A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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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Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James

What tickled me: Nifty plot, lots of juicy pain
What ticked me off: Overlap with Julia Quinn’s books was kind of twee. And veered close to pet-peeve territory a few times.
Who might like it: Readers like me who loved older angsty romances but are uncomfortably growing past them.

Oh yay — an English narrator that I liked! I have grown as a listener. It didn’t hurt that many of the accents, including the hero’s, are Scottish. Yum.

As you might guess, this is one in James’ non-linked series of Regency romances loosely based on fairy tales. Gowan, the starchy Scottish duke of something-or-other falls instantly in love with Edie, the daughter of somebody or other important. (I hate reviewing audiobooks…) They quickly marry, only to discover that their lifestyles aren’t very compatible — Gowan constantly supervises his estates and has very time alone, while Edie practices her cello 5 hours a day. To make things infinitely worse, their sex life isn’t working — Edie’s in a lot of pain but is too shy to talk about it, and her stepmother’s advice to fake orgasms backfires with a vengeance.

Marriages in trouble because of bad sex are one of James’ recurrent themes, and I always enjoy how she extrapolates what problems people might have had in a historical context. (In the Georgian An Affair Before Christmas, Poppy is too distracted by her horribly itchy unwashed hair to enjoy herself.) In this case, both characters are virgins and they barely know each other; Edie is especially inhibited by the lack of privacy in the castle. The Rapunzel theme is worked nicely into the story, through Gowan’s jealousy and wish to possess Edie, but as usual there’s an interesting twist.

I thought this was a wonderful melding of classic romance themes with more realistic problems and sympathetic characters (yes, the hero can utterly break the heroine’s heart without being a total asshole!) And I enjoyed Edie’s seemingly wicked but actually quite lovable stepmother. The pet peeves were around her: she winds up giving up all her flirtatious ways and naughty gowns for motherhood, which is all she’d really wanted all along. It is possible to be a mother and still show some cleavage, trust me. And there’s a magic baby epilogue, though that didn’t bother me too much because it isn’t completely improbable in the circumstances.

The narration is very well done, with distinct voices for each character and a lovely low Scottish burr for Gowan.

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Review: Bed of Lies by Teresa Hill

What tickled my fancy: Very interesting thematically by itself and as part of the series as a whole.

What ticked me off: I still want to know what happened when Peter was little…

Who might like it: Fans of loving family stories.

I really appreciate what Hill has done with this romance series. In the first book, a couple took in three foster children from an abusive family. The rest of the series is about those children as adults, realistically having emotional repercussions from those experiences.

Zach’s memories of his early life compelled him to become a defense attorney, fighting for young people who’ve reacted badly to abusive environments and gotten into trouble. In them he sees himself as he could have been, if he hadn’t gotten lucky. But Zach is also carrying another huge burden from his past, and it’s sending him on exactly the road he wants so desperately to avoid.
Julie has known Zach since she was seven and he was a kind, protective twelve year old, concerned about how neglected and alone she was. She ran away from home at eighteen; eight years later, they meet by accident. Having created a new life and a fictitious background for herself, Julie is about to marry a man who’ll give her the security she’s always desperately wanted. Knowing her as she really is, Zach threatens her new world, but when she how much pain lies underneath his perfect facade, she can’t help comforting him — and it all comes crashing down for both of them.

This was my favorite of the series so far.  Romances in which both main characters are majorly screwed up can be tricky, but though Zach and Julie’s feelings are initially expressed through steamy love scenes, I did believe that there was more to them as a couple. It’s a strongly emotional story; if you’ve read the previous books, you’ll already know how this one ends, but it had me tearing up anyway. I do recommend reading them all, in order, because they have a stronger punch that way.

This is a self-published book, but except for one or two minor errors you’d never know it. I thought that some of the conversations went on too long, and there were some loose ends left, but I’d definitely recommend it.

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TBR Challenge: All Things Beautiful by Cathy Maxwell

The theme: Any holiday.

Why this one: I don’t have any holiday books! Not in print, anyway. Even my emergency unread Mary Baloghs failed me. I skimmed through some oldies and this one ends at Christmas, albeit rather grimly.

It’s a convenient marriage Regency, in which the socially ruined Julia is forced to marry Brader Wolf, a wealthy “cit” who only wants her estate. Julia, who comes from an unspeakably awful family, hopes to have a child to love, but Brader initially despises her and is very resistant to having any kind of real marriage. Meanwhile, Julia’s dastardly brothers are scheming about how to separate Julia from Brader, and Brader from his money.

I enjoyed this more than I expected to. Spoiled, tempestuous society beauty, that’s pretty much an instant ugh. But although Julia may have been all of those things in the past, as this story opens she’s a more mature and thoughtful person who’s learned from her bad experiences. (Though not always enough.) She tries to make the best of her situation and move forward.

I was iffier about Brader. As the story continues it becomes clear (to the reader) that he’s developed feelings for Julia, and I’m a sucker for that in a heroine-pov-only romance. But he’s often quite nasty to her, and given what we know about her past — she wasn’t even taught to read — it was hard to take. Even towards the end, he’s suspicious and accusatory. Julia also takes the occasional turn for the stupid and snobbish, which I never quite believed; it seemed out of character. And there’s a strong element of melodrama, though that’s a little bit like complaining that there’s a murder in a mystery — it’s just that kind of story. Truthfully, the main problem I had with it was that Julia seemed to do most of the pursuing, and there was no kind of payback or redemption for Brader’s bad behavior — though there is a lovely scene in which he confesses his true feelings.

This was Maxwell’s first book and it’s a smoothly written debut. It fits neatly into the angsty Regency genre while having some distinctive qualities — Julia’s character, and an epilogue that includes sorrow for the couple as well as joy.

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Review: To Love, Honor, and Betray by Jennie Lucas

What tickled my fancy: Better ending than usual.

What ticked me off: Worse beginning than usual.

Who might like it: Fans of Harlequin Presents who can deal with an awful hero.

I started this and then realized I had previously DNF’d it with extreme prejudice. For some reason it was going down easier this time, and once past the bickerfest beginning, which made me want to flush both main characters down the toilet, it was perfectly readable. By the end, I quite liked it.

Extremely pregnant Callie is about to marry her best friend, when Eduardo — her former boss, and the father — turns up. The past history between them is so nasty, it makes it hard to blame Callie for deciding she and the baby would be better off without this guy. Eduardo continues to fail to endear himself to me by kidnapping Callie, forcing her to marry him, and then completely cutting her off from her family — even covertly suppressing her letters to and from them.

***SPOILER FOR THE END****
Read the rest of this entry »

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A Love Untamed by Karen van der Zee

What tickled my fancy: Strong, independent heroine

What ticked me off: I seem to be having a run of bad endings, but this was the Worst. Ending. Ever.

Who might like it: After that ending, I dunno.

She scraped and sanded and painted and cried. She installed a new back door, replaced a cracked pain of glass in one of the windows and kept on crying. She laid Mexican tiles in the sun-room and wept. She rented a sander and sanded all the wooden floors, dripping tears on the raw wood, making dark stains.

You can usually count on a van der Zee book to have a good heroine — it’s just a shame that the competent and resourceful Livia spends so much of the book utterly miserable.  Actually, I didn’t mind that at all, because I love me some angst. I just mind that there’s no good payoff for all that misery.

Livia is restoring a house she just bought when Clint Bracamonte appears, claiming ownership. As they work out the issue, they grow close, although Clint warns her that he’ll be returning to his work in the rain forests of Indonesia soon. Livia isn’t too concerned — she’s always been a traveler and even speaks Indonesian. But Clint is aghast when he discovers her dreams — he has no intention of continuing their affair.

Livia tries to get on with her life and get over it, but then Clint’s life once again intersects with hers in a complicated way, requiring her to go off to find him after all.

Although the plot is kind of episodic, I mostly enjoyed this. The characters are believable and mature and the writing about other cultures is pretty respectful, barring one cringe-worthy moment when Livia thinks, regarding the heavy earrings weighing down the ears of the Indonesian women, “if you grew up with the things you wouldn’t know any better.” The chemistry between Clint and Livia is very strong, making her anguish all the more compelling.

But Clint just holds out forever. After everything he put her through, the ending cried out for something big to happen; an “I’m sorry, please marry me” did not cut it. It was one of the least satisfying endings I’ve ever read and simply spoiled the book for me.

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