A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge March 2020: Summer Campaign by Carla Kelly

CW: attempted rape in the story

 

The theme: Seasons.

Why this one: It arrived fortuitously for the theme, and also the circumstances, as Kelly is a great comfort read.

If I’d tried this traditional Regency back in my “nobody is any good but Heyer” days, I would have been — who knows, possibly was — too annoyed by the similarities to enjoy it. Nowadays I can see that though there is definitely some Heyer (and Austen) language and character influence, Kelly already had her own, very appealing voice.

The somewhat episodic story follows Onyx Hamilton, a poor relation who is on her way to refurbish the vicarage of her deathly dull Mr. Collins of a fiance. Onyx is rescued from a terrible highwayman attack by Major Jack Beresford, who is shot saving her. Of course, it’s necessary for her to nurse him back to health and for them to pretend to be married while she does.

As usual with Kelly, there isn’t much angst between Onyx and Jack, their only conflict being the fact that she was an illegitimate foundling and he’s heir to a title. They have an immediate rapport of gentle teasing and mutual care, especially since fever from his wound increases Jack’s nightmares about wartime. Onyx has her own emotional burdens, particularly the loss of her twin during the war, and the simply dreadful way her so-called family reacted to it. One of the most visceral aspects of the attack is her few mementos of her brother being stolen and maliciously destroyed.

So there’s fear and grief and sadness in this story, but Kelly’s characters always give each other emotional boosts which leave me feeling warmed. They’re a great read in a lonely world.

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TBR Challenge: Whispers of Heaven by Candice Proctor

The theme: A holiday read. I declare the new holiday, “National Going Off-Theme Day.”

Why this one: After browsing through a ridiculous number of books for mentions of Christmas, and then DNFing every single one I found, I craved something rich and satisfying. Also, this one keeps spawning on my TBR shelves!

Set in colonized Tasmania  during the Victorian era, Whispers of Heaven includes much of what I hope to see in historical romance. It has a strong sense of time and place, including vivid descriptions of the beauty of the land, much loved by heroine Jessie. It justifies its historical setting through exploration of the mores of the time — particularly the power differentials of class and sex. It makes an innate plea for justice and compassion without making the main characters incongruously enlightened. And though I suppose it’s not essential, I never mind a forbidden love story.

Jessie and her brother Warrick are members of the wealthy ruling class in Tasmania, but their lives aren’t entirely free of troubles. The deaths of their four siblings and father have left them to carry out their stern mother’s insistence on proper role. (Warrick has even inherited his brother’s fiance.) While Warrick is pettishly defiant, Jessie struggles to fulfill the role she’s been born to, while also finding ways to express herself: studying science, and secretly befriending the town “fallen woman” for real conversations. But when a brooding Irish convict-labourer is assigned to be her groom, Jessie begins to have questions about the ethics of her family’s way of life, and about the possibility of happiness in her arranged marriage. The more she gets to know Lucas Gallagher, the more she cares for him, leading her to the age old question: “Where is the line between what a woman owes to others and what she owes herself?”

This is an immersive, adventurous, romantic story, and Lucas is an excellent hero: brave, tortured, and able to believably say things like “Even before there were stars in the sky, I was loving you.” But somehow, though I enjoyed it very much as I was reading it, I wound up admiring the book more than I really got swept away by the romance. It might be because Jessie comes off as bland, or because the theme is a little too in-your-face… or maybe it’s just the timing. In any event, I certainly recommend it.

 

 

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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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TBR Challenge: The Awakening by Jude Deveraux

The theme: A random book.

Why this one: I was cleaning out my unread Deverauxs, feeling like the right time in my life to read them was past, but I could not resist the description of “a hot-blooded union organizer” hero. My grandpa would have been proud.

(Damn, I suppose I should’ve reached in the cabinet and pulled a book out at random? Too late now.)

The Awakening reminded me that the Deveraux books I’ve enjoyed the most have all been North American-set historicals… and that she thinks up some great stories. The setting of 1913 California is unusual enough, but when you add in the plight of migrant workers, it puts in some compelling history.

The romance plotline is compelling too, at least for much of the book. Hank Montgomery, an economics professor who works with unions, is invited to the Caulden family ranch in hopes he will soften towards their side in a brewing union battle. There he finds a truly weird set-up: Caulden’s wife is hidden away, and his daughter Amanda is subject to the strict rules and schedules of her tutor/fiance, who controls every aspect of her life, down to when and for how long she uses the bathroom. Obedient and adoring Amanda is instructed to entertain Hank and keep him on schedule, too.

It’s love at first sight for Hank — or maybe it would be, if Amanda wasn’t such a know-it-all prissy bore. For her part, Amanda is frustrated and upset with this man who uses the bathroom whenever he wants, insists on huge delicious meals, and makes her feel things that upset the way everything should be. Their interactions are romantically offbeat because a lot of the time they genuinely don’t like each other, yet they’re continually forced into intriguing intimacy. (Such as Hank having to brush Amada’s hair.)

Hank isn’t always a great guy here (though he usually recognizes when he’s messed up.) To be honest, none of the main characters behaves truly honorably — everybody cheats on everybody else — which I guess makes it sort of even out in the end.  Also, though basically a beta hero, Hank lives up to Willa’s law — so if you’re very sensitive about dubious consent and sexual coercion, avoid this one. Hank’s carefree bachelor sexual history is kind of irksome too; he seems to belong to the “nobody gets pregnant unless they have sex 24/7” school of thought. No wonder there were so many Montgomerys.

Even so, about two-thirds of the book felt fresh and captivating — but then the last third pissed away a lot of the tension. The plot meanders to keep things going, and the most action-filled moments in the book are written at a remove. Perhaps this is because, as the author’s note explains, Hank and his union organizing were based on a real person and actual events. The descriptions of the workers’ living conditions are vivid and sickening; it’s a shame the union plot aspects aren’t better integrated into the story.

Still, just having an older historical romance touch on how badly migrant workers were treated feels important to me. The genre has so many romantic Southern plantations and wealthy ranches — I just finished a Diana Palmer book in which the union organizers were the baddies —  that it’s good to see acknowledgement of the exploitation that often accompanies wealth. (Racism isn’t addressed, btw.) If you want a historical read that really isn’t the same old thing, this fits the bill in a number of ways.

 

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