A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Roomies by Christina Lauren

I have such mixed feelings about this, I feel like I should write a pro/con list instead of a review. Many of the aspects I disliked eventually grew into something better, and overall I read the book with interest and enjoyment — yet it’s hard to feel completely positive about a book when I spent so much of it wincing.

The book is narrated — first person present tense, sorry! It was mostly unobtrusive though — by Holland Bakker, a young woman who’s very halfheartedly trying to make in in New York. Her efforts are supported by her loving uncle Jeff and his husband Robert, who emotionally adopted her when she was born the last child in a large family. Working in a grunt job at Robert’s Broadway theater, with them paying most of her rent, Holland feels aimless and useless.

Holland was my first hurdle. She’s often such a typical contemporary romance/women’s fiction stereotype:

“While I’m not completely unfortunate-looking, I know everyone is half wondering how I ended up with someone like him. I’m that girl with the freckles, the one with snagged tights who spills her coffee awkwardly on her boobs, the one who knocks into everyone with my camera.”

I’m so not the reader for that girl’s adventures. But — first but — Holland has an interesting arc. Part of the story is about her finding herself and her passions… her passions other than Calvin. And her very stereotypical friendship with Lulu, the brash and bold girl who’s always pushing her to take risks, also goes in an unexpected, emotionally resonant direction

Calvin is an Irish musician that Holland semi-stalks when he busks in the subway. Although there is much panting by Holland over how gorgeously Irish he is, she is largely attracted by how intensely and lovingly he plays his guitar. And when an important musician storms out of her uncle Robert’s production, she has the brilliant idea of bringing Calvin into the show. There’s just one enormous problem: Calvin’s student visa expired and he’s in the country illegally. But Holland might be able to help with that too…

Okay, this was another big grimace, though perhaps an unfair one to criticize the book upon. It just made me so uncomfortable that the book focused on the needs of a white immigrant who’s in the country for music, in a time when there are so many immigrants in the US facing racism and deportation back to horrific circumstances. It felt intensely tone deaf.

That aside, Calvin is an extremely appealing hero — funny, and affectionate, and passionate about his art, always a huge draw for me. There are some niggles with him too, though I suppose they keep him from being ridiculously perfect. I did really enjoy the growth of their relationship… buuuut…. they have sex for the first time, a huge deal, when they’re too drunk to even remember it. What the what? This is not what I read romance for!

(Incidentally, in keeping with Lauren’s last several books, this one is quite steamy, but with less volume of sex scenes. I have no complaints whatsoever about this.)

The romance continues on in a very episodic way, which is really not my cuppa. Holland’s insecurity stretches out long past the point where it’s even narratively useful or sensible. A lot of the conflict felt manufactured.

Overall, I felt like the book wanted to be a rom com with both awkward hilarious moments and emotionally deep moments, and the combo didn’t perfectly gell for me. A lot of my complaints are specifically personal and might not bother any other reader at all. So I would recommend it to readers who enjoy contemporary romance; I think most everyone will adore Calvin.

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Dating You, Hating You by Christina Lauren

I’m really squeeing about this book — not just because it’s good, though it is, and not just because the characters are very likeable, though they are. What impressed me the most is how much it just gets right. I’m a fan of the enemies-to-lovers story, but even those who aren’t might like this one.

Starting off, the trajectory is different from the usual instant lust-hate. Evie and Carter meet at a costume party where they’re the only singles — and he just happens to be Harry Potter to her Hermione. “Perfect. I ship it,” says Carter, and so do I. They’re two sweet, funny people who seem made for each other, although the fact that they’re both married-to-their-jobs Hollywood talent agents is a little concerning. But before their relationship has gotten further than dinner and making out, Carter’s company is suddenly bought by Evie’s… and the two of them are informed that there might only be one job between them.

What follows is the more typical competition story — defensiveness leading to anger leading to some nasty tricks. But though both somewhat enjoy their sparring, there’s something serious underneath the situation: Evie is being screwed over. And Carter is too good a man not to eventually realize it. So the pranks are a fairly small part of the story and never get truly nasty. And they would both much rather be lovers than fighters. There’s no hate sex, by the way, and though I love me some hate sex, I think that was a good call in this case. It’s also lighter on the steam than previous Lauren books, which I also appreciate. There’s still sex, and it’s plenty hot, but it takes up considerably fewer pages.

I was disappointed in the ending, which I felt took an easy way out rather than having to deal with the genuine difficult issue of sexism in the workplace. Also, it turned into a caper plot, which just rubs the falseness in. But the rest of the book, though often lighthearted, is pretty realistic and takes the subject matter seriously, and there was a part of me that — ever since Practice Makes Perfect —  was just crying out to see that in this kind of romance.

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His For Keeps by Theodora Taylor

His For Keeps by Theodora Taylor.

This interracial romance is a follow-up to His One and Only, and overlaps with it a bit. It’s also the first of the “Fairgood Boys” trio, but without the controversial aspects of the other two. Country star Colin Fairgood recruits Kyra Goode (I like the parallel naming, because she gives as good as she gets) to help him make his high school crush Josie jealous. Unfortunately, Kyra has an extremely soft spot for Josie’s ex, Beau, and helps him win Josie over instead. But Kyra continues to pursue a friendship with Colin — without telling him that Josie asked her to, and is technically paying her as well. As things get intense between them, the secrets she’s keeping from him, as well as from Josie and Beau, become ever more potentially explosive.

I’d definitely call this romance rather than erotica, but it does get kinky, with domination and bondage. (Nothing really scary or painful.) It’s neither straight-out fantasy nor a realistic safe-sane-and-consensual depiction: Colin throws Kyra right into a power exchange with very little warning or preparation, which I found off-putting. But she does have the power to stop it and chooses not to, so there is consent of a sort. And I did really like their discussions about how to have a D/s relationship while also having a regular everyday life, including having children.

I’ve really been enjoying Taylor’s first person stories, and Kyra has a particularly strong voice. Her interactions with her grandmother add humor and sentiment, and songwriting gives her a life outside her romance.

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I is for In Hope’s Shadow aka S is for Shafted

In Hope’s Shadow by Janice Kay Johnson

(Minor spoilers)

This is a sequel to Yesterday’s Gone, an excellent book about an abducted, abused child who is finally found as an adult. Johnson is very good at taking “shocker” plotlines and making them into thoughtful stories that plausibly delve into the emotions of the situation. (Whose Baby, about a mother discovering her daughter was switched at birth, is also very good.)

The follow-up concerns Eve, a foster child who was adopted after Hope’s abduction, and who has always felt like a poor replacement, never truly secure in her parents love. (They aren’t entirely without blame for this, but they do love her.) Her “sister’s” return brought up a lot of jealousy, and it didn’t help that she was found by, and immediately adored by, the cop Eve had been dating. (There are hints of “Laura” — Seth fell for Hope’s age-progressed photo.) As this book opens, Eve has established a friendship with her new sibling, and her remnants of jealousy over Seth don’t survive her blossoming relationship with his gorgeous coworker, Ben.

This was a very engrossing read, and as thoughtful, in its way, as the first book. But I found it a real letdown because I felt that Eve continued to be shortchanged in her own story. Her mother never really acknowledges some of ways her grief impacted on Eve — it’s up to Eve to realize she’s been foolish and unfair.

But it’s her relationship with Ben that is really the carcinogenic cherry on top of the diet sundae. Their first dates make me think of the horrible ones a heroine might go on before meeting Mr. Right. He is constantly hurting her, in a “nice guy” way. And he is ambivalent towards her, and yearning for his e-wife, almost to the very end of the story. 

“And yeah, he felt nothing but relaxed acceptance and even anticipation about where they were heading. He’d succumbed without much of a fight, he realized, in part because he hadn’t liked the bachelor lifestyle. He had no hankering to sample a different woman a week.

Gaze resting on Eve, he smiled. He couldn’t get enough of her, in bed or out.

Only the memory of the expression on Nicole’s face shadowed his mood.”

So… he finally, more than 90% into the book, is willing to consider a future with Eve. Because being a bachelor isn’t that great. And even then, he’s still thinking about his ex.

(SPOILERS) When his wife asks if they can try again, he does reject her, but without saying a word about Eve. Instead, Eve has to say it for him:

“‘Then what did I tell Nic?’

Old fears and new collided with the sense of self-worth she had been accepting — a confidence Ben had something to do with. [How, I can’t imagine.] And… was that a smile in his voice?

‘I think — ‘ her voice cracked, but she managed to steady it ‘– you told her you were sorry, that you’re actually madly in love with this spitfire of a woman who keeps you looking beyond the obvious.’

Ben laughed, the skin crinkling beside his very blue eyes, the creases in his cheeks deepening. ‘You’re right.'”

No, actually, you’re completely wrong, because he didn’t say one word about you.  And after mooning over his ex for the whole book, he really, really needed to.

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The Chocolate Heart by Laura Florand

(reviewed from an e-arc provided by NetGalley. A long time ago. Better late than never!)

If you’ve read other books in the “Amour et Chocolat” series, this is in some ways a familiar dance: an American heiress in Paris, and the French patissier who woos her with unbelievable desserts. But there’s a bit of a twist here: Summer Corey’s childhood love for both Paris and desserts have been twisted into hate. (Rather than Florand’s usual fairy tale source, this story draws on Greek mythology, with Paris as Summer’s Hades.)

Summer and Luc Leroi basically fall in love at first sight, each seeing warmth and comfort in the other. But their public images and private pasts work against them, and they constantly misunderstand each other. Both were deprived of love as children, but while Luc aims for constant perfection, Summer wears her spoiled bad girl rep as a shield. (Come to think of it, they are interesting representatives of two classic aspects of a dysfunctional family: “The Hero” and “The Scapegoat.”) Every time Luc unwittingly hurts her, she tries even harder to live down to his expectations.

As you might expect from the inspiration, this is dark in tone — not because anything overtly awful happens, though Summer has had more ugly experiences than the world would guess, but because both characters have so much pain in their lives. The story does a beautiful job of showing how two people who seem to have it all can still be so lost and justifiably unhappy. They’re perfect for each other because at heart they have the same need: to give love to someone who needs them and would never let them go.

There was a bit too much repetition of phrases, but the prose is gorgeous. I love the way Florand extends the metaphor beyond its original inspiration:

“That’s what makes it so incredible. What you do. You’re just a man. A human mortal man. And you do–what you do.”

There was a long silence. “Merci, soleil“, he said softly. “After all those people who call me a god, I never realized you could give me a promotion.”

I also liked the realism in the “baby epilogue.” Neither character is completely fixed by true love, and their happy ending requires commitment and care. (There’s also a sequel, Shadowed Heart: A Luc and Summer Novel, which expands on this.)

You don’t have to have read any of the previous books to enjoy this one, although several characters do recur. Just open your heart to a prickly couple who need love, and some astonishing desserts that need to be eaten.

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TBR Challenge: More Than You Dreamed by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

The theme: a book you bought on impulse, or that you forgot why you bought. I picked this up just because it was a romance, never having heard of the author at that point.

Why this one: I used to be a huge old movie buff, so I was intrigued by the setting.

 

A bit before I started reading this, someone tweeted about how “show don’t tell” was overdone advice, which was ruining the omniscient narrator. I was very ticked off when someone downgraded The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Bates on that basis, so I certainly agreed; although the immediacy of deep POV can be a very effective technique, a good omniscient narrator has a real charm. This is a thick, “women’s fiction”-y sort of book more than a romance, which was a little hard for me to get into, but Seidel’s nonchalant voice really grew on me.

The main characters are Jill Casler, the extremely wealthy daughter of a Hollywood director, and Doug Ringling, the nephew (and spitting image) of the actor who played Jill’s first major crush. Doug also lives and works with one of Jill’s little known relatives from her father’s first marriage, in Virginia. When he approaches Jill about a mystery involving his uncle’s film, “Weary Hearts,” she finds herself being drawn into family life and questioning her adored father’s integrity.

This was a very leisurely read, especially by current standards. It just barely qualifies as a romance, and if you require lots of passionate words and sex scenes, don’t even bother. But it has a wonderful sense of time and place, vivid characters and a lot of humor. Some of the mystery is quite guessable and some is a real surprise — though the main point of it is to give a direction that makes both Jill and Doug realize how much they’ve been drifting.

I was a little concerned when I started the book that the Southern setting and Confederate soldier aspects of “Weary Hearts” might be uncomfortable. They were actually mostly okay: Doug even invites Jill to a Civil War reenactment by asking her, “Do you want to accompany us warriors as we march off to celebrate our Glorious, Noble, Sexist and Racist Past?” But ironically enough, there’s some no doubt well-intentioned interactions with Doug’s black college roommate that really made me squirm.

That was really the only part of the book that didn’t age well, for me. I enjoyed the glimpse into filmmaking, and the bits of movie trivia, and the imaginative power that brought a totally fictional movie to life.

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Gentle on My Mind by Susan Fox

After I wrote about The Heart of Christmas, SuperWendy recommended this as a story in which pregnancy options are given serious consideration. And curse you, Wendy, for turning me on to a new author! Like I needed that!

There will be some spoilers here, but nothing that’s not pretty guessable.

For a mainstream romance, this takes a few risks. The heroine Brooke is a recovering alcoholic, has bipolar disorder, is quite a bit older than the hero, was a terrible mom(!), and — rarest of all — is a grandmother! Although she got pregnant when she was 14, so she’s only a 43 year old grandmother. And did I get tired of hearing her talk about being a grandmother as if that meant she was never allowed to have sex again.

We meet her after she’s turned her life around and reestablished a relationship with her son. (The hero of Home on the Range.) Maintaining her sobriety, her mental health, and her respectability — in a town that expects her to fall off the wagon at any moment — is all important to her. And then a guy with a bullet in him crashes his motorcycle into her fence.

I’m not going to go much into the plot, which has a suspense element but isn’t really romantic suspense. The interesting part for me was, as Wendy mentioned, the fact that Brooke accidentally gets pregnant and actually spends some time pondering her options, especially in light of her need for medication. That’s very, very rare in romance — perhaps even more than a grandmother heroine — and I appreciated seeing it.

The story did get into some personal pet peeve territory. Despite all the risks that she’s well aware of — her age, her mental illness, having to go off her medication  — Brooke never really considers how she’ll cope with being a single mother except in the most general and rosy terms. For example, her plan is to take the baby to work with her. Leaving aside the fact that she works in a beauty salon, that is something that is just not going to work with every baby, especially if that baby turns out to have special needs.

I also laughed out loud when Brooke worries that Jake will be bored with her quiet life and he replies, “I bet it’s hard to be bored when there’s a kid around.” Oh sweet naivete…

But it’s quite an enjoyable story, and definitely not cookie cutter.

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Working With Heat by Anne Calhoun

(reviewed from an e-arc provided by NetGalley)

Short, hot contemporary read, bad dates, no-strings fling with a friend… to be honest, this had “not really my thing” written all over it. But I thought this author might make it work for me, and I was right.

It’s not that the story doesn’t fulfill what it promises in the blurb, but it doesn’t feel the need to do it stereotypically. Milla, a travel blogger and youtube personality currently stationed in England, has a refreshing attitude towards her bad dates — she cuts her losses and moves on. They might be funny, but they don’t make her ridiculous. Her absorption in blogging, selfies, etc. isn’t played for laughs, either.

And being with Milla is a genuine risk for Charlie: he’s been badly burned by a (literal) East End Boy and West End girl marriage, and by social media. His trust in her as a friend and lover, nonetheless, is adorable. Of course there’s a conflict, but part of what I most liked about this story is that the characters change, but not through any kind of coercion. It’s always their decision.

If you like blokes with beards, this is the book for you. Many of the sexiest moments in the book involves Milla’s fascination with Charlie’s beard:

“The sharp edge of his scruff scratched deliciously at her lips as she brushed them back and forth across his mouth, tempting him to open them.”

“His beard, she discovered, had reached the soft, curling stage. She stroked it with her palms as his mouth coaxed hers open, savoring the sensation of smooth, hot tongue contrasted with the denser, soft hair around his lips.”

And then there’s a shaving scene…

Charlie’s art is also used for sexy metaphor. He “had learned patience handling sand heated until it became liquid, pliable. He’d learned how to seduce a woman by working with heat.” But it’s not just that, but an integral part of his personality. His commitment to his art, and what it says about him, gives substance to the story.

My only complaint is that the short format leads to a few initial short-cuts of telling rather than showing. I pretty much forgot about that as I read on. This isn’t a heartbreaker like Breath on Embers, but confirms my opinion that Calhoun is one of the authors who really makes short form romance worth reading.

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TBR Challenge: To Each His Own by Kathleen Eagle

The theme: A contemporary romance. This turned out to be kind of an interesting choice, because it seems so old-timey. But looking back, fears of satanic cults were very real in the 90s.

Why this one: The sad usual, I needed something short. (Not that it helped in this case.) And I’m a bit burned out on Harlequin Presents at the moment, and my print contemporary TBR is actually pretty small now! But I swear, now that I have less pressure on me, I will plan a little better and pick some of my door-stoppers this year.

There’s a secondary romance in this story, and both romances involve white women with Indian men. (A very liberal interpretation of “women” and ” men”, because the secondary couple is teen-aged.) I don’t think I was aware enough to notice this when reading Eagle before, but this time I was struck by the lack of emphasis on differences. When Teri thinks about John, for example, it’s his shyness and his sweet smile that come to mind. No exoticizing, not othering, unless you count Wyatt’s view of Lavender.

Racism is an issue in the story — inevitably, since Wyatt and John are two of very few Indians in a very white, conservative small town — but part of what makes it interesting is that it’s an outsider story, and the outsider is the white woman. Lavender is the town kook, and Wyatt, who had a long range plan to “find a woman who blended in with the mainstream, marry her and slip into Middle America beside her” is the one who has to change his ideas about how the rest of his life will go in order to be with her.

I appreciated the portrayal of Lavender, an intelligent, mature, giving woman who’s made peace with a lot that’s in her life. You rarely see a portrayal of a hippie in romance that isn’t mocking. Lavender may be a little idealistically drawn, but there’s enough pain and mistakes in her background to make her believable.

 

 

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Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan

(Reviewed from an e-arc from NetGalley)

I ‘m always on the lookout for romances with autistic characters, and this New Adult romance is one of the most thematically interesting I’ve found. The two main characters are both disabled — Emmet is autistic, Jeremey has severe depression and anxiety — but the big difference between them is that only Emmet’s disability has been acknowledged and accommodated. So this is really not a story about an autistic person being rescued by love; if anything, it’s the other way around.

After ten months of crushing on his neighbor Jeremey from across the yard, Emmet finally manages to introduce himself. Jeremey hasn’t had a friend in awhile; if his mother didn’t drag him out of the house, he’d never leave his room. But after a lifetime of learning how to request and make modifications for himself, Emmet has no trouble understanding Jeremey’s similar difficulties with noise, overstimulation, and groups of people. Jeremey goes from thinking Emmet is “off” and “special needs,” to realizing he’s smart, cute, and very easy to be with. But even a good friendship, with the possibility of more, may not be enough to help him live with the ocean of depression he has to carry every day.

From the start, I was impressed with the fact that Emmet is genuinely disabled. (Although making him also a genius seemed like both a cliche and perhaps a form of compensating.). Autistic people in romance are rarely allowed to be more than reserved and quirky. Emmet is identifiably weird — he can’t pass. He rocks and flaps his arms and hums to himself. He can’t drive. Although he’s thinks of himself as having some “superpowers,” his autism is mostly not glamorous. Jeremey has what I guess you’d call neurotypical privilege, but his disability is also severe, particularly since it’s gone untreated for so long.

These aren’t your typical romance characters, and their romance isn’t exactly typical either. I found it sympathetic and believable, because they really care about each other and work hard to be good to each other. Trying to be “good boyfriends” brings out the best in them — but there are mistakes, and upsets, and sometimes they each need to put self-care ahead of the relationship. I liked the realistic imperfections; even Emmet’s mom, who initially seems like the perfect, understanding parent for a gay autistic boy, screws up by not seeing her son as someone who can have a boyfriend.

When you’re autistic, everyone acts as if you’re not a real human. I’m angry at my family because they said I was a real human. But when I say I’m your boyfriend, they say I can’t be. So they lied. I’m not a real human.

The story is told in alternating first person narratives, both of which are kind of info-dumpy. Jeremey’s worked better for me than Emmet’s, which I had number of problems with. One is that it sounds so much like other fictional autistic narratives I’ve read, and in my experience, it’s not that believable a voice to begin with. Autistic people don’t necessarily sound all that different from neurotypical people when they write. It also makes him sound like a young kid, which is uncomfortable when you’re reading a romance that includes sex. (He’s 19 and Jeremey is 18.)                                 

I did like the slow, thoughtful way their sexual relationship grew. It’s not a super sexy book, but their physical relationship is important to them. They both like Emmet to be in charge, which works with their characters.

The story is more slow-moving and everyday than I normally go for, but overall I really enjoyed it. But then, in a way, it’s exactly my fantasy. Not a sexual fantasy, but a mom fantasy, one about an autistic person gaining independence, and finding love just by being himself. You go, Emmet.

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