A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Last Goodbye by Sarah Mayberry

I was struck by how somber this title seemed for a romance novel, even one with some very serious stuff going down. However, as I read on, I realized that the title could also have a very positive meaning.

The story is about Tyler, who returns to his childhood home in a state of severe ambivalence when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. His father Bob was, simply put, a monster; he physically and emotionally abused both Tyler and his older brother, and both escaped as soon as they possibly could. Now he’s an old, sick man, and Tyler can’t help hoping for some sort of closure for their relationship.

Bob was found ill by his temporary neighbor Ally, who’s been looking out for him and was the one who contacted Tyler.  Advice columnist Ally is the sort of caring, generous person you’d expect to live in a cozy home with cats and babies round her feet. But she’s felt trapped every time she’s tried to settle down, and so she’s given up on both relationships and homes, not wanting to leave any more heartbroken men behind. Still, her warm heart can’t resist Tyler, who’s so emotionally wrecked by having to deal with his dad again.

This is the sort of mature romance within a realistic framework that Mayberry writes so well. The situation with Tyler’s father is deeply sad and troubling, and there’s no easy ending for it. The ending for the romance is more pat, and doesn’t hold up that well. (And the story gets into pet peeve territory when they have That Conversation — Ally tells Tyler they don’t need a condom, because she’s on the Pill and she trusts him. How I would have loved for him to retort, “well, I don’t trust you!”) Still it’s a very involving story, with a sweet, strongly felt romance.

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Special Interests by Emma Barry

Review Copy Source: submitted to Dear Author

What tickled me: A book about politics that didn’t shut me out.

What ticked me off: The characters (briefly) treat a person with Alzheimers like furniture.

Who might like it: Readers who enjoy contemporary romance. Not too fluffy, not too dark.

In a recent Twitter conversation about Julie James, someone — as usual, probably Liz Mc2 — said something about having trouble relating to her characters and their ambitions. Despite my complete inability to remember any concrete information about the comment, this really nailed for me why James’s books don’t work well for me. The stories are always very readable, but her characters live in a world that feels completely alien to me. I don’t care about what they care about.

Special Interests is seemingly the same sort of book James writes; it’s the first authorial comparison that comes to mind. Yet despite being about the mind-boggling subject of lobbyists in Washington D.C., it worked for me. I don’t think it was even just because the main characters are both Democrats, though that undoubtedly helped. They’re overworked and troubled and leading kind of messed up lives, but they don’t feel like they’re on another place of existence.

 

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TBR Challenge: When Bruce Met Cyn by Lori Foster

The Theme: Contemporary romance.

What tickled me: A sexy, celibate, preacher hero is hard to resist.

What ticked me off: Skanky villains. Torso-less heroine. And the heroine’s name: sub-tle.

Who might like it: Fans of gentler, protective Alpha heroes.

Foster has been on my “not my cuppa” list for awhile, but this book hung around the tbr pile because the plot intrigued me. It was a hit and miss book for me, with ultimately more misses than hits.

It’s been five years since she ran away from an abusive home, and Cyn has saved up enough money to give up prostitution and begin a new life. A recurring dream draws her to a town called Visitation; on the way she encounters Bruce, who’ll be the preacher of the town’s new church. Bruce has experience counseling prostitutes in trouble, and slowly wins Cyn’s trust and affection, while grappling with his conscience over his attraction to her. She’s much younger than him, has never had a good relationship with a man, and there’s that whole premarital sex thing. Mostly, he wants her to feel respected and cherished, rather than used. Of course this has Cyn wondering why the hell he won’t just sleep with her already, and questioning his feelings.

The sections of the book focusing on their relationship and Cyn’s new life were enjoyable. Bruce does get somewhat overbearing at times, and Cyn is hard-edged and crude, but they’re sweet together. What brought the story down was a suspense element with really unpleasant villains; perhaps some readers are all for descriptions of perverts masturbating while they contemplate raping and killing, but for some reason I’ve never been a fan. And there’s also a woo woo element which felt forced and out of place, very peculiar sequel bait.

I thought it was interesting that Cyn had tried to understand her childhood by doing serious reading about abuse, but it realistically hasn’t solved all her issues. She tells Bruce, “It’s like… like you were born in a church with a star shining down on you, and I was born…I dunno. Under a rock or something.” She also has some trouble relating to the helpful heroines from previous books of the series:

Shay was nice, nice enough that at times she seemed unreal. Nice enough that she constantly tried to give Cyn a handout. Be it work or contacts or whatever, Shay wanted to help, and it nettled Cyn that she was a person in need of assistance. She understood Shay’s motives, and appreciated them, but she would rather have just been a friend, not a person who stood out as less than equal.

Luna was lovely, too, very warm and friendly. But she went out of her way to show understanding, to include Cyn. And once again, Cyn felt the difference, how she didn’t quite measure up.

There’s some real sensitivity there, and I think this could have been quite a lovely book if it had just stayed with the characters and their developing relationships, instead of throwing in all the other stuff.  Cyn’s genuine feelings simply disappear, and the other women are suddenly her very best friends. And the gentle Bruce just becomes more and more alpha as the story goes on, forcing Cyn to fight for her independence.

I wouldn’t say I’m sorry I read it, but I don’t think Foster is moving off the list.

 

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Review: Overload by Linda Howard

What tickled my fancy: Raised an interesting question for romance readers.

What ticked me off: Failed to answer it.

Who might like it: Fans of “trapped together” stories

Tom Quinlan is a typical Howard hero — dominating, aggressive, secretive, and not above being unethical to get what he wants. And he discovers that all of these traits put him at an extreme disadvantage with what he wants — Elizabeth, who was married to a classic abuser, and has a perfectly legitimate fear of Tom taking over her life. When they’re trapped together during a major blackout, the secrets come out.

I thought this was really interesting, because Howard heroes are often quite horrifying to contemplate outside the pages of a romance novel.  But though I enjoyed the story, I felt let down when it didn’t really come up with a good reason for Elizabeth would get over her fears.

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Review: Tropical Storm by Stefanie Graham

reviewed from an e-arc

What tickled my fancy: Good angsty beginning

What ticked me off: Pretty much everything else.

Who might like it: I can’t answer this in a sincere way.

I would like to be kind to this book, because I’ve been in a dreadful reading slump and it not only sparked my interest but even held it for awhile, despite some flawed prose. But eventually the sheer ridiculosity of the characters’ behavior overwhelmed everything else.

Jessica, known as Storm, and her new husband Cairo Kane have only one interrupted night together, when she’s dragged back home by her wealthy, snobbish parents. When Cairo follows to fetch her, Storm has already been convinced to reject him for his own good. Although she regrets it immediately — even more so when she realizes she’s pregnant — it takes her  seven years to track him down.

So… having gotten the information that her husband is now a hotelier in Jamaica, does Storm contact him, explain the situation, and ask if they can try again?  Oh, good one! No, of course she takes her son there — having gotten up his adorable expectations that Cairo will be his new daddy! — and tries to seduce Cairo with her maternally-unhampered hotness, while letting him believe that she actually married someone else and had a son with him, for some neurotic reason of her own. That’s only the start of Storm’s tsunami of lying, which just gets more ludicrous by the chapter. One stupid fear-induced lie per romance novel I can live with, but when you’re caught by the person you’re trying to have a meaningful relationship with, and you then just keep on lying to him til you’re blue in the mouth, I call foul on a happy ending.

The Jamaican paradise setting made me uncomfortable too, especially given that Cairo is white and all the narrative support staff in his life is black. I’m sure this was well intentioned, but it inadvertently plays a lot into racist culture. The narrative flaws were along these lines:

Seemingly unaffected by Shane’s weight, Storm watched as strong purposeful strides brought Cairo closer.

Can you tell who is doing what in that sentence? I bet your guess is wrong. *

Cairo is a pretty typical “disappointed in love so cynical” hero/”you must marry me” secret-baby daddy. Then we got to him meeting with his erstwhile mother-in-law and demonstrating how little power she has over him now by pressing his thigh next to hers and playing with her hair. Gag!

The fake conflicts just get worse and worse; I literally only finished this because I felt I had to for grading purposes, and my reward was that it ended with an angry rape. (Okay, that answers the grading question.) That’s followed by this conversation:

“Ever since you got here all that you have done is tell a series of lies.”

“I never lied to you, Cairo.” Storm argued.

Even Captain Picard doesn’t have a facepalm big enough for that.

 

* Answer: Cairo is carrying Shane.

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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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Review: The Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir

Reviewed from an e-arc

This is the second novella in an oddball series partially narrated by highly intelligent — and unusually gifted — cats.  I enjoyed the first one, but my impression is that this one is even better. It’s still cute and clever, but more emotionally satisfying.

Geeks are becoming a romance trend, but our titular geek isn’t the usual hacker/gamer — he fits the more personal definition of a geek/nerd as someone who loves passionately. Emerson loves making musical instruments, and he loves owning and wearing items that make him feel connected to the past. He’s a perfect match for violinist Lola (sister to the heroine of the first book) — but he also loves her so passionately that it leaves him tongue-tied and acting like a total asshole.

When Emerson is adopted by a cat named Sam, Sam uses his innate ability to mess with people’s minds to put the right thoughts into Emerson’s mouth so he can woo Lola.  Having already had a deceptively charming chameleon of a boyfriend, Lola is wary… and of course, Sam can’t always be there (though sensing that Sam is good luck, Emerson goes to ridiculous lengths to carry him around!) And then disaster strikes and Emerson is left without his Cyrano — and without the cat he’s grown to love.

Like the first book, this one is partially narrated by Sam himself, and partially from the points of view of Emerson and Lola. It also shares the kind of distancing narrative vibe which kept me from fully loving the first book, yet the emotions came through more this time, making the romance stronger. (Emerson does a lot of his own wooing by letter, so there’s no sense that it’s all Sam and he and Lola haven’t really connected.)  I also enjoyed the wry humor, and the fact that from Sam’s point of view it’s not just a romance… it’s a bromance.

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