A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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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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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Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt

I love reformed villain romances in theory, but in practice find that too often the villains get watered down in their own books. Duke of Sin did not disappoint. Val, Duke of Montgomery, might not be a textbook sociopath (he seems to embody aspects of both sociopathy and psychopathy) but he’s pretty damn close. He’s made more palatable with a ghastly backstory, love of his illegitimate sister, and a fastidious dislike of rape, but his lack of a moral compass is genuine.

What makes him stand out amongst historical romance’s other so-called blackhearted rogues, rakes, and scoundrels is not just how genuinely wicked he is — blackmail, abductions, premeditated murder — but his enjoyment of his own wickedness. Although he does have have some moments of tortured brooding, most of the time he’s either amused or bemused by himself, having been so thoroughly twisted that he embraces his own amorality. His gleeful self-satisfaction and mercurial temperament make him a lot of fun to read, even if you’d never want to actually meet him. (Oh good grief, is he a handsome, historical Donald Trump? Sorry! Forget I said that!)

So how does he get reformed? He’s matched with a woman with the courage and ability to tell him what’s what. A housekeeper in the old-fashioned sense — one who supervises a household — Bridget, nicknamed Seraphine by Val, is exceptionally competent and mature (although implausibly young.) She’s also self-contained and courageous, and though unable to resist Valentine’s golden charms, always sees him with a clear eye. And she’s the perfect person to provide him with moral guidance, though perhaps it might be confusing at times:

“‘But I don’t understand. You’re saying that at times it’s perfectly all right for me to kill a man.’

‘Well…’ She bit her lip and he could tell she was trying not to say it, but in the end she had to. ‘Yes.’

He smiled very slowly at her. ‘Seraphine, are you making these rules up?'”

I just had to quote that, it made me laugh so much.

There are some parts of the story I thought could have been fleshed out more, generally reactions or decisions by Val that we didn’t get to see. But overall, I’d put this in the top ten list of historical romances titled Duke of Sin.

 

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TBR Challenge: Angel in a Red Dress by Judith Ivory

CW: Mention of rape.

The theme: a favorite trope.

Why this one: It was the only TBR book I picked up that I felt like reading, though the main tropes — rake in pursuit and spying — are far from favorites of mine.

I think this book, originally titled Starlit Surrender, was Ivory’s first, and it shows. It’s occasionally far from subtle in the storytelling, as you can see in this offhand phrase:

“All three — Thomas, Sam, and Charles — were in league with Adrien to rescue French aristocrats destined for the guillotine.”

This blunt “telling” of a deep secret had already been “shown” perfectly clearly, and I can only assume Ivory had a really crap editor (who perhaps made her insert it.) The same editor obviously didn’t give a hang about historical accuracy, since the hero, Adrien, is breeding roses in the footsteps of Mendel around thirty years before Mendel was born.

The worst part of the story though, is that Adrien rapes Christina in a particularly chilling way — not violently or to punish her as is common in old skool romance, but over a long period of time, while she is essentially his prisoner. It’s too reminiscent of a realistic situation to be glossed over as “forced seduction” though Christina is depicted as ambivalent. (There’s an attempted rape later, not by the hero, which she fights off quite effectively.) The fact that this is all seen through Adrien’s entitled eyes and he barely realizes what he’s doing to her makes it particularly upsetting.

Nonetheless, this is Judith Ivory, which means much of the writing is elegant and gorgeous, especially in the sex scenes that aren’t horrible. She writes so evocatively about attraction and intimacy; early scenes which play with consent are wonderfully done, which makes it even sadder that it got so ugly later on.

There’s also what seems to be deliberate trope subversion. Adrien is highly intelligent, a brilliant strategist and playing a very dangerous game of intrigue, but he’s not the omnipotent historical hero we often see. He’s often taken by surprise, vulnerable, even prone to highly unromantic physical ailments. I adore the classic cool hero, but I enjoyed seeing a more human version. Attempts to give Christina greater depth than the usual feisty redhaired heroine aren’t completely successful, but I appreciated the effort. You can see the seeds here of the amazing writer Ivory would become.

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TBR Challenge: Winterbourne by Susan Carroll

The theme: A recommended read.

Why this one: One of my oldest TBR books; it was mentioned in the paperbackswap forums as an underrated classic. I’ve been intimidated by it — longish scary Medieval! —  but I’ve felt like I have my historical mojo back, so it seemed like the time.

Favorite line: “God’s blood, if this isn’t the last thing I needed to find out today, that I am sire to some half-lunatic Sir Galahad.”

Like many good Medievals, Winterbourne is a story around power. I have a theory that Medievals fell out of favor because many readers want their romance heroes to be at the absolute top of the power chain, and that doesn’t lend itself to stories like this one. Our hero is indeed a rich and mighty warrior… but king John is royally pissed at him, and it really didn’t pay to upset the king. Although he accidentally brings Jaufre and Melyssan together at the start — she pretends to be Jaufre’s wife to escape John’s lascivious attentions — his spite and malice also frequently separates them and causes them great suffering.

There’s also internal conflict to the story, because although Jaufre can take a severe whipping without a sound, he becomes a petulant child when faced with his own emotions. After being betrayed by his first wife, he finds it hard to trust Melyssan, and fears losing his heart again; Diana Palmer-style, his guilt over treating her badly just makes him treat her worse. As old skool epic romance heroes go though, he’s practically a saint — i.e. no rapes, brutality, or infidelity.

I found this easier to read than I expected, though it definitely has some meat on its bones. Jaufre is a bit irritating, but does have a satisfying redemption arc.

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A Past Revenge by Carole Mortimer

Yesterday I DNF’d one of the creepiest books I’ve ever encountered: Wanting by Penny Jordan. The “hero” is a model of the entitled rapey guy who thinks that his attraction to a woman means she belongs to him, and any rejection on her part is “teasing.” (Which, of course, makes him even MORE entitled to her.) And the heroine’s best friend aides and abets him in stalking and trapping her! Seriously ugh!

This book was similar in some ways, yet also an excellent antidote. The hero is the same kind of instantly possessive guy, aggressive enough to make advances to the heroine right in front of his current lover. But Danielle has been rather handily inoculated — they have past history, although he doesn’t recognize her — and she utterly loathes him, with good reason. When Nick forces a savage kiss on her, she’s had it and decides it’s time for revenge:

She has tried to treat him like any other client, had intended being polite to him if nothing else, but he had made that impossible from the first, was intent now on punishing her for the fact that she didn’t want him as he wanted her. But she had been punished enough in the past by this man, wasn’t prepare to accept his cold-blooded arrogance for a second time.

As you can see from the excerpt, the prose gets pretty sloppy with the comma splices; these aren’t even the worst examples. But it’s a hell of a story. I love the way Danielle continually challenges Nick’s offensive behavior, even getting pissed enough at him not to melt in his arms, as all good Harlequin heroines are required to do. She genuinely has the power in the relationship, which is pretty rare, and she knows it and uses it. I think she’s a little too forgiving in the end — Nick isn’t quite as bad as she thought, but was still very cruel to her — but I’d say he suffers enough for satisfaction. Great read.

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TBR Challenge: Connal by Diana Palmer

Another year, another tbr challenge. I don’t think I’ve missed a month for the last two years! And my print TBR has definitely shrunk to what I find a manageable size, though it would probably still make the average person run screaming into the night. I really should figure out what would be a good tipping point at which I could give up my “print books only” rule.

The challenge: A short book.

Why this one: Since I’m going with print, I naturally veered toward category romance. I haven’t read Palmer in a while and her siren call of “older alpha male who treats the innocent heroine badly” was calling to me.

I have what I’ve described as a hate-hate relationship with Diana Palmer’s books. I generally think they’re dreadful; it’s quite a shock if I give one a rating higher than 2 stars. But they hit some very weird spot, and I have a few on my keeper shelf.

Connal is her usual formula: Innocent but feisty heroine who adores the much older, tall dark and hairy hero. (In this case, I think he’s only 8 years older — practically younger than her by Palmer standards.) Meanwhile he gaslights her in the traditional way of “c’mere c’mere c’mere, get away get away get away.” It’s less cringe-worthy than many later books in the mold because the heroine hasn’t been made completely downtrodden; she has a loving father, a nice home, and a sweet boyfriend. (Who will never get his own book, or if he does, will have been transmogrified into a complete Alphole.)

The conflict is that Connal goes on a bender every year because his insanely jealous wife — a pot/kettle situation if ever there was one — died while being insanely jealous, and also while pregnant. And if you know Palmer at all, you won’t be surprised to learn that that’s what really upsets him. Penelope — Pepi — is the one to succor Connal during these yearly lapses, but she gets more than she bargained for when a soused Connal insists she marry him or he’ll shoot up the joint. They’re in Mexico at the time and Pepi assumes the marriage won’t be legal. Wrong-o.

Pepi decides it would be better to deny the whole thing and convince Connal that he was dreaming — which gives Connal the perfect excuse to be cruel to her when the truth inevitably comes out. Of course, in Palmer land, any excuse will justify a hero being cruel.

As you know, Bob, I kind of like these stories. Much in the way I kind of like 5 gallon vats of ice cream. But this one was somehow a little too squirmy… I felt like the book was gaslighting me. When Connal assures Pepi that she can do anything in bed and he’ll never use it against her, all I could think about was how he used her most sensitive points against her before (she think’s she’s fat, for one) and then had no compunction about doing it the next time he got pissed off. Pepi very sensibly worries about this issue herself, but then it’s all blown away in the joy of requited love. Unfortunately, in my experience, requited love doesn’t stop the occasional fight, and a lover who immediately goes for your jugular when he’s in a bad mood is a poor marriage risk. Add in the way he constantly talks about how possessive his late wife was, while demonstrating ridiculous levels of possessiveness and jealousy himself, and I’m pretty sure Pepi is eventually going to find herself all alone on a ranch with no car or phone service.

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TBR Challenge: A Night of Living Dangerously by Jennie Lucas

The theme: A holiday romance. Or not.

What tickled my fancy: Pain, pain, gratitude and joy. (An old Star Trek joke.)

What ticked me off: Cliches come hard and fast and lie thick on the ground,

Who might like it: Fans of angsty Harlequin Presents who aren’t easily put off by asshat heroes. (Asshat in a very modern way. I didn’t think he was so bad.)

The holiday romance theme is always difficult for me, because I’m not a big fan of them and don’t tend to buy obvious holiday books. This year, it was like my TBR was mocking me: I’d dig through, magically find a book with Christmas in it, start it, and find it unreadable. After the third try, with only a few hours left, I said the hell with it and grabbed the first Harlequin Presents on the pile. It turned out to have a mention of December and decorations for the season. Thanks, TBR!

I was afraid at first this would be another for the scrap heap, because the first chapters are not auspicious. Lusting monologues plus navel gazing = zzzzzz. The plot is basically Cinderella meets unplanned pregnancy, as so many Harlequin Presents are. After the inevitable marriage, it becomes more of an attempted makeover story. I enjoyed this part more, because the timid, insecure heroine Lilley comes into her own. There’s some juicy suffering for both, and the hero does his best to make things up to her; I was quite happy with it by the end.

Allesandro seems to be universally reviled at GoodReads, but I cut him a lot of slack for putting aside his old bitterness and betrayal and being willing to trust Lilley. It all comes back to bite them on the ass, of course, but that’s what makes an HP an HP.

 

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The Probably Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #186

 

 

 

 

Trigger warning: Extreme fat shaming.

 

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Harlequin Presents #186: A Bitter Loving by Lilian Peake

Best line: “Karen looked at Charles, who, at that moment, was contemplating the rising mound of his stomach as if it were a tumulus of great archaeological importance.”

Notes of interest: Implied unmarried sex.

***

I’m going completely out of reading order here, but I just had to reread this one when I found it. It’s one of the three HPs that I remember vividly from my adolescence — even the blurb was instantly familiar to me when I saw it. The book probably stuck with me because I was intrigued by a heroine who was fat as a child. On the other hand, it’s also a hell of a blurb:

 

Karen went toward the painting of Glenn like someone sleepwalking. Then, in a spasm of violent, uncontrollable anger, she plunged the points of the scissors into the canvas and ripped it open.

When she saw the results of her action and her brain started to spell out just what she’d done, she was appalled.

“Well,” Glenn asked, “have you got me out of your system?”

Out of her system? “Dear heaven,” Karen thought, “I’ve got you so much into my system that you’re part of the very blood running through my veins.”

 

Since I started reading Harlequin Presents again and keeping records, I’ve tried 4 Lilian Peake books. One I rated one star, two were DNFs, and one I hated so much I gave it one star even though it was also a DNF. But even without the nostalgia factor, I might have continued this one. It’s very odd, and oddly compelling.

Although the term isn’t used, Karen was — or is — clearly anorexic. She’s undergone treatment but I don’t think she could be considered cured, because her relationship with food and weight is still very fucked up. The book is filled with ugly fat shaming, and yet in a way it almost didn’t bother me, because much of it is clearly part of the heroine’s messed up psyche, and she’s aware of that herself. She also points out Glenn’s weight prejudice to him:

“I suppose,” she persisted, “you think that because Jerome’s fat, his mind is therefore stodgy and dull, which is how you described mine. But,” she pressed on in spite of the sharp gesture of annoyance which Glenn made, “he’s passionately fond of music, which means that deep down he’s sensitive and maybe even artistic.” Glenn Earl was silent, so she went on, consciously inciting him. “Which you, as his art teacher, should have discovered. And encouraged.”

It’s miles far from an enlightened book as far as body acceptance goes, so be wary, but there is a little nuance.

Glenn was Karen’s high school art teacher. (And how weird is that for a Harlequin Presents hero profession? But he’s also a very successful artist, so it’s okay.) Karen’s memories of being a fat child in high school are unsurprisingly dismal, and many of them center around Glenn, who mocked her when she was his student.

That was hard for me to get past. Blackmailing rapist heroes sure… or at least maybe. A hero who is cruel to a 13 year old child? Especially a poor child who is already the subject of persecution? Especially when the basis is his own prejudice? Yeech.

I’ve had cruel teachers and 30 years later, would still happily kick them in the giblets. Karen loves and hates Glenn, and she focuses most of her remembered misery on him. It’s not exactly clear why she’s come back to live in her old home and work at her old school — she seems to think she’s seeking revenge, but all she wants is to avoid him. She’s definitely far too depressed and aimless to have a plan.

I had trouble with numerous aspects of this story. The portrayal of the Evil Other Woman is particularly virulent, and Karen’s so-called friends laughingly betray her at every turn. Karen makes herself into a doormat for someone, threatening her health and well being. (She could be the subject of an interesting fictional “why she stayed” discussion.) The approach to an attempted rape is simply infuriating. Glenn comes off as something of an idiot as well as an unreformed asshole — his ex-wife threatens to destroy all his work if he visits Karen, and he still continues to share studio space with her?  And this is where he draws his ethical line:

“By God,” he muttered, “I can’t do it. I have some standards after all. I can’t take another man’s woman…”

Finally, after all that, the resolution is abrupt and unsatisfying. But it’s an interesting book, if you can read it with some detachment.

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The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

I loved Revealed so much, and every other Noble book I’ve tried has been a sad disappointment to me. Until now.

It’s not that I think this is a great book. I’d have to read it in print to feel like I could properly evaluate it, but it definitely had its fair share of historical cliches and commonplace writing. Still, what an interesting concept and characters!  The hero Ned is challenging in an unusual way, yet one extremely suited to a Regency-set historical: he’s privileged, and selfish, and has no idea of how much of his much vaunted “luck” is due to his circumstances. That’s the premise: his former friend, now turned highly resentful secretary, bets him that Ned won’t be able to attract a woman without his rank and wealth. To test it, they switch places on a visit to relative strangers. Ned, of course, gets a thorough comeuppance as he learns how invisible (and even offensive) he is without his trappings of wealth and rank.

The audiobook was also “challenging.” Accents are very well done, always a plus, but Ned’s voice is so high-pitched and foolish sounding that I was considerably bemused as it started to become clear he was the book’s hero! After a while though, I started to approve of it — it seemed like just the sort of voice a hearty, amiable, unenlightened lord would have, and the fact that it wasn’t  at all attractive made it kind of cooler when Phoebe (a governess who’s not supposed to be outwardly attractive herself) fell in love with him. So the audiobook narrative stopped me from finding the book sexy, but in some ways made it more interesting.

And the romance did work. In Revealed, there’s a phrase — “it’s just me” — that became integral to the blossoming relationship. Here the special phrase was “your Mr. Turner.” Phoebe is flabbergasted when the servants start referring to Ned as “your Mr. Turner” as if there’s something between them, yet it starts to seem more and more appropriate. Eventually she starts to hug the phrase to herself; “my Mr. Turner.” It’s very sweet and resonant.

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