A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

If the Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman

CW: sizism

 

Very mixed feelings on this one. As friends-to-lovers stories go, it’s my favorite kind — we only get the heroine’s point of view, so I didn’t have to sit through a bunch of “woe is me, I can’t risk the friendship!” And the hero is adorable, as is the other man, and even the other woman isn’t half bad. I enjoyed the Phillipines setting, and since a wedding is involved, we get to see a lot of cultural family dynamics.

But beware the fatphobia! I feel for Martha, I really do — she’s trying to be positive about her size, in a culture where she’s so out of normal range, she has to have everything custom made.  “Most girls my age in this country  were beautiful, with slim, petite bodies and on the verge of the next stage of their life…I was nothing like the girls my age. I was a 200-pound blip in that statistic.” (Late in the book she visits London and is so thrilled to be able to just find clothes.) Her family doesn’t help, unsurprisingly.

But her internalized issues, or perhaps the author’s, spill out of every part of the book like sideboob. Even the sex scenes seemed to be designed to show how difficult her weight makes things, every single time. (I weigh more than Martha and I don’t have the problems she has!) Her fat comes into the simplest things — after a fight, Martha “walked towards the door to open it, making sure the only thing Max could see of me were my back rolls.” She doesn’t even just have a back.

There’s also missed potential. Early on, Martha says “I felt like I was still waiting for my life to begin, but my weight had nothing to do with that.” Then we discover that in fact, her low self-esteem has stopped her from realizing that she was loved — twice. But the story never really goes anywhere with that. It goes off on a tangent instead.

I know other fat readers have just loved this, so there may be more to it than I got out of it. But I was disappointed.

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TBR Challenge: Rising Moon by Lori Handeland

CN: Ableism and racism.

The theme: a series book

Why this one: I don’t think I really expected to finish it? And now I wish I hadn’t.

The first two books in this paranormal romance series weren’t great but kind of hooked me anyway — glasses-wearing hero in the first, sacrificial hero in the second. But they’ve gotten pretty samey as they go on, and with the background switched to New Orleans, the woo-woo elements have become more and more squirm-producing: I’m pretty sure I DNF’d the previous book from the synopsis about a white voodoo priestess alone.

Unfortunately, the author seems to have asked herself to hold her own beer. This was all kinds of problematic.

But before I start on that — is it at least a good story? I vote mostly no. As is typical for the series, the narrator is a tough, single-minded heroine who meets a hero with seeeeecrets. Anne’s hard-boiled narrative stretched plausibility numerous times, with her frequently not seeming to notice much that her life was in imminent danger. Add in countless explanations about the 500 different types of werewolf and how they operate and excitement never really has much chance to build. I’ll give it that it has some nice chemistry, because Handeland does give good hero. But then…

*HUGE COMPLETELY SPOILERY RANT ALA WENDY*

First off, hero John is blind. And the representation is just about as terrible as it can be, short of fetishization. We only get Anne’s point-of-view and it’s all how terrible to be stuck in darkness blah-blah-blah. So that’s bad enough, but then the big reveal — which is actually pretty obvious — John isn’t actually blind at all! He’s been faking it as… some kind of disguise? This was during one of the duller sections so I may have dozed off. And this all ties in to Anne’s feeling like John only found her attractive because he was blind, so woohoo, he really does!

So that’s terrible on top of terrible. And the terrible cherry on top of this terrible sundae is that John’s dark past is he is a freaking evil werewolf (a particular one of the 500 kinds) because when he was human he was an especially cruel and evil slave-owner. Oh, and did I mention that John’s only friend is a descendent of the slave who cursed him?

Nobody needs this particular redemption narrative! And it isn’t even done well. John’s cure at the end feels like he got over a bad case of the sniffles.

Since this is a particularly harsh review, I will add that I think the author genuinely tried to be respectful about voodoo and its practitioners. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t enough to overcome the really bad themes here.

So, that’s this series sorted, especially since the last one I own has a part-Cherokee heroine. I suspect the two currently on my keeper shelf may slink away in shame.

 

 

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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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Static by L.A. Witt

Set in a parallel universe where some people are genetically “Shifters” — able to shift at will between male and female bodies — this is a good yarn and an excellent metaphor.

Damon heads out to his girlfriend Alex’s house, worried that he hasn’t heard from her since she has bouts of depression and heavy drinking. He find an extremely ill Alex… who is now also a man. Unbeknownst to Damon, Alex is a shifter, and his parents have forced an implant on him to prevent him from shifting back into female form.

As Alex struggles with the (many) ghastly after effects of this betrayal, Damon tries to figure out what their relationship now is. Alex is not bisexual — both forms are attracted to men — but Damon has always been straight.

When I started reading Static, I told my husband “This is the weirdest gay-for-you story ever.” * But towards the end I realized it was actually the most sensible gay-for-you story ever. Damon eventually realizes that Alex the man is still the same person he was in love with, and can still be attractive to him.

Although the slow unfolding of Damon’s feelings works nicely, the relationship is in a holding pattern for three fourths of the story, and the middle sags.  Also, Alex is truly in a dreadful situation and for me, the prose was not up to making that compelling rather than a complete downer. But I was really happy with how the plot went — it so easily could have been a wallbanger for me — and the imaginative take on being genderqueer.

*Hub’s reply: “Unless it was written by Chuck Tingle, no it isn’t.”

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TBR Challenge: Forget Me Not (Mnevermind 2) by Jordan Castillo Price

The theme: Something “different.”

Why this one: I broke my “print books only” rule this month, because my print tbr is 99% historical romance, and .99% contemporary or paranormal romance. I decided to go truly out of my comfort zone with science fiction. As it turned out, most of the science fiction in this trilogy (of the two books I’ve read) was in the first book; the second is almost all romance and character study. So not really all that different; don’t tell the Theme Police.

Forget Me Not is narrated by Elijah Crowe, the autistic man who started mysteriously appearing in Daniel’s mnems in book one. (Mnems, pronounced “neems,” are a bit like programmed dreams– a simplification, but it will do for the purposes of this review.) I was not in love with how Elijah’s autism was perceived by Daniel in The Persistence of Memory, so what a relief and joy it was to discover that he’s not only a beautifully drawn character, but his own narrative is not self-hating.

“‘I see the way you treat Big Dan,’ he said, as the elevator settled and the first floor light went off. ‘Like a regular person.’

Although his use of the word “regular” was problematically inexact, I had a sense of what he meant. Big Dan [Daniel’s father] wasn’t neurotypical, but neither was I. Being neurotypical was overrated, in my opinion — plenty of people like Tod and Ryan were about as ‘regular’ as you could get, and as far as I was concerned, it didn’t make them any more appealing.”

The story is mainly about Elijah’s navigating his newfound interest in another man, something which is difficult for him because the dating rules he’s learned so carefully may not apply. There are a lot of roadblocks in the way, including Daniel’s prejudices, a therapist who believes Elijah may be the victim of a predatory Daniel, a scarily homophobic bully at Elijah’s work, and Elijah’s sensory issues. Not all of these are fully resolved, though I suppose they may be in the third book. (From the reviews, it doesn’t look like they are. I would love to see him find a new therapist who really supports him, doesn’t infantilize him, and for God’s sake, helps him find a non obtrusive stim instead of having him fight it all the time.)

I appreciated that Elijah has neither cute quirky romance novel autism nor cliched lit fic aloof autism. He’s genuinely disabled, but not helpless, and he’s a fully realized, sympathetic, and lovable person. His anxieties strongly resonated with me, and I was saddened by how much he feels the need to change himself for others, even answering the classic “top or bottom” question by deciding,

“I would force myself to be whatever would go best with him. After all, he’d had several years in which to develop his preferences. I was new at being gay. I would adapt.”

Thankfully, Daniel is patient and not at all pushy.

As with the first book, the ending kind of fades away, so it’s really not a complete story. But it’s completely worth reading anyway.

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The Turning Season by Sharon Shinn

(Some spoilers)

This is the third in a paranormal romance series, and reading it gave me the weird feeling it was written to address concerns I had with the previous two books in the series — and perhaps with some other Shinn books as well. Both of the previous books focused on obsessive love of human women for shapeshifters, and they were frankly disturbing. In this book, the female narrator Karadel is the shapeshifter herself, and she’s facing a choice between her charismatic ex-lover, a classic bad boy type who’s also a shifter, and a solid, reliable new man in her life. Astonishingly enough, she goes good — although you could say the choice is made easy for her by her ex going very bad.

I’ve often found Shinn books to be morally ambiguous, to say the least. There are two other Shinn books — Summers at Castle Auburn and The Thirteenth House — in which the main characters use mind control powers to deliberately change someone’s memory, “for his own good.” That’s not exactly what happens here, but Kara is faced with someone she cares about playing God, which creates a serious ethical dilemma for her — as if Shinn is trying to say, “see, I do think about these moral implications!”

I didn’t find it very satisfying though. For one thing, Kara is spared from having to make a real decision, and for another, so much else about the book is perturbing in an unquestioned way. Kara has been pretending her dead mentor (one of the obsessed characters from a previous book, who basically died for love) is still alive; she goes so far as to write letters to the woman’s mother to comfort both of them. And she seems to feel no particular guilt or worry over the ethics of what she’s doing.

In another part of the book, one of  Kara’s friends, a foster mother who is portrayed as deeply committed to caring for and protecting the abused teenager in her care, is described as being thrilled to let him participate in a crime. It’s a crime with the best of intentions, one that will protect many innocent people, but it’s still a crime. She should have at least had to think about it, and the possible ramifications — including losing him.

I love many of Shinn’s books; Angelica is one of my top favorite romance of all times. But I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep reading them if they continue to feel so… unthinkingly morally bankrupt.

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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 Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen

What tickled my fancy: Sensible heroine who doesn’t lose herself in unrequited love.

What ticked me off: E.L. James has much to answer for, and not just crappy BDSM scenes.

Who might like it: Someone looking for a friends-to-lovers story or more realistic, less overwrought NA.

 

It’s very easy for a certain kind of romance to go wrong for me.  Ones in which, say, the fat girl with low self-esteem gets the conventionally gorgeous guy who suddenly discovers he adore curves, despite having only dated rail-thin women in the past… and it’s so obvious that it’s being written as a fantasy, not as something that could reasonably happen.

This manages to escape being one of those books. It is a story about an underdog heroine who gets the gorgeous guy, but it’s a relationship that happens organically, as two friends come to care about each other.

Corey and Hartley get to be friends because they’re both athletes who are sharing the “gimp” floor at college. The difference is, Hartley’s only a temporary gimp, while Corey will never walk unassisted again. But they share a lot of experiences, and are very comfortable with each other. Corey is still physically and psychologically settling into how different her new life is, so having someone to be easy with means a lot. But his gorgeous, perfect, trophy girlfriend makes everything else hard.

I would’ve liked the book so much more if it weren’t for the incessant references to Corey’s imaginary “hope fairy,” which is straight out of Ana Steele’s repertoire. I wish that instead of imagining putting duct tape over the fairy’s mouth, Corey had had a giant foot step on her the first time she appeared. But I appreciated that Corey realizes she needs to take care of herself, get over Hartley, and work on new ways to make herself happy.

Hartley’s feelings towards his girlfriend are interestingly complex — she really is a trophy for him — but I would’ve liked to see his revelation that it was time to end it and follow his heart. And maybe just a teeny bit of suffering for him would’ve been nice… he gets to decide what he wants, and there it is, waiting for him. Though perhaps it’s unfair to complain of that when I’m praising the book’s realism. In any event, the story is very sweet, with just a little bit of touching heartbreak instead of the usual NA hog wallow of angst.

Final thoughts:  Although I didn’t love it, I guess I won’t ask Jane for my money back.

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