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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TBR Challenge: With This Ring by Carla Kelly

The theme: an author with multiple books on your TBR

Why this one: Despite frequently reading Kelly for the challenge, I still have plenty left. And unlike many other authors on my TBR, I still like her. :-\

I read a few more recent Kelly titles last year and found them sadly meh.  I was intrigued by how similar this older book was to those, in terms of plotlines, yet how infinitely superior it was. (Now even more, I think Coming Home For Christmas would have more aptly been titled Phoning It In For Christmas.)

With This Ring is a little unusual for Kelly in being almost entirely from Lydia’s point of view. And it’s very much her emotional journey. When the book starts she’s Cinderella, basically a downtrodden servant to her self-centered mother and sister. She flabbergasted by her own life — often thinking thoughts like, “I do not understand these people I am related to” —  but has no concept of escaping it. But when she has to accompany her sister on a “fashionable” excursion to visit — ie, gawk at — wounded soldiers, she takes the first steps in fighting for what she knows is decent and humane behavior, by insisting on actually tending the wounded.

She also meets Sam, an Earl who’s far more concerned with taking care of his men than his title or his own severe wound. Though he does occasionally ponder on how to find the wife he’s already told his family he married (and had a child with!)

Lydia’s new independence leads to a serious rift with her family, and desperate straits that make her finally take Sam’s whimsical proposal seriously. This is where Lydia and “Cinderella” really part ways. Because rather than rescuing her from hardship, becoming Sam’s wife will force her to face incredible challenges, and show her how strong and capable she really is.

The romance-while-nursing theme works really well here. Much of the time Lydia’s taking care of Sam, which doesn’t make for much standard courtship. (Except when he gives her a hat.) But his down to earth conversation, which makes no concessions to her ladylike status, is rather adorable. We can feel them becoming a team, with similar goals because they’re both caring people. Sam lets us down a bit in the end though, putting other priorities ahead of Lydia; he’s punished for it, but doesn’t really repent or redeem himself, which is disappointing. He’s still sweet enough to be worthy of her, and and least can appreciate the amazing woman she becomes.

 

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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: Beloved Stranger by Joan Wolf

The theme: A recommended read. I believe it was my friend Janet’s GoodReads review that made me request this from paperbackswap.

Why this one: Not sure, really. I found it in my historicals, realized it was actually contemporary, and decided to go for it.

I originally DNF’d this. The description of the Colombian hero felt othering — “in this enchanted moment he seemed to her almost a god, a strange and mythical being, enormous and overwhelming…” — and the initial sex scene, in which he somehow gives her an orgasm immediately after the obligatory hymen tear, was weird. I moved on to Summer Storm (I have the 2-in-1 edition), but that turned out to be so interesting, I decided to review it for Dear Author, and so I gave Beloved Stranger another try.

Beloved Stranger almost crosses the line into “women’s fiction.” Although the basic plot is certainly a romance staple — unexpected blizzard –> sex with a handsome stranger –> pregnancy –> marriage –> love — the story is very strongly focused on the heroine’s personal journey, and how her feelings about her husband and her marriage complicate it. Ricardo is not only from a wealthy background, and a famous member of the New York Yankees, but he’s used to being the spoiled center of feminine attention at home. He expects Susan to be happy with a traditional society wife role, as his mother and sisters are. But Susan is a quiet, somewhat introverted person with aspirations to write. When she realizes that she loves Ricardo, she feels intensely vulnerable, because she doesn’t feel that she knows him at all, and because she fears she can’t be what he wants.

He was pleased with her; she knew that. Why shouldn’t he be? In all their relationship so far she had conformed to what his idea of a wife ought to be. She had been as docile and tractable as her mother thought her. She had bent before the overpowering force of Ricardo’s personality, given in to all his wishes. But if the day came when she had to stand up for herself? If she stopped being what he thought a wife should be?

She shivered a little, suddenly cold in the pleasant heat of the ballroom.

For Susan, writing is “the door into her deepest self,” but she faces the classic challenges for creative women: lack of time, of space, and of support from people who take her needs seriously. Still, she perseveres, and finds that that she can be her own person and happily married.

Nothing really dramatic happens in this story; there are no big upheavals or misunderstandings. It’s just about two intensely private people learning to know and care for each other. If you like gentle marriage of convenience stories, check it out.

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #9

Harlequin Present #9 – Wife Without Kisses by Violet Winspear

wife

 

Best line: “I could forgive you anything–everything,” she said simply. “If you killed me in anger it wouldn’t matter, if you did it.”

Notes of interest: The first of my rereads with a hero who isn’t from a romantic clime. I hadn’t realized that trend started at the very beginning.

It’s funny that this one has such a direct title, compared to the more subtle and evocative titles of the other early Harlequins, because in tone it’s far less like a category romance and more like a novel. We get numerous points of view, including that of the hero, and more time is spent on other relationships than on the romance.

I had some issues with the book. One is that the story, scenes, and characters are clearly heavily inspired by Rebecca. (Curiously, this is the second time I’ve encountered such a book this week.) Another is that the infantilization of the heroine is taken to absurd extremes; virtually every time she is mentioned or spoken to, a word such a “young” or “child” or “little” is used to describe her. Her husband actually compares her to their adopted baby several times. And she’s just dreadfully wet — the characterization of a very shy, insecure young woman is not a patch on Du Maurier’s. (Weirdly, Winspear apparently used exactly the same plot of this book again two years later.)

Even so, it was kind of a compelling story , and though it feels far more dated than the other books, I enjoyed it more than anything else I’ve tried so far. I think it actually helps that so little time was spent on the primary relationship, and that very little happens physically between them. Mainly I think it was interesting because it actually aimed to be about complicated people, rather than all plot. It wasn’t especially deep or subtle, but it was something.

I’m quite sure I read this one in the past; the cover is familiar, and several scenes rang bells in my mind.

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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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