A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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.

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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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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #13

Harlequin Presents #13: A Kiss from Satan

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Trigger warnings may be redundant when discussing old Harlequins, but just in case: warning for domestic violence

Best line: “‘I must admit that until a short while ago, I hadn’t given much thought to the idea of marriage–‘ He broke off and for one fleeting second his lips curved in contempt. ‘A man doesn’t really need to these days – when women are so cheap.'”

Notes of interest: This may be the first Greek Tycoon. The bedroom door is so firmly shut, we miss the first month of their marriage. But we do get to witness the hero shaking the heroine until she’s almost unconscious, as punishment for ordering him around. Lucky us.

~~

As I read this, I half expected D’Hoffryn to appear to recruit our heroine Gale as a vengeance demon. After being cheated on by her fiance, Gale has deliberately become a femme fatale, trying to punish all men for being the rotten beasts they are. She’d like Greek hunk Julius to be her next victim, but unfortunately he sees through her right away.

I’m not sure which next parts of the plot I found weirder:

— that after narrowly escaping being raped by Julius, Gale not only stays in the house alone with him, but cooks them both breakfast. (Addendum 7/11/14:  some further thoughts on this.)

— that Gale agrees to marry Julius because her mother threatens to leave Gale’s philanderer father for another man if she doesn’t.

— that Gale’s mother was actually in a conspiracy with Julius.

Like Hampson’s last HP, Waves of Fire, this had a tendency towards long pauses in the action. Something dramatic happens, then the hero leaves and nothing else happens for a long time. I rather missed that when the shaking began. It had been a pretty good read until then — Gale’s interactions with her family are interesting — but that was so upsetting, I almost quit the book. There was no reason for me to be glad I continued; there aren’t even any repercussions from the shaking… in fact, she apologizes to him at the end!

I’m not sure I can face the next Anne Hampson.

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The Probably-Not-So-Big Harlequin Presents Read #11

Harlequin Presents #11: Who Rides the Tiger by Anne Mather

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I liked this cover until I figured out that what’s going on is she’s holding her arms above her head, while wearing a most peculiar dress.

Best line: “I’ve never danced to beat music before,” she confessed. “I’m quite a square really.”

Notes of interest: Hero is badly hurt, rather than heroine. Heroine is a smoker. Heaving breasts alert! The heroine dumps her fiance to marry someone else and plans to use the same wedding dress — were the seventies really that practical? It seem incredibly tacky. The hero gets married in silk! Almost an in-joke: “well, forced seduction is a crime, isn’t it?”

I was thinking about skipping this one, but skimming ahead saw that there might be an actual sex scene! So I had to read it after all, for, you know, historical interest. And would you believe it, the scan messes up right there! I think we’re still at closed bedroom door, though.

Dominique travels to Brazil to marry her fiance, and discovers that he’s turned into a giant hippie.

Then she recognized John, but he had changed enormously. He now sported a thick beard and moustache [watch out, Dominique!] and his hair had grown rather long since his arrival. Big and broad, dressed in demin slacks and a brilliant orange shirt, he looked almost a stranger.

His boss, on the other hand, is a 1970’s dreamboat.

Dressed in close-fitting cream pants and a cream silk sweater which was unbuttoned almost to his waist revealing the dark mass of hairs on his broad chest he looked lithe and masculine.

Wait, where’s the gold medallion? Anyway, Vincente is so awesome, he has to refer to himself in the third person.

“See–” he muttered fiercely, “I’m trembling too. This is not Santos’s way, believe me! I have wanted many women — and I have taken them. You — I respect. You — I am prepared to give my name!”

Vincente convinces Dominique to marry him — at this point, they’ve met about three times — and that’s when the fun really begins.

This was the first of the oldie reads that really felt like a proper Harlequin Presents to me. It wasn’t that different from the previous Mather books, but the pieces fit together better, somehow. Angst was achieved, so I’m happy.

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TBR Challenge: All Things Beautiful by Cathy Maxwell

The theme: Any holiday.

Why this one: I don’t have any holiday books! Not in print, anyway. Even my emergency unread Mary Baloghs failed me. I skimmed through some oldies and this one ends at Christmas, albeit rather grimly.

It’s a convenient marriage Regency, in which the socially ruined Julia is forced to marry Brader Wolf, a wealthy “cit” who only wants her estate. Julia, who comes from an unspeakably awful family, hopes to have a child to love, but Brader initially despises her and is very resistant to having any kind of real marriage. Meanwhile, Julia’s dastardly brothers are scheming about how to separate Julia from Brader, and Brader from his money.

I enjoyed this more than I expected to. Spoiled, tempestuous society beauty, that’s pretty much an instant ugh. But although Julia may have been all of those things in the past, as this story opens she’s a more mature and thoughtful person who’s learned from her bad experiences. (Though not always enough.) She tries to make the best of her situation and move forward.

I was iffier about Brader. As the story continues it becomes clear (to the reader) that he’s developed feelings for Julia, and I’m a sucker for that in a heroine-pov-only romance. But he’s often quite nasty to her, and given what we know about her past — she wasn’t even taught to read — it was hard to take. Even towards the end, he’s suspicious and accusatory. Julia also takes the occasional turn for the stupid and snobbish, which I never quite believed; it seemed out of character. And there’s a strong element of melodrama, though that’s a little bit like complaining that there’s a murder in a mystery — it’s just that kind of story. Truthfully, the main problem I had with it was that Julia seemed to do most of the pursuing, and there was no kind of payback or redemption for Brader’s bad behavior — though there is a lovely scene in which he confesses his true feelings.

This was Maxwell’s first book and it’s a smoothly written debut. It fits neatly into the angsty Regency genre while having some distinctive qualities — Julia’s character, and an epilogue that includes sorrow for the couple as well as joy.

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A Love Untamed by Karen van der Zee

What tickled my fancy: Strong, independent heroine

What ticked me off: I seem to be having a run of bad endings, but this was the Worst. Ending. Ever.

Who might like it: After that ending, I dunno.

She scraped and sanded and painted and cried. She installed a new back door, replaced a cracked pain of glass in one of the windows and kept on crying. She laid Mexican tiles in the sun-room and wept. She rented a sander and sanded all the wooden floors, dripping tears on the raw wood, making dark stains.

You can usually count on a van der Zee book to have a good heroine — it’s just a shame that the competent and resourceful Livia spends so much of the book utterly miserable.  Actually, I didn’t mind that at all, because I love me some angst. I just mind that there’s no good payoff for all that misery.

Livia is restoring a house she just bought when Clint Bracamonte appears, claiming ownership. As they work out the issue, they grow close, although Clint warns her that he’ll be returning to his work in the rain forests of Indonesia soon. Livia isn’t too concerned — she’s always been a traveler and even speaks Indonesian. But Clint is aghast when he discovers her dreams — he has no intention of continuing their affair.

Livia tries to get on with her life and get over it, but then Clint’s life once again intersects with hers in a complicated way, requiring her to go off to find him after all.

Although the plot is kind of episodic, I mostly enjoyed this. The characters are believable and mature and the writing about other cultures is pretty respectful, barring one cringe-worthy moment when Livia thinks, regarding the heavy earrings weighing down the ears of the Indonesian women, “if you grew up with the things you wouldn’t know any better.” The chemistry between Clint and Livia is very strong, making her anguish all the more compelling.

But Clint just holds out forever. After everything he put her through, the ending cried out for something big to happen; an “I’m sorry, please marry me” did not cut it. It was one of the least satisfying endings I’ve ever read and simply spoiled the book for me.

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