TBR Challenge: A Night of Living Dangerously by Jennie Lucas

The theme: A holiday romance. Or not.

What tickled my fancy: Pain, pain, gratitude and joy. (An old Star Trek joke.)

What ticked me off: Cliches come hard and fast and lie thick on the ground,

Who might like it: Fans of angsty Harlequin Presents who aren’t easily put off by asshat heroes. (Asshat in a very modern way. I didn’t think he was so bad.)

The holiday romance theme is always difficult for me, because I’m not a big fan of them and don’t tend to buy obvious holiday books. This year, it was like my TBR was mocking me: I’d dig through, magically find a book with Christmas in it, start it, and find it unreadable. After the third try, with only a few hours left, I said the hell with it and grabbed the first Harlequin Presents on the pile. It turned out to have a mention of December and decorations for the season. Thanks, TBR!

I was afraid at first this would be another for the scrap heap, because the first chapters are not auspicious. Lusting monologues plus navel gazing = zzzzzz. The plot is basically Cinderella meets unplanned pregnancy, as so many Harlequin Presents are. After the inevitable marriage, it becomes more of an attempted makeover story. I enjoyed this part more, because the timid, insecure heroine Lilley comes into her own. There’s some juicy suffering for both, and the hero does his best to make things up to her; I was quite happy with it by the end.

Allesandro seems to be universally reviled at GoodReads, but I cut him a lot of slack for putting aside his old bitterness and betrayal and being willing to trust Lilley. It all comes back to bite them on the ass, of course, but that’s what makes an HP an HP.

 

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C is for the Coda Series, D is for Damn it, Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me It’s a Series

Strawberries for Dessert by Marie Sexton.

This was recently warmly recommended by someone, and I started it without noticing that it’s book 4 of a series. That proved to be a slightly irritating mistake, because previous characters are frequently mentioned, and I found the past relationships confusing. It wasn’t irritating enough to stop me from reading such an interesting book, though.

The story is narrated by Jonathan, an accountant with a high-pressure job that requires a lot of travel. There’s some matchmaking by his ex or a friend — this is the part I found confusing — but in any event, he’s set up with Cole, who’s independently wealthy and also travels a lot. Although Cole is too flamboyant and affected to be Jonathan’s type, and Jonathan too much of a stuffy workaholic for Cole, they’re both lonely and horny enough to give it a try — no strings, sex only. Cole rarely talks about himself and doesn’t even like to kiss.

But Jonathan discovers that the private Cole is quite different from the persona he puts on, and he is more and more drawn to him. And his affection, and willingness to work past Cole’s boundaries, start to erode Cole’s resistance to any form of intimacy.

Cole is a wonderfully challenging character. I didn’t always like him, and was sometimes annoyed that Jonathan doesn’t notice when he’s being hypocritical — he’s adamant about not changing himself, but wants Jon to loosen up — or manipulative. (Actually, Jon does notice the manipulation some of the times, but it more amused by it than bothered.) I would think I have a special in for understanding Cole, because I was once close to someone very like him, but since the book is extremely popular, I guess he works for most people.

I loved the way sex is treated in this story. The first few encounters are barely described — a bit unusual for m/m, but I liked it. To my surprise, the steam level rises seriously later. This is perfect — not only is the sex integral to their relationship development at this point, but it doesn’t happen until I’m already invested in the relationship. What does it say about the state of the romance genre, that I’m surprised to see an author use such a sensitive, appropriate technique?

I also liked that we’re never given a specific reason for Cole’s closed-off personality. He’s obviously vulnerable and defensive, and has never really felt loved for himself, but it isn’t tidily chalked up to anything in particular. We learn a little about his past through his emails to the friend who set them up, but he remains complex and somewhat mysterious, but very lovable in his way.

The feeling between them builds powerfully, leading to some serious heartbreak. The way the conflict is resolved seemed a little labored, but I was still left with that great romance happy glow.

Final thoughts: I liked dessert so much, I’m definitely going to go back and have the full meal.

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The Sheriff’s Surrender by Marilyn Pappano

I admit it, I wanted to read this one because reviewers talked about utterly horribly the hero behaves. And oh my, were they ever right. But it was also an unexpectedly interesting book, with a theme that’s very pertinent at the moment.

Sheriff Reece Barnett is pissed-off to discover that the witness he’d agreed to protect is his ex-lover, Neely Madison. Nine years previously, Neely had successfully defended a man who then shot and killed his wife, someone Reece had promised to protect; Neely was also wounded. Reece blamed Neely, to the point that he left her bleeding on the ground and never spoke to her again.

When I told my husband this part of this story, he found it impossible to believe it could ever have a happy ending, because he felt that Reece’s action were completely unforgivable. I think it’s a flaw in the book that Neely didn’t feel the same: although she’s very bitter in the present, she was ready and eager to be reconciled after the shooting. And she’s a little too easy on him, in my opinion.

The awful hero who finds out how painfully wrong he was is one of my favorite tropes, so I would have enjoyed this anyway. But what I really liked about it is that Neely takes no crap from Reece — every nasty thing he did or said comes back to haunt him — and she tells him straight out that his department bore some of the responsibility for the death, because it was their trampling of the shooter’s civil rights that enabled her to get him off. Their true conflict is between Reece’s belief that laws aren’t that important when you just know someone is guilty, and Neely’s belief in civil rights and equal protection. Given the generally conservative bent in romance, especially in law enforcement heroes, I was really pleased to see this. Annoyingly, the book eventually comes out more in favor of Reece’s position, but Neely’s argument has still been made, and made well.

The angst flows freely, and Reece is put through the plot wringer to prove that he really deserves to be forgiven, so it’s also a fun romance. (Hub disagrees: “Still not enough.”)

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #11

Harlequin Presents #11: Who Rides the Tiger by Anne Mather

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I liked this cover until I figured out that what’s going on is she’s holding her arms above her head, while wearing a most peculiar dress.

Best line: “I’ve never danced to beat music before,” she confessed. “I’m quite a square really.”

Notes of interest: Hero is badly hurt, rather than heroine. Heroine is a smoker. Heaving breasts alert! The heroine dumps her fiance to marry someone else and plans to use the same wedding dress — were the seventies really that practical? It seem incredibly tacky. The hero gets married in silk! Almost an in-joke: “well, forced seduction is a crime, isn’t it?”

I was thinking about skipping this one, but skimming ahead saw that there might be an actual sex scene! So I had to read it after all, for, you know, historical interest. And would you believe it, the scan messes up right there! I think we’re still at closed bedroom door, though.

Dominique travels to Brazil to marry her fiance, and discovers that he’s turned into a giant hippie.

Then she recognized John, but he had changed enormously. He now sported a thick beard and moustache [watch out, Dominique!] and his hair had grown rather long since his arrival. Big and broad, dressed in demin slacks and a brilliant orange shirt, he looked almost a stranger.

His boss, on the other hand, is a 1970’s dreamboat.

Dressed in close-fitting cream pants and a cream silk sweater which was unbuttoned almost to his waist revealing the dark mass of hairs on his broad chest he looked lithe and masculine.

Wait, where’s the gold medallion? Anyway, Vincente is so awesome, he has to refer to himself in the third person.

“See–” he muttered fiercely, “I’m trembling too. This is not Santos’s way, believe me! I have wanted many women — and I have taken them. You — I respect. You — I am prepared to give my name!”

Vincente convinces Dominique to marry him — at this point, they’ve met about three times — and that’s when the fun really begins.

This was the first of the oldie reads that really felt like a proper Harlequin Presents to me. It wasn’t that different from the previous Mather books, but the pieces fit together better, somehow. Angst was achieved, so I’m happy.

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Semi-Review: The Ugly Duchess

The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James. Audiobook.

Too-bored-to-write-a synopsis: Newlywed earl behaves badly, is thrown out by his wife, becomes a freaking pirate.

I might have thought more highly of this if I’d read it instead of listening to it, because it was simply an excruciating audio. Not that the narration was bad — though  Duerden seems to recycle voices a lot — but there was a long period of major suspense interspersed with descriptions of nothing actually happening that made me want to claw my face off. (Since I mostly switched to ebooks, I’d forgotten how much of a read-aheader I used to be.) However, I suspect that even if I’d read this, it would have seemed like a hot mess.

I did think there was a lot of genuine feeling to it — listening might have intensified that aspect — but after so much torment, I demand considerably more resolution and satisfaction. The hero was selfish and unthinkingly cruel; some could be excused on the basis of his youth and bereavement, but when he returned supposedly mature and continued being an utter asshole, I was not a happy reader.  The story became about how rigid and stuffy his wife had become in his absence, which could have been an interesting side issue but as the primary conflict was just offensive.

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