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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The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

After what seemed like way too deliberate a rom/com movie opening (and closing) I was surprised by how much I liked this. It intriguingly plays with several romance themes that are catnip for me; I’m not sure if that’s deliberate or not, but it really worked.

The book starts with a classic opposite twins set-up. Ami is the woman so lucky, every item in her wedding was free; her sister’s ringtone for her is the sound of a jackpot. Whereas Olive is basically a Charlie Brown who always gets a rock instead of Halloween candy. With her history, it’s no wonder that Olive is something of a cynic and pessimist — or is it, as her family often contends, the other way around?

Olive’s seafood allergy turns out to be unexpectedly lucky when she’s one of only two people who doesn’t get extremely sick at her sister’s wedding. Not so luckily, the other is her new brother-in-law, because he’s much too snooty to eat from a buffet. Olive has hated Ethan since he sneered at her, a curvy woman, for eating cheese curds, but now she’s on a honeymoon to Maui with him, and thanks to some truly cosmic bad luck, they’re forced to pretend they’re married.

It’s not a surprise to discover, in an enemies-to-lovers story, that Ethan was actually attracted to Olive from the start, and his hostility and body-shaming was pretty much all in her head, at least initially. But there’s a little more to it: Ethan was discouraged from asking Olive out by his brother, who told Ethan she was always angry. And Olive’s own behavior has been justifying that comment.

Although the plot is exceptionally full of awkward coincidence, and Olive’s antagonism towards Ethan can be a bit much, the Maui section of the book is fun. Olive and Ethan have some wonderful banter, both when they’re hating each other and then when they’re really not.

His mouth makes its way down my body; hands already familiar with my legs now explore my breasts, my stomach, the delicate skin beside my hip bones and lower. I want to take a picture of him like this: his soft hair brushing against my stomach as he makes his way down, his eyes closed in pleasure.

“I think this is the longest we’ve gone without arguing,” he murmurs.

“What if all of this was just a ruse to get a great blackmail photo?” I am breathless as he kisses a string of heat across my novel.

“I’ve always wanted someone who appreciates the long con.”

But things take a turn when they return home, finding themselves in a relationship that suddenly has some very difficult family complications.

Here’s where the twins trope goes a bit sidewise. The good sister/bad sister dichotomy is one I adore, but it’s not what happens here. Olive and Ami love and rely on each other, as they do everyone in their large Latinx family, and neither “deserves” the shit that comes their way.

And then there’s my absolute favorite romance theme: one character betraying the other and breaking their heart. And it’s done here in such a… reasonable, understandable way, that is yet still truly painful and hard to forgive. Mmmm, modern angsty goodness! And it moreover leads to Olive re-evaulating her character and her life in positive ways. Although this is most definitely a romance, it has a bit of a chick-lit element, since the focus is on Olive and her growth as a person. Perhaps that’s just another way in which this is a rom-com.

 

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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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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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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #65: White Rose of Winter by Anne Mather

Harlequin Presents #65

(Image: Book cover is a portrait of a white woman with wavy blonde hair. Inset of a man in a white leisure suit — suede, no doubt — and a little girl, walking together in the sunset, on her neck.)

Best line: 

“In the lounge, Robert put several long-playing records on the hi-fi equipment, and presently the room was filled with the fourth dimensional quality of Burt Bacharach’s music.”

(Would that indicate the lack of timelessness?)

This is not the only sign that we’re in the seventies: the sideburned hero wears suede constantly. I’ll bet he has suede boxers. And it’s not the only oddity of word choice.

Another indication… I guess: the plot hinges on heroine Julie’s dead husband having left guardianship of their daughter Emma to his brother Robert. It’s bizarre to me that that could have been possible in a time I was alive, but I know nothing about British law in the 1970s.

If you enjoy classic Harlequin Present, this is a real page-turner. Lots of misery, punishing kisses, and feelings of betrayal on both sides. The downside is that almost all the female characters are intensely unpleasant, including the heroine. I can cut her some slack for her immaturity in the past, when she was quite young and had all her insecurities played on by her future mother-in-law, but when she doesn’t even think to have an adult conversation with Robert about her daughter’s horrible new governess, I wanted to smack her one.  For that matter, she never tries to have an adult conversation with him about anything — it’s all reaction. I guess he’s not much better.

Also, I really hated how the daughter was badly injured as a plot point, and especially when Robert thanked God it happened, because of the happy results. No! No no no!

So not a great read for the parents out there, but pretty fun otherwise.

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TBR Challenge: Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career by Carla Kelly

The theme: A comfort read.

Why this one: This theme is a bit of a conundrum, because for me a true comfort read is always a reread. But Kelly’s wholesomeness is usually comforting — though I have been burned before — and many of my most loved books are set in schools and colleges.

I’m not sure this traditional Regency will join that list, but it was great fun to read, though with a serious underpinning. Unlike some of Kelly’s darker books, the stakes are small and personal… yet at the same time, universal. Ellen, the daughter of a wealthy squire, would seem to have very little to distress or vex her other than her ridiculous family. But Ellen was unfortunately born with a thirst for scholarship, and all she has to look forward to is the complete waste of her brains and talents. Enter, pursued by creditors, her rascal brother Gordon, who no longer has the money to pay someone to write his Oxford literature essays…

As Ellen begins disguised scholarly research into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure, she has the pleasure of learning from talented educators and reading in the sacred Bodleian library. Her masquerade is assisted by two people: the charming young scholar Jim Gatewood (sadly far too poor to be eligible) and the mysterious Lord Chesney, who for some completely unknown reason is greasing wheels for her socially.

It seems perfect that a book so concerned with Shakespeare should have its share of women passing as men (despite a lingering lavender scent,) men with secrets, ridiculous parents, and unwise pranks. But when all the mysteries have been cleared away, Ellen is still left to wrestle with unanswered questions, and yearnings she can’t satisfy.

As you can expect from Kelly, the main characters of this story are goodhearted, witty, and very pleasant to spend time with — and you have to love how much physicality she can get into a completely “clean” book. (It’s not so much sexual tension as just feeling like these characters crave closeness and don’t much care who knows it.) The plot falters towards the end and the resolution is perhaps a little too realistic to be completely satisfying. But all in all, it’s a delightful romp.

 

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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 Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #20

2592790Harlequin Presents #20: A Distant Sound of Thunder by Anne Mather

Note: This post will be a bit spoilery, but no more so than most of the GoodReads reviews.

Best line: (I guess it wouldn’t be fair to include the “creaming lagoon” line.)

“What did she [the heroine’s employer] think she had seen this morning? What imagined construction had she put upon those moments when she was in Piers’ arms? Did she believe that their lovemaking had exceeded the bounds of what was right and what was wrong?”

Notes of interest: Mather begins her notorious envelope pushing, with a heroine who first gets involved with a married man, and then with his son! (Unknowingly and fairly chastely both times, of course. But give Mather a few years…) Rebecca is also illegitimate and it’s not a plot point.

~~

I was especially eager to read this one — even going out of order — because the cover is actually familiar to me. Although it didn’t ring a bell otherwise, I do find it interesting that this is the first of the project reads that really feels like the Harlequin Presents I know and love. I think that the prose style has become more informal and immediate, the physical interaction are definitely more sensual, and though there are a greater number of secondary characters than you’d find in a more modern HP and some foreign descriptions, the focus stays on the relationship and the drama. Whatever the reason, despite a rather dull beginning in which the heroine is tediously frightened about her feelings for the hero, I actually cared about how this one would come out!

I think naming the heroine “Rebecca” must have been either deliberate or perhaps subconscious, because the opening of the book is rather iconic: heroine in service to a cantankerous, demanding older woman meets mysterious widower. (Or so she thinks.) The plot and characters depart quite sharply after that though, and it’s mostly a story about two lovers destroyed by the malicious schemings of a stereotypically bitter and twisted disabled person. (Our second villain in a wheelchair.) Here’s her after spying on them making out:

“Oh, yes, miss.” Adele’s face was contorted with triumph. “Yes, I watched you, and it’s given me a new lease on life, believe me!”

Oh, she is so deliciously awful.

Making out is as far as it goes, but Mather is moving us beyond kisses. Apparently arms were the hottest thing going in 1973: In order not to be too attractive, Rebecca wears a caftan that “hid the rounded countours of her arms.” This was a smart move, because sure enough, the first time Piers get her alone, “his fingers curved round her upper arm” and “he bent his head and put his his mouth against her arm, caressing it insistently.” This before they’ve even kissed.

The plotting is a touch confusing at times, but I enjoyed this one because Piers isn’t a total asshole and/or mystery. Even without point-of-view, we can tell that he cares, and that his assholish moments are because he cares. He’s a prince compared to pretty much ever other hero I’ve read so far, and as I said, for the first time I was really caught up in seeing this romance work out. Yay!

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #16

7790406Harlequin Presents #16: Wings of Night by Anne Hampson

One of those odd HP covers which shows the hero and heroine smiling happily together, despite the fact that they spend most of the book making each other exquisitely miserable.

Best line: This was hard to pick, with so much hyperbolic racism to choose from, but I’m going with “She turned; Lean was close behind, and as she looked up at him, noting the mingling of cruelty and triumph in his eyes, she though for a moment of his ancestors, those pagans who had lived for battle and the glorious death. And, later, the Cretans had continued their merciless slaughter — living as they did in constant revolt against the Saracens, the Venetians and the Turks. Right down in their history there had been someone to hate… but today there was no one, and so perhaps there existed a vacuum in the life of the average Cretan… perhaps he preferred to have an enemy at hand, a victim to torture and subdue.”

Notes of interest: Nothing new here. Still no nookie. Violence is fairly mild compared to the last Hampson, though that’s not saying much. No fall or other overtly physical dark moment for the heroine, though I don’t know exactly what happens because my @#$%$! Open Library ebook went to pieces right there and apparently quite a few paragraphs were lost.

Melanie was 17 where she broke off her engagement to 24-year-old Leandros. Considering that his response to this left her with bruises, I can only praise her foresight. Seven years later, Lean (a difficult nickname to get used to…) gets his revenge when Melanie’s jerk-wad of a brother rips off Lean’s sister. Melanie goes to Crete to work off the debt in Lean’s hotel, and discovers he has every intention of making her job/punishment as long and difficult and unpleasant as he can. There’s also a particularly Evil Other Woman who devotes herself to making Melanie’s life hell.

It could very easily be too much, but Hampson wisely tempered the awful with an understanding friend for Melanie at the hotel, and with signs of softening in Lean over time. The best angsty moment, alas, was not available.

Despite the old skool wtfery (Lean gets quite scary and you have to take the HEA with the usual grain of salt), vast paragraphs of travelogue interrupting the good moments, and the fact that there are about twenty different eavesdropping scenes in one short book, this was pretty fun. One of the better stops in my weird crusade.

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TBR Challenge: the Lady’s Companion by Carla Kelly

The theme: A RITA nominee or winner. This won for Best Regency in 1997.

Why this one: It was between this and Stealing Heaven by Madeline Hunter, and I’d used a Hunter book for May. I managed to completely forget that I’d used a Kelly book for June. Oops.

The first chapters of this had tears pricking constantly in my eyes (though nothing compared to how much I’d be crying by the end.) It’s Susan’s 25th birthday, and her birthday wish is for “someone, anyone, to rely on.” Her father’s gambling has taken away everything Susan cares about, most especially her dream for a husband and children — she’s beautiful and bright, but what respectable gentleman would take on a penniless woman with her family baggage?

When things have hit almost rock bottom and Susan faces a life of unpaid drudgery, she decides to boldly seek a life of paid drudgery instead. This takes her to the employment office of Joel Steinman, and I can’t tell you how long it took me to get over the fact that this sweet, one-armed, Jewish tradesman was not going to be her hero. Damn, I love him. (As of a year ago, Kelly was speculating about writing a story for him… I’ll be first in line to buy it.)

Our actual hero is almost as appalling a Prince Charming for our Cinderella — an illegitimate Welsh bailiff, badly scarred from having been whipped for stealing in the army. (Even his last name, Wiggin, was stolen.) He is also steadfast, brave, and caring… a perfect match for our steadfast, brave, and caring heroine, if she can look past their class differences. As they join together in their attempts to help their elderly employer keep her independence, those differences begin to seem less and less important.

This is a more sensual story than any of the older Kellys I’ve read. Susan’s physical attraction to David Wiggin is extremely strong, and often keeps her up nights, pondering the mysteries of sex. There’s some pretty earthy humor, too. But love and devotion of all kinds are the heart of the book — it celebrates the bonds of a chosen family, which can be more meaningful than those of birth.

 

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