A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: The Sugar Rose by Susan Carroll

CW: weight shaming and diet talk in book, a little repellant villain POV

The theme: Sugar or Spice (either very hot or closed door)

Why This One: Double-dipping, as usual these days of oh-so-many reading challenges, this time with the Pop Sugar Challenge.

Book Description:

“THIS IS THE OUTSIDE OF ENOUGH TO BE MAKING MISS SINCLAIR AN OFFER WITH ME SITTING HERE!”

Even Everard Ramsey’s outrage could not dampen the delight that Aurelia Sinclair felt at the prearranged proposal of her childhood sweetheart, Justin, Lord Spencer. If Justin was less than ardent, well…what could such a dowdy, plump girl as herself expect from one of the handsomest bucks in the ton?

His sympathy thoroughly engaged, the fastidious Mr. Ramsey was already forming a most famous plan. If he could but help Aurelia with her wardrobe and sweet tooth, surely his friend Justin would sit up and take notice.

But when a breathtaking Aurelia emerged from her cocoon, slender and radiant, Everard began to wish Justin far away–the better to have his creation all to himself!

I included the blurb because it’s so gaggy that it was a relief to find the book isn’t as bad as it’s painted. Admittedly, if you’re very sensitive about food and weight issues, you should stay away, but the romance is not Pygmalion-esque at all and properly satisfying.

The book does start with Justin offhandedly “proposing” to Aurelia right in front of of his friend Everard. Aurelia regards Everard as an affected dandy — he uses a quizzing glass! — but he’s disgusted by his friend’s disrespectful behavior, and more than a bit taken with Aurelia himself.  Although she has very low self-esteem, she’s witty, frank, and has more physical charms than she believes. Nor are his efforts to help her initially focused on her weight:

“I don’t mean to offer advice where it may not be wanted, but you intrigue me, Miss Sinclair. You have from the first. If you could get past the point of letting Justin treat you with less consideration than he shows his horse, I believe you are exactly the sort of woman he needs.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how much your opinion means to me, sir.” Aurelia glowered, spanning her fingers along her waistline. “Such a nice, sensible, solid sort of woman, is that your estimation?”

“No,” he retorted. “Such a lovely, intelligent woman who, for some strange reason, is at pains to hide her beauty behind a silken monstrosity that resembles a rose garden run amok.”

When Aurelia accepts Everard’s offer, of course they wind up spending a lot of time together. She discovers she’s not actually clumsy while dancing with him, and that he is a far pleasanter person than she’d thought.

When he laughed, it suddenly occurred to her how very much she liked Everard Ramsey this way, the cynical lines of his face relaxing, gentles by his smile. No bored mask of indifference, no elegant dandy hiding behind his quizzing glass. Simply a man who looked at her as if–

Aurelia’s breath caught in her throat. As if it didn’t matter whether she was beautiful. Because it was enough that he made her feel as if she were.

There’s unfortunately some terrible diet crap in this section, but there’s never a sense that Everard is unhappy with Aurelia as she is or that he only falls for her when she loses weight. And there’s psychological symmetry between them: both of them had unloving families but she eats her feelings and he gambles to ignore his.

In the manner of traditional Regencies, there’s some villainous meddling and rather ridiculous high jinks at the end, which I liked more than I expected, because they give both Aurelia and Everard a chance to symbolically move on from their coping mechanisms. It’s definitely a sweet book in more than the euphemistic way, and made me smile.

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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: Beautiful Stranger by Ruth Wind

The Theme: Contemporary romance

Why This One: I’m almost out of print contemporaries!

 

There were two plot elements that made me approach this book with trepidation: the hero is Native American, and the heroine was formerly fat and has lost a lot of weight. Only one of these is in my wheelhouse, but I’d say neither fear was justified. I was a bit put off by the heroine’s thoughts about her former weight, but I can’t say they aren’t true-to-life… and her overall arc won me over.

Marissa Pierce and Robert Martinez aren’t really strangers — both are friends with the Forrest family, heroes of the three previous book in the series, which are loosely linked by a matchmaking theme. (I haven’t read any of the previous books and didn’t find that a problem.) But they only really come to know each other over concern for Robert’s niece Crystal, a pregnant teen who is Robert’s ward and Marissa’s student.

Robert doesn’t want to act on his strong attraction to the very wealthy Marissa, because he thinks she’d just be slumming. Marissa has self-esteem issues of her own, because she’s still far from where she wants to be, and she’s also freaked out by how intense things get between them. These are fairly typical romance themes; what set the book apart for me was how strong a character Marissa is. She has a very full, vibrant life, including a close relationship with her twin, whose issues expressed themselves in under- rather than over-eating. (Her book, sadly, never got written.) Marissa has some guilt around being so rich, founds charities. and doesn’t live a high profile lifestyle, but she also doesn’t hesitate to use money to enrich her life or make it easier. (As someone who grew up very poor, I envy that ease.)

I loved that Marissa is not a pathetic virgin — she had plenty of boyfriends before she lost weight. Despite the changes, she’s not thin and will never achieve a “perfect” body. (Another area I can really relate to.) Her weight loss is based on exercise and mindful eating, which makes it interesting to read about, rather than unutterably tedious and sad, and she is, very realistically, worried about gaining weight again. But it’s clear that Robert always found her attractive, admiring her style and zest for life, and so we don’t have to be concerned that he’ll only love her if she stays smaller. I also loved that she doesn’t put up with any crap about her eating choices from others; she does what she knows works for her and to hell with them.

The side story with Crystal is also very well drawn. She’s an intelligent girl from a horrific background, and she’s dealing with a lot of hidden pain. Her story reminded me a bit of the author’s wonderful The Sleeping Night, which she wrote under the name Barbara Samuel.

I’m glad I took a chance on this one.

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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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