A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams

Gavin, a successful but somewhat insecure baseball player, is devastated when his wife asks him for a divorce. That’s when his fellow players introduce him to their book club and “the manuals” — romance novels which help them understand what women need from relationships. With the help of a Regency called Courting the Countess, Gavin sets out to woo his wife. But he forgets the most important lesson: backstory is everything. Unless Thea deals with the pain in her history, they don’t stand a chance.

I had some issues with this story and it might have been the audiobook.The second narrator, who reads the “book within a book” sections, has a die-away upper-crust English accent which is very much not to my taste. But the main narration, while in a perfectly pleasant voice, may have done more harm. All of the women characters sound very bitchy, and the way the voices emphasize the “inherent” humor of manly men athletes seriously discussing romance novel tropes really put me off.

Still, there was a lot to enjoy. Unlike most athlete heroes in romance, Gavin has tremendous sweetness and vulnerability, and Thea loves him for it. At one point she overhears a spiteful member of the “wives and girlfriends” club mock Gavin by wondering if he even stutters in bed and she retorts, “yes he does stutter in bed, and it’s beautiful!” Thea’s continual rejection and mistrust of Gavin’s efforts make her seem unpleasant for much of the story, but it all comes together by the end.

 

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TBR Challenge: Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly

The theme: Old School (book ten+ years old. That no longer feels very old…)

Why this one: I usually prefer going really Old Skool for Old School month, but this book was being discussed on Twitter and I felt like reading it. It actually has quite an old skool blurb and starts off with a divorced hero who’s very cynical about women, but that doesn’t last past his first laying eyes on the heroine.

(Incidentally, there’s a nasty flu epidemic in this story, so it was not great timing.)

 

Six months after burying the husband she nursed for years, Roxanna Drew is starting to feel ready to live again. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law’s idea of taking care of her and her two young daughters is to insist that they live with him, where he can offer her “the comfort of a husband” she’s been missing. Desperate to escape a pressure she might be tempted to give in to, Roxanna impulsively rents the dilapidated dower house of a titled neighbor she’s never met.

Fletcher Rand, Lord Winn, wouldn’t seem to be a great knight errant for this damsel in distress. Not only did he shoot a friend he found in bed with his wife — apparently getting him in a very sensitive spot — and feel no remorse about it, but he also divorced his wife in extremely ungentlemanly fashion, calling on all her lovers to testify. I’m not sure how to feel about this, to be honest. On the one hand, it’s cruel; on the other hand, she was pretty terrible. By the lights of the book, we’re not supposed to think particularly badly of him.

In any event, this hardened cynical lord is soon turned into a bowl of mush by Roxanna’s adorable children and her adorable self. As usual with Kelly, the development of the relationship (relationships in this case) is sweet and disarming in its swift intimacy; her characters are always old friends who just met. In Roxanna’s case, missing “the comfort of a husband” is definitely a factor. Here she cleans up after the stranded Lord Winn has spent the night (alone) in her bed:

She made her bed, noting the indentation of Lord Winn’s head on the empty pillow next to hers. I wonder if men have an instinct about these things? she thought as she fluffed her pillow and straightened the blankets. After Helen was born, she had claimed the side of the bed closest to the door, so she could be up quickly in the night. She started to fluff his pillow but changed her mind. She traced her finger over the indentation, then pulled the bedspread over both pillows. I really should change the sheets, she thought, but knew she would not.

Kelly’s books are known for being “clean,” but there’s some powerful sexual tension in this story. It wasn’t that usual when this was published for a romance about a widow to be so honest about her needs; it’s one of the charms of the book, along with Fletcher’s unexpected vulnerability, and the beautifully drawn children — the younger lively and mischievous, the older sadly quiet and matured by her father’s death.

I didn’t love everything: Fletcher’s past is unpleasant, and the plot meanders its way to a truly ridiculous Big Misunderstanding. There’s certainly adventure and drama enough without throwing that in. And then there’s Fletcher pushing Roxanna to forgive her brother-in-law, whose redemption could have used more work. But I was very drawn into this story about a woman trying to “play her hand,” no matter what terrible cards life dealt her, and glad that she finally got to put down… let’s call it a full house.

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TBR Challenge: Folly’s Reward by Jean R. Ewing (Julia Ross)

The theme: A favorite trope. Say it with me: Amnesia!

Why this one: I wanted to finish the series.

In the fifth of Ewing’s traditional Regencies, a young man is washed up on the Scottish shore where governess Prudence is watching over her young charge Bobby. He has no memory of who he is, other than the sense that he’s named Hal short for Henry, and no idea where he should be. But when Prudence is forced to flee to save Bobby from his evil guardian, he appoints himself their protector. Bobby, who believes Hal to be “a Selkie man,” is only too happy to have him with them, but Prudence fears the impact of his beauty and seductive nature on her peace of mind.

For the first half, this was pretty same old/same old. Despite his amnesia, Hal is a very typical Ewing/Ross hero: goodnaturedly cynical, reckless, and always ready with a suitable (or unsuitable) literary quote or bawdy rhyme. Prudence is decidedly bland, so his instant besottedness seems based only on her being the first face he sees, regaining consciousness. But when he recovers his memory in the second half, the story becomes far more intense and interesting; Hal’s memories are… very bad. There are strange but compelling subplots, and the Selkie metaphor is rather sweetly wrapped up, with Prudence showing some fire and backbone. I wound up enjoying it much more than I expected to.

Note: Most of the series is only loosely linked, but this is a direct sequel to Virtue’s Reward.

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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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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #148

I’m hopelessly out of order at this point, but oh well. I keep getting stuck on The Hawk and the Dove, which will never download from Open Library for me. (I’ve checked it out at least 3 times.) But a lot of ancient Anne Mather books have now been digitized, so I may backtrack.

Harlequin Presents #148 – For the Love of Sara by Anne Mather

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I kind of love this cover. The heroine looks like she has a terrible headache, and by God, she deserves one.

Best Line:

“Where’s Greece?”

“Sara, I told you. It’s a long, long way away, where the sun shines all the time.”

“I don’t want the sun to shine all the time.”

For the Love of Sara was published about 3 years after the first Harlequin Presents but it’s like another world. Virginity is still a hot button — heh — and sex is only in the past, but the whole tone of the story is different. It actually starts off with the hero’s point of view, though it does drop it later to keep things suspenseful (a trick that still happens in some HPs.)

Mather tended to be an envelope pusher, which is great in theory but in practice often ends up being fairly icky. This definitely scores high on the ick scale, with the heroine engaged to the father of her former lover and the grandfather of her child. Talk about bad parents — apparently that’s how much dear old dad wanted to score off his son. Another way in which this book is different is that the hero’s father is considerably worse than the Evil Other Woman, who actually isn’t all that bad. And there’s a well drawn, far from angelic child character.

The book on the whole is thoughtful and intriguing, which perhaps makes it worse that the heroine stunk up the whole thing.  I was seriously tempted to change my “heroine needs a kick in the pants” tag to “heroine needs to be thrown through a plate-glass window.” However, this is a very tense time in our lives, so I’ll try to keep it sane.

But seriously, what an awful, dislikable person Rachel is. I’m not generally upset by secret baby stories, but Rachel is so obviously at fault here, and so damn stubborn for so long.

*Spoilers*

— She kept her pregnancy secret from Joel, and continues to distrust him and try to push him away, despite his interest in getting to know his child.

— Rachel is marrying James because he’s promised to donate a kidney to Sara. She assumes that if the operation is not successful, she won’t have to go through with the marriage. (Hey, dude still gave up his kidney!) Later when he asks if she was thinking about changing her mind about marriage after the operation, she’s indignant to be asked.

— After Rachel has an old skool fall — from running away from Joel while refusing to listen to what he’s actually saying — and requires surgery, her main freak out is about her head being shaved.

Joel is no saint, mind you, especially when he mocks Rachel for insisting that just because she was a virgin when they had sex, he should marry her. Though it is fairly mockworthy, for 1975. But he takes responsibility for his behavior, which is more than Rachel ever does.

So — not a bad book, but I kind of wish Joel had just sued for custody and never had to deal with Rachel again.

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TBR Challenge: The Sound of Snow by Katherine Kingsley

The theme: Kickin’ It Old Skool. Wendy defines this as “published more than 10 years ago” but to me, Old Skool means a nice fat historical with an ugly cover. This was published in 1999, so isn’t in prime old school territory, but the plot is kind of a mix of Violet Fire by Jo Goodman and Light And Shadow by Lisa Gregory (both read last April) so it has some roots.

Why This One: I own literally hundreds of possibilities for this theme, but really was not in the mood for sweeping stories of lover’s betrayal during wars. This Regency romance seemed pretty cozy. As it turned out, I might have been happier with a rapey hero and a long sea voyage.

The first part of the book is pleasant enough, albeit bland. The loss of her parents sent Joanna to live with her aunt and uncle, who were none too happy about the arrangement. Fortunately, Joanna had her younger cousin Lydia to dote on. When faced with a forced marriage to a man she loathed, Joanna escaped to Italy, but she and Lydia kept up a correspondence.

Six years later, a now-widowed Joanna returns to England after hearing of Lydia’s death. She’s heard all about how terrible Lydia’s husband is, and what a dreadful father to their son — and indeed, young Miles is in a state of great emotional disturbance. But Guy is by no means the villain Joanna expected, and he’s a very attractive man.

I doubt any reader is really surprised to learn that Lydia was not the basically good-hearted person Joanna thought she was. There are other non-surprising surprises to come.

Joanna using affection and art therapy to help Miles get over his trauma, and Guy and Joanna falling in love was, again, pleasant if bland. The second half of the story was where I started to wish this book had gotten lost behind a cabinet. Joanna is adored by absolutely everyone, and she gets away with some terrible behavior — forcing Guy to tell her his horror story from the war, for one thing, and then later lying to him about something he specifically tells her is very important to him, for his own good.

And then there’s the resolution of the plot. The Sound of Snow reads somewhat like an inspirational romance (though one with steamy pre-marital sex.) God and religion are very important to Joanna and become important to Guy. And religious themes are used here is a way that made me wish I’d read it while fasting. The characters act in a really callous manner, but it’s all part of God’s plan and there’s even a freakin’ heavenly visitation to show just how okay God is with everything that happens.

Perhaps if I’d been more in charity with the book as a whole, I wouldn’t have had such a visceral reaction to the end, but it felt ten kinds of wrong to me. On the bright side, I own at least three more Kingsley books, so the TBR will now be much reduced.

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TBR Challenge: Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour by Carla Kelly

The theme: A holiday romance. I… don’t have any, at least not in the print TBR. Just not much of a fan. (That thud you heard was Wendy fainting.) A Signet Regency is sort of Christmassy just by juxtaposition, right? Coincidentally, Miss Bates reviewed this one last year.

Why this one: I was feeling depressed over the news and thought a Kelly book would be heartwarming and comforting. I did not pick the right one.

I believe this is the third Kelly I’ve chosen for the TBR challenge, and it’s the first of them I’ve found disappointing. The plot is certainly compelling: Eight years previously, Omega Chartley was left at the altar by the man she loved. (You know this is old because there’s no separate book for her brother, Alpha.) She never knew why; we know only that it had something to do with him covered with blood and horror. When Omega finds her vacation from teaching taking a very odd, adventurous turn, their paths cross again.

There were a number of problems with this one. Although there are certainly instances of Kelly’s way with a carelessly wonderful phrase — “it’s amazing how rapidly one well-brought-up person can go to the dogs,” thinks Omega about herself — much of the prose is kind of spare and awkward, especially in the action scenes. It was also a weird blend of farcical and deadly serious, and it’s hard to say whether there are more implausibilities or plot holes.

And the hero is…  very challenging. Matthew did any number of awful things — as he tells Omega he has two things to confess, “One is terrible and the other no better,” and frankly, I think he was underestimating. It was through weakness and drink rather than overt cruelty, and he is genuinely remorseful, though not so much he doesn’t keep making nasty, unwarranted snipes against Omega when they’re reunited. And I do think he gets a decent, if somewhat understated redemption.

But he only appears halfway through the story, and the second half of the book focuses more on a suspense plot than on cementing the relationship between him and Omega, so it was hard for me to feel the happy ending was truly established. There are some very sweet scenes showing how much he missed her while they were apart, but I would have liked to see more of them learning each other’s new selves.

Although the story has very upsetting elements, it includes many goodhearted characters, including a brave and delightful little girl named Angela. If you’re a fan of precocious children in stories, you’ll adore this.

Addendum: A while after this, I read Kelly’s Season’s Regency Greetings, and that was just the sort of wholesome, cozy read the doctor ordered. (Dr. Cook, of course!) It’s two short Christmas stories about two misfit Regency heroines: one is a proper British governess who is also half Egyptian; the other is a titled heiress who’s just learned she’s actually the adopted illegitimate daughter of a seamstress. Her story is quite heartbreaking, since she’s not only lost her place in life but also the people she considered her parents. Both find amiable misfit men and fall swiftly and charmingly in love. There are sad and even awful elements of the stories, but the overall mood is uplifting.

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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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